Breakfast with Sir Anthony Hopkins (American Way)

What he learned from Slipstream, which he not only wrote and starred in, but directed, produced, and composed the music as well, was that he wore way too many hats.

“I learned that directors understand more about moviemaking than I ever will. I want to move fast and therefore I’m careless. I learned that I couldn’t direct myself in a film. I tried it, it doesn’t work. Personally I am very proud of it. I wrote it some years ago just as kind of an experiment really. I like to write and I don’t know if I am a writer or not…who knows, what is a writer anyway? I still write scripts and I write plays. I write in a very strange stream-of-consciousness way. On Slipstream, I started with the first scene of some tremendous, huge impact, then a dream state of confusion…so I didn’t have any logic behind it –it’s got its own logic in my mind because it’s a man’s last moments, the last microseconds as he’s killed by a car. It’s what flashes through his mind, what happened that day. But the whole joke of it is that it’s a movie. I’ve often wondered: when one is acting in a film or being an actor, what is that all about? You get out of bed in the morning, you put somebody else’s clothes on, you put on make up and you go out on a set and you act. I watch actors today and think ‘What the hell are they all doing, I’ve seen this before.’ Whoever it is. What is the fascination with all of this?”

When Hopkins talks about acting, he is in his element. He’s been doing it for most of his life (he’ll be 74 on December 31), playing some remarkable fictional characters, as well as portraying such larger than life people like Charles Dickens, David Lloyd George, Yitzak Rabin, Bruno Hauptmann, Adolf Hitler, William Bligh,C.S. Lewis, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, Richard Nixon, Pablo Picasso, and John Quincy Adams. Though he believes that “actors are all pretty much damaged goods,” and that “There’s nothing exciting about acting,” he still loves to do it. “I love going to the studio, I love going to location and getting into the dressing rooms; all that ritual of going to makeup, putting the clothes on.  If they want me to wait there for three days, I don’t care. The assistants run up and say, ‘Sorry to keep you waiting.’ I say, ‘Just make sure my agent gets the check, that’s all.’  I read books, I relax, I sleep. I love it.”

He also loves to pass on what he’s learned. He’s worked with the homeless on L.A.’s Skid Row, trying to show them that acting can be a path to self-improvement. He’s worked with alcoholics struggling to get their lives in order. And he’s worked with college students, who also are clouded with doubts.

“Just the other day in class they were all shouting and overacting “ he recalls about his teaching at UCLA, “so I offered to have a little refresher course before they go off into the big world. What I find interesting about acting students is to see them actually opening up like oysters. I had a class where I asked who wanted to get up and do a scene. Someone got up to do Shakespeare and I said she didn’t have to do Shakespeare, that she should do something modern. And I’d watch and make suggestions. Coach them to keep it simple. Just get up and do it. Helping them find their true being. ‘Take your time, don’t act. Use the power that’s in you. It’s not about destroying and hating yourself. It’s the opposite. And it’s all habit.’”

A few years ago, Hopkins and I met for lunch in Santa Monica. After we ate we walked over to the Fast Frame shop on Wilshire Blvd and 23rd St. He had to sign the matting to all the pictures he painted before they were framed and sent off to a Texas gallery. The drawings were small and well done, mostly of landscapes and flowers. When I complimented him, he said that he knocked them off in about five minutes each. He said he used photographic paper, which gave them their shine. He used a kind of Sharpie pen, with various colors, and the way it ran on the paper created shadows and effects, so he wasn’t doing all that much. Yet they looked like landscapes, with little light spots that made it seem like a town against mountains. He said the last exhibit sold out, so he was just doing more and more.

The next time I saw Hopkins was when we went to see Al Pacino on stage in a production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome at the Wadsworth Theater in Los Angeles. I could see after the play began that Hopkins was tired and losing interest. But when Pacino, as King Herod, came on, he sat up, with a smile on his face, and became enraptured.  Afterwards he said, “Did you see the difference when he came on? It changed everything. Up until then, the actors were not so good, but when Al came out, it was genius on the stage, you could feel it. He held your attention. He made all the others seem unnecessary.”

We went backstage to say hello to Pacino in his dressing room. Hopkins was so happy to see and hug Pacino, and Pacino returned the hug. Then Hopkins began bouncing up and down with enthusiasm, telling Pacino what he thought.  After fifteen minutes we left. “This has been a great evening,” Hopkins said with tears in his eyes.  “Great evening.”

The next morning Hopkins called me before leaving to Texas to hear a concert of his music and attend the gallery opening of his latest paintings. “I hope I wasn’t too over the top with my enthusiasm with Al,” he said. “But I just really liked what he did. It was such a great evening.”

When you’re with Anthony Hopkins you begin to understand what it’s like to be an actor. One day he’s full of enthusiasm, the next day he’s wondering what it’s all about. He knows he can go through the gamut of emotions in any 24 hour cycle.

“I look out the window,” he says reflectively, “or I look at the shaving mirror in the morning and say, ‘Oh, it’s you again.’ It’s wonderful. I’ve led a fantastic life. But I realize what it is. Dean Jagger, who won an Oscar in Twelve O’Clock High in 1950, said to me once, “Tony, are you enjoying life? Remember when they put you in a nice hotel in a nice big suite, it’s not yours, you’re just staying there for a couple of days. Once you remember that, you won’t take it all too seriously.”  And I always remembered that. Life goes by. Just enjoy, and don’t take anything too seriously, because it will be somebody else tomorrow.  I’m at that stage in my life now where I look at younger actors and their behavior and I think, “I’ve been there. Done that. And yet, I look around and I think I’m lucky to have been here this long.  I’m still around. I don’t crave to work anymore, but it’s nice.”

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