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In my experience… Sir Anthony Hopkins

Gabrielle Donnelly / 21 May 2021

Oscar-winner Sir Anthony Hopkins tells Gabrielle Donnelly he still loves working, and drives his wife mad

Sir Anthony Hopkins | Image © Contour by Getty

Sir Anthony, you have the energy of a man half your age. How do you stay healthy?

Please, call me Tony. I work out five days a week, I go to the gym. I have got a treadmill and lift some weights, nothing strenuous, just enough to keep myself flexible. I was born strong and muscular – that’s my Welsh background. I have a fairly healthy diet because as I get older, I don’t want to clog my arteries. But that’s fine – I’m not a gourmand. As long as food tastes OK, I’m not obsessive about it.

And how do you keep fit mentally?

By keeping myself busy. I read a lot, I paint and I memorise things so I can keep that facility going. I also play the piano five days a week, Rachmaninoff and Brahms, not because I want to play in Carnegie Hall, far from it, but because it keeps the brain active.

In The Father, for which you have won an Oscar and a Bafta, you play a man suffering from dementia. Is it in your family?

Neither of my parents had dementia – at least, I don’t think they did. But my father suffered from depression towards the end. He had a year of decline from heart disease and became quite belligerent towards me, maybe because I represented someone who had more years ahead than he did. He could be pretty tough and argumentative anyway – that’s a side of my own nature I’ve learned to calm down over the years.

What was your father like when you were growing up?

He was a baker in Port Talbot, south Wales, a pretty tough character. He was very disappointed in me because I was no good around the bakery. We lived between the shop and the bakery, and one Easter he’d made hot cross buns and told me to take them to my mother in the shop. But I forgot. I stayed upstairs in the house playing the piano, and my father appeared at the doorway with his hairy arms full of flour dust and said, ‘What was that you were playing?’ I said, ‘Beethoven.’ He said, ‘No wonder he went deaf!’ That was my father.

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What are your memories of your early acting days?

I worked with all the greats – Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn. I remember that they didn’t make a big deal of it – they showed up on time, did their job and went home. There was a grace about them, and at the time I thought, ‘I hope I live long enough to be able to do that, too.’

You won your first Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs in 1992. How did you get on with your co-star, Jodie Foster?

We never spoke, not really. We didn’t have time because mostly I was stuck behind a glass wall [playing serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter]. We were friendly – she’s a lovely woman, very nice, very straightforward – and occasionally we’d come off set and have a break together. It’s pretty odd – you threaten to kill someone, then go off for a cup of coffee.

Is it difficult still to be shooting films in your eighties?

What was difficult about The Father was that by playing an older man, I actually started to feel older. My back would ache and my legs would ache. And the theory I have – and it may be a cockamamie theory – is that the brain is not as sharp as we think it is, so if I start to tell it I’m an old man with dementia, it will believe me. After I stopped playing the part, I started feeling better and better, and thought, ‘Oh, good, I’m coming back’.

No plans to retire, then?

No! I enjoy working. I enjoy getting out of the house and doing something different, I enjoy the novelty of it. I love the whole…well, I hate the word ‘process’, but I love the activity. My wife Stella worries about my health and once said, ‘Do you want to keep going until you drop dead?’ I replied, ‘I guess so, unless my health gives out first.’ And she said, ‘Well, that’s good, if it’s really what you want to do.’ And it is. Acting is my passion.

Are you ever tempted to rewrite a script?

Never. I take scripts very seriously, but I also treat them a little like a road map. We don’t have road maps any more – these days, we have those guides from outer space. But in the old days we had maps to show us how to get to places. Maybe along the way you’d take a little side road or byway, but you’d always refer back to the map to get to your destination. It’s the same with a really great script or screenplay – you don’t rewrite it, but you might reinterpret it slightly.

Glass half empty or glass half full?

I mostly stay cheerful. Whenever dark moods come upon me – which they do with every human being, especially during times like lockdown – I tell myself the world has been through crises before and come out of them. I see people these days being so angry and bitter, and I think, ‘Oh, come on!’ I can’t waste my time being miserable. I enjoy all of life.

The best decision you ever made?

Certainly one of the best was to move to California. I don’t know why I decided to come here – it wasn’t for my career or money or anything – but something deep inside of me said, ‘You have got to go there’. So, I did, and 40-odd years later, I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

What’s the most positive aspect about getting older?

You become much less intense about things, especially work. With acting, when you’re younger, you want everything to be very real and profound, and that’s fine. But you get to a certain age, and think, ‘I’m a great fan of those actors like William Holden and Robert Mitchum, who just let it roll off them without taking it so seriously’. So, I do my homework and learn my lines, but I’ve learned to take it easy and sort of amble through. Working with Olivia Colman, who plays my daughter in The Father [he is estranged from his own daughter, Abigail, 52, his only child], was wonderful because we both work in the same way, meaning she doesn’t – now, I have to be careful of my words here – take it too seriously either.

Your third wife Stella, 65, an actor/producer whom you married in 2003, is from Colombia. What does she bring to your life?

Energy! She calls me a stick-in-the-mud, which I am. I’m a stick-in-the-mud Welshman – I like to isolate, I like to be quiet. She calls me the happy hippopotamus! All her friends are Latin and talk non-stop. When I say, ‘What are you talking about?’ they say, ‘None of your business!’ She does all the talking. It’s lovely.

Any habits that annoy her?

I’m restless and I’m always asking her questions because I want to know everything. If we have to be somewhere, I say, ‘How are we going to travel? Which car are we going to take? How are we going to make sure we get there in time?’ It drives her mad!

How tidy are you?

I don’t want to live in chaos, but I am not obsessive about tidiness. I like things to be in order, but that’s because I then make a mess of them. So, I stack books up and then they all fall on me.

Are you a cat or a dog person?

I’m both. My wife and I rescue cats and dogs. I have great respect for all animals because they teach us so much, but sometimes people treat them with disrespect, which I find painful. I don’t underestimate their supreme intelligence – their way of getting through life is extraordinary. I’m fascinated by them and love them. I’ve always had cats in particular, ever since I was a boy.

How do you look back on your life?

Now, this may sound very mystical, but at this point, everything seems like an illusion to me, as if somebody else wrote the script. It’s like some long story of somebody else’s life. I look back at everything I’ve done and gone through, and think, ‘Did any of that really happen?’ It’s all a mystery, and in some odd way, I find a strange peace in that.

Do you have your own special chair in your house?

Well, I think I do, but the cat sits on it!

The Father is due to be released on 11 June

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