Despite 50 years at the top, the Welsh-born actor still does not feel at home in his profession. Does he care? ‘What part of the word no don’t you understand?’
It is 8.30 on a sunny southern California morning and the trim, white-haired 72-year-old man with the challenging eyes has been up since 6am working out on his treadmill: “There’s so much I want to do. But I’m getting older — I have to be careful. I tend to charge around like a bull in a china shop so I have to slow down.”
Sir Anthony Hopkins has lost weight — “75 pounds” he announces proudly. “If I can burn off 500 calories in an hour, why not burn off 1,000 in two hours? Until I’m a wet rag.” Hopkins has been on a treadmill for much of his life. He is a man of extremes. Only now, instead of battling them, he is embracing them.
When he enters Fig, a restaurant in Santa Monica, heads turn. Women look up from their grapefruit. He doesn’t notice. There is the sense that he has already accomplished more today, before breakfast, than most people will all day.
He has been commissioned to write his autobiography. His first thought was: who the hell needs to hear about another actor? But he is not just an actor. He paints — an exhibition of his work will open in London later this month, before moving on to Edinburgh in March — and he composes symphonies. He has always played the piano — Chopin, Liszt, Bach, Beethoven. “But orchestrations,” he closes his eyes and swoons, “there are no restrictions — it breaks all the rules.”
If his memoir resembles our conversation, it will feature neither self-pity nor regret. He is willing to examine family, relationships, drink and turmoil — and speaks evenly, unemotionally, about how he has prevailed: “Once you accept the fact that there’s nothing to fear, you drill into the primal oil well. I believe when we do things without fear, we can do anything. As long as you don’t worry about the consequences.”
He didn’t always believe that. The turning point was meeting his third wife, Stella Arroyave, a Colombian-born antiques dealer: “I married a remarkable woman who has changed a lot of my perception about myself and about life. She’s very positive, very powerful. Every time I get a negative thought, she says, ‘Cancel it’.”
Working through his memories has provoked introspection. He has always felt like an outsider, “a reject”. Why? “I was an only child. My mother married into a family of in-laws. She felt like an outsider; which she was. She was a powerful force in my father’s life. He was a baker — and she was ambitious for him. She didn’t want him to be subservient to his father. She woke him up.”
Hopkins was born on December 31, 1937 in Port Talbot, West Glamorgan. His mother, Muriel, was Welsh as was his father, Richard. Hopkins took on his mother’s outsider role: “For many, many years I felt like I didn’t belong. I was a duffer at school — everything was incomprehensible to me.” He had no friends. None? He shakes his head: “None at all.”
Being an only child he turned inward. Reading, painting, playing music. He recalls an episode from childhood: “I’d been to the dentist, and I was seven years old, to have a tooth taken out. In those days they yanked it out. I was feeling nauseous and I hallucinated. I was in bed and I remember waking up with a knock at the door — a box was put in my bedroom. And it was full of encyclopedias, which my father had got me. I remember looking through those books and finding a knowledge. I learnt everything I could.”
Over the years his self-education heightened the outsider status. He felt separate from other students. When did he stop feeling like an outsider? “When I got a scholarship to an acting school in Cardiff. I was 17, 1955.”
This was two years after the young Hopkins had knocked on the front door of another famous resident of Port Talbot: Richard Burton. “His parents had a shop in Taibach,” Hopkins recalls, “and Burton used to drive through this small town in his car when he was home from Hollywood with his first wife, Sybil. His sister used to come to the [bakery] with Sybil.” One day Hopkins boldly went up to Burton’s house to ask for an autograph.
“There was this movie star standing there shaving. It was a Saturday morning. His wife was sitting at the table, they had just finished breakfast and they were getting ready to go to the international rugby match. In Cardiff. Cardiff Arms Park. So his wife says, ‘This is Dick Hopkins’s boy — the baker’s son’. And Burton says, ‘I used to work in the shoe shop opposite your father — I was terrible; I was hopeless’.”
He asked if Hopkins was going to the match. “And I said, ‘Who’s playing?’ ‘What do you mean, who’s playing? You’re not a true Welshman if you don’t know who’s playing. Do you know Bleddyn Williams [Welsh rugby’s hero of the day]?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know who you mean’. I knew nothing. He was mocking me.
“As I was walking down the hill and his car overtook me, I thought: I want to be like that. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. But I wanted to become famous and successful.”
Hopkins joined the Port Talbot YMCA players, then got a scholarship to the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff. His audition was from Othello. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says, still sounding shocked, “because I’d never acted before. I felt I was accepted then. I felt I belonged.”
He doesn’t know what else would have become of him: “I had no trade — I had no future. I was useless in the bakery.” He had found a way out of hiding.
These days Hopkins frequently tops polls ranking the UK’s favourite actors and in 1993 he received a knighthood. But any sense of belonging was fleeting: “I became an actor but I still don’t feel that I’m a part of this profession. I never have — 50 years I’ve been doing it.” It is not a lament.
“It’s nice to get a knighthood but in the end it’s just the same old face in the mirror getting older and older — you have to shave every morning and you look at your face and think: this is it, this is the deal. And there’s a wonderful harsh reality about that. Time is going by. I better get on with it. I better live.”
Twenty-three years after asking Burton for an autograph, he found himself on Broadway in Equus. Burton was taking over the role from Hopkins, who asked to see him backstage: “He was about to go on stage and he said, ‘Why haven’t we worked together? You come from Taibach’.” Hopkins pauses: “That’s the only time I met him again.”
Hopkins has few friends and says he is not close to anyone except his wife, although he is not one for confrontation. He used to let things boil to the point when he would explode — sometimes losing his temper on set with directors. Are people afraid of him? “No, I don’t think so.” He smiles: “But they don’t mess with me. I don’t have to shout — they see it in my body language.”
He has sympathy for those who are depressed but keeps his distance. Perhaps because there is a history of being too close to the darkness. He drank for many years, saying bluntly: “It nearly killed me and then I stopped.” Did he ever feel worse afterwards? “No, I felt immense gratification, immense freedom. All the anger came up — I didn’t go to psychiatry or anything like that. I figured it out myself.”
He did try therapy, briefly, but didn’t like it: “Well, you know you never actually fess up to everything — you try to cover your ground, cover your tracks — you want to sound interesting.” He is not keen to be viewed as neurotic or self-indulgent: “Living here — all men must cry. Well, I don’t think we’re wired that way. I think it’s okay to express emotions and grief, but to make a habit of it, this endless psychobabble in our culture — everyone goes on Oprah and Dr Phil — it makes me want to throw up. I mean, come on!”
He rejects any kind of group activity: “We live in such a precious, pussyfooting society — everyone takes offence so quickly.” And the ability to tease and be teased is something he admires about British humour: “It’s like Jewish humour. I love that.” Recently Hopkins worked with Woody Allen on a film shot in London: “I wasn’t sure how he would be — I’d heard stories that he was aloof. Woody says,” he pauses before precisely capturing Allen’s soft-spoken nuance, “ ‘Okay, you come in through the door — let’s rehearse it. Okay, that’s good. Sure. Let’s shoot it’. So we shoot it. ‘Okay, very good. But improvise’.”
Hopkins’s latest film, The Wolfman, is released in Britain this week but there is no grand plan beyond that: “I’m not getting the parts I was 20 years ago — but I’m still doing okay. The prospect of that blank wall where there’s no more work — it doesn’t fill me with dread.”
Surely there must be something he fears — failure? “No longer, no.” Death? “No.There’s an epitaph on my mother’s grave — I brought her over years ago and she’s buried up in the Hollywood Hills — from a poem written in 1896 by Ernest Dowson: ‘They are not long, the days of wine and roses: Out of a misty dream / Our path emerges for a while, then closes / Within a dream.’ Isn’t that beautiful?”
Then he recites from T S Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock: “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, / And I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat, and snicker, / And in short, I was afraid.”
And now? “I don’t want to be anything else other than what I am. I can say that with passion. No regrets.” Hopkins was married twice before and has one daughter, Abigail, from his first marriage. It is a subject he chooses not to discuss. They are not close; he says simply that she has her reasons. He moves on.
“I was told years ago that I suffer from ‘terminal reasonableness’. From that point on I thought that was something to work on. Not to become a son of a bitch, but to say no. Now, after all these years, I can say: ‘What part of the word ‘no’ do you not understand?’ ”
When he breaks with a friend, he says, it is sudden. He will give no warning ahead of time, just change his address and telephone number: “They may be confused — but they’ll survive. Nobody dies.”
We sit in silence and he observes me taking this in: “I may sound to you like a really hard man — I am not ashamed of it at all. I’m not hard, I’m honest.” There is a confident clarity. Since he gave up drinking in 1975 he has been in control: “From the moment I made that decision a very powerful thought shot into my brain — it’s all over, now you can start living.” He has never relapsed, never had the desire to. “It’s extraordinary,” he says. “That’s what I’m aware of today. The powerful spirit in me. I’m not callous. It’s expediency. I will not be taken for a fool any more.”
An American citizen since 2000, he lives up the coast on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, where he feels at home: “I sometimes wake at night and I can hear the sea and I think: what the hell am I doing here? How did I get here?” And he makes no excuses. A new favourite phrase is “tough titty”. He takes pleasure in saying this. Also “TYFP”. That’s your f****** problem.
“There was a Jesuit priest I knew once and somebody asked him, ‘What’s the shortest prayer in the world?’ And he said, ‘F*** it’. That’s great, isn’t it?”