Academy Award-winner Anthony Hopkins has had an extraordinary career. In this exclusive interview, he talks about getting mentored by Katharine Hepburn, having been influenced by Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy, and not wanting to take on another "bad guy" role. But the mad priest character in The Rite was just too much resist...
Izumi Hasegawa: Do you believe in demonic possession or have any opinions about it one way or the other? Did you have to believe in it to play it?
Anthony Hopkins: I think--with any subject, being an actor--it's quite a smart move to gather as much information as you can. So I read quite a bit. I can't remember the books I've read, and I'm still reading in preparation for the publicity of this because I'm going to get asked questions about exorcisms and God and the devil and so on and so forth. So I put a lot of information in my head so I have a point of reference, basically, to tell you that I know nothing. I don't know anything. And the less smart I think I am, the better I am because...I don't know. I have no certainty about anything. I accepted the part when I read the script. I was a little doubtful when I first got the script. I thought, "Oh, I don't want to play another spooky man." I didn't know what it was about, and my wife said, "Well, I think you ought to read it. Why don't you just read it?" I said, "Okay. All right. I'll read it." Then I thought, "Oh, yeah. That's very interesting." I read it, and there was no spinning heads or pea soup in it. I thought that was a great movie--The Exorcist; Rosemary's Baby... Tremendous movies. But I met Mikael Hafstrom, the director, the next day, and off we went. He went back to England where he lives, so we'd have emails. Thank God for email. So I'd write him little things. I wanted to make this priest a real human being instead of, like, "Bless you, my son," although he's written in a good, hefty way, but I made him irascible and impatient.
IH: And Welsh?
AH: I didn't put that in. Mikael and the writers put that in. I said, "Why did you put that in there?" They said, "We thought it'd be good." I said, "Okay."
IH: It's a touchstone for you...
AH: No, not really. Being Welsh or English or Scottish, it's all the same. I think it's a thing that Americans tend to do in scripts. They think, "Well, we've got to explain because he doesn't have an American accent. So we'll say that he's Welsh." But when I saw that, I thought, "Why did they put that in?" but I have no regrets. The emails--that was the bridge for me to play this part, the bridge that I needed to get into it. I didn't want to play him as a soft kind of one-dimensional [character]. So I selected the scene in the courtyard where I say, "The problem with being a skeptic or an atheist..." and I thought that would be a good idea since I was a priest. I said, "The thing about being a skeptic or an atheist is that we're all searching for the truth. The question is what we would do if we knew it?" And Colin O'Donoghue says, "You?" I say, "Oh, yeah." When you meet someone who you think has knowledge, they say, "You doubt?" "Yeah. All the time." It's so heartening. Like, if you met a mathematician like Einstein, he could never even find his own address. He never knew how to. He couldn't memorize it. He couldn't memorize his own telephone number. He said, "I can't remember anything I don't need to learn." For a scientist to say that? This genius? Well, I thought, with this priest, that I didn't know what I believe, so I wrote this little bit. "There are days that I don't know what I believe. I don't know if I believe in God, Santa Claus or Tinkerbelle. But I feel God's finger there, scratching away inside me," because the power within Michael is that he does have a deep faith. He's flirted with atheism. He's gone through his doubts. He's gone through all his loneliness. He's gone through all his darkness, but every so often, God, or whatever the presence is, gets into him and says, "Get your ass out there from the darkness into the light." I took the [Latin] line from this child doctor that I met as a little Dr. Phillips. He's bedded in the church out at Markham Abby. He was a great doctor, but he was a devout believer. "From darkness into light." That always affected me when I heard that. That was the first Latin I ever learned. So I read a great deal, and I still go on reading to give myself that information. I must say that it's quite enriching. It's deepening my own belief, whatever that is. All I know is that I don't know anything. All I know is that I'm not certain, and I'd hate to live in certainty because we live in a climate today where everyone is certain. Everyone is certain, but they're this, that and the other, but it's like, "How do you know?" "The debate is over," they say. Who says? Politicians say that the debate is over. How do you know? The thing I tried to get is when the young Colin O'Donoghue says, "Do you really believe that people should believe in this fairy tale or mumbo jumbo?" I say, "What do you believe in?" "Well, I believe in the truth." "Ah, yeah. The truth." You've seen what that brought us: Hitler. Stalin. Mao Tse Tung. Horror. Torquemada from the Inquisition. Anything which is extremely fundamental which knows the truth is something to be weary of. That's where the devil resides, I believe.
IH: Did you go to any exorcisms to see the procedure, since you were going to be performing them in this movie?
AH: No. Colin went to see one, I think. I missed the opportunity. I didn't really want to see. My own ideas--maybe it's mental aberration, maybe it's a schizophrenic thing. I don't know. Maybe there is anthropomorphic presence of the devil. I have no idea. C. S. Lewis says that if you don't believe in it, that's when he gets you. Pretending not to believe won't protect you from him. But Jung said the same thing. If we don't face our shadow, it will rip us to pieces. So in confronting the shadow parts of ourselves is a healthy thing to do. You're addressing something. People say, "How do you play such wicked men?" I said, "I have no idea. I don't know," but I have a knack for being able to do things. I don't know where that comes from.
IH: Is your priest here a sick man in the end?
AH: No, I just think he's a man.
IH: How did you prepare emotionally for your climactic scene of possession?
AH: I just learned the lines over and over and over. That's really all I do. I take that section--it's quite a long section, about 20 minutes, I believe. I was in Budapest when we did those scenes. We filmed in Rome and in Budapest. I had quite a lot of time off because Colin was mostly doing a lot of work because he's got a very big part. So I'd spend the day in the hotel. Not all day, but I'd go out at night or go out for a walk, but I'd spend at least two or maybe three hours a day, depending on how much work I had to do, going through it systematically over and over and over. Not performing it, but just going through the lines and thinking. The more I go through them, it's like varnishing and putting on layers of paint. These ideas started coming to me--the vocal sounds of the man and the peculiar rhythms of the man, of the demon or the devil or the spirit, whatever it is. And then it's presenting it on the set when we get ready to film. I knew it was working because Mikael Hafstrom would say, "You're crazy." I just learn the stuff like I had to learn the Latin and the Italian.
IH: Was the more intense exorcism scene personally draining--the one toward the end?
AH: The moment after I've attacked this girl--the moment I throw her against the wall and then I go into the next section, I couldn't do any more that day. I said, "I've had the day. I can't," because it was relentless. I said, "I've got to stop because I can't do this. It's crazy. I don't want to damage myself." If you're doing that kind of intense work--although it's only acting, it's not life threatening--but if you're going and doing it over and over, it's a strain on the body and the lungs and the brain, I guess. The brain doesn't know what's going on if you're in a state of constant flight or anxiety. So I said, "I've had enough for the day." I just called it a day. We took the weekend off and came back to it. It gave us a bit of pause to actually get to the scene where Colin O'Donoghue has to override. It gave us that opportunity. I basically enjoy it all. It's no strain. It's no big deal.
IH: This is a very realistic exorcist story, even documentary-like. But then you go on to a movie like Thor, which is a big fantasy film. Is that a different approach than something like this?
AH: No. It's just put on the armor or the beard and all of that, or grow the beard. It's all the same stuff. It's the same fundamental approach. I try not to make a big deal of it all. You can't really take it seriously at all. It's acting. That's all it is. I can never answer these questions. It's simply learning the text, knowing what you're doing, and going in and giving your best. If the director likes it and he can guide you through it or give whatever ideas he has or the other actors have, go along with the flow of it. But you have to know fundamentally what you're doing. You have to know your text and use a modicum of intelligence, which doesn't take a genius IQ to do. It's common sense most of the time. I've been doing it long enough. I've been doing it 40 years. I have a fairly good knowledge of what to do. It's not a big deal.
IH: But what about working with young actors like Colin? Is there a time that you have to make them realize you're an actor too, because they're in awe of you?
AH: Oh, no. I don't buy into all of that stuff. What do you mean in awe? They're not in awe.
IH: They're not intimidated when they meet you?
AH: No. Colin was a little nervous the very first day.
IH: That's what he said.
AH: But this was his first movie. He'd never done a movie before. He's working with this Welsh actor. I said, "How do you feel?" He said, "I'm little bit nervous." I said, "Don't be nervous." I would just sometimes say to him, "Don't do too much." But that's all. I think humor gets you through all of that. Just have a joke. I'd do Irish accents and make jokes. I'd say, "Is that the way that you're going to play the part?" I said, "It's all right. It's your career." That calms everything down.
IH: Your first movie was with Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole. That must've been intimidating...
AH: I was a brash young actor. I was 29 years of age then, and I was very pleased to be working with them. But I didn't have that terrible nervousness. I don't know what I felt at the time. After having a couple of drinks with Peter O'Toole, you got rid of your nerves. But Hepburn was interesting. The very first day on set, I had a big scene with her. I remember it was Christmas presents or something, unwrapping presents. We did the rehearsal and she said, "Why do you play the whole scene with the back of your head to the camera?" I said, "Do I?" She said, "Well, I'll steal the scene from you if you do that, and I'll probably do that anyway." She said, "I'll give you a tip. Don't act. You don't need to act. You've got a good head. You've got a good voice. You've got good shoulders. Watch Spencer Tracy." I said, "Okay." Then she said, "Watch Bogart, all those guys. They didn't act. They just came on." John Wayne and people like that. She admired all those people. I think that's the great brand of American actors because they don't act. They don't show. They just are--the best are. I think Tracy and Bogart, all the best, they're so compelling to watch. My wife says, "Why do you watch all these old movies?" I said, "Well, there's a lot to be entertained by because they're such good actors." John Huston was such a good director. So she said that to me and I thought, "Well, that was a good piece of advice." But it takes a long time. If anyone asks me some advice, I say, "Just try this."
IH: What keeps you going or challenges you in acting, if it's just about learning the lines and doing your faces?
AH: The thing that keeps me going is that I'm so pleased that people still keep asking me to act. If they still ask me to act, I think, "Well, okay. Fine." I don't want to retire, but I'm realistic. I'm not going to play Brad Pitt parts. Not that I ever did play those, but I think if they ever still want me to work, then fine. I'm realistic about it--that time is running and I'm getting older.
IH: Is it fun still?
AH: It's a lot of fun. Working with [Kenneth] Branagh was terrific. Again, working with young actors is quite exceptional because...well, I don't know why, but it is. I'm just glad that I'm not young anymore.
IH: Because you felt tortured when you were young?
AH: No. It's just that now it's not important. My wife and I will watch the red carpets sometimes, and they're all up there and they're all acting, and they're all talking about how excited they all are, and my wife says, "Don't get cynical." I say, "Well, I'm just glad I'm not that anymore." I'm just glad that I'm not, "Oh, God. I'm dying. It's so wonderful to be here." Give me a break. Who cares? It's a lot of fun, but don't take it too seriously. But when you're young, you do take it seriously.
IH: It's your whole life, and your reputation is established. People know you're a great actor...
AH: You're as big as your last job. It's not quantitative. I'm not trying to be graciously modest. I say to my wife, "I'm so lucky that I'm still working." I'm 73, and that's the time to retire, I guess, but I'm still working. I think I still work because I keep myself fit. I'm a professional. I know my stuff. I know the text, and whether they like it or not, it's what I do. You can never guarantee the results. I go in with not high expectations.
IH: What makes you say yes to something?
AH: It keeps me off the streets. That's all. It keeps me out of the bars and off the streets.
IH: It's not the size of the part or it's not the director?
AH: It's the director as well. I'm going to work with [Fernando] Meirelles on a film called 360 soon, I think. It's not a big part, but it's a very nice part. I just enjoy showing up.
IH: The longer you're at this, is it harder to find things that you haven't already done before because you've done a lot of varied work?
AH: Playing this priest was unusual because it's like playing two people. It's like playing a schizophrenic personality, in a way--playing a man who's a man of the white collar. He's a priest and a man of God, and then suddenly he goes nuts and it's playing Hannibal Lector or something. He's playing something which is so dark and weird. But that doesn't do tricks in my brain. It doesn't make me go nuts. I'm just an actor who just comes in and does that. I do a scene in the courtyard as a priest, and then the next thing I'm doing a scene in a room where I'm going mad. It's easy. I think one of the actors that I always admired was James Cagney. He used to be interviewed in his later years and they'd say, "That scene, how did you do that?" He'd say, "I just got up on the table and threw myself off of it. No sweat. No big deal." "How did you prepare?" "I just learned my lines and showed up." I think all those actors, like Bogart and Spencer Tracy, all those guys, and a wonderful actor--John Wayne–we watch a John Wayne movie, like Searchers and all those movies, a wonderful actor, a great actor. Whatever he was in this life, I don't know. Who cares? But that wonderful skill of years of experience. I remember watching Bing Crosby out here in Pasadena in the auditorium, and he was an old man then. I just happened to be in there and he was doing something. He had a lot of kids around. It was the day that he fell through that trap door and was injured, and he died a few... I just happened to be in there, back in the auditorium, and I sneaked in. There was this guy doing a little warm-up and I thought, "That's Crosby up there." I couldn't believe it. You watch an old-timer, a real old professional like George Burns and people like that, and you think, "God almighty. The skill and ease with which they do it, and the humor with which they do it..."
IH: Have we lost that, do you think?
AH: I think we've lost humor. That's the problem in our world today.
IH: Was the motorcycle in the movie a tribute to The World's Fastest...?
AH: Yes, he put that in there.
Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema's 'The Rite' is released on January 28, 2011.