TONY THE TIGERby Zoe Heller, published by Harper's Bazaar (June 1999)
LIKE an intruder in a Western, whose approach is presaged by the rearing of spooked horses, Anthony Hopkins arrives in the Warner Brothers commissary heralded by a sudden whispery fluster among the waiters: "That's Surrtony ..." He is shorter than expected--a chunky, compact man with a sticking-out chest, like a little bull. His eyes are a ludicrous blue, the color of swimming pools. As the door to our private dining suite is closed, he sits down, casting a slightly weary gare about the room. "You have an English accent," he observes.
I allow that this is the case.
"As soon as I heard that accent, he says, "I thought, Oh, no, because I don't like the British press." He goes on to describe an interview he did a couple of years ago with a young woman from a British tabloid. She had alluded snidely to his having abandoned Britain for the Hollywood high life. "I looked at her," he recalls, "and I said, 'If you're going to start the interview like this, forget it. What's the matter with you? What's the matter with you damn people? I'm not going to sit here with your weak, whining negativity. I'm bored of you people. You want it dirty and raining, with dog shit on the pavement? Go back then! Go back to England. Fuck off.'" He watches me carefully to gauge my reaction to this story. (I smile brightly.) Then, quite unexpectedly, he laughs, a sharp, articulated bark: "Ha! Ha!"
I have come to see Hopkins on the final day of shooting for Instinct, a movie about a primatologist--played by Hopkins--who forsakes life among his fellow men to live with gorillas in the wild. My inquiries about Hopkins' relations with his costar, Cuba Gooding Jr., are met with polite dismissiveness. There will be no heartwarming anecdotes about life on the set from him. "I never become fond of people," Hopkins says, shrugging a little impatiently. "I work with them, and we say goodbye." The Venerable British Actor With a Distinguished Theatrical Past is a time-honored figure in Hollywood. And Hopkins is in many ways, a natural successor to such men as Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton. He brings the right sonorous voice, the appropriate quirky diction, the mandatory aura of "class"--he even has the knighthood, damn it. Yet something in him delights in disappointing the expectations created by the high-toned Brits who have preceded him. And then there is his general irreverence about the business of acting. Repeatedly interviewers have come to sit at his knee, anticipating wise insights into the "craft," only to be rebuffed with crude declarations of philistinism. He chooses parts "for the money," he tells them. He doesn't "give a shit about culture." He has no interest in "Shakespeare and all that British nonsense." He only got into acting in order to "become famous."
There is, of course, something a little mannered about these avowals, something less suggestive of candid confession than of considered provocation. Hopkins, who is far too experienced and intelligent an actor to have no interest in Shakespeare (he will star in Julie Taymor's forthcoming film adaptation of Titus Andronicus), is not really giving the finger to the Bard but to the slightly precious world of British theater and those within it who regard him as having sold out. For many years before he went to Hollywood, Hopkins was associated with Britain's National Theatre, and his unhappy memories of that time fuel much of his current vituperation. He was a successful stage actor--his lead performances in King Lear, Antony & Cleopatra and David Hare's Pravda are still remembered--but he was a severely depressed man. Depressed and angry and alcoholic. His life in the theater exacerbated his insecurities about his own talent, he says: "My anxiety was about the business of rehearsing and rehearsing and then going out onstage and being appalling in the part, because then I would have to keep on doing it, night after night." He also disliked the communal aspect of being part of a company. "You have to be a team player, and I'm not good at that. I remember, we used to have to do voice training and you'd be humiliated and corrected in front of everyone else in the company. Something in me really rebelled against that, some childhood rage was roused in me. I couldn't bear it."
Then, in 1974, Hopkins came to the United States in the National Theatre's Broadway production of Equus and fell in love with the country. "I'd always wanted to live here," he says. "It was an escape route, really. I'd been a movie fan for years. That's what I wanted to do." He stayed in the U.S. for 10 years--joined AA and gave up drinking-- and then went back briefly to England before returning for good in 1987. He lives in Los Angeles most of the year now, in the flowery suburb of Pacific Palisades, and regards it as his true home. "I love it over here," he says. "It's a question of temperament really; I feel like I fit into the rhythm. The way I live my life now is a representation of something I dreamed up for myself years ago. I had glimpses of being in some special beautiful land. I know America has nightmares, but I still believe in the mythology of America."
With a late-blooming career in movies and more than two decades of teetotalism under his belt, Hopkins is, he claims, an infinitely happier man at 61 than he was at 31--calmer, saner, more at ease with his talent as an actor. "I have learned that I don't have to 'act,'" he says. "I just have to learn the lines and speak them and that will be enough. Just be and let the words come out." (Several of his recent costars, including Brad Pitt and Antonio Banderas, have spoken reverently of how much they have learned from observing this calm, no-method method.) As for the rages and despairs that once plagued him, they have waned, he says. Instinct director Jon Turteltaub says he was initially rather awestruck about working with a knight--"You expect a sir to turn up on set with a sword and a feather in his hat"--but was pleasantly surprised to discover that his star was really just "a regular guy." "I was impressed," Turteltaub says, "by how modest and humble he was." When I mention to Hopkins something Emma Thompson once said about his having a "volcanic" temper, he swats the comment away with a moue of disdain. "Bullshit," he says. It's too exhausting to have a bad temper. I don't get upset anymore. I don't get overexcited about things. There's no point in investing too much blood, sweat and tears or emotion in anything. Why bother?" The last time he got really mad, he tells me, was in November 1984. "I had a big punch-up with a director. He was a big bully and I tore him to pieces. I don't like bullies." But such outbursts are no longer his style, he says: "Life's not about fighting any more. I've given all that up. If a director is misbehaving, I might just go to the producer and say, 'Could you convey to him that if he doesn't stop this nonsense, I shall be going back to my hotel room?'" He smiles. "That'll do it."
Still, it would be rash to relegate Hopkins to the pasture of pastel-toned, benevolent old age just yet. (Since interviewing him, there have been reports of Hopkins on the Titus Andronicus set in Rome swearing to give up his career altogether. "Acting is bad for the mental health," he told the British press. "I can't take it anymore:... I have wasted my life.") He may be slower to ignite than he once was, but the potential for explosions is still there. And any temptation to write him off as a cantankerous legend who has finally "mellowed" is immediately squashed by the tone of flinty misanthropy that pervades his conversation. His public manner is cordial, even hearty, but there is something forced about the goodwill. His is the hail-fellow, strained-grin jollity that long-suffering fathers affect at family gatherings, dutifully miming interest and delight until the happy moment when they're allowed to slope back to their studies or garages. It's not an accident that the typical Hopkins film has him playing a loner or recluse. Whether as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (a part he is widely expected to reprise in the projected sequel), the wisened old patriarch in Legends of the Fall, the crazed ventriloquist in Magic or the costive butler in The Remains of The Day, what Hopkins communicates most effectively onscreen is a profound but essentially voluntary solitude.
Offscreen he lives the life of a movie-star hermit. "I like to be alone," he says. "I don't get lonely. The emotions are treacherous. They trap you, they're unpredictabie. My emotions are very low-maintenance. All my family are very self-sufficient people. My mother, my father--I'm like that, too. I'm not saying this to make myself sound fascinating. It's just the way it is." But surely he has friends? No, he does not cultivate friendships, he says. "I don't have any dislike for people," he adds. "I like people in a general way ... in a very general way. But I don't want to have friends." He engages in minimal social activity. If absolutely necessary he will dine out, at a restaurant: "If you meet someone in a restaurant you can eat very fast, pay and then go," But dinners in people's houses are strictly verboten. "I don't like the whole ritual, the group thing. You go to someone's house and you stand on the doorstep filled with dread and they come to the door and it's 'Helllleeehh, daaaarling!'" He bristles at his own imitation. "I stand there and I think, Oh God, oh fucking hell. I just cannot do it. I thought I might improve with old age and become much more affable and friendly, but I haven't. I've become more ... more unable to be bothered."
Hopkins is still married to Jennifer, his wife of 26 years, but she lives in England and they spend most of the year apart. "She's given up," he says. "She just says, 'Well, that's the way you are.'" He pauses, thinking. "I sometimes wonder if things will change," he says. "I don't know." Over the years, there have been reports of various extramarital romances. In 1993, Hopkins had a brief affair with a woman he met at AA, and while in Rome last year he was seen in the company of a blonde woman whom he later admitted was his "new lady." But for the most part, he seems less interested in playing the field than in keeping the field entirely empty. Of his Rome companion, he breezily told reporters, "I don't think I will be with [her] for a long period of time. [I] prefer my own company.
And how, then, does he fill his hours? How does he occupy himself all alone at night in his Palisades aerie? "Well, this evening," he tells me, "if I get home early enough, I'll sit out on my sundeck. I'll look at the flowers. Then I read and I watch a bit of television. I get to bed about 10:00. In the morning, I feed the birds." Lately, he adds, he has been trying to improve his memory by learning chunks of poetry by heart. His preference--not altogether surprisingly--is for the gloomy moderns. He starts to recite the W.H. Auden poem "As I Walked Out One Evening," a ballad that begins happily with a lover declaring that his love will last until "salmon sing in the street," and then takes an abrupt turn for the miserable. He stops suddenly. "Do you know 'Prufrock?'" he asks. "I love Eliot. And do you know what my favorite lines are? 'I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,/and have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,/And in short I was afraid.'" He claps his hands. "That's it! That's it! That sums it all up: the desolation, the utter futility of it all. These poems, they warm me.
We finish lunch, and Hopkins goes off to makeup to prepare for his final afternoon of shooting. Later, when I pop in to his trailer to say goodbye, he has wildman hair extensions and looks like a slightly frazzled Santa Claus. Some rather gruesome elevator music is coming from the CD player. A stomach-crunching device and a pair of dumbbells sit in the corner. (Hopkins is very proud of having a "strong build.") We chat for a bit about boxing--"the only sport I care about," he says and what it was like to meet the queen when he received his knighthood in 1993: "She said to me, 'Are you busy?'" he recalls. "I said,'What, now?' and she said, 'No, generally.'" Before him on the table is the screenplay for Titus Andronicus. He has been doodling on it with felt-tips. I point out one particularly elaborate sketch, a lush sunset over a terra-cotta butte. "Ha, yes," he says. "Sunsets! Lost hills. I love sunsets. love this look. When I was driving across Montana--oh, the landscape was so heartbreaking. Those huge skies...." He pauses, studying his picture. "I always like to draw sunsets," he says. "And then"--he picks up a felt-tip and carefully puts a black speck on the horizon--"I usually add one lone seagull."
Sir Anthony Hopkins Fanatic Asylum