He is an Oscar winner, a knight, a movie star, and one of the greats of British and Hollywood cinema. And while he may have appeared in a many a film set in the distant past, don’t expect Sir Anthony Hopkins to get all nostalgic or sentimental about his past cinematic glories. For as Sir Anthony reveals to Paul Fischer, acting is just a job, always has been and always will be.
Anthony Hopkins shies away from some of the characters that turned this once ordinary Welshman into a major star. There’s no hint of Hannibal Lector in his quiet, unassuming, almost ordinary demeanour. Perhaps his quietly introspective butler in Remains of the Day is the closest one gets to the real Hopkins, though some four decades since bring the future Richard the Lionheart to the screen in the classic Lion in Winter, it is hard to imagine who the real Anthony Hopkins is, and no matter how often one talks to him, he won’t give anything away.
Acting may be his life, and perhaps he has hidden behind some of cinema’s most extraordinary creations, but for Hopkins, it’s no big deal, just a job, one that he relishes, but a job just the same. “It’s more of a job now than it’s ever been”, Hopkins explains matter-of-factly in a Los Angeles hotel room. “I used to play the piano a lot, I was the only child and my father was a meat-and-potatoes guy, a baker, who worked hard all his life. He didn’t have time for me playing Beethoven or Chopin, and I remember him one day saying: What’s that you’re playing? I said Beethoven, to which he replied: No wonder he went deaf; for God’s sake get out of the house and do something. His basic philosophy of life was not to get too carried away with yourself, so in the acting profession, I’ve never tried to get too carried away with myself. When you’re younger you want to do all the big things, but now I’ve done all the things that I’ve dreamed I would do, and I enjoy it.” Hopkins sees acting as “a high profile job, but a job, and a skill I have, much like everyone else who works on a movie set. It’s a job, no big deal, and I guess it’s saved my equanimity.”
Hopkins latest ‘job’ is in Australian director Scott Hicks’ gentle fable, Hearts in Atlantis, from a story by Stephen King, set in the idyllic early sixties, with Hopkins cast as a stranger with ESP powers, who changes the life of a young boy in middle America. Though the actor doesn’t exactly believe in the powers reluctantly infused in his character. Hopkins says that he “does believe in synchronicity”, resulting “in euphoria when experiencing them, having done so a few times in my life.” One such time, he recalls filming Hannibal in Florence and chose to fill part of his downtime reading Which Lie Did I Tell? — More Adventures In The Screen Trade, the latest autobiographical work by legendary screenwriter William Goldman.
“And he mentioned Stephen King (in the chapter devoted to Goldman’s problematic adaptation of King’s Misery), and he mentioned me and how he’d love for us to work together,” Hopkins explained. “And two days later my agent showed up in Florence and said, ‘I have a script for you. It’s by William Goldman.’ I don’t know what scientific proof there is for psychic phenomena, but this was a synchronistic event.” Hopkins adds that “the thing about synchronicity is that the more you think about it, things usually happen. It’s an overcomplicated word for ‘coincidences’ but we all have them in our lives. As I keep on saying: Nothing is too good to be true, nothing is too wonderful to ever happen, and nothing is too wonderful to ever last, and that gets you through life, I think.”
The King tale , part of a larger work by the prolific author, is reminiscent of King’s Stand By Me in that it’s a nostalgic look at a life-affirming moment in the narrator’s youth. A boy (Anton Yelchin) raised by a single mother in 1960 middle America, becomes great friends with an aged boarder, Ted Brautigan (Hopkins) who shares his love of books and, ultimately, his secret-that he is a psychic on the run from government officials who want to harness him for espionage purposes.
Nostalgia seems an odd theme for Hopkins, a man whose good old days seem to be right now. Yet, amidst Hopkins’ outward pragmatism, lay a man of deep nostalgia. “One of the themes of this film is reconciling our past, and when I see the film, I go back into my childhood, long for the past and hope to go back there some day, even though of course there is no going back.”
Hearts in Atlantis is the polar opposite of Hopkins’ better known Hollywood incarnations. As well as being steeped in a quietly sentimental nostalgia, William Goldman’s script is sharply based on a real sense of character. In the light of recent events, perhaps this kind of Hollywood film will become more prevalent. Hopkins is optimistic that the old fashioned nature of Hearts in Atlantis will have broad appeal and may pave the way for American cinema to change and grow in this age of real-life violence and terror.
“I’m told that people’s response to THIS particular movie has been very good, heartening and all those platitudes. But I saw it as an audience in Toronto myself when it premiered there and I hadn’t seen it before. And so I was as detached from it as I could be, having been IN the movie, and was especially moved by the ending, had a lump in the throat, al the stuff I shouldn’t admit to. Without giving anything away, when you look at the ending of the film, it’s clear that we under appreciate and undervalue our own lives. I think what is significant about this film, [even though it seems in this present time so insignificant to talk about such things] is when Ted says something like: ‘When we’re young, we feel or think we’re in Atlantis, then we grow up and our hearts break in two’, which seems to me to be quite relevant.”
After decades as a workaholic, sometimes alcoholic, largely undiscovered British talent, he is now a highly paid Hollywood film star who gives himself plenty of off-time (he likes to just get in a car and drive across the U.S.), and approaches his work with a blithe contentment and dearth of angst. His roles and films are amongst the best of Britain and Hollywood, yet while he longs for some personal nostalgia, he refuses to discuss a favourite film of the past, or a character that remains a personal favourite.
Asked how he therefore wants to be remembered, he concludes as he began this discussion. “I want to be known as a jobbing actor, that’s all, lucky to have been given the chance to do what I’ve done in my life; no big deal, no sweat. You play different characters and it doesn’t mean a thing. You tap into some part of yourself that you play, whether it’s Hannibal Lector or this guy in Hearts of Atlantis. It doesn’t have an effect on you.” But its effect on audiences remains staggering, four decades on