PHILADELPHIA — If one believes in Evil — yes, with a capital E — then the charmer that Anthony Hopkins has played three times now, a Chianti-swilling, sweetbreads-savoring psychopath by the name of Hannibal Lecter, could be Evil’s poster boy.
But Hopkins, who has channeled mad menace in films both good (“The Silence of the Lambs”) and bad (“The Wolfman”), is not so sure that Evil of the biblical kind exists.
This weighty question came up in reference to “The Rite,” a somewhat brainy thriller in which Hopkins — 73 now, and, to his own amazement, still working as much as ever — portrays an exorcist. In his rectory in Rome, Hopkins’ Father Lucas, an unorthodox Jesuit, goes nuclear on the Devil and his satanic underlings, grabbing hold of the possessed, spewing incantations, daring the demons to reveal themselves. The film opens Friday.
There was a real exorcist, a priest, on hand to offer counsel during the production, Hopkins says. “The Rite” centers on the relationship between his character — a Welshman, like the actor himself — and a young deacon (Colin O’Donoghue) who isn’t sure, after all, that there is a God, or a Devil. Couldn’t these troubled souls be suffering from dementia, or schizophrenia?
“I’m not sure what I believe,” Hopkins says, having called for the appointed interview with the disarming opener “Hi, it’s Tony Hopkins here,” and then been asked about his own views on faith and religion.
He used to be an atheist, he says. Now, “I don’t know what the hell I believe. I think there’s something at the back of everything. ... And I think the film presents an interesting debate, and I respect people’s beliefs, whether they’re atheists or believers. ...
“If someone believes in God, who am I to argue with that? Who am I to question the faith of people like Einstein, Kepler, Charles Darwin, who were themselves great scientists and yet believed in a deity? ... I do read everything I can. For this project, I read ‘On the Origin of Species,’ and I’ve read the ‘Psalms of Bonhoeffer,’ and his life story. I’ve read everything I possibly can.
“And I’m not an educated man, but I love to read, and so I dig down into it to see if there’s anything I can find there. And I still come out without a clue, so I have no idea.
“The only certainty is death,” Hopkins adds. “My only philosophy is that if this is it, if this is the only life there is, I may as well enjoy it. And if it’s not — maybe there’s something beyond this, and this is all a dream — then I may as well enjoy it as well. It’s a double-win situation.”
“The Rite,” directed by Mikael Håfstrom, is not your standard-issue head-spinning, projectile-vomiting “Exorcist” affair, although it does inhabit dark, creepy cinematic space. Hopkins, in fact, was wary of the project at first (“I didn’t want to play another spooky part”), but met with the Swedish director (“1408,” “Derailed”) and liked his thinking.
“He wanted to stand back a little and not make it a gory, weird movie, but just make it very real, and I said, ‘That suits me fine.’”
Hopkins, who lives near Los Angeles with his wife, the Colombian-born actress Stella Arroyave, paints and composes when he’s not working. But he’s been working a lot lately. He had a central role in Woody Allen’s “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” shot in London, then went to Rome and Budapest for “The Rite,” then back to L.A., where he suited up (in 30 pounds of Old Norse armor) to play Odin, “god of all things,” in the adaptation of Marvel Comics’ “Thor.”
Kenneth Branagh, whom Hopkins has known but never worked with, directed “Thor, with Chris Hemsworth in the title role and Natalie Portman as Thor’s earthbound gal pal. It opens May 6.
“When I was a kid, in the postwar years, I used to read Captain Marvel, which was sent to me by an ex-GI, an American soldier,” Hopkins recalls. “And I used to read Superman — I knew all that stuff — and I guess Thor is the same genre, is it? But I haven’t kept up with comics. I know it’s a whole cult, all over the world, Asia and Japan, so I’m thrilled to be in it.”
Next up, says Hopkins, is “360,” a reworking of La Ronde to be directed by Fernando Meirelles (“City of God,” “The Constant Gardener”), with Ben Foster and Rachel Weisz. There’s talk of a project with Dustin Hoffman — but Hopkins says they’ve been talking for a long time now. And, although there’s no green light yet, Hopkins is very high on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” a portrait of the famous, and famously eccentric, director and the making of “Psycho.” Hopkins will play Hitch, and that could be rich.
“There’s a very strong possibility,” says the Oscar-winner (for “The Silence of the Lambs’” Mr. Lecter), who just met with the project’s seemingly unlikely director, “Anvil!‘s” Sacha Gervasi.
“It’s a very interesting take,” Hopkins says. “Sacha wants to do the dark side of Hitchcock — which he says I’d be good at playing. Hitchcock experienced a terrible sense of failure all through his life. Here he was, the most famous director in the world, and because he did his television shows he was as well-known as the Hollywood stars. ... And when he did ‘Psycho,’ people wondered, is he crazy? What’s he doing a B-movie thriller for?
“And he said, ‘Well, I’ve got my own ideas.’ And he did it, and out of it came this masterpiece, one of the most frightening movies that I’ve ever seen.”