Anthony Hopkins has played Hitler. He's been Bruno Hauptmann in "The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case." He's portrayed vengeful killers and a deranged ventriloquist, Hamlet's scheming uncle Claudius and Captain Bligh.
Just don't ask him to be charming.
"When a director says, 'Could you please be more charming,' I just die!" says the veteran British actor who has won two Emmys, various BBC awards and a host of English stage honors.
"It's terrible, but I just freeze up. I can't do \o7 charming. \f7 I can't play those straight romantic parts. I can be quirky or obtuse, self-doubting or tortured. But not normal."
Eating a pasta salad at a cozy Brentwood eatery, Hopkins flashes a grin that lights up the room. "Now if they ask, 'Anthony, could you just be a bit more villainous?' I say, 'Oh yes, I can do \o7 that.\f7 "
Hopkins' genius for evil gets an extraordinary test in Jonathan Demme's new film, "Silence of the Lambs." Wearing his hair greased down to his scalp, he plays Dr. Hannibal (The Cannibal) Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist imprisoned for a series of grisly murders, who matches wits with a young FBI agent as she tracks a crazed serial killer. As portrayed by Hopkins, Lecter is a mad magician, an irresistible villain who repulses us with his savage cruelty while hypnotizing us with his keen intellect.
An engaging, erudite man who sprinkles his conversation with quotes from Alfred Hitchcock, Ralph Richardson and Janet Flanner, Hopkins was surprisingly at ease discussing his preparations for the part. "As soon as I read the script, I had an immediate connection with the character," he said, sipping a cup of coffee. "I knew what Lecter looked like. I knew his walk. I knew his voice.
"I work on instinct. I don't believe in doing much research. I certainly wasn't going to live in a condemned man's cell for three months to understand the role."
Hopkins realized that much of Lecter's dark power derives from his eerie blend of cerebral banter and cold-blooded chicanery. "Lecter is highly civilized--he has a great sense of humor and wit," he explained. "That's what makes him so diabolical. What's so frightening about him is his understanding of people. All great monsters know people have their price. They know everybody's weakness.
"He's the classic psychotic joker. He eats people's livers because it expresses his macabre sense of fun."
Hopkins relishes playing villains, and he's savvy enough to sense that moviegoers enjoy being frightened by their antics. "When Hitchcock was asked why people loved thrillers, he said, 'What's the first thing we do to a baby in its crib? We go, 'Boo!' " Children are fascinated by the bogyman. When we play hide and seek, we create an anxiety that can be released, much as it is when we go out into the light after seeing a scary film. We feel we've had a deep, dark, unsettling experience."
Hopkins studied his hands, which are soft and unlined, as if molded by a sculptor. "It's an irresistible impulse, really," he said finally. "It turns on the adrenaline. I suppose there's something very attractive about the darker side of human nature, isn't there?"
It's no wonder that Hitchcock, the master of horror, often intertwined sex with suspense.
"Evil men are often very sexy--it ties in with the whole idea of tension and release," Hopkins said. "I have a scene, in my jail cell, where I try to sexually excite (the FBI agent played by Jodie Foster). Imagine being next to a psychotic savage who is locked in a cage. He's a great turn-on, because of his very inaccessibility. You say to yourself, 'Well, what could he \o7 do?\f7 ' "
Hopkins watched the finished film for the first time recently and acknowledged afterward that he was shocked by the story's kinship with real-life criminal mayhem. "I came away with an appalling sadness," he said. "The film reminds you that we have people in our society walking around like that. You think, 'God almighty, this is actually happening. This perversion and insanity is alive and well.' "
Some critics wonder, if our society is fouled by so much real-life horror, why must our movies explore, exploit and dramatize it.
"I think it's healthy to confront things, to see we have a deep sickness in our midst," Hopkins said. "I find it much more sickening to see films about a heroic figure who lands in a helicopter and blasts people in a jungle just because they don't belong to American society."
Hopkins offered a bemused smile. "Notice I mention no names. But to me, that's really horrifying. It says we have a Nietzchean Superman in our midst, only now he has rippling muscles and a big gun belt."
Certainly no one will confuse Hopkins with the brawny, scenery-chewing actors who populate many movies today. Even in his current role as a psychopath, he deliberately underplays the part, letting the character expand in the audience's imagination.