HOPKINS, ANTHONY - SPOTSWOOD (DVD)
DARING TO BE HIMSELF
In his only Australian film, Spotswood, and his first comedy role, Anthony
Hopkins finally dares to just play himself, he explains to Andrew L. Urban.
Rachmaninov's second piano concerto is a bitch. But Anthony Hopkins has been
practicing it for a while, and if he's as good a pianist as he is an actor, he
will do it justice. Trouble is, we will never find out, because he loathes
playing in front of others, let alone in public. He's been playing piano since
he was six, so he's got a bit of practice under his belt. Mostly it's the
classics, and mostly the romantics. But sometimes he'll improvise. "When I
improvise it sounds very Slavic...very melancholy. Well, I hate joyful music,"
he adds. But it's all very private. Like much else about him. I only find out
about his piano playing by accident, as we settle down for this interview in the
caravan parked in suburban Melbourne that passes for his on-location trailer,
for the making of Spotswood.
We have hardly begun when Hopkins jumps up and looks out of the narrow slats
covering the opaque windows of his caravan on hearing the squealing of what
sounds like a puppy. "Hang on, there's a dog in trouble somewhere..." The
caravan is parked in a grotty little backyard off a daggy lane that runs off
boring Church Street in Richmond, a suburb not known for cruelty to animals. The
squealing settles down and Hopkins relaxes; "...or maybe not...." and he sits
back down on the small sofa that Ė were he making a Hollywood movie - may be a
plush velvet affair six feet long. But this isn't Hollywood.
"an English modesty"
There is an English modesty about the dimensions of this caravan, befitting
its occupant. A homely coat hanger rack serves as his private wardrobe, and a
tiny red heater is billowing hot air into the space now occupied by two but
meant for one.† Inside the adjacent old warehouse is the set of Spotswood
(more about that name later) which at $3.5 million is one of the lower budget
films Hopkins has ever made. But he's not in this one for the money. Nor the
glamour. His driver, Jeffrey, (who doubles as his stand in), and the car is a
Ford Fairlane, humble beside the stretch limos of Hollywood. It suits him,
though, and Hopkins himself looks very un-star-like.
His brown sports jacket, yellow sports shirt and light cords are decidedly a cut
above British suburbia, but only just. He actually lives in Chelsea. He wears
glasses, his hair is in a conservative nondescript cut (for his character) and
he makes few hand gestures. As an actor, he's often described as a minimalist;
and if one can judge a man by his actions, that seems pretty right.
"I loved the wacky, ambivalent, ambiguous script," he says with the same quiet
tone that expressed concern for the yelping dog. He's not big on dramatic
revelation, and you have to listen carefully to catch the significance of things
he says. He's far from bland: he's just unfussy. Very English, perhaps, although
he was born in Wales - the town where Richard Burton came into the world - and
more on that later, too.
Back to Spotswood: if you believe one of the film's two producers, Tim White,
the Melbourne suburb of Spotswood is unknown by most Melburnians. If you believe
Richard Brennan, the other producer of the film, it's a standing Melbourne joke.
Either way, it has little to do with the plot of the film, except that it is set
in Spotswood. That's why it's being shot in Richmond. That's how films work.†
The once empty warehouse has been turned into Ball's moccasin factory by the
anarchic imagination of Chris Kennedy, the production designer. The decor is
from the school of chaos, with leather, fur and grey lining matter scattered
with abandon on the floors. The detail with which Kennedy has dressed the set is
The story is set in the mid 60s, when time and motion experts were in abundant
Hopkins plays such an expert, called to the archaic factory of old Balls, played
by veteran actor Alwyn Kurts. Young actor Ben Mendelsohn plays the romantic
lead, and speaks in awe of Hopkins. "He just makes you zing."
"his first comedy role"
Yet, for the first time in his illustrious career, Hopkins has been asked to
simply play himself. It also happens to be his first comedy role, although
neither he nor anyone else in the cast is playing it for laughs. That would kill
what everyone involved has called a remarkably fine script. They are not even
calling it a comedy. "It's a sweeping saga of two suburbs," says the ironic
"The only way I can do it is by being very straight and deadpan," says Hopkins.
"Whenever a director asks me to be charming or cute, I throw up," he adds. Not
that director Mark Joffe has asked him to do anything like that. Indeed, Joffe
"has made it very interesting" remarks Hopkins, from whom this must be taken as
a great compliment.
On the plane to Australia he had wondered how he'd play his character, Wallace;
the flight certainly gives you time to think. When he got here, Joffe's request
bemused him. "And playing myself has been difficult at first, at rehearsals. But
then on the first day of the shoot, I said to myself, 'All right, I'll just be
me. It's the first time I've dared...."
Years ago, he would have analysed everything, write lists of objectives in a
very earnest, heavy going way. "Like a caterpillar learning to walk, putting one
foot in front of the other."
A friend of his, the late John Dexter finally gave him the good oil: "Just learn
your lines. Stop complicating it. You are the part. Don't add anything. Don't
take away, either, but don't add anything."
Hopkins took the advice to heart. No more lists. And his work has never been
Among the many monsters he has played, he has a special fondness for Captain
Bligh; it is a good example of how he brings a sympathetic reading to characters
that growl on the screen. "He had to get across that filthy great ocean in a tub
and maintain discipline. He was not a real monster, he just lived by the rules
and he was too rigid. Too aloof and foul mouthed, which really demoralised the
men because he would swear and call them names. But remember, he lobbied against
the cat-o-nine-tails, even tough he used them - because he HAD to."
His Emmy award winning performance as Hitler in the CBS telemovie, The Bunker,
is another case in point. The American producer had been watching some scenes,
and he came over to Hopkins during a break. (Hopkins does a fine, understated
American producer's accent.) "I was just watching...it's chilling...but perhaps
you should make him less human...."
"I can't make him less human: he WAS human." Hopkins shrugs his shoulders ever
so slightly. "I played Hitler as a human being, not a stereotype."
He now thinks that Hannibal Lector was perhaps the most fascinating of these
evil characters. "I don't know why. If you're going to play a vicious, evil
character, you have to play him as attractively as possible. I think I'm
attracted to them ... Yet I don't like cruelty, but maybe it's better to accept
that darker side of your nature than to suppress it."
We discuss evil men: they are very complex, often, the political ones, have a
sense of history, they are like primitive seers, Hopkins says, recalling some
reading on the matter. Hollywood's approach is often too simplistic; "It's the
white hats, black hats syndrome."
"We have it all within each of us.... the saintliness
and the evil."
We have it all within each of us, Hopkins believes, the saintliness and the
evil. Besides, these are the characters that give an actor the creative stretch
that drives him. "The great villains of literature were motivated by all kinds
of complex, deep stirrings. And their loneliness helps to make them
In his time, Hopkins has played such a sea of humanity, researched so much about
history and literature, he must have gained in wisdom, insight, tolerance. "Yes,
perhaps...but the wisdom I have is that I know nothing. You go on accumulating
information ... I've got a sugar pill to history," he says, "as Olivier called
it. When he played Richard III, he was trying to fight through the complexity
and decided to concentrate on how sexy Richard was: his magnetism. That's what
he played on. He built everything else on top of that. That was what he called
the sugar pill."
When he is asked to check his filmography, he is visibly surprised: "God, have I
done all that?" He reads the two pages of film, theatre and television titles,
exclaiming: "I've certainly got some credits." He doesn't usually get to see his
own CV, and the revelation was delightful to witness. Then he faultlessly
recited the dates of each of his films on demand: "I've got a very good memory
for dates," he says, launching into an anecdote about fellow actor Ed Begley.
"Ed and I were talking and I mentioned some date. He stopped me and said, 'That
was Monday.' He claimed he was like that chap in Rain Man, an idiot savant. He
knows every date this century. So I tested him: I called out dates at random,
and he gave the day of the week."
This is not the kind of exchange that would have been possible with Micky Rourke,
Hopkins' co-star in Desperate Hours, which he finished just before shooting
Silence of the Lambs. The film is a remake of the 1956 Humphrey Bogart film,
about an escaped convict who takes a family hostage. It's a very violent
"Micky Rourke is a behaviouristic actor," he muses, "and moody. We occasionally
exchanged a few words, but he doesn't say much on set. He's very violent ... he
uses physical violence to get going. I'd respond and fight back, hoping I
wouldn't get any bones broken or have my face readjusted. But I did get a few
"A tolerant man these days"
He relates the experience with little enthusiasm: Rourke and Hopkins are not
soul brothers, but Hopkins is a tolerant man these days. He learnt his lines and
did his job, and Rourke can work whatever way he wants to.
Michael Cimino was the director: "Cimino communicates OK with Rourke...but he's
very tense. So I got out of the tension and went to my dressing room, had a
coffee. It gets to you after a while, but he's a very good director, and very
fast." Hopkins likens Cimino to a New York street-smart survivor: "he's that
high," he holds his arm at waist height, "and Napoleonic." But Cimino never made
the fatal mistake of shouting or raving at Hopkins. (Why would he?) Hopkins has
long ago made a quiet rule: no shouting, or I leave. "Mark Joffe is dead easy. I
can't work with tension. It's a nightmare - I won't mention names, and most
directors have been good. But if anyone rants and raves they have to get another
He means it. He has walked off two big films for that reason, but he doesn't
regret it, though he won't say which ones: "It could get nasty..." The last time
it happened, he just quietly walked off, got into a cab and went home. "I won't
work with people who are cruel, either to others on the set, or to me."
His golden rule these days is "No Sweat, No Big Deal." He is much easier on
himself, too, with a healthy attitude. "I feel so much more relaxed these last
couple of years."
His wife, Jenni, likes to be out of his way when he is working. "She was here
for a week, but she has gone back now." Is it a strain that he travels so much?
"There is no problem: I am restless and love to travel. Things get more tense if
she is with me when I work...it's too hard. She likes to be at home, I like to
travel. It works out well." But Hopkins also likes to keep a life, a sense of
his own being, separate from his work. He lives quietly, he says, "poodling
about in bookshops." He is not a recluse, he hastens to point out, but he does
like his relaxation to be solitary.
If he occasionally goes out with people, he prefers small groups, and avoids
Italian and French restaurants. ("Hate nouvelle cuisine ... like water colour on
a plate...") He ends up going to Indian or Chinese restaurants, "otherwise
eating is boring...I like to have spicy foods." He also loves hotels, being
At the end of the day's filming, Jeffrey drives us back to the Windsor: Hopkins
gets out, says goodbye, and walks unaccompanied, unmobbed, understated, into the
hotel, where he will dine alone, read, have an early night and get up early for
a session in the gym.
Oh yes...Richard Burton. It was Port Albert, an ugly sprawling place now, where
both Burton and Hopkins were born - some years apart, of course. Hopkins'
schooling was a disaster. He was a pathetic scholar, and his family had grave
doubts over his future. An only child, he was nevertheless happy at home,
brought up with the smell of fresh bread - his father being the local baker.
"It was Burton"
And then there was his piano and also his painting: a young lady called
Bernice Evans taught him how to paint when he was 9 or so. One summer evening in
1948, Hopkins recalls the doorbell ringing in the middle of a lesson. Bernice
was being taken out by her boyfriend, who came and admired the budding artist,
and was introduced to him. It was Burton.
Thirty years later, by which time Hopkins had also become a famous and
successful actor, Burton was taking over the lead role in Equus from him at New
York's Plymouth Theatre, and they met in the dressing room. Hopkins never
mentioned that much earlier meeting, and the two men never met again.
Published August 16, 2007
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This is an edited version of the interview conducted on location during the
production of Spotswood in 1991, and published in The Bulletin.
SPOTSWOOD DVD REVIEW
Australian DVD release: August 15, 2007
Wallace (Anthony Hopkins) is a time and motion expert called in by Ballís
Moccasin Factory in suburban Melbourne, whose mild mannered and chaotic owner,
Mr Ball (Alwyn Kurts) is concerned about business prospects. Wallace appoints
hapless Carey (Ben Mendelsohn) as his assistant as he begins to implement
reforms that upset all the workers. Meanwhile, Carey battles Ballís chief
salesman, Kim (Russell Crowe), for the affections of the bossí daughter, Cheryl
(Rebecca Rigg). Eventually, Wallace recommends sacking most of the workers and
importing goods from Taiwan, but by now he has warmed to the workers and soon
retracts his report, and Carey realizes that Cheryl may not be the right girl
for him after all.