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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 profound.
The story is set in the mid 60s, when time and motion experts were in abundant supply.

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 sub-title.

"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 better.
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 fascinating."

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 version.

"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 bruises."

"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 actor."

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 looked after.

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.

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.

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