NEW YORK—Tony Hopkins—hey, that’s how he introduces himself—was once just one more respected British actor with more cachet than marquee. By the mid-1980s, after a quarter-century of work and an auspicious film debut in “The Lion in Winter” (1968), the Welsh-born Hopkins was constantly busy doing Chekhov and Shakespeare, ensemble epics (“QB VII,” 1974), and forgettable fare (“Audrey Rose,” 1977). A spotlight role came with “The Elephant Man” (1980), but afterward he was simply classing-up TV movies and miniseries (“Hollywood Wives,” 1985).
Then “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), for which Hopkins won a Best Actor Academy Award, thrust him into the stratosphere for his portrayal of mastermind serial killer Hannibal Lecter—later named the American Film Institute’s No. 1 movie villain. Hopkins has since earned Oscar nominations for “The Remains of the Day” (1993), “Nixon” (1995) and “Amistad” (1997).
In an Upper East Side hotel last week, the actor, 69, spoke about the non-linear art film “Slipstream,” Hopkins’ second movie as a director.
“Slipstream” reminds me of the movie “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990), in that a narrator keeps shifting without control from surreal fantasy to disjointed apparent reality.
Yeah. I loved that movie.
You look much younger in person than in “Slipstream” (He plays an old, unwell screenwriter). You exercise?
Yeah, I work out. Treadmill and weights and all that.
Glad to hear it. It was a bit shocking, seeing you that way.
I had an injury—my Achilles tendon—so I directed some from a wheelchair. But I had a fairly easy time with it.
It couldn’t have been easy seeing yourself looking so old on-screen.
Why are you going on about this? Why are you starting off with a negative like that?
I didn’t think it was negative. I mean ... you wrote and directed a movie where you star as the writer of a movie, and your screen wife is played by your real-life wife (Stella Arroyave).
(Hopkins laughs quietly)
Um ... well ... given all these real-life elements, is your movie addressing your thoughts on legacy?
No, that’s boring. (smiles) Who cares about that? Once you’re gone, you’re gone! (laughs) I remember that wonderful statement in “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986), when Woody Allen decides he’s gonna become a Catholic and talks about the afterlife, and his father says (goes into Yiddish accent), “Who thinks about such nonsense? When I’m dead, I’ll be dead!” (chuckles) I loved that. “When I’m dead, I’ll be dead!” Legacy. Who cares about that?
At least now I can die saying Sir Anthony Hopkins did a Yiddish accent for me. Why make such an experimental, non-linear narrative for your second movie as a director?
Because I’ve been around a long time making movies ... and I never thought I fit in anywhere, all my life. That’s my story. Just felt like an outsider. I eventually came into movies, and then came to America, and then I made a couple of movies which were good—and some which weren’t. I’ve had a good life as an actor. But I wanted to do something rebellious. My mother died four years ago, and my wife said to me, “Why don’t you write a movie for yourself?” And I said. “OK,” and I did.
You once said something to the effect of having a surreal vision standing at the edge of the Pacific, like the ocean was talking to you.
(Smiles) That’s my tequila days! I did have an experience, years ago (that influenced the creation of “Slipstream”). We were filming (the 1997 survivalist drama) “The Edge.” Now, I have a herniated disc, sixth and seventh vertebrae, and they have me on muscle relaxants, which is not good if you’re going into a pretty cold lake. I had a wetsuit on, and when I came out, the paramedic guy standing by asked me, “Are you cold?” I said, “No.” He felt my skin and said, “You feel cold. We’d better check.”
So I went into the trailer and sat there, and I felt warm, and suddenly I felt very odd. I felt like my mind started going. I got mixed up with time, and I couldn’t think. Somebody came into the trailer and said, “You OK?” I said, “Have we just done the shot?” They said yeah. “Do I have to—have we done that?” “Yeah. We gotta get you to the hospital.” My blood pressure had dropped, and the doctor told me I had hypothermia. So I was out for a day or two. That’s why I wrote “Slipstream” the way I did—because of that amnesia.
You’ve played both Hannibal Lecter and Richard Nixon. Who’s the worse villain?
Oh, Lecter. No, Nixon wasn’t a villain; he was just a very screwed-up man. I remember watching Olivier’s Richard II. I worked with Olivier, and he said something interesting—that the thing about villains is ... they walk the tightrope. He said what makes them charismatic is that they are more courageous than anyone, because they can be caught at any moment. And they defy you. He said that’s what makes them sexy.