LOS ANGELES — Anthony Hopkins is back in scary-movie mode with “The Wolfman” and the actor who was once voted the best villain in film history says he’s not really sure why he has become an icon in shadowy genres of cinema.
“I don’t know what it is, truthfully,” the 72-year-old actor said of his onscreen menace. “I think part of it is being still and all that. I don’t know. I like to kind of come in at the side door. I like to act like a submarine; just don’t do much and just let it evolve. It’s resisting the urge to push the envelope. It’s very difficult for an actor to avoid, you want to show a bit. But I think the less one shows the better.”
Hopkins won an Oscar for his role as Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs,” which celebrates its 20th anniversary next year. In a tally by the American Film Institute, that character was named the greatest villain in screen history, beating out the likes of Darth Vader, the Wicked Witch of the West and Tony Montana.
Hopkins returned to the role of the brilliant cannibal in two more films, and along with his work in films such as “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and “Magic,” it has given a certain sinister hue to his pop-culture persona.
The actor chuckled when asked about that specialty and said that his reserved approach to villainy might be the secret of his success.
“Yes, maybe that’s my stock in trade — not doing too much,” Hopkins said. “This part in ‘Wolfman’ is made for that, I think, it’s made for my type of performance.”
In “The Wolfman,” a spooky period piece that also stars Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt, Hopkins plays Sir John Talbot, a mysterious figure whose decaying old mansion seems to be under some sort of curse. Returning to the spooky old manor is Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro), Sir John’s estranged son, who has dark memories of his mother’s bloody death. He arrives to find his brother has been gutted by some giant animal or, according to the whispers in the village, some sort of supernatural beastie.
Hopkins said he was drawn to the role by the tension between patriarch and prodigal son. “The relationships between fathers and sons are always very complicated. In this film, my son is very obviously a disappointment to me. He’s gone off to America to be an actor and I don’t understand that. I wanted to stretch a coldness and remoteness all the way through the movie.”
Hopkins said Sir John may have old money and land but he’s obviously a man gone to seed in the film.
“I asked (director) Joe Johnston early on if I could play this guy as a long, dirty fingernails sort of man, a man with a dirty beard, clothes that he’s worn for years and a house full of dead mice and spiders. It’s all falling apart and so is he. He’s remote, living there with this strange Sikh manservant. When he goes to the village it’s only to buy provisions and he goes in a horse and cart. This is not a man who acts like a knight or a lord or anything like that.”
Hopkins, who was born in Port Talbot, Wales, was knighted himself in 1993 but he winces if too much formality intrudes on the set, according to Johnston.
“He makes it very clear early on that he wants to be Tony and none of this Sir Anthony stuff,” Johnston said. The director added that Hopkins brought many nuances to the final film, such as showing up with a harmonica during one key scene in an insane asylum and the suggestion that his character play the piano during a sequence where bloody discoveries are made at the mansion.
“The Wolfman” is a remake of the 1941 classic “The Wolf Man,” part of the grand old vault of Universal Pictures monster classics, along with the Dracula and Frankenstein films. Hopkins confessed that his defining memory of that era was more hysterical than horrific.
“I liked the Abbott and Costello one,” he said, referring to “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” from 1948. “I think it was the only one of those old monster movies that I saw while I was kid. I love the scene where Lou Costello is in the warehouse and he sees Bela Lugosi as Dracula and he starts going ‘hhhaaahh, haaahhhh, haahhh’ Oh, he was such a clown. I was a great fan of those movies. I prefer comedy to horror, you know, as a movie fan.”
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