LOS ANGELES — Had I misheard Anthony Hopkins?
Perhaps there was some sort of glitch on our Zoom call, or maybe the actual word that Hopkins meant to use had been obscured by his Welsh lilt. But then I heard him say it again. Twice!
“It was easy,” he told me with a grin. “Just so easy.”
We had been talking about something that didn’t seem easy at all: his tour-de-force performance in the drama “The Father” (opening in theaters Dec. 18), in which Hopkins plays a London patriarch struggling with dementia. As the character finds himself unstuck in time and struggles to make sense of his surroundings, Hopkins flits back and forth from flinty to foggy with an astonishing grace that will almost certainly put him back in the Oscar race.
So how did this titan of stage and screen tackle such a weighty role? Hopkins shrugged his shoulders. “It was an easy part to play,” he said again, “because it was such a good script.” And it got even easier when Olivia Colman was cast as his put-upon daughter: “When you watch Olivia, and that face crumbles, and the tears come out, you think, ‘Oh, I don’t need to act anymore.’”
I should note that this is not the kind of thing a performer will typically tell you, since an actor with even the slightest bit of awards buzz tends to wear his hardship like a distressed leather jacket. With practiced reluctance, the actor will mumble that he never broke character on set, that the conditions were arduous and that he could have died, should have died and may die just because you’re forcing him to recount it.
Hopkins feels no such need to butch up the art of playing pretend; it’s pointless trying to suffer for the sake of creating a role, he told me. After all, if you’re an Oscar-winning actor with decades of expertise, and you’ve been handed a well-written script and an open-faced gem of a co-star ... well, shouldn’t it be easy? And who is really being served when an actor is determined to make his job so difficult?
At 82, Hopkins is sometimes asked to advise young performers, and he’s happy to hold court in a video call, telling them stories from his career with brisk, good-natured efficiency. (He’s a natural for the format, lively and energetic; when he signed in to our call, he waved vigorously and said, “It’s Tony! Hello!”) But when those young actors wonder what more can be done to craft their performances, Hopkins invariably counsels them to do less.
“The thing is to become exposed, in a way, to drop all the masks,” Hopkins said. “But it takes a bit of time peeling that away because we all want to hide.”
He grinned. “I’ll tell you a story I heard, which is that Spencer Tracy was in London with Katharine Hepburn, and they saw Laurence Olivier onstage doing ‘Titus Andronicus.’” Olivier had worn heavy makeup and a false nose for the role, and according to Hopkins, the visiting American couple looked askance at his prosthetics: “Tracy said to Olivier, ‘Larry, tell me, who do you think they think you are? The audience knows it’s you.’”
Certainly, the audience of “The Father” will know it’s Hopkins; the character is even named Anthony, and the decades we have spent marveling at the actor’s quicksilver intelligence on screen only makes his character’s plight all the more poignant. Still, you shouldn’t get the wrong idea. When Hopkins said it was easy to play a role this electrifying, that’s not aw-shucks self-effacement. Quite the opposite, actually.
“I’m not going to be ultramodest about this: You have to know how to turn on that electricity,” he said. “And I know how to switch it on. I’ve been doing it for a long time.”
From his home in the Pacific Palisades, where he has spent the last several months in quarantine, Hopkins likes to look up the coast and watch the cars. All of them are in such a hurry to get someplace. Once upon a time, he was impatient, too.
As a child growing up in a gray and gloomy suburb of Port Talbot in Wales, Hopkins was utterly undistinguished. He had no aptitude for school or sports, and his tough, working-class father regarded him skeptically. “God bless him,” Hopkins said, “but I do remember him saying, ‘Oh, you’re hopeless.’”
A chance encounter with actor Richard Burton, who had also grown up near Port Talbot and somehow became the toast of Hollywood, would help prod Hopkins toward performance. A gifted mimic, Hopkins saw plenty in Burton’s trajectory that he was desperate to emulate.
“I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be rich,” Hopkins said. “I wanted to be successful, to make up for what I thought was an empty past. And I became all of those things.”
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Some happened more quickly than others. After stints at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Hopkins was invited in 1967 by Olivier to join the National Theater, where he became the star’s understudy for a production of Strindberg’s “The Dance of Death.” Asked to go on when Olivier was stricken with appendicitis, Hopkins “walked away with the part of Edgar like a cat with a mouse between its teeth,” Olivier wrote in his memoir.
It wasn’t enough. “I never let on to anyone about my ambitions, but I just wanted to come out to California and be in movies,” Hopkins said.
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That inclination for more, more, more extended to his performances, too: During a New York production of “Equus,” director John Dexter discovered Hopkins had scribbled reams of subtext into the margins of his script. “What is this rubbish?” Dexter asked. “Just learn the lines.” Hepburn, who starred opposite Hopkins in his 1968 film breakthrough, “The Lion in Winter,” also advised him to keep it simple.
Hopkins obliged, although his private life was growing ever more complicated; he drank heavily, and anything he won in life became something he might then fritter away. One day, he woke up from a drunken stupor in an Arizona hotel room, with no memory of the journey that had led him there.
“I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to stop this because I’m either going to kill somebody or myself,’” Hopkins said. “My life, from that moment on, took on new meaning.”
As Hopkins turned 38, he embraced sobriety. His manner became lighter, and his work became easier. Even his indelibly terrifying performance as Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) was an “easy one,” Hopkins said. Rewatch the movie, and you’re likely to notice how much Hopkins is having a ball. “You have to play these things with humor,” he said.
“The Silence of the Lambs” brought Hopkins the A-list stardom he had long craved (as well as the best actor Oscar), and for a while, he was like the dog that caught the car. There were some superb performances in the ’90s in “Howards End” and “The Remains of the Day,” of course, and some fun flicks like “The Edge,” in which Hopkins went mano a mano with a bear, but the actor also dove into Hannibal Lecter sequels that paid diminishing returns and was only too happy to accept green-screen gigs in the “Thor” and “Transformers” franchises.
Over the last few years, though, Hopkins has experienced something of a renaissance. He calls “The Father” the best part he’s had in years, the culmination of a late-in-life hot streak that includes last year’s “The Two Popes”; “The Dresser,” opposite Ian McKellen; a star-studded film of “King Lear”; and a season-long appearance in HBO’s “Westworld.”
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But he no longer ascribes such victories to the talent and ambition that used to burn a hole in his stomach. Now it all seems more like good fortune or kismet, and he’s simply been blessed to be the beneficiary. “I look back on it, and I think, ‘It’s all a dream, anyway,’” he said, with another good-natured shrug. “Of that I am convinced. To me, it’s an illusion, that’s all.”
At his age, with his formidable resume, Hopkins is delighted to continue letting the air out of his own tires. Ego is a serpent, he told me twice, and vanity is simply another thing that must fall away if one is to be of any real use as an actor or even as a person.
“I don’t know much about anything,” he said, “except I know that what I do now is not of any importance, in the scheme of things.” At home with his wife, Stella Hopkins, he pursues pleasures that have nothing to do with his acting career, whether it’s reading “Bleak House” on his iPad, practicing Johannes Brahms on the piano or letting the cat jump in his lap at lunchtime. “I feel at peace. I’ve lived a long life,” he said.
Sometimes his wife will capture a moment of Zen and post it to his social media accounts; a recent tweet of Hopkins in his backyard, half-smiling as the sun lit up his blue eyes, was captioned, “Stay present. One day at a time.” The tweet earned more than 134,000 likes. “I’m quite popular on it,” he said, eyes twinkling.
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He will turn 83 on New Year’s Eve. “I know I’m getting old,” he said. “I take care of myself. I’m fit and strong. But there are no guarantees. Look at Sean Connery.”
Did the tragic contours of “The Father” prompt him to think back on his own life or to mull how the past commingling with the present can really take your breath away? Sort of. When Hopkins recently rewatched the movie, all he could see in his performance was his own father, the tough old baker who passed away in 1981.
In fact, while shooting one particularly emotional scene near the film’s end, Hopkins began to weep. He asked director Florian Zeller to give him some time to recover before shooting the next take; he knew he’d overplayed it, but he couldn’t help himself. His gaze had alighted on a simple prop, a pair of reading glasses, that reminded him of his late father.
“I’m going to get choked up thinking about it,” he said.
When his father died, Hopkins found in his room a similar pair of glasses sitting next to a road map of America. The baker’s plans to travel would never come to fruition. “It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “He worked hard all his life, and finally, at the end, you think, ‘Well, that’s it.’ I remember standing there at his bed and thinking about myself, ‘You’re not so hot, either. There he is, and one day it will be you.’”
But hopefully, no day soon. Hopkins is a big believer in forward momentum, in getting up and moving on, and he only briefly touches on past tragedies in order to pick up the lesson learned and take it wherever he’s going. As we parted, I asked Hopkins where that might be. What more did he hope to accomplish in his 80s?
He smiled. There was one thing — a simple thing, really.
“To go on for another 20 years,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.