His insecurities were lowered back in 1992 when a certain golden statue came into his hands for his performance as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. (The American magazine Entertainment Weekly recently ranked Hannibal Lecter as the third most chilling villain in movie history.)
“Getting the Oscar was a great moment for me,” he said. “It changed my life because it knocked a lot of myself down inside of me. Not crippling self-doubts, but doubts that I wanted to be rid of. I think praise is a very good thing to have in one’s life. It’s better than a kick in the ass.”
When I asked him how he had perceived playing such a chilling villain, he said that he imagined Lecter as a cross between a cat and a lizard, “somebody who doesn’t blink, who is absolutely still for hours at a time. Like a praying mantis, or a spider on the wall. When you see a tarantula on the wall, it’s stationary for hours, and suddenly it goes, tsst…tsst….tsst… That’s the most terrifying moment. The movement is real terror. For Lecter, he just stares, and watches, and then he moves.”
Hopkins was only on screen for 27 minutes in three key scenes for Silence of the Lambs, and that’s also the kind of screen time he had in his more recent film, Wolfman.
When we talked over breakfast, Wolfman hadn’t come out yet, but he had high hopes for it. “It’s really terrific,” he said. “It’s better than anything I imagined. [Director] Joe Johnston has done such a terrific job. It’s like a graphic novel. It’s filmed in a peculiar way and people look weird…there’s a kind of fairy tale aspect, the way the camera lens distorts things. It’s really a fascinating looking film.” Unfortunately, the critics wouldn’t agree with Hopkins’ assessment and the box-office was disappointing. But what struck me as we talked was how Hopkins so casually told me about how he “reshaped” the “nutty father” character he played, “who’s completely mad, but in a quiet way,” and then, in one sentence, gave away the ending.
“You know what you just did?” I asked.
“I gave it away, didn’t I?” he said, now concerned. “Don’t print that, let it be a surprise.”
There have been numerous Wolf Man movies over the years, and I wondered how seeing Lon Chaney in the original might have affected him as a child, but he surprised me by saying, “I never saw the original when I was young, though I saw it fairly recently.” The first movie he ever saw was Pinocchio which, he confessed, scared him so much “I thought the screen was going to burn me.” To keep from hiding under the seat he would call out “Churchill” whenever something came on where he felt he needed protection. The prime minister would never let him down. But Pinocchio was child’s play (obviously!) compared to a 1947 film called Moss Rose which truly gave him nightmares. “It was this weird dark movie with Victor Mature and Peggy Cummins about these girls who were killed because they were in love with this woman’s son. This one scene when Peggy Cummins comes downstairs looking for her sister in-law [Ethel Barrymore] and she goes into this large room and there’s this fire burning grate and you see this dead woman, eyes open and all…that really scared me.”
Hopkins has had some meaty parts in films like Remains of the Day, Proof with Gwyneth Paltrow, The World’s Fastest Indian, and Fracture, but he’s also appeared in some recent duds, like Oliver Stone’s Alexander, The Human Stain, All the King’s Men; Emilio Estevez’s Bobby, Beowulf, and his own little vanity project, Slipstream.
“I’ve seen films I’ve been in and I suddenly turn on the kind of showing off acting, kick a chair or something. I did it in Human Stain. When you strain…I try to go as far back as I can to not act. To avoid it. Sometimes I am told, ‘Give me more than that.’ OK. If your instincts are right to do it, fine; but sometimes it’s just awful, it’s overacting. It’s taken me years and years and years and I still hope to learn it.”