'I Don't Know What the Hell I'm Doing,' and 8 Other Epiphanies From Sir Anthony Hopkins

Holding court for an assembly of journalists yesterday in Los Angeles, Sir Anthony Hopkins gamely talked up his upcoming thriller The Rite, in which he plays a seasoned Jesuit exorcist mentoring a skeptical seminary student (newcomer Colin O'Donoghue) in Rome. Sitting across from the Oscar-winning actor, one thing was clear: At 73, Sir Anthony has, to borrow from Plato, achieved a great sense of calm and freedom. Like, the freedom to do whatever the hell he wants, whether it's starring last year in Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, getting hairy in the uber flop The Wolfman, making a special appearance in low-budget B-movies about female cage fighters, or playing a Norse god in this summer's big-budget Marvel adaptation Thor.

More on The Rite to come as Movieline talks to director Mikael Håfström and the real-life American priest whose Vatican-approved training in exorcism provided the basis for the supernatural thriller. For now, soak in the wisdom of Sir Anthony Hopkins as he waxes philosophical on spirituality, being scary, and the liberating moment when he decided to let go of professional expectations while vacationing at Graceland.

1. Yes, Anthony Hopkins knows that you think he wants to eat you.

The erstwhile Hannibal Lecter was initially reluctant to take on "another spooky guy" role when first approached for The Rite. "For a long time I sort of had a sneaky little grumble. Like, oh God, I'll never get over Hannibal Lecter. And then I saw the posters and people said it sold, and thought fine, if it does the trick, then fine."

Still, he can't deny that he's extremely good at freaking people out. "I just know how to scare people, but I don't know how I do it," he mused. "It's a look, it's a trick I guess. You deaden the eyes. It's a trick, that's all it is." Hopkins then turned his Hannibal Lecter face on and scanned the crowd of journalists as if hunting for his next meal before cracking a smile and returning to his normal self. Totally not hungry for people meat. Probably.

2. You know who's really scary? Mrs. Anthony Hopkins.

"I guess I have a knack for it," admitted Hopkins. "But that doesn't mean I'm a scary person. My wife's not scared of me. I'm scared of her!" ZING!

3. Does Sir Anthony believe in the Devil?

"The young priest [in The Rite] says, 'I believe in the truth.' Oh, the truth? Lot of trouble that got us into, didn't it, over the past thousands of years. Hitler knew the truth; so did Stalin, so did Mao Tse-Tung, so did the Inquisition, they all knew the 'truth,' and that caused such horror. Certainty is the enemy... it's like anyone saying 'The debate is over.' Who says it's over? We, who? Human beings, we know nothing. If someone said, 'Well, are you an atheist,' I don't know what I believe but who would I be to refute someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who sacrificed his life for his church and ended up in Flossenberg being executed by the Nazis -- the great martyrs who died at the stake or were destroyed for their personal beliefs. So who am I to refute anything?"

"I would hate to live in a world of certainty, of a closed circuit, of a windowless room, where I know for certain... Somebody said, 'Be kind, because everyone is fighting a great battle.' And whatever the Devil is or is not, when we turn our backs on our own frailty and our own humanity and say we know the truth, then we are in trouble.

4. Mikael Håfström vs. Kenneth Branagh vs. Steven Spielberg

Håfström allowed Hopkins to pen his own improvised lines for The Rite, as the two worked closely to shape his character during filming. Working with Kenneth Branagh on Thor and Steven Spielberg on Amistad (which earned Hopkins an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor) were slightly different experiences. "Ken Branagh's a different kind of director," Hopkins explained. "He does many takes; he's a superb actor and a terrific director, but he likes to get the best out of people. There's a scene in which I have to banish Thor -- I play Odin -- and Ken is quite smart. He said, 'That's fantastic!' [Pauses] 'Just ONE more -- just get the grief in the banishing.' 'Let's go!' Done. Got it."

"Spielberg is the same. He says, 'Just do one more take. One more.' I say, 'What do you want?' 'Oh, you know...' You can't talk about it, you can't use intelligence, rationale, because you can think it to death -- or you can overdo a scene and do take after take after take and end up doing nothing. So it's a balance. It's like being on a see-saw."

5. A few years ago, Hopkins decided to stop worrying and love the... multiplex.

"Reality is a very liberating thing," said Hopkins, who had a life-altering revelation a few years ago that changed his view of Hollywood movies and the work he does in them. "I went to Graceland for my birthday about two years ago with my wife. To cut a long story short, we went to this place outside of Memphis where this big multiplex was, and it was a Saturday morning and I could smell the popcorn and there were people going in, into these multiplex theaters. They had the latest Clint Eastwood film, the Gran Torino, and other movies. Big, big movies. And I just happened to look; there were people eating their popcorn just waiting for their movie to start and I thought, 'That's it. This is show business.' This is the great movie career. And it's all found in a shoebox. So it's a great liberation thinking that none of it is important. It's a great feeling that nothing matters anymore. It was quite a revelation!"

And if he channel-surfs his way onto one of his own movies on TV? "I switch over to something else. I never watch them."

6. Hopkins: O'Donoghue :: Hepburn: Hopkins.

Hopkins, who's been acting for nearly 50 years, doesn't need no stinking Method. "I've been doing this a long time now so I know how to prepare for parts. I don't have to become a priest or become possessed." On set, he gently teased his young co-star as they shot their first scene together ("Is that the way you're planning to play the part? It's your career...") but the only piece of advice he imparted was a lesson he'd learned from screen legend Katharine Hepburn.

"It's a big close-up, you don't have to do too much with your face. Do less. Katharine Hepburn said that to me: 'Don't act.'" (Listen to Hopkins lovingly remember -- and mimic -- his Lion in Winter co-star here.)

7. Hopkins is tickled that his paintings sell despite his lack of formal training.

The actor, whose side interests include painting, has had art shows in Hawaii and musical performances of his original compositions on two continents. And he's going to keep doing it until people stop wanting more. "I paint, but I don't have an academic background in painting. So I'm liberated, I'm free. I paint, and they sell! I don't know what the hell I'm doing, I just do it like a kid. That's from not being certain of anything and just being open. Ask nothing, expect nothing, and accept everything."

8. Sir Anthony once conducted an orchestra, kinda.

Hopkins, who has been playing the piano since the age of 6 and released a single in the U.K. in 1986, had his original compositions performed in 2008 by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Pulled to the podium to serve as conductor on a number entitled "Schizoid Salsa," Hopkins winged it... and got a standing ovation.

9. Is the comic book actioner Thor Shakespearean at its core? Nah, not so much.

It's an inevitable question considering the grand themes and the involvement of veteran thespians Branagh and Hopkins, and you can be sure Marvel Studios will take whatever highbrow associations it can get for the May tentpole. But Hopkins, who's done actual Shakespeare many a time, genially waved off the idea that the big action flick bears any resemblance to the Bard's work. "Yeah, I don't know, Well, it's a big, big movie. Branagh's extraordinary. How he directed that and put it together, I don't know. Well it's about grand passions, it's a big story about gods, so you have to do a little bit of Shakespeare to play a god."

To answer your next question, Hopkins didn't read no damn comic books to prepare for his role as Odin, the armor-wearing ruler of Asgard. "I saw the sets, I saw the designs of the sets and what I was going to wear. I went to the studio down in Manhattan Beach and saw what they were going to put on me and all that. So when they dressed me up I thought, 'OK, well, I'm a god now.'"


  • John M Martin says:

    Mr. Sutherland needs to talk to Mr. Hopkins about once being a Atheist and now being a Believer. They are almost the same age and I am sure respect each others acting career. Life is short and it would be heart breaking to find out that Mr. Sutherland went to his grave not knowing about the love of our risen Lord Jesus.