"Show up, do your job and make sure the cheque’s on the way” — it’s a rather pragmatic mantra, probably better suited to a clock-watching desk jockey than an Oscar-winning film star. However, it’s precisely how Sir Anthony Hopkins describes his work ethic to ShortList during the course of our transatlantic phone conversation.
The 73-year-old’s chequered career has seen him portray an American president, a German dictator and a chianti sipping cannibal, as well as overcome a lengthy struggle with alcoholism, and his latest film, The Rite, finds him battling demons once more. He plays Jesuit priest Father Lucas, an accomplished exorcist with years of experience ejecting devilish spirits from inside ‘possessed’ victims. Despite his obvious mastery of the trade, Lucas is unashamedly sceptical about the industry he works in; a situation which, as ShortList discovers, mirrors Sir Anthony’s own…
Did you watch any footage of real-life exorcisms in preparation for The Rite?
No, but we had a technical advisor on the film, a man called Father Gary Thomas, who had performed a number of exorcisms. He told me they were usually quite ordinary little events. I saw something on CNN the other day, though, about a woman who claimed she was possessed. Witnesses said she had the strength of 10 men during her ‘episodes’.
Do you believe these people are really possessed by the devil?
There are people who are convinced supernatural forces are at work, but I’ve no idea. I suspect ‘possession’ might be a psychological thing, like schizophrenia. We all think we know things, but we don’t know a damn thing. Whether God exists, why we’re here… Nobody really knows any of it.
You weren’t tempted to ‘go method’?
It’s not in my nature. I do the best I can — I know my way around [Russian method acting pioneer] Stanislavski, but I can’t take myself seriously like that. I respect people who do it, of course. I just think I’m lucky to still be working at 73. You reach a point in life where you just think, “Show up, do your job, make sure the cheque’s on the way,” and that’s it. I’m not hungry to do anything more, really.
There’s no secret-passion project you’re desperate to realise, then?
Well, I’ve got concerts coming up in Birmingham and Cardiff [Hopkins is an accomplished pianist] this year, and I paint, but I do everything in quite a Zen way. I don’t push my luck. I don’t worry about the results and therefore everything seems to work out well. That’s something I’ve learnt over the years. The whole thing about the acting business is that it’s a hit-or-miss game so I keep my distance from it. I live in a community of ‘stars’ — Bob Dylan lives around the corner, but I’ve never met him. I’m completely detached from all that.
Do you watch your films once they’re finished?
I go to the premieres but, no, I don’t watch them after that. I don’t have any expectations about my films. If they’re good, they’re good — if they’re not, they’re not. About 10 years ago, I remember going to see one of my movies — I can’t even remember which one now — and everyone was jumping up and down, getting excited, saying what a great film it was going to be. We all went in and watched it, and it was the slowest movie I’ve ever seen. The next day, the reviews were terrible and half the studio was fired. You can’t take any of it personally. It’s all about box office. There’s just too much intensity in this business. That’s why I stay in the distance.
Is it true that you used to bark on the set of Fracture to make Ryan Gosling laugh?
Yes. I’ll do anything to keep everyone laughing. Things get too intense on film sets. I remember on The Elephant Man, I used to imitate a cat without moving my lips. David Lynch would say, “Cut! Sorry, we’ve got a noise somewhere on set.” Everyone would be looking around for this cat.
Have you really only seen The Elephant Man once?
I hadn’t seen it for years, but I watched it again recently. I ended up writing David a fan letter afterwards, actually. He’s a genius. I told him it’s a masterpiece.
Better than The Silence Of The Lambs?
I don’t want to talk about that film. That was 20 years ago. I’ve done all that.
OK. What do you miss most about Britain now you’re living in Los Angeles?
It’s nice being in Britain but there are no comparisons. I love it here.
Is there anyone out there you can speak Welsh with?
What do you do when you’re not working?
I read a lot, that’s my main hobby. I’ve got an iPad which I store books on and I read voraciously. I’m a slow reader but I’m obsessive. I make references, underline things, cross-reference. I’m an autodidact.
Do you do the same thing with your scripts?
Sometimes. I re-type all my lines on an old typewriter to help me learn them. When
I was younger, I would write out the entire part meticulously in longhand, four or five times over. It would make it feel as if I had written it myself. It was a way of belonging to the piece, I guess.
You’ve worked with both Woody Allen and Kenneth Branagh recently. How did they compare as directors?
Woody was great fun on You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. He gave me the whole script, which was a bit of an honour [the other actors were just given their own scenes]. I’ve been lucky the last few years, working with the likes of him and Ken. I enjoyed doing Thor with Branagh very much. He’s a terrific director. I haven’t seen it yet but I hear it’s pretty good.
Is there any truth in the rumour that you’re playing Alfred Hitchcock in a film about the making of Psycho?
No. That’s a press thing. It’s like the rumours about me starring in the Hemingway biopic. Not true. But that Hitchcock script’s been around for years. I only believe things when I’m actually standing in front of the camera.
What was the last great film you saw?
I don’t watch films or TV, really. I like old movies, though.
So you didn’t see Rob Brydon’s impression of you in The Trip?
No, I didn’t but I’ve seen Rob Brydon. He’s brilliant. I knew he did impersonations. It was Ken Branagh who told me about him. Yes, he’s very good — very funny. A bit like Rory Bremner.
The Rite is in cinemas from 25 February