Anthony Hopkins stars as an aging, ego-maniacal actor in The Dresser opposite Ian McKellen, who plays his effeminate and alcoholic assistant. Based on a 1983 play, the famous Welsh-born Malibu resident is in his adopted city of Los Angeles to chat to MiNDFOOD about this latest project. As usual, Hopkins is candid, funny and full of wisdom.
The movie is called The Dresser – let’s start with the obvious question – who is dressing you?
Sir Ian Mckellen! (laughs)
And in life?
In life? My wife. She checks everything I put on. She says, ‘You don’t need that shirt!’ She gave me instructions from Malibu this morning on what jacket to wear for this interview (laughs).
Were you familiar with the story of The Dresser?
Well, yes. A few years ago I was in Barnes and Noble and I found the play, The Dresser. I bought it, I had seen the film, I had seen the original production and I read the play and I thought this would be interesting because it would be a revisit, a painless, pain free visit to my past. I had a sort of dark nostalgia about those years at the National Theatre. I never fitted into anything really well and I was a bit of an outsider.
I was reading a magazine article which compared you to a fine wine – you get better with age. What’s your secret?
I am 78 and I am going to be 79 at the end of the year. I work, work and work, that’s all that I do. And a quick anecdote about my life as an actor which does relate to this, Stella my wife, whom I am always talking about, she worries about my health. I stopped worrying but she gets concerned because I am a bit crazy. And we were up in Canada two years ago doing a film. It was bitterly cold and I remember this old barn and it was filthy and spider webs everywhere, everyone was freezing and a bunch of actors were there and Stella visited the set. I said to her, ‘Isn’t this wonderful?’ She went, ‘Wonderful? No, it’s terrible. How can you like this?’ Anyway, she went back to the hotel and that night she said, ‘How can you say it’s wonderful?’ And I said, ‘Well, that is my life.’ And she said, ‘Let me ask you, ‘Do you want to die as an actor? Do you want to go until you drop dead?’ I said, ‘I guess so, until my health gives out.’ And she said, ‘Well that’s good, if that is what you want to do.’ I said, ‘That’s my passion.’
So, working keeps you young?
When you’re doing a play like The Dresser, I had to learn the entire script before I started. So, I learned it over and over and over only to be prepared so that when we started rehearsing I could be relaxed and not worry about the lines. But in that process, and I may be wrong and a neurologist might be able to tell me something differently, but I think by learning text and lines keeps my brain active. And I feel energised by being an actor. I just love the process, I just love it. I hate the word process, but I love the activity. I love getting up in the morning and going to the film set and having a cup of coffee, having some breakfast and going out and doing it. And on this one, it was one of the happiest experiences I had in many years with Ian Mckellen and a wonderful cast.
You play an actor with a big ego. How do you deal with your own ego?
Well, you have to deal with it very carefully (laughs). You have to have an ego, you have to have a degree of narcissism, of course, because otherwise we wouldn’t be human beings if we didn’t have some self-regard or some vanity or some ego that is the thing that keeps us moving on. But as you know in this business and in this profession, especially out here in Hollywood where the actors are not allowed to be looked at, actors, you mustn’t look at them, that is kind of Looney Tunes. So you have to have a balance. You have to have a good strong ego that gives you an affirmation of yourself because it’s no good pretending, ‘I am no good, I am just adequate.’ If you believe you are adequate that’s all you will be. So you have to believe in something in yourself and want more.
It’s been 25 years since Silence of the Lambs. What did that role mean to you?
Hannibal Lecter, God, it was a long time ago. I had a wonderful time playing him and Jodie Foster was wonderful. There’s no downside to it but people say, ‘Is that all you play is evil?’ I said no. (laughs) They said, ‘Why are you so evil?’ And I said, ‘I am not, I am an actor.’ And I simply wanted to do it. People said, ‘Well, you sold out. Hopkins sold out.’ I have done a few good films and some bad films but that is the luck of the game. It’s like baseball. You can’t have a hit every moment but to have a few notable successes is fine. But I wanted to prove to myself that I still had the muscle and the power in my lungs, because I think that you can take a long absence from something and if it’s too long you can forget. But once you get into the stride and determination to learn the part and learn and relearn, you think, ‘Yeah, I can do it.’
Richard Burton, also from Wales, famously succumbed to his demons but you obviously survived your own. Why do you think you managed to come out the other end and he didn’t?
What demons are you talking about? His alcoholism?
Richard, I guess like many others, just couldn’t deal with his addiction. Alcoholism is a very complex thing. I was one of those and in some strange moment of grace or fear, I found an answer. The word demon is too strong. I agree with you but I think insecurities and fears, we all have them, and what I have to remember all the time is that everyone of us is fighting a great battle just to stay alive. We fight illness and disease and mental instabilities and we just keep battling on. That’s what I think is great is that you have to keep fighting. Fighting and fighting for yourself and not fighting other people. It’s just having the passion for living and the passion to live and that is why I work, not to prove anything but just to keep alive.
You seem to be in a good place in your life. Would you agree?
Yes. It’s great. I think a bit of wisdom and a bit of mellowness comes in as you enter old age. I am still pretty strong, but I don’t have opinions that are rigid anymore. The thing I say to myself most mornings is that I don’t know much. There is a wonderful poem: ‘Speak not, lie hidden and conceal, the way you dream and the things you feel. Deep in your spirit let them rise, kindred stars and crystal skies, that set before the night is blurred, delight in them and speak no word.’ That is brilliant and that silence is actually a form of wisdom because the more you utter thoughts, you destroy the thought by verbalising it. Of course we have to speak, but that Russian poet advises us to be quiet and whenever possible and so I keep my mouth shut.