5:22 PM 12/4/1997

Just call him Tony

Sir Anthony Hopkins recognizes his craft as the work it is

Copyright 1997 Houston Chronicle

At the beginning of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain insisted there was no motive or moral to be found in the book. No one has ever taken him seriously.

Talking to Anthony Hopkins, who'd rather be treated as a Tony than as a Sir Anthony, brings Twain's denial to mind. Hopkins insists that there's nothing deep or difficult in his acting.

You nod and say uh-huh, but you don't really believe him. He just doesn't like to talk all that actor-lingo about subtext or Method acting.

"I just did what my contract demands," Hopkins says of his work in Amistad, opening Friday, Dec. 12. "And maybe a little more," he adds, impishly.

"It's very businesslike. Very workmanlike. And that's how it ought to be. It's no highfalutin self-importance and know-all, walking around in a glum state of mind. You just do your job."

Hopkins has been making such disclaimers on his work for years. This time, calling from a Manhattan hotel, he's talking specifically about his role as John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States, in Steven Spielberg's epic slavery drama.

In Amistad, Spielberg gives slavery the serious and powerful approach he used for the Holocaust in Schindler's List. This is the fact-based story of an 1839 shipboard revolt by highjacked Africans, and the resulting American courtroom trials.

On the Spanish ship La Amistad, the Africans are able to break free of their chains and take over the ship. But they are captured by an American warship and imprisoned.

A trial is held to determine whether the Africans are property, to be returned to the rightful owner -- the many claimants include the Queen of Spain -- or free men illegally thrown into slaverry.

When the case reaches the U.S. Supreme Court, it is Adams, a former president of 74, who defends the African men and women.

Hopkins delivers the film's climactic speech, a lengthy monologue in which he addresses the justices with his forceful personality as much as with his moving words.

Amistad is a superb movie, almost sure to be a major Oscar contender and destined to make the harsh reality of slavery more real to Americans.

But seeing a serious movie is a lot different than working on one.

"We weren't all walking around in hushed tones," Hopkins said. "That kills it.

"We were there to do a job of work. We were aware it was a powerful subject, but we all had a sense of fun doing it, as well. You always have to lighten up. Put the shoes on, put the clothes on and do it. I can't walk around feeling important."

Hopkins even pooh-poohs that sacred cow of so many actors, research. To play Adams, he did not go rummaging through library shelves, digging up accounts of the man's personality or motives.

"I went straight to the script," Hopkins insisted. "I had little reads of bits and pieces of his history, but no, I didn't (research).

"I mean, I had to look like him, I had to shave my head and all that stuff and makeup. The makeup wasn't a big deal, took about 45 minutes. Couple of age spots and then off you go."

With that attitude, Hopkins took quickly to director Spielberg, who is known for a relaxed set and unpretentious approach.

"He's a very gifted storyteller," Hopkins said. "He's been doing this a long time now. He understands the vocabulary of film, as they call it now in film school." He adds, in a disdainful mumble, "The `vocabulary,' whatever the hell they are talking about.

"Steven understands, but he doesn't use those dreadful phrases like the arc of the part, or the metaphor and all this rubbish. He just comes on and says, `OK, you sit there and then you get up and you walk over here.'

"It's a dance, really, a great ballroom dance. I'm working with a great director, and I take it he trusts me."

Movie fans may remember a specific film in which they first noticed Hopkins' talent.

It may have been in The Lion in Winter (1968), playing a rugged but sexually insecure prince, the future King Richard the Lion-Hearted. Even surrounded by Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole giving Oscar-nominated performances (Hepburn won), you couldn't help but notice the amazing strength and unexpected vulnerability battling inside Hopkins' Richard.

A dozen years and many roles later, it could have been his part as the dedicated but conflicted Dr. Treves, who ministers to The Elephant Man.

More recently, of course, there was Hopkins' Oscar-winning performance as the vile yet charismatic serial killer Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. It's the kind of role and performance people cannot forget, finally putting a name on the face seen in so many movies and TV films.

Since then, it's been hard to miss Hopkins, not that one would want to. His many recent roles include the self-absorbed Henry Wilcox in Howards End, professor Van Helsing in Bram Stoker's Dracula, an awkwardly romantic C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands, the painfully proper butler in The Remains of the Day (an Oscar nomination), the father in Legends of the Fall and a troubled president in Nixon (yet another Oscar nomination).

If Hopkins gets another nomination for Amistad, it will be interesting to see if it is for actor or supporting actor. His time in the film is relatively brief. But the importance of the character and the impact of his performance make it substantial.

The Supreme Court monologue took three days to film. Though many other people are on the set, only Hopkins speaks or moves, delivering his plea to the court.

"Steven broke it up into short pieces, but I knew the whole monologue," he said. "I didn't have to worry about it, but it's pointless shooting the whole thing in one take. You have to cover it in all kinds of angles.

"I'm very good at conserving my energy," he adds with a yawn.

Hopkins, an only child, was born in South Wales on New Year's Eve, 1937.

"It means the whole world celebrates my birthday," he said with enthusiasm. "Every year, Guy Lombardo used to celebrate it in New York."

By his own account, he was a poor student, taunted by classmates. Though his parents worked in a bakery and were of modest means, he was sent to a boarding school. He did no better there.

"I was a bit of an idiot," he said. "I didn't know what they were talking about. So I became an actor."

But not before a stretch as a laborer, two years in the army, and years of struggling in different theater groups before achieving his goal of being accepted in the National Theater under Laurence Olivier. There he made a reputation for himself from 1966 to 1972.

One of Olivier's most famous quotes, in which he chided Dustin Hoffman for losing sleep so he would look tired for Marathon Man, is (to paraphrase), "You should try acting, it's much easier." Perhaps Hopkins, who has said much the same thing at times, got some of his `just a job' attitude from Olivier.

(When Hopkins auditioned for Olivier and the National Theater, he brassily performed a scene from Othello, which Olivier had been doing to great acclaim. Hopkins had one of his first big roles with the theater when Olivier cast him in a play he was directing.)

Hopkins already had a busy career in movies and television when, in 1974, he won acclaim on Broadway in Equus. He's lived in the United States most of the time since, and has a house in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles.

"My work seems to be here," he said about living in the States. "(But) I've lived in hotels most of my life. I live out of suitcases, and I like that. Suits my gypsy temperament."

Hopkins has been doing a lot of traveling lately, keeping a busy work pace. Aside from Amistad and The Edge, which came out in September, he has a slew of films already shot or in the works.

Due this summer is The Mask of Zorro, in which he plays the famous swordsman in his senior years, training a young replacement.

"I play Zorro, and it develops into sort of a Zen master relationship with Antonio Banderas. I teach him to become me and all that stuff."

It may seem strange to find Hopkins, approaching 60, doing action-film work like The Edge and Zorro. But don't say that to him.

"That's what I'm closer to," he said. "I have a lot of fun in life, and that's the way I like to work. Zorro was a very attractive proposition. I got to work with Banderas, and in Mexico. It's a swashbuckling romantic story.

"I've been playing these guys who are dead from the kneecaps up -- Remains of the Day and Shadowlands and all that stuff -- and I thought, I've had enough of this; I'm getting out and doing some action."

On the set of The Edge, in scenes battling the film's giant killer bear, he worked under excruciating pain from a back injury he got portraying the poor posture of Richard Nixon. Hopkins kept working through the pain, but eventually production had to be shut down while he had surgery. He was back at work in a week.

He's recently been shooting Meet Joe Black, reteaming with Legends of the Fall co-star Brad Pitt in a film "inspired by" the classic 1934 fantasy/romantic drama Death Takes a Holiday.

He also has a film to begin shooting next year called Ishmael, co-starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and based on the ideas (but not story) of Daniel Quinn's novel. But Hopkins didn't want to talk about that because it was not far enough along. The film, set in Africa but which will be shot mainly in Florida, has Hopkins as an anthropologist who lives among gorillas and attacks poachers.

Of course, the one film people have been waiting years for Hopkins to make is a sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, which often has been rumored as ready to go. The holdup seems to be that Thomas Harris, author of the book, has not finished writing a sequel.

Hopkins said he knew The Silence of the Lambs would have a major impact on his career "the minute I read it." But after many inquiries about the sequel, he sounds tired of the subject.

"I don't spend one minute worrying about that," he said, and it seemed for a moment that that would be all he would have to say. But not quite.

"I hear every so often the alarm bells go off, and I'm phoned by some paper saying, `We hear it's all ready to go.' I say, `Yeah, yeah, pull the other one.'

"Jonathan Demme (director of The Silence of the Lambs) is trying to pull it together, but he can't get any sense out of Thomas Harris. We hear these stupid rumors that maybe he's close to finishing it.

"Thomas Harris seems to be a man of great mystery, and I'm pretty bored waiting around for it. We may never do a sequel."

You get the feeling he'll be there if a script is ever ready. After all, it's a great role. And besides, Hopkins just loves making movies.

"Yeah, it's wonderful," he said. "It beats working for a living."