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Simply Put, It's Chemistry : Two actors, two Oscars, two tart tongues--Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins do the Tracy and Hepburn thing

October 31, 1993|HILARY de VRIES | Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar

They are reigning darlings of the art-house crowd. Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson--Oscar winners and co-stars, first paired last year in the surprise hit "Howards End," the film adaptation oM. Forster's classic novel. This year, they are re-teamed in a second movie from the Merchant-Ivory team, "The Remains of the Day," from the 1988 British novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.

In both films, they play unlikely lovers--he is stolid, proper and unreflective, while she is all sharp angles and tart common sense: a British Tracy and Hepburn.

Off screen, they also play as opposites, separated by more than 20 years, a generation of experience. He is a classically trained stage actor once considered heir to the tradition of Laurence Olivier. She is a self-taught comedian who first performed with the Cambridge Footlights at the Edinburgh Festival.

At 55, he has known equal measures of professional acclaim and disappointment. She, however, has moved effortlessly ahead--first in her marriage and professional collaboration with actor-director Kenneth Branagh, and now on her own, winning the Oscar at age 34 for her role as Margaret Schlegel in "Howards End."

He has a reputation for only recently taming his demons, for his bouts with alcohol, for dabbling in Eastern religions--an actor who approached his career "like a bull facing the red flag." He won his Oscar for "The Silence of the Lambs," playing the serial killer Hannibal Lecter. She, on the other hand, is breezily self-confident, insisting she has never experienced frustration in her career. "But then, you see, that's been my luck," she says airily.

They are, apparently, devoted to each other as friends and colleagues. After "The Remains of the Day," they went their separate ways, at least temporarily: He plays writer C. S. Lewis in "Shadowlands," and she is a lawyer defending Daniel Day-Lewis in "In the Name of the Father." Both are due before Christmas.

Without further ado, we draw the curtain on Tone and Em, as they call each other, in their best drawing room comedy manner. He, seated on the hotel suite sofa, is dressed soberly if nattily in a dark blue double-breasted suit and navy polka-dot tie. She enters left amid an entourage--a vision in gold silk, a fringed shawl slipping about her shoulders, sweptback hair and lashes heavy with mascara.

E.T.: Oh, I told you I wouldn't do anything with him! Leave, please! How are you? You look fantastic!

A.H.: So do you! You look fabulous. Somebody's done your hair.

E.T.: Oh, this lady who did my hair years and years ago. Isn't this nice (patting her trousers)? It's Giorgio Armani. I borrowed it.

A.H.: Why? Can't you afford anything yet?

E.T.: No, but you're very rich.

A.H.: Yes, I am very rich.

E.T.: I've got these long nails that I really ought to cut. I love your suit.

A.H.: Smart, isn't it? (Pats his trousers.)

E.T.: (Opening his jacket to look at the label.) Oh, Valentino--you tart! He's gotten very smart. Yesterday, he was wearing a pink shirt.

A.H.: So what do we have to do today, talk about ourselves all day?

E.T.: You're going to be discussing me all afternoon.

A.H.: Oh, yes: "What is she really like to work with?"

This is your first film together since " Howards End, " which is where this great collaboration began. What attracted you to work together?

E.T.: It's never just the roles, it's the combination--role, director, co-stars--that counts. When I found out about "Howards End," I learned I would be working with Tony, whom I had met years ago in the lift at the BBC. What was I doing at the time?

A.H.: You were with your mother and you had just had lunch.

E.T.: I mean, what was I doing ? I must have been doing a play or something. But I looked into Tony's icy blues and thought, "Help!" I was terrified. You were quite a frightening person to meet.

A.H.: Was I?

E.T.: This was about a trillion years ago. When I found out I was going to work with Tony and Vanessa Redgrave--the pair of them!--in this wonderful material with this director James Ivory, I couldn't believe it.

A.H.: What was the first scene we had together? Oh, the one when I come in with the dogs. You had been filming for a week and I didn't know what the hell I was going to do with my character. And here we were in this very fast scene with these yapping dogs, and you're very good on lines and I have to struggle. And I said, "Thank you very much, Miss Schlugel" instead of "Schlegel," and we were just gone; we couldn't stop laughing. Jim kept saying (imitates an American accent), "I don't know what's so funny, they just seem to laugh all the time."

So the great working friendship developed. How did that affect working together again on this film?

E.T.: We have a great time working together, but that's not always the case with actors. We're lucky.

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