Anthony Hopkins knew immediately that he wanted to play the title role in Florian Zeller’s The Father, about a man suffering the bewildering confusion of dementia. He tells Screen why he understood this character ‘inside out and backwards’
When Florian Zeller set about adapting his Molière-winning play Le Père into a feature, he was so keen to have Anthony Hopkins play the title role he renamed the main character Anthony after him. The ploy worked. On reading Zeller’s script for The Father, co-written with Christopher Hampton, Hopkins said yes immediately. “When you get a good script, you can tell within a few pages,” says the 83-year-old actor from his home in Malibu. “I said, ‘I’d love to. When are they going?’”
Unfortunately, Hopkins had already committed to starring in Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes and asked if they would wait for him. “And I’m so grateful they did.”
Hopkins has garnered wide acclaim for his work in The Father, playing the heartbreaking confusion, bitterness, fear and anger of a man in the grip of dementia, and claims the role, which has already earned him Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations, to be his favourite of anything he has done.
“The last six years have been terrific. I’ve worked in England. I worked with Ian McKellen on The Dresser. I did King Lear with Emma Thompson,” he says. “This one was different. It was self-contained. It was relaxed. We were in a warehouse in northwest London. Playing King Lear, you can’t just waddle through, you have to perform it. With this, there was no performance required. I am that guy. And that guy is me. I hope I don’t get dementia. I hope to go on working.”
On his first day on set, rehearsing the opening scene with Olivia Colman, Hopkins came to a sudden realisation. “It’s written that he’s irascible, he gets impatient, and I thought, ‘That’s my father,’” he reveals. “He was always impatient with me, exceptionally when he was ill.” (He died from heart disease.) “He would get impatient with my mother. She would try to look after him and he’d say, ‘I’m okay. Just leave me alone.’ That comes from fear. And I thought, ‘You know what, I understand this character inside out and backwards.’ Because I’d witnessed it. I’m also 83 years of age, so I don’t have to act old. I am old. I’m just playing myself, really. That’s all acting is. Playing yourself with somebody else’s language. It was an easy one to do.”
After more than 60 years as an actor — he started out at the Swansea Little Theatre in 1960 — Hopkins makes most things look easy. His method, he insists, is simple. “You learn your lines, you show up, and you do it. Sometimes I think, ‘What on earth is this all about?’ You get up in the morning, go to a location, get undressed, put somebody else’s clothes on, and spend the day acting out a fiction. And because I’m always well prepared, I take it lightly. I don’t take myself seriously.”
Hopkins has had a long, distinguished and varied career encompassing stage and screen, winning three Baftas (for film and television), a Bafta Fellowship and two Primetime Emmys, and starring in countless classics, including The Elephant Man, Shadowlands, The Remains Of The Day and Howards End.
But he is probably still best known for his iconic turn as Hannibal Lecter in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs, which netted him the best actor Oscar, one of five the film picked up. Hopkins, who played Lecter twice more, says he has not seen Mads Mikkelsen’s version in the now-cancelled TV series Hannibal (“I hear he’s very good”) but remains eternally grateful to “that part and that film”. Like The Father (which Sony Pictures Classics acquired for the US ahead of its 2020 Sundance premiere and releases on February 26), the role “came out of the blue”, he notes.
“I was sitting in the theatre in London in 1989 doing M Butterfly and my agent sent the script over. I thought it was a kid’s story. I started reading it, then phoned him up and said, ‘Is this an offer?’ He said, ‘Not yet.’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to read any more because this is the best part I’ve ever read.’ He called back about two hours later and said, ‘Jonathan Demme’s coming to see you tomorrow night. He wants to take you out for dinner. And it’s an offer.’ I knew it was a part of a lifetime, because, for some reason, I knew how to play it. Not that I’m Lecter, but I know what scares people.”
During lockdown, we have seen a more humorous and compassionate side to Hopkins who, thanks to social media, has amused and comforted millions with his poetry readings, piano recitals, impersonations, even a spot of TikTok dancing, often alongside his cat Niblo. Is he aware how inspirational his posts and videos have been? “My wife Stella reads me the comments and people seem to like what I do,” he reflects. “I try to encourage people, especially the young, because I read suicides and depression and drug addiction are on the increase. So anything I can do to send a ripple out into the lakes and say, ‘Hold in there.’”
When he is not working, Hopkins keeps in shape and his mind active. “I paint a lot. I play the piano every day, about four hours, and I read.” He watches mostly documentary films — “They give me a sense of perspective about this very strange world we’re living in” — but will binge-watch detective shows. “There’s a very good series called The Sinner with Bill Pullman, wonderful actor. I’ll watch about six episodes in a day.” He has also almost finished writing a script set on the streets of Port Talbot where he grew up. “It’s about an old man who’s been independent all his life and doesn’t remember where his wife is. He’s a stubborn old guy like me.”
In January, Hopkins shot an under-the-radar movie via Zoom and was due to film One Life in London in September, playing Nicholas Winton who helped rescue 669 children, most of them Jewish, from Prague on the eve of the Second World War, although that has been put on hold until January 2022. For now, he is looking forward to a holiday — once such things are permitted (he recently received the coronavirus vaccine). “I’ve got a few things in the offing, but I’ve said to my agent, ‘I’m not working for a while. My wife and I want to get away for a few weeks.’”