by alex simon   photography jeff dunas

Felt by many to be the heir apparent to Laurence Olivier as the world’s finest English-language actor, Anthony Hopkins was born Philip Anthony Hopkins on December 31, 1937, in Margam, Wales, the son of Muriel and Richard Hopkins, who worked as a baker. Young Anthony was categorized a “slow learner” and had trouble in school, feeling himself to be an outcast, a stigma which followed him until he left Wales to pursue his dream of becoming an actor.

Following repertory work, Hopkins attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, then went on to Laurence Olivier’s National Theater, where he distinguished himself as one of the company’s most promising young actors. Although he made his film debut with a bit in a little-seen Lindsay Anderson film called The White Bus (1966), it was his turn as the disturbed prince Richard the Lionheart in the brilliant The Lion in Winter (1968), opposite Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, that first brought Anthony Hopkins to international attention.

While the next two decades brought Hopkins solid film roles in such titles as Young Winston (1972), Juggernaut (1974), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Magic (1978), The Elephant Man (1980), and The Bounty (1984), as well as Emmy-winning turns in the superb TV movies “The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case” (1975), playing convicted kidnapper Bruno Richard Hauptmann, and “The Bunker” (1981), a chilling speculation with Hopkins portraying Hitler in his final days, true stardom eluded the actor, a condition that persisted, until fate intervened in 1991…

The Silence of the Lambs won five 1991 Academy Awards, including a Best Actor statue for Hopkins . Along with his newfound star status, a new character was unofficially inducted into the pop cultural lexicon: Dr. Hannibal “the cannibal” Lecter, a role for which Hopkins has become synonymous (although the role was originated by Brian Cox in Michael Mann’s 1986 Manhunter, the first film adapted from Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon).

A-list parts in high-profile films followed. To name a few: Francis Coppola’s Dracula (1992), Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin (1992) and Shadowlands (1993), three acclaimed productions with the directing/producing team of Merchant-Ivory: Howard’s End (1992), The Remains of the Day (1993), and Surviving Picasso (1996). Other noteworthy films include Legends of the Fall (1994), his brilliant turn in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995), Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997), Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999), and Ridley Scott’s Lambs sequel Hannibal (2001). Hopkins made his directing debut in 1999 with August, based on Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” He recently completed work on Alec Baldwin’s directorial debut, The Devil and Daniel Webster as well as Robert Benton’s The Human Stain, opposite Nicole Kidman. Outside of the theatrical world, Hopkins was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1993 and became an American citizen in 2000, although he is still allowed to retain his title of “Sir.”

Anthony Hopkins dons the face guard again for Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon, a “prequel” to Silence of the Lambs which details how Special Agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) catches Lecter, and then must turn to him for help in nabbing another serial killer (Ralph Fiennes) whose body count is rapidly mounting. Emily Watson, Harvey Keitel, and Philip Seymour Hoffman also star in this superb thriller from Universal, which opens October 4.

Anthony Hopkins sat down with Venice on a beautiful late September morning in a favorite Santa Monica restaurant to reflect on his remarkable life and career.    

Venice : I watched the previous two films (Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal ) before seeing Red Dragon. It was fascinating to watch you evolve into the character of Hannibal Lecter. First question: Do you study animals to prepare for your roles?

Anthony Hopkins: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for noticing that.   

In Silence, he was definitely a snake most of the way through, but he gradually became more cat-like as the films, and your characterization, progressed.

Yeah, well, I think even at the end of Silence he was like a cat. I love cats. I love watching animals. The main problems I had, really, regarding Red Dragon were that first, I had my doubts about doing it to begin with, because I thought doing two was quite enough, and that three was perhaps pushing it. So I thought when Hannibal was over that I was done with the character and I could just move on and live the rest of my life, because I’ve played a lot of other roles, as well. Then I called my agent, Rick Nicita, one day and said, ‘Dino (De Laurentiis) wants to remake Manhunter (1986) and call it Red Dragon, which was the book’s title. What do you think?’ He said, “Well, why not?” and I thought, yeah, why not, absolutely. [laughs] Then they got Ted Tally to write the script and we met with (director) Brett Ratner in New York , and that’s how it happened. I’m really much more laid back about these sorts of things now. I wish I had been this laid back when I was a younger actor, but that’s just the way it is, I guess. [laughs] But this time I really wanted to play him with much more ferocious energy, and avoid the jokes. I really wanted to show what a true monster he is. He’s a killer. He’s a dangerous man, not Mr. Cutesy. This isn’t a franchise like Raiders of the Lost Ark. This is a dangerous man, who’s better off in jail. So that’s the premise that we went with.    

Certainly all three of the directors who’ve worked on this series (Jonathan Demme, Ridley Scott, Brett Ratner) are very different. Tell us about Brett.

He’s a very bright guy, a very gifted director. Very straightforward in his approach. I think he’s one of those NYU film school guys, and he gave me a fresh look at those so-called “film nerds,” because he just loves film. So that was great. He knows his stuff.    

Along with author Thomas Harris, you probably know more about Hannibal Lecter than anyone. I think one of the things that makes him so fascinating to people is the air of mystery that surrounds him. We know so little of his backstory, what drove him over the edge to begin with. That in mind, tell us about Dr. Lecter, if you would.

It’s funny, Dino wants to do another one and go back into the past. Honestly, I don’t know how to answer that, other than to say when I got the script for Silence of the Lambs back in August of 1989, I had never heard of the character of Lecter before, although I had seen Manhunter and liked it very much. But I didn’t make the connection when I got Silence of the Lambs. I was doing a play in London at the time, and I decided I didn’t want to finish reading it until I found out if it was a real offer or not, because I hadn’t worked in America for quite some time. When I found out it was a real offer, I read it, and knew immediately that it was one of those roles that would make a difference for me. As an actor I guess it’s a gift that I have, so to speak, that I can pick up very quickly on what I can play, or can’t play. I’m not ghoulishly fascinated by the dark side, but I understand it. I think anything that’s masked or shadowy is fascinating to us. I think all the great villains of literature have been dark, shadowy figures: Mephistopheles, Iago, Dracula, Richard III. And I knew how to play this man. I just knew.    

Tell us about working with Ed Norton.

Well, Ed’s a remarkable actor. I’d first seen him in Primal Fear and I thought he was brilliant in it. People talk about chemistry and all that. Really, if an actor shows up, knows his lines, that’s all you need. I liked working with Ed because he made the decision to play Will Graham very passive. There’s one great bit, and I don’t know if this was Ed’s idea or Brett’s, but Ed goes into a little anteroom when he comes to see me in the hospital while I’m reading the file, and he takes his jacket off, and he’s soaked with sweat. I thought that was a great moment. He wasn’t going to show Lecter that he was intimidated. And I think Lecter has a begrudging respect for Will Graham, even though he wants to kill him! [laughs] He was smart enough to put me away, after all. With Clarice it was a different matter, because here we have this young woman who’s been sent down by her superiors and I grow to have affection for her.    

And I noticed that although Lecter maimed one woman, he’s never really had any female victims, which leads one to believe he’s got a soft spot for the ladies.

Yeah, I think so. He’s not vulgar. [laughs]   

You grew up in Port Talbot , Wales . It sounds like your childhood was relatively happy until you started school.

Yeah, school was my nemesis. It gave birth to my dark side. I couldn’t accomplish anything in school. But I look back on it with no regrets because it was the rocket fuel that pushed me forward and got me out of there. For the longest time I thought I didn’t fit there because there was something wrong with me, but now I know it was because there was something right with me. But back then, I just wanted to do something to escape from my own inadequacy. I suppose today I’d have been diagnosed with A.D.D. or something similar. So I was very much left to my own devices. I remember my childhood with a lot of fondness, actually, although maybe I’ve romanticized it. I was born in a beautiful part of South Wales which has since been ruined by the steel industry. I was born in a place called Margam, which is a beautiful, rural area east of Port Talbot .    

Once you left school and started acting full time, things got better for you.

Yes, I’ve had a wonderful life, actually. Couple of ups and downs like anyone else, but I had it pretty easy, really. I got a scholarship to a local acting school in 1955 when I was 17. Then I did my national service, which wasn’t a very happy time, but I did it. Then I went to RADA after that. I went to a few reparatory companies prior to that. This one director told me “You’re pretty rough around the edges still. You’ve got great energy on stage, but you’re dangerous to work with, you hurt people on stage! [laughs] You’re very talented but I think you need to go to one of those high-falutin’ acting schools, which I don’t really like, but I think it would be good for you.” His name was David Scasce, and he was head of the Manchester Library Theater. So I got a scholarship to RADA after that, and I was old enough by then to pick up the rudiments of the discipline that acting requires, because prior to that, I thought acting was all about pure instinct. Then I went back to work with David Scasce, who was then at the Liverpool Playhouse. When I auditioned for David this time he said, “Well, that’s an improvement!” [laughs] So I stayed there for a while, and David gave me some great parts to play, and from there I went to the National Theater under Laurence Olivier. So I’ve had a great life, an interesting life. I’ve had it easy compared to a lot of people. I was thinking yesterday when I was speaking to a friend of mine that sometimes, we can get so wrapped up in the human condition that we forget about a lot of the good in our lives. I’ve had a wonderful journey. To be still working at 64, when most people retire, is an extraordinary gift.   

I understand seeing Chaplin’s Limelight (1951) was the spark that ignited your love of acting.

Yeah, that was a funny, sentimental little film. I saw it when I was about 13 years of age and it really pushed a button in me. I just wanted to be something different. Initially, I wanted to be a musician, then a composer, then finally I fell into the acting business. Many years later, I was in a movie about Chaplin’s life. There I was, with Robert Downey, sitting in Chaplin’s garden in Switzerland , and it was there I learned I had just been nominated for an Oscar. If someone had told me that while I was watching Limelight 41 years before, I would have said, “You’re kidding!” [laughs]   

Was Olivier a mentor for you?

Well, he was my employer. I guess he was a mentor for me, and a lot of other people. He directed me twice, and I understudied him in a play and then went on for him. I worked with him once as an actor on-screen in The Bounty. I wouldn’t say we were close friends. I was a generation and a half behind him. I knew him as well as I could, I suppose. He was a pretty colorful personality. He had tremendous drive, and ambition and was a real force. A very nice guy and a titanic talent. His sort of talent has, in the eyes of cynics, become rather unfashionable. There are people who knock Olivier quite often, but not a single one of them could ever touch him in terms of talent. I thought he was an extraordinary man.    

I know that you and Richard Burton grew up in the same town. You met him as a kid, right?

Yeah, that was an odd confluence of synchronicities, I suppose. Post-war years, my parents moved from Margam to Port Talbot and took over my grandfather’s bakery. That was 1947. And strangely enough, there was a young guy just down the road who was being primed to become an actor. His name was Richard Jenkins. A man called P.H. Burton had sort of adopted him and taught him Shakespeare. My mother went to London with my grandfather in 1949 and went to see a play called “The Lady’s Not for Burning,” by Christopher Fry, and she saw that there was this wonderful young actor called Richard Burton, from Port Talbot . Early on, it seemed that I only had a talent for drawing and playing piano. There was a woman called Bernice Evans. She was an art student and was the daughter of a neighbor of my father’s. She offered to give me art lessons. I used to go up to the Port Talbot post office, and upstairs there was a studio where I would take my lessons. I can still remember the smell of poster paints, sort of a powdery paint. She was a very good instructor, then one night the doorbell rang and this young man came up with these intense, bright green eyes. She said “This is my friend, Richard.” He looked at my drawing and said, “Oh yes, I like his sailor’s boots.” [laughs] I got his autograph once later on, but I never got to know him. He was quite an influence on me because he came from the same town, so I thought, maybe I could become what he’d become.    

Your first big break in films came with The Lion In Winter.

Yeah, I was at the National Theater at the time, doing Laurence Olivier’s production of Chekov’s “Three Sisters.” I got a phone call and this script was sent to me, and I met Peter O’Toole. I learned the part of Richard the Lionheart and I turned up in Chelsea Park Garden for an audition. That was September, 1967. Peter read the off-camera lines with me, and he said, “You’ve got the part.” Katharine Hepburn had apparently asked him to choose the three sons, you see. She was at that point going into semi-retirement because Spencer Tracy had just died. So that’s how I got it.    

It’s interesting you mention Spencer Tracy because you’ve always reminded me of him stylistically. You’re definitely an actor for whom less is more.

[laughs] Yes, I suppose so. I’ve always admired Tracy , very much. There’s no bullshit about him. He just gets up and does it. I’ve got no problem if people want to spend hours beforehand preparing before they come on-set, as long as they don’t keep you waiting. And I’ve read Stanislavsky and did the Method myself, and all that, but now I’ve simplified it: learn your lines, show up, and get on with it. I think that’s what Tracy did, as well. I just saw a marvelous documentary about Dean Martin a few weeks ago. His widow was talking and she said, “Dino loved movies. He loved acting, but he never took it seriously.” And Dean Martin was very good, as was Sinatra and all those guys. All those guys, they didn’t try to be Marlon Brando. They just did what they did. There’s another great story that Martin’s widow told: During the filming of Airport (1970) Dino was doing this scene and the actress playing opposite him was sitting in the corner, being very Method about it, keeping everyone waiting. Finally, Dino walks over to her and says, “Honey, neither one of us is going to win an Oscar for this, so let’s just do the scene so we can go home.” [laughs] That sums it up for me. Get on with it. Do it. You don’t need all this bullshit. Either you can do it or you can’t.    

Tell us about Katharine Hepburn.

She was great, a tough old bird, very formidable. She was opinionated, about everything. A lot of people like to eulogize people like Katharine, but all I can say is she was very nice to work with, very professional. She said to me: “I’ll give you one note: don’t act. Just say the lines. It works. You’ve got a good pair of shoulders, good head, good eyes, good voice, that’s all you need. Just watch Spencer Tracy, that’s what he does. That’s what all the best ones do.” Burt Reynolds once told me a story about Tracy . When Burt was just starting out, he was doing something at Warner Bros. where Tracy was also shooting a film. Burt sort of shadowed him one day and Tracy spotted him. “Whaddaya want, kid?” “Mr. Tracy, can I ask you something?” “Sure.” “You must be the greatest actor of all time.” “Thanks.” “You agree?” “Yeah.” “Is there anything you’re not great at?” Without missing a beat, Tracy says “Life.”    

It seems like so many great artists have wrestled with huge personal demons. Do you see a correlation between creativity and dysfunction?

Well, I suppose so. I don’t want to romanticize it, but I suppose there is. I saw a very good documentary on the Barrymores the other night. When you look at what a poor, tired mess John Barrymore was at the end of his life, and what a catastrophe that was, it’s just so sad. To go insane and either drink yourself to death or drug yourself to death, or blow your brains out, like Hemingway, it’s very sad. Let’s just say I don’t recommend it. I think creativity can be as pain-free as possible. You can create and still have a good life. I think it’s to do with selfishness, some emotional retardation perhaps. And out of all that tension and all that morass comes something which is beautiful and grand and creative. But again, I don’t romanticize it and I don’t recommend it. My only demon that I had was that I drank too much. I was very insecure and frightened, but I wouldn’t have missed it because I have no choice! It happened. I look back on it as a very valuable time in my life. Alcohol gave me a great amount of courage and energy and anger, all things I never would have had the nerve to do. So I’m very grateful to that period in my life, which launched me, in a way. But finally, that kind of fuel rips you to pieces, so I said “enough of this.” But now I feel relatively peaceful, relatively happy. I’m not good at being cooped up with anyone for very long. Maybe I wasn’t designed for marriage. I’m not good at any kind of relationship with people, really. I mean, I’ve had a number of good ones, but I get restless and I take off. So I’ve done my rounds there. I just try not to hurt anyone anymore, and I have hurt people in the past, by pulling away from them. But I guess it all balances out in the end. Life is far too short to live in hatred and anger.    

Do you feel that most creative people are born that way? It certainly sounds like you were.

Yeah, I suppose so. I just don’t go along with all that rubbish that you have to be miserable. I mean, what’s your problem? Being in this business is a lot better than working in a car factory, a lot better than working in a coal mine. What’s the big deal? People who moan and bitch and complain about what they do, I just want to say, “Then leave! Get out of it! Go do something else!” I mean, here you are, making a lot of money, with people feeding you on the set, looking after your every need. I just want to kick them in the goolies, you know? [laughs] You know when some of these people, these megaphones of Hollywood , show up on these awards shows, and just never shut the fuck up? Just keep going on about some noble cause or the other? I just want to say, “Accept your award. Say ‘thank you,’ and get off!” [laughs] I’m just not interested in all that bullshit. There are surgeons, and nurses, and teachers, people out there who really deserve awards. Okay, I’ll stop ranting now! [laughs]   

I heard a story about Olivier once, that he avoided psychoanalysis his entire life because he was afraid that if he were “cured,” he’d lose the compulsion to act! Did you ever hear anything about this?

That’s interesting; no, I never did. I had an encounter with him once towards the end of my time with the National Theater, back in ’73. I was in a bit of trouble, becoming awkward to work with. Olivier recommended I go see a psychiatrist friend of his. I did for one session. He said my behavior was due to “creative exhaustion,” or some crap like that. The problem was, I was drinking too much! So that was the end of my psychiatric therapy. [laughs] But I don’t know what Olivier’s take was on that. We never discussed it.    

You’ve worked with Richard Attenborough both as an actor and as a director. Tell us about him.

Richard’s a nice guy, very persuasive, a great salesman in the sense that he gets what he wants from you. He can charm a lot of people. He’s a good man. I haven’t seen him for a long time. [pauses, hears the Bee Gees’ “More Than a Woman” playing on the restaurant sound system]. Oh, I love this song! The Bee Gees, they’re wonderful. This song reminds me of when I was shooting Magic up in Ukiah. It rained non-stop. I remember feeding the ducks in the rain on this lakeside in Ukiah, and this was playing on the radio in the trailer. Saturday Night Fever had just come out. God, that goes back to 1977. Travolta. Donna Pescow. The Bee Gees were fantastic, weren’t they? I just saw Magic again the other night, hadn’t seen it for years. It’s a good movie. But yeah, Richard’s a great guy, loved working with him on Magic and the other films. He belongs to that old school, slightly sentimental, cries a lot. [laughs] I try to avoid sentimentality.    

You did two incredible TV movies that you won Emmy Awards for: “The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case,” in which you played convicted kidnapper Bruno Richard Hauptmann, and “The Bunker,” in which you portrayed Hitler in his final days.

My last dive into the bottle was during my performance as Hauptmann. His widow actually wrote to me for a number of years before she died, at 90, I believe, trying to get her husband’s name cleared, and wanted to enlist my help. I’m not so sure he was innocent. They found enough evidence in his house. An interesting side note: there was a man called Schonfeld, one of the first psychiatrists to work on the case, who drew up a profile of the kidnapper, told police the sort of man they were looking for. He said they were looking for a lone man, a lone operator. Schonfeld became friends with Hauptmann while he was in jail, on death row. William Randolph Hearst told Schonfeld, “Tell Mr. Hauptmann that if he confesses and gives me his exclusive story, I’ll make sure his widow and family are looked after for the rest of their lives. I also have enough pull to commute his death sentence to a life sentence if he’ll do this.” So Schonfeld took Hearst’s offer to Hauptmann, who said “I’m innocent. There’s nothing to confess.” Now that says something to me, also. Maybe he was. There’s a photograph of him in the holding cell just after he’s been arrested. I used to look at that photograph all the time during the shoot. And he just looks completely neutral. He’s sitting with his legs crossed, and is looking in the camera as if to say, “What’s going on? Why am I here?” But what they did was terrible, commuting his death sentence three times and finally executing him in 1936. He said to Schonfeld, “Let’s get it over with. They’ve killed me so many times already.” They had actually shaved his head and were getting ready to take him down to the chair one of the times.    

This next question is probably the worst I’ve ever asked, but I don’t know how else to phrase it: Tell me about Hitler.

[laughs] Well, he was a jolly, cheery chappie, wasn’t he? [laughs] One of the producers said to me after the viewing the dailies: “You’re kind of making him a nice guy. Could you make him less human?” I said, “What do you mean? He was human, that’s what’s so horrific about him!” They walk among us. We all have that in us. There was a man, his name was Schuschnigg, he was the Chancellor of Austria. Just before the Germans marched into Austria to take it over, Schuschnigg was summoned to Berchtesgaden to meet with Hitler. He said Hitler was quite charming, and he even let him smoke, and Hitler despised cigarette smoke. So they all had lunch, he, Hitler, Eva Braun, Goehring, Goebbels, everything was fine, but he knew something was up. So lunch was over, and Hitler showed me into his office, locked the door and proceeded to scream at Schuschnigg for 90 minutes, just absolutely salivating. Schuschnigg said, “I knew then and there that I was in the presence of the devil.” The other thing I remember in my research is from a woman journalist who interviewed Hitler just before the Munich agreement in 1938. She said, “Herr Hitler has over 1,000 books in his personal library, none of which he has read. Of course, he doesn’t have to, because his mind is made up.” I thought that was absolutely chilling! But getting back to your question… It’s funny, people ask me things like “How did you play the butler in Remains of the Day with such stillness?” And my answer is, “Well, I just didn’t move very much.” [laughs] People want all these deep and complicated answers from actors and the truth is I’m not very complicated. I don’t have a complicated mind. I don’t have a theological bent, either. I’m not really interested in the powers of darkness, and all that. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that God and the devil were actually the same. Love and hate are very close, dark and light, the yin-yang, you know. It’s all very interesting, but I’m a bit superstitious about looking at it too closely.    

Of all your great performances, I still think your portrait of Richard Nixon is your greatest.

I had a great time doing that, wonderful time. Long before I did the movie, I had been fascinated by Nixon, starting with Watergate. This was right before I came to America , in 1974. In those days, we got the live satellite feed about an hour later than North America did. So I remember watching his farewell to the White House staff and I remember thinking, “This is American history happening and I’m about to go live there and be a part of it!” The extraordinary thing about Nixon is that he was so consumed with the ambition to win the presidency, and that very ambition was the rocket fuel that powered his destruction. He was a brilliant, extraordinary man. I got to know people who knew him. It’s extraordinary when you watch him during his farewell speech, when he says, “Your enemies only win if you hate them back, and then you destroy yourself,” that’s when he was at his most real. Someone, I forget who, said, “If he’d only showed that side of himself during Watergate, come out and said, “Look, we made a mistake. I lied.” He could’ve saved himself. He was very Lear-like, really. A tragically flawed man. I loved doing that film.    

You’ve been a highly-regarded working actor most of your life, but didn’t really hit “star” status until your early 50s, when you won the Oscar for Silence of the Lambs. If you’d had that level of success say, 20 years earlier, before you got sober, before you had a really strong sense of yourself, how do you think it would have been different for you?

Well, I can’t second-guess myself, but I think I always had a practical, realistic sense of what it’s all about. Of course, the ego plays tricks on you sometimes, but I think my father was very influential on me in that way. He couldn’t stand all the frills and trappings of art. He didn’t understand it, anyway. And I remember him saying once when I was playing some Beethoven on the piano, “What’s that you’re playing?” I said,  “Beethoven.” He said, “No wonder he went deaf. For God’s sake, do something with your life!” He just didn’t give a damn about all that. So my affectation playing Beethoven and Chopin on the piano when I was a kid, he just knocked the stuffing out of me. He didn’t damage me, but he tried to tell me that life’s much tougher than that. So I never had any illusions about it all. I’m not sure my experience would have been that different had a role like Lecter come earlier. It’s not a question of carving out a career for myself. I never know what I’m going to be doing from one moment to the next. None of us do, really. It’s funny, I saw a friend of mine yesterday and he said, “You seem so detached from all this.” I said, “Yeah, yeah I am. I just can’t get into it all.” He said, “Maybe that’s why you’re so successful.”  •