Breakfast with Sir Anthony Hopkins (American Way)

When Anthony Hopkins returned from England, where he had finished shooting Wolfman with Benicio del Toro, he called me to talk about another project he was interested in doing. I hadn’t expected to hear from him, but my experience with Hopkins over the years has always been mercurial, so I shouldn’t have been surprised.  We agreed to meet for breakfast at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, and on the appointed date I sat at a table, as my jaw dropped when he walked in.

“Well, look at you,” I said. “You’re half the man I saw the last time we ate here.”

“Yes,” Hopkins laughed, “I probably am.”

I was referring to how slim he looked. Hopkins was never fat, but he was always stocky. But the man who sat down at the Peninsula was thin, a mere shadow of the actor we’ve seen on screen all these years.

“I lost 95 pounds, he said. “It was time. I just had lost my enthusiasm for doing things. I didn’t feel well. I had no energy. I was eating bad food. I was letting life pass me by. Then my wife Stella put me on this diet, and the weight just disappeared. I got down to 160 pounds. I just cut out sugar, rice, bread, and pasta. I feel great, I’m back being involved in things; I’m composing music, painting, having concerts and exhibitions, teaching students at UCLA and working with the homeless downtown, making films. I’ve had a good life, no complaints. But this is the best because I feel valued and I value Stella and I just feel good about myself. It’s taken me a long time to get that.”

Stella is his third wife, whom he met in 2000, the year he gave up his British citizenship and became an American.  They married in 2003 and, after two failed marriages, this one brought him some semblance of happiness. For much of Hopkins’ life happiness was not part of the equation. He grew up the son of a baker in Wales where he was made to feel inferior by other children.  His memories of school were bitter. “I was an idiot in school. I didn’t know what was expected of me.  I wasn’t popular. I didn’t have any friends. I wouldn’t go to my own birthday parties.  When I was eleven my parents sent me off to boarding school.  There, I wouldn’t speak to anyone for four weeks. I hated being sneered at by other kids. The teachers would slap me. I was hauled before the headmaster. But I just wouldn’t speak.”

What he would do though was impersonate his teachers, imitating their mannerisms, their walks, their body movements, their voices. He didn’t know it then, but could look back upon that time and recognize that he was learning to be an actor.

After public school, in 1955, Hopkins worked in a steel mill for two miserable months. “The fitters would come in and say, ‘I’d like two dozen steel bolts and two pieces of piping,’ he recalled. “And I’d always get it wrong.  I remember one man said, ‘You’re not really connected, are you?’ And that’s what I felt most like in those years. I couldn’t get anything right.”

He worked for his father in his bakery, and then in the army he worked as a clerk for eighteen months. “I couldn’t type, I couldn’t do anything right. I just couldn’t make anything work.” He realized that he just wasn’t cut out for any type of 9-5 job. “I had no intention of doing work for the rest of my life, which is why I became an actor. I wanted to do something that would get me out of the rut that I was in. I wanted to make a mark, to become famous. I’d seen Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando in early films and that’s what I wanted to become. I wanted to become an actor because Richard Burton had made it in my hometown where we both lived. He escaped from there, and that’s what I wanted. He was quite instrumental in my life, really.”

He had studied at the Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff for two years before being drafted into the army and when he returned to civilian life in 1960 he became an assistant stage manager at the Manchester Library Theatre, and then joined the Nottingham Repertory Company.  In 1961 he won a scholarship to study at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. By 1965 he was invited to audition for Sir Laurence Olivier, England’s most respected actor and the director of the National Theatre. He thought he would become an overnight sensation, but that didn’t happen. What did happen was he developed a drinking problem, which aggravated his temper and made him irascible. He wound up quitting the National Theatre over an argument with a director and sank into a deep depression.  He was married and had a child at this time, but walked out of the marriage after four years. He married again in 1973.

Hopkins’ first movie was The Lion in Winter (1967), starring Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. He was obviously nervous to work with Hepburn, who calmed him down by telling him, “You don’t need to do anything. Just relax.  You don’t have to act. You’ve got a good voice, you’ve got a big frame, you’re going to look good on film. You don’t need to push it.  You’ve been in the theater a long time.  Don’t act. I’ll do the acting.” It was advice he has tried to follow ever since.

If acting wasn’t a problem for him, alcohol was. In 1969 he fell asleep while driving a car in Arizona and realized he could have been killed. It was a wake up call, and he wound up putting himself in a self-help program for alcoholics.  But the rage that simmered within him was never lost, and he often put it to constructive use when he acted. He was also able to drudge up childhood memories.

“When I played Hitler [in The Bunker], I styled him after my own grandfather on my father’s side, who was a bit of a tyrant.  I was a bit scared of him when I was a child, because he was tough. He was Victorian, had a hard life, hard as nails, confused, frustrated, powerful, and a sentimental ogre. Which Hitler was as well. But my grandfather didn’t kill anyone.”

Though he tried to curb his alcoholic cravings, he still suffered from his own insecurities. “I think a lot of actors doubt all the time,” he said. “I’m doubting all the time. I often think I’ve lost my mojo, that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing…the only problem with that is if you let that become dominant it destroys you. So I constantly have to keep guard against it and I notice it becomes dominant when I become angry. That’s fear.”

Fear, of course, can be an adrenaline rush, or it can be paralyzing. Hopkins has finally come to grips with his anger and fears.  “I was on a movie not that long ago where there was a lot of chaos, and I was pretty fed up with it. I realized as the months went by that the producers and the company had a lot of big problems on this movie. But the movie turned out really good. So I try now to look at the other guy’s point of view. There’s a lot of anger in this business, people are scared. So you have to give the benefit of the doubt. Because we all have doubts. God, what an extraordinary mechanism the brain is, how little we value it. We pour drugs or booze into it, and most of our lives we have a knot in our stomach—what’s going to happen today? Maybe  nothing. And I don’t have to make anything happen. What do we spend our lives doing? It’s all meaningless, it’s all nonsense, because there is no control.  Of course we have to do certain things: we all get up in the morning, clean our teeth, go to the bathroom, whatever we do to get through the day and get on with our jobs. Now I just let go of these doubts, these knots. I don’t worry about it, because what can you do anyway?”

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