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Tilting With Demons

Anthony Hopkins loves to play those who fought their own deviltry. (Next up: Picasso.) And he has a fight of his own going with Merchant Ivory.

September 08, 1996|Sean Mitchell | Sean Mitchell is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Presumably it is safe to say, without a Nexis search, that Anthony Hopkins is the only actor who has now played both Richard Nixon and Pablo Picasso in major motion pictures. Surely he must be one of the very few who would even attempt such a thing. Tom Hanks and Kevin Costner get the big American hero roles and that's fine with everybody. But you want to try Nixon and Picasso, back to back?

Hopkins, who is Welsh by birth, English by training and American by residence, got Nixon, of course, from the iron whim of Oliver Stone. His Picasso, which arrives on screens in "Surviving Picasso" on Sept. 20, comes via his old "Howards End" friends, producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory--possibly former friends now, but more about that in a minute.

It's a late summer afternoon at the Four Seasons Hotel, and in the all-but-deserted restaurant on the first floor, Hopkins has just ordered a small pot of tea. Anything but Earl Grey, he said. "Have you got something that's not flavored?" English breakfast would do, plus, if the waiter could accommodate him, please, a few cookies.

Hopkins has a courteous, even courtly manner that offers no clue to a previous life when, by his own account, he was a heavy drinker and volatile personality.

He is healthy-looking, thick through the chest, his silver hair swept back from a bold forehead. He wears a pressed blue-denim western shirt underneath an expensive-looking blue blazer.

"I've had two journeys here," he says, resuming an interview about his career, his voice set in a low, almost humble register. "I came out in '75 and did some television, got an Emmy Award, and I thought, 'Right, here we go.' " (The Emmy was for "The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case"; he won another, in 1981, for "The Bunker.")

"And of course as an English actor I didn't expect to get first choice over Robert De Niro or anything like that," he says. "But after awhile things got worse, and I thought, 'I'd better go back.' Then suddenly, lo and behold, out of nowhere came 'The Silence of the Lambs.' Now, I'm a little older and a little wiser, I hope. And it's all happening again at the back end of my life. I'm 58 and my hair's falling out and I'm getting a little slower. But there's a little more cash in the bank, so I don't have to struggle. I can have a laugh now."

Though perhaps still thought of by many as a British thespian of the first rank, Hopkins has put Britain and Wales and the theater behind him. He loves Los Angeles, loves America. He was cut out for it all along, one could surmise by listening to him go on about his rootless, restive soul and the solo open-road marathons in which he jumps behind the wheel of his "Mitsubishi jeep thing," a Montero actually, and heads for Dallas or Salt Lake City or Seattle (or all three in one recent 5,000-mile impromptu odyssey) just for the drive.

He has a house in Pacific Palisades and lives there by himself. His second wife, Jenni, remains in England much of the time. (He has a grown daughter from an earlier marriage.)

"I live out here, she lives there," he says. "She seems to accept it. I told her, 'When you married me you took on a pile of trouble.' She said, 'I wish you could settle down.' I said, 'I can't.' I'm good at my job but lousy at relationships with people; don't keep friends for very long. I'm happy. I'm in love with my own solitariness. I spend hours in my house, eventually I'll have a meal. But I'm a lousy cook.

"I made some soup the other day for the first time in my life. I eat on the hoof, standing up and drinking out of bottles. I can't sit down to eat; it bores me, sitting down to eat. I'm hopelessly not domesticated."

He comes from the tradition of fake noses and Shakespeare for breakfast and training one's voice to hit the second balcony. But even while it has enabled him to become Hannibal Lecter as well as C.S. Lewis and King Lear, win an Oscar and be knighted by the queen at Buckingham Palace in 1993, he says he very much admires the opposite, personality-based tradition of Hollywood. And so he is more than happy to be here.

"When you look at something like Olivier in 'Lady Hamilton' with Vivien Leigh, I mean she wiped the screen with him. Because he's got wigs and false noses, and she's just a pure movie star. She just wipes the screen with him, just as Marilyn Monroe did in 'The Prince and the Showgirl.' . . . He's a great actor, but not the superb film personality that she was.

"There's something charismatic about American actors like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Bogart, Monroe, Sinatra. We don't produce anything in Britain near that dimension of personality. People like John Wayne may not have the ability to play King Lear and neither does Eastwood, but they're so much more watchable."

Maybe this is what you would expect to hear Sir Anthony Hopkins say. Maybe not. Quietly, he unburdens himself of any number of frank assessments of himself and others on this afternoon.

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