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Hannibal Lectures

Anthony Hopkins, who is reprising his famous role in the upcoming 'Red Dragon,' teaches on Saturday mornings at an acting class in Santa Monica. His price: coffee.

February 23, 2002|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The volunteer teacher at the Ruskin School of Acting in Santa Monica contemplated two acting students doing their first perfunctory performance of a scene from "Macbeth."

As soon as they finished, he jumped in with his distinctive Welsh baritone: aristocratic, playful, intense and kind. "Let's try this

Two dozen tries later, David DeSimone was huddled in a chair, howling at the pain of existence; April Beyer was smiling malevolently, a woman obsessed. "This is great. This is terrific," the teacher said.

Then he asked them to try it half a dozen times more.

Lunchtime came and went. None of the 40 students left, preferring to see whatever Anthony Hopkins would say or do next.

When they enrolled, the students, whose class is a small industrial space in the Santa Monica Airport, never imagined they would be learning from one of the world's most celebrated actors. Last September, student Marilyn Anderson, an acquaintance of Hopkins, asked the star if he would talk to the class. He did, and he has returned most Saturday mornings since then to lecture, demonstrate, advise on scenes and talk about his life and craft.

"Now they love me because I'm the one who brought him in," Anderson said.

It is rare for an actor of Hopkins' stature, at the top of his career, to offer his services to a new generation of actors. "I've never heard of it," said John Ruskin, the school's founder. "That's part of what makes it so amazing. He could be doing anything he wants, and he's offering himself to our school and our students."

Hopkins said all he wants in return is a cup of coffee. He enjoys himself, he said, and not just because he's "giving back."

"That's too Mother Teresa for me," he said. "It's a wonderful feeling to see somebody suddenly opening up.... I feel I have an intuitive thing about actors, especially younger actors. And I feel I can help out a bit and give encouragement because it's a tough business."

Admittedly cynical about the harsher or more pompous aspects of professional acting, Hopkins has had his own tempestuous run-ins with directors and teachers. He sees his task as a teacher mainly as helping students relax. "I want to make sure they feel comfortable," he said.

No matter students have talent, he said, "I have to treat people with courtesy and respect. The whole point of this exercise is to respect people's gifts, to respect what they can do, to respect their courage."

At 64, the actor is unexpectedly tall and muscular, formal enough to wear a sport coat to class, casual enough to wear his loafers without socks. He has a friendly, unpretentious air marked by exuberant gesturing and quick sentences, coupled with a reserve bordering on shyness.

Known as a veteran actor of the no-nonsense British type, Hopkins has acted in 50 films and an equal number of television projects, plus stage performances and stints as a composer or director.

He's won many of the world's top acting prizes and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1993, but he has also been chided for choosing projects beneath his talent, such as "A Change of Seasons" (1980) with Bo Derek. ("Everyone makes mistakes," he told the class sheepishly.)

Hopkins will soon be appearing in the comedy "Bad Company" with Chris Rock and has another film scheduled for release later this year, "The Human Stain," with Nicole Kidman. (The film will have some "raunchy" scenes in which he will appear nude, he said.)

He's now filming "Red Dragon," reprising his most famous role, that of killer-psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter, for which he won an Oscar in "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991). He was nominated again for best actor for performances as a repressed English butler in "The Remains of the Day" (1993) and for the title role in "Nixon" (1995).

Ruskin said he so idolized Hopkins that he feared meeting him would be a letdown. In fact, he said, "I was more in awe of him as I got to be around him."

Ruskin, an apprentice of the late Sanford Meisner, the influential director of the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York, established his acting school 15 years ago. Meisner taught his acting technique, which aims to replace thinking with visceral responses, to thousands of actors, including Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Steve McQueen and Grace Kelly.

The Santa Monica school has about 115 students and is forming a nonprofit company, the Parnassus Group Theatre, which will stage performances and offer free classes and tickets to underprivileged students. Hopkins has also offered to direct a company production this fall at Theatre Palisades in Pacific Palisades, Ruskin said.

The Saturday students have completed the basic two-year course, in which they are taught to observe their own and their fellow actors' emotional lives, and now attend a master class. Most are in their 20s and 30s. A few are full-time actors or aspiring professional actors, but some are interested mainly in personal development. Many hold day jobs that range from bartender to bookkeeper to substance-abuse counselor.

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