Anthony Hopkins: ‘At the age of 17, I was tired of being called stupid. I said, “I’m going to do something. I’m going to be an actor”’
At 85, the two-time Oscar winner plays a grandfather in ‘Armageddon Time.’ Off-screen, he knows that he still has a lot of life left to live and has put his fears behind him to enjoy it
While the wisdom of age and his social media presence have revealed his most endearing side to the public, Anthony Hopkins is still an actor who relishes the unpredictable. His unfathomable gaze as the butler in James Ivory’s 1993 film The Remains of the Day and his sardonic, salivating Hannibal Lecter, perhaps his most timeless character, are unforgettable. But the actor born in Margam, UK, is not a performer from the past; Hopkins is a leading actor and a star. Over three decades ago, he won his first Oscar for his performance in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Recently, Hopkins won his second Academy Award for Florian Zeller’s drama The Father in which the British actor played an old man with dementia; with that Oscar, he became the oldest actor to win the award. Hopkins also stars in the sequel, The Son.
Despite his reputation for meticulousness and obsessive attention to detail, our conversation with him revealed another side of the 85-year-old actor: from the wise perspective of age, Hopkins seems to subscribe to the philosophy of taking it easy and enjoying life. He does the same on social media, whether he’s appearing on TikTok dancing merengue in a Hawaiian shirt or in another video in which he adamantly implores us to “believe, believe and believe” in ourselves. At least in his case, self-confidence works, and the veteran actor has found his stride in old age. His portrayal of the grandfather in James Gray’s recent Armageddon Time ranks among the season’s most exciting characters. Hopkins says that his performance was inspired by his own maternal grandfather, who believed in the actor when he was a lonely and troubled child doing poorly in school. Against all odds and encouraged by his grandfather, Anthony Hopkins ventured into acting.
Q. As a child you were a poor student. Did you see any of your younger self in your grandson’s character in Armageddon Time?
A. Yes, there’s a similarity. I was what they called a “slow developer.” Perhaps my mind wasn’t equipped to understand academic classes. Also, I was a very solitary kid. I didn’t have any friends. That was by choice, I think. Something in my nature feels the need to be isolated. But I did have a creative side in me. At the age of 17, I decided I was tired of being called stupid. I said, “I’m going to do something, I don’t know how, but I’m going to be an actor.” My grandfather, my mother’s father, encouraged me as a boy: “Don’t listen to what people tell you. You do what you want to do. You believe in what you want to do, and you’ll do it.”
Q. Did you draw on your memories of your grandfather for your role in Armageddon Time?
A. [Yes.] It was easy to play because I’m my grandfather’s grandson. I try to make it easy and not so intense. I don’t like bringing intensity or agony at work. I’m just grateful to be an actor and I have fun playing parts. I take it seriously, I work hard. I just don’t get intense or unhappy about it.
Q. Have you always been like that?
A. Well, there was a time when I was a young actor who was very intense and ambitious. But you get older and think it’s no big deal, that there are more important things in the world than being an actor.
Q. You have seen the world go through many crises in your time. Has obliviousness become a problem?
A. I think we’re conditioned, in the world, to go through a crisis and then forget it. Unfortunately, many times we also forget the lessons of the past. We forget that our best position in life is to compromise with other ideas. You have to remember to hold that compromise and be respectful, kind and tolerant with other people. Life is tough and people do forget, because we’re defensive and offensive. We get defensive with survival and that’s the reason we don’t think.
Q. Do you think the world is going through a critical time now?
A. I do, but I also think we have to live with hope. Just 60 years ago, there was the Cuban missile crisis between America and Russia. The whole world was on the brink of a nuclear war. I think we have come to a crisis point where hopefully – and hope is the only thing we can hold on to – we’ll turn to the world order of 2018 and return to a peaceful coexistence. Because if we don’t, it’s the end of the planet, it’s the end of human civilization. But I don’t think anyone is crazy enough to end it all. On the optimistic side, we survived the Covid crisis, and the world has moved on from World War Two, Adolf Hitler…
Q. Should we be optimistic?
A. Yes, we have to hope. Cynics would say that that’s nothing. We have to hope. If we forget that, then this is it.
Q. Given your 50-year-long career, I have the sense that you’ve helped link the British and American acting traditions. Would you describe your place as in between the two schools?
A. I learned a great deal from American actors, particularly the older generation, such as Spencer Tracy. The British have as well, but they have a more theatrical tradition, because that was the beginning to all British actors. I’m very proud of that as well. I’ve been very fortunate and I look back with great appreciation because I worked with some extraordinary people such as Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Albert Finney, Jonathan Pryce. They’re stunning, great actors and it’s always been a great pleasure and privilege for me.
Q. You mentioned Spencer Tracy. Is he the type of actor you admire most?
A. Yes! And James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Fredric March. Dustin Hoffman, he’s a great actor. [Robert] De Niro, Al Pacino. Marlon Brando, of course, the greatest of them all. But I think they are all great actors.
Q. Do you still enjoy acting?
A. More than ever! But I enjoy my own methods of work. I can’t say I work hard because I enjoy it, so it’s hardly hard work. I do enjoy the process of learning the texts, learning the words so hurriedly and then dissecting them. Breaking up lines so they sound real, natural. It takes a lot of time to get that going. I’ve a lot of experience over the years, so I know all the shortcuts. I feel I reach the scene or the set and that I can relax.
Q. Is there a secret to doing that?
A. The secret of acting is to listen to the other actor. That’s the keyword. When you listen, that creates another consciousness in the mind and the words become a flow.
Q. Do you spend more time in the United States or in the United Kingdom?
A. I’ll go wherever they tell me to go! (laughs) If they said choose one, I would go to England. I love working there. I’ve lived in America for too many years now. I don’t live in Hollywood and have very few friends who are in the business. I live my life very quietly. I’m not a very sociable person. I mean, I go and do my job and what I have to, like this interview now. I’m very appreciative to have been given this and been called an icon!
Q. The Silence of the Lambs and The Remains of the Day both came out in the early 1990s, which was a turning point in your career.
A. I was working a lot and The Silence of the Lambs was such a successful film. I knew how to play that man [Hannibal Lecter], by instinct. It did change my whole life since I had the choice of many great parts such as in The Remains of the Day, Nixon … I was working with great directors like [Steven] Spielberg [Amistad in 1997] and [Francis Ford] Coppola [Dracula in 1993]. I was, as they say, on a roll. I know it seems weird but I feel I cannot take credit for anything I’ve done.
Q. And why is that?
A. I don’t have any answers, but I know it frees me from my ego. I don’t take credit for anything I’ve done. It’s just good fortune.
Q. And you didn’t even attend the Academy Awards ceremony when you won your second Oscar for The Father!
A. I had a wonderful time making the film, but I didn’t attend. I wasn’t intense about it. I just read lines. Two or three years ago, I got a script for The Father, and I thought it was based on the [August] Strindberg play The Father, but it was actually based on a play by Florian Zeller, who is also the director. I read the script and thought it was terrific.
Q. One of the good things about getting older is that the masks come off, don’t they?
A. Yes. You can just be present for people. Be friendly, have some fun. Enjoy.
Q. Joanne Woodward used to say that pianists have pianos, ballet dancers have shoes, but actors have only themselves.
A. We all have an ego. But if it gets in the way and it begins to tell you that you’re special, then you’re in trouble. The ego is the thing that gets you to work in the morning. But once the ego starts telling you that you’re special, you’re different, forget it. The ego is a very powerful structure. It’s got two personalities. One is the self-aggrandizement that makes you think that you’re God. The other is the side that keeps you moving forward, but it can be also very destructive. You see it every day in politics and in the movies. I think once you reach a certain age, your bones begin to creak, your back aches, you come to terms with the fact that nothing lives forever. That’s when the ego gets to say, “Take it easy, relax. Nothing is that important.”
Q. What do you mean when you say that nothing is that important?
A. Well, life is important. There’s a lot of pain and suffering in the world and hardship. You see it every day. People go to work and work hard for a two-week holiday. I look at my own life and think, “Good God, what did I do?” I don’t know, but I can’t afford to take myself that seriously. And people have skills I wouldn’t begin to comprehend. I mean, people who build an aircraft or a car, the plumbing in your house. People you see digging in the streets. Those are the people who keep the world going, not some actor or actress who goes to the studio in the morning.
Q. But there are also actors, writers and painters... people who make us dream and live lives we could never have lived otherwise.
A. I agree with you entirely. You wouldn’t have Beethoven’s symphonies or Mozart. Michelangelo or van Gogh, The Beatles or Mick Jagger. These are people who elevate us.
Q. Is there any role you would have liked to play but couldn’t?
A. No…I would like to play Hamlet but I’m too old (laughs). I don’t have any regrets. There’s nothing I have set my mind on. In fact, I try to clear my mind of any desire. Ask nothing, expect nothing and accept everything. That’s my motto. It’s letting go of the feeling of insecurity, giving it up because fear is not a good competitor.
Q. Is it hard for an actor not to be afraid?
A. I don’t know why we have to go on about the fear. Fear is fantasy. If you’re going on stage, you’re full of fear about what people think. Nobody cares! If you go on stage you feel nervous, of course, because you want to be [John] Gielgud, you want to be successful. But you have to control it and say “Right, enough, let’s go on stage. Action, do it.”
Q. As you get older, do you think about all the things you have lived through and experienced? Do you feel that it gives you tremendous power?
A. It gives you a sense of colorizing peace. What I believe is that the older you get, the less we know. I knew everything when I was younger, now I know nothing. That’s part of the end of your life. I have long conversations with a friend of mine about what this is all about and not knowing what we’re doing here. You begin to question the nature of reality. I’m fascinated by the nature of time because none of us can explain what time is. It just doesn’t make any sense. But if you ask me “what do you think of that?” I answer: Don’t ask me, I’m just an actor, I don’t know anything at all. I can barely get out of bed in the morning.
Q. Do you have any upcoming projects?
A. Yes, I have three movies coming up. One is about Sigmund Freud. But it’s not quite there yet. The producers are on the cusp of putting the money together.
Q. When you prepare to play historical characters, like Freud, do you read a lot about them? Do you do a lot of research?
A. Yes, but not too intensively. Just as much as I can. I’m not a fast reader, I’m not an intellectual. I read, have ideas and communicate them to the director by email. I remember I was [in King Lear, and I was] up all night because they were filming, and I had to carry my [character’s] daughter Cordelia, her dead body. I realized I’ve lost some physical strength over the years. I’m very strong but I couldn’t pick her up. I suggested this: “Why doesn’t King Lear just drag her in a sack? Her dead body?” And the director said, “Oh God.” Because it’s so brutal, and he realizes that he understands the nature of death. As soon as we die we begin to rot. That’s the dark side of reality. It’s not poetic but there’s a carcass in the sack. Which made it much more awful, because for all the love and all the glory in life, there’s a dead, decaying body in a sack, and it worked.
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