Putting Hannibal Lecter behind him, ANTHONY HOPKINS gets his teeth into Howards End, the latest and best Merchant-Ivory-Forster adaptation. Trevor Johnston talks to the Oscar-winning actor about his chequered screen career.
t was one of those occasions when I
was glad my parents decided against calling me Clarice. Almost a year on from the British release of Silence of the Lambs, the very idea of being left alone in a room with Anthony
Hopkins still conjured up an image of the good doctor Hannibal Lecter tucking into my gizzards with a pulse vegetable of his choice and a swig of Chianti. Poised serenely on a chair at a London publicist’s office, with not a sheet of protective plexiglass in sight, Port Talbot’s scariest screen acting son was settling into an afternoon of interviews to promote Howards End, the latest and best of the Merchant-Ivory adaptations of BM. Forster. But as he plucked grape after grape from the fruitbowl, popped them into his mouth and looked intently across the table with the steel-grey stare thankfully set to ‘charm’ rather than ‘mindfuck’, it was still tough to keep Hannibal the Cannibal out of mind or out of the conversation.
As it happened, on the day that we met he was still a week away from jetting off to Los Angeles and returning with a little gold statuette in his flight bag, and he was playing the adulation bit pretty coolly. ‘It would be nice to win an Oscar, but it won‘t change my life,’ reflected the 54-year-old with the sort of abrupt casualness that’ll be familiar to anyone who’s seen him on the TV chat show circuit over the past while. ‘It’s nice to have all this success with Silence of the Lambs, but you can’t go on living as if it made any difference, because it doesn’t. You wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and it’s still the same old face gazing back at you.’
It’s immediately apparent at this point that Hopkins has inherited that endearing Welsh national characteristic of Celtic miserablism, but he has, after all, had the kind of ‘been there, done that’ career that enables him to shrug off Oscar-type acclaim and still sound like a wise old hand determined not to be overawed by industry bullshit. Lecter might be the highest profile movie role he’s had to date, but from a string of performances stretching back to 1968’s historical drama The Lion in Winter, his anguished Captain Bligh in Roger
Donaldson’s The Bounty (1984) and the kindly doctor in The Elephant Man (1980), it has proved to be his most twitchy characterisation. And we are, of course, talking about the man who was determined enough to walk out on the National Theatre in the middle of their 1973 production of Macbeth, returning twelve years later to tackle King Lear and Anthony and Cleopatra in concurrent runs.
Hopkins himself reckons the ‘road to Damascus’ experience that explains his highly laid-back attitude to the fame and fortune machine happened sometime in the mid-70s. That was the beginning of a period during which it looked like he was going the way of his acknowledged role model Richard Burton, by submerging a powerful acting presence and an instantly recognisable delivery in a quagmire of bad movies and booze-sodden self-parody.
‘I’d gone to Hollywood to do my first movie there, this Goldie Hawn thing, The Girl From Petrovka,’ he takes up the story, ‘and on the first day there, the LA Times printed this big picture of me with a caption “The British Are Coming”. “This was it,” I thought, “the big time!” Then the next morning I walked on set, one ofthe lighting guys shouted at me “Hey, Tony, didn’t I see you on TV last night? You had these glasses and a funny hat. What was that?” Well, I’d just done this huge version of War and Peace for the BBC, which was going out in America at the time, so I told him about the part. “War and Peace, huh?” he said. “Yeah, I saw a bit of it. I turned over to the football.” It’s at moments like that when you realise how little what you do actually means to anyone.’
Not that this quite accounts for Hopkins’s rather cavalier choice of roles over the past couple of decades. A sort of thespian equivalent ofThe Goodies — he’ll do anything, anytime, anywhere — he’s hammed his way through eminently forgettable 70$ ﬂicks like International Velvet (a crusty trainer to Tatum O’Neill’s showjumping hopeful) and Magic (toweringly over the top as a crazed ventriloquist) and ventured deep into
American televisionland with the likes of Victory at Entebbe (as the Israeli foreign
minister) and The Bunker (as I Iitler). An f old reliable in screeds of TV remakes (see
the 805 versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Great Expectations), he probably reached some sort of nadir as the merrily bonking film director in the mini-series of Jackie Collins’s Holly wood Wives. Not that he seems to give a toss, you understand. ‘lt’s a demon in me!‘ he chuckles by way of excuse. ‘My agents tell me to turn halfthis stuff down, but I never stOp working. It’s a kind of “fuck you“ attitude, but maybe I have done some things I really shouldn’t have . . . the wonderful Freejack, for instance. I haven’t seen that yet. I did it because I wanted to meet Mick Jagger. Just
1 to say hello to him really. Simple as that. I , just did a Barbara Taylor Bradford for TV as i
well, To Be The Best. Dreadful thing, but it came and went. I really like being on set, you see. I tell Tommy Cooper jokes. It drives everyone mad.’
In the circumstances, it’s a wonder that he does manage to fit in some outstanding movies, a category to which Howards End undoubtedly belongs. In a film that’s sure to confound Merchant-Ivory’s staunchest detractors, he plays Henry Wilcox, a wealthy and reactionary old duffer whose marriage to Emma Thompson’s emancipated Margaret Schlegel sets up a conﬂict of personalities and ideologies between him and his wife’s even more progressive-thinking sister Helen (Helena
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ﬁThe List8—21 May 1992