The film career of Sir Anthony Hopkins is a storied one. The gifted 72-year-old British actor has made an indelible impression on audiences since his feature film debut in 1968’s The Lion in Winter (effortlessly holding his own opposite Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole). His award-winning turn as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of Lambs, not to mention its sequel and prequel, is the stuff of legend. Yet the versatile actor is equally at home in the lush, sumptuous films of Merchant-Ivory (Howards End,The Remains of the Day,Surviving Picasso) as he is in big budget CGI-heavy epics like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Wolfman. With such a diverse career, it’s interesting that only now is he playing his first gay character, Adam, the elegant expatriate in The City of Your Final Destination (now playing in select theaters). Hopkins’s understated turn in the languid, intelligent film, based on the novel by Peter Cameron, is a highlight of this first directorial effort by James Ivory since the death of his longtime producing partner, Ismail Merchant, in 2005.
During the phone conversation, the Academy Award–winning actor, who placed the call himself, is soft-spoken and genteel. He even apologizes for briefly pausing the conversation long enough to say goodbye to his wife. Only when asked about rumors of temperamental behavior on the set of Thor, the upcoming film adaptation of the popular Marvel comic, which Hopkins firmly denies, does the consummate professional raise his voice. Hopkins speaks with The Advocate for the first time about the inspiration for his first gay role, to dismiss reports of his volatile behavior, and laugh off rumors of that he wants to play Simon Cowell in a biopic.
The Advocate: I'm not sure how I should address you. Sir or Mr. Hopkins?
Anthony Hopkins: Just call me Tony.
Besides your latest, you’ve starred in many other Merchant-Ivory films, such as Howards End and The Remains of the Day. Do you think their being gay informed their filmmaking?
I knew them both, but I don’t know anything about their personal lives. I just know that they were close friends. I don’t want to comment on their personal lives. They were both very opposite in personality, or I think so anyway. James is very calm and relaxed, seems to be, and laid-back. Ismail was a ball of fire, tremendously charismatic. When he appeared on set everything lit up. He was a great personality, and when he appeared on the sets for whatever we were doing he was always the life and soul, especially his cooking. He used to cook lunches for the crew, beautiful Indian curries and all that. He certainly knew tremendous courage, and people over the years talked very fondly of him. This film without him is different, yet it’s quite the same. I think people have missed him, but James hasn’t changed. He was still James Ivory, very quiet, very easygoing.
Was James’s directing process different without Ismail on the set?
No, it was just the same. When we were making Howards End and Remains of the Day, if it was raining, Ismail would say, “Oh, my God, it's raining! What are we going to do?” and James would say, “Just let it rain.” They were two complementary personalities, but they got along well together. I didn’t know much about their private lives, though.
I liked that Adam's being gay is just incidental. It doesn’t define him and there’s no artifice to your characterization.
I basically played him as the script described him. I thought the book was remarkable. I very much like those books that are like F. Scott Fitzgerald that talk about how life passes by and how people drift in and out of people’s lives, like in The Great Gatsby. What I like about this theme was this exiled family living this life and that Adam groomed this man who over the years has become kind of cynical, debonair roué who likes his wine and doesn’t take, on the surface, life so seriously.
Many years ago in New York I knew a guy, I can’t remember his name, but he and his family had this life, they were obviously rich. I don’t know where they got their money, I think it was inheritance, but the main protagonist had been in the war in North Africa. He had been driving ambulances with the American Army. One day at some dinner party he got very serious and said, “I saw so many things in the war. I just decided I was never going to be miserable again. I was going to live my life for fun and for pleasure, smoke and drink and have a wonderful time.”
That’s a wonderful philosophy.
He was witty and very funny, very cynical, and could make you laugh. I based the character on him. It was in the writing, but I used him as well. This man who would just sort of swan around the place and had so many friends. He was a very entertaining guy. He’s dead and gone now, but I thought of him. I like those sorts of roué, debonair characters.
As far as I can determine, Adam is the first gay character you’ve played on film. Were you ever approached to play a gay character before?
I can’t remember. Oh yes, years and years ago there was a BBC thing about Anthony Blunt, the spy who had his knighthood taken away, and Guy Burgess, who was the spy who went to Russia and lived there — a brilliant Cambridge man. That’s the only one.
I realize this is 20 years later, but do you recall your thoughts on the controversy that surrounded The Silence of the Lambs and the gay community?
I never heard of it. I never got involved. I just did the movies and moved on. I never read any of that junk.
More recently a musical-comedy version of The Silence of the Lambs was produced in London. I wonder if you’ve seen it and if you’re OK with spoofs of your work?
[Laughs] Sure, whatever turns people on. I don’t read back on all that stuff. I didn’t even know there was a Silence of the Lambs musical. How strange, but it sounds funny.
You’ve been working on the film Thor. A few weeks ago one of the New York papers published an item in a gossip column saying that you were complaining about Chris Hemsworth, the young actor who stars in the film, a rumor you’ve denied. Would you care to clear up this rumor once and for all?
I never, never, never …don’t get me started! This thing is with my lawyers. That son of a bitch, whoever he was in New York. I’ve talked to Chris Hemsworth and the Marvel people, and I’ve got nothing else to say about that. I like working with young actors. I love this young kid and Omar [Metwally] who’s in [The City of Your Final Destination]. They’re terrific young actors. They came on set and knew their stuff, and that’s all that’s really required. I think working with young actors is terrific. It’s wonderful for old fogies like me.
I believe you. When you work with young actors do you ever offer any advice?
How could I offer them advice? They all know what they’re doing. I’m very relaxed on set with everyone because here is a room of people intimidated by me. I’ve got nothing to be intimidated by. I really protest that piece of crap in the paper. I’m a very friendly actor. I never mess with anyone. I’m always on time. I’m very professional and I love working with actors.
I’ve read you’re a big fan of American Idol, and in another interview you joked that you want to play Simon Cowell in a film.
That was all nonsense. My wife and I watch American Idol, and we actually went to a taping once. We went to see the finals and I met Simon Cowell briefly. I think he’s a kind of entertaining character because people either love him or hate him. He’s very astute. He’s a very bright man, a very clever man. I like watching those reality things because I think they are very fun.
Would you ever consider sitting at the Idol judges’ table?
I don’t think I would be very qualified to do that. I don’t know much about that kind of music. I know how to appreciate it. I do have the knowledge, but that’s not my business. Those people know their business, they know what they’re looking for, what they hear. I know what I like, but I don’t have a clue about analyzing it.