At 80, Sir Anthony Hopkin s believes he has reached the perfect age to inhabit the ancient despot who loses everything – King Lear. He’s certainly convincing as a very “foolish fond old man” who fears that he’s not in his right mind. So much so that during filming of the BBC production, dressed in a shabby khaki overcoat, pushing a trolley full of plastic bags through a shopping precinct, a kindly passerby – not recognising one of our greatest living actors – pointed him in the direction of a homeless shelter just down the street.
The binding threads of Shakespeare’s masterpiece – ageing, betrayal, the abuse of power (swiftly revealed to be unabsolute), the nature of love, the fear of and descent into madness, redemption, what it means to be a parent as well as a child and, finally, death – are what makes King Lear both universal and timeless. This adaptation is set in modern-day England: the hundred knights are rowdy, boozy soldiers; Lear is a self-made dictator with a military past; the poor, naked beggars sheltering in hovels on the heath have become refugees in a camp.
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I wonder which themes of the actor’s favourite Shakespeare play speak most eloquently to Hopkins. “It’s hard to define, really,” he says, sounding incredibly Welsh and sing-song, even after all his years living in California. “I did Lear about 30 years ago with David Hare, at the National Theatre. It was a wonderful production but I think I was too young. I didn’t get it right.
“For the last few years, I had contemplated doing it again because at 80 I can understand the mechanisms within an older man – mechanisms of fear and despond – and so I thought I was right to play it.”
The idea crystallised when Hopkins was in The Dresser with Ian McKellen, directed by Richard Eyre a couple of years ago; the film is set in the dressing room behind a production of King Lear. Eyre had directed an acclaimed Lear at the National in 1997, with Ian Holm. Hopkins agreed to play the old king again, as long as Eyre directed the film – and off they went.
The result is a triumph, and has a phenomenal ensemble, with even the smallest roles filled by big names, such as Christopher Eccleston as the courtier Oswald, in the household of Lear’s eldest daughter Goneril, played by Emma Thompson. Jim Broadbent, Jim Carter, Emily Watson… the list goes on.
Eyre says: “Well, if you get Tony [as Hopkins likes everyone to call him] then the actors come in his wake, and everybody we asked said ‘Yes’.”
Hopkins and Eyre swapped emails across continents, and the actor told the director how he saw Lear. “I wanted to do him as a fast, furious old man who is incapable of love,” Hopkins explains. “He has never felt love. I feel that in his early life, he was deeply hurt and savaged by some awful emotional calamity and he turned his ire on the human race and his three daughters.
“He was a very over-stern father who made his daughters into the creatures they were. Even with Cordelia – he only felt comfortable if she was a tomboy. A masculine girl. He treated her like a boy. That was my subtext, if you want. The other two daughters… he didn’t even like them. And that happens with families. You don’t have to like your family. Children don’t like their fathers, you don’t have to love each other…”
His daughter, Abigail Rhiannedd Hopkins, is now close to 50. She was the child from his first marriage to actress Petronella Barker, which ended in 1972. Hopkins’s second wife was Jennifer Lynton, who is often credited as the person who helped him give up drinking. Since 2003 he has been happily married, he says, to his third wife, Stella Arroyave, who is from Colombia and is a Malibu antiques dealer turned actor/director.
Abigail describes herself as a singer/songwriter, actor and theatre director. Father and daughter were estranged for many years but there appears to have been a rapprochement in the early 90s, since she was cast in two of his most famous films from that time – Shadowlands and The Remains of the Day. Now the curtain has come down again.
Since no parent of a certain age can watch King Lear without a little shiver of apprehension about getting the right balance between divesting your worldly goods to your children and maintaining your independence, I wonder whether he is still in touch with Abigail. Is he a grandfather by now?
“I don’t have any idea,” he says. “People break up. Families split and, you know, ‘Get on with your life’. People make choices. I don’t care one way or the other.” That sounds a bit cold…
“Well, it is cold,” he responds with equanimity. “Because life is cold. It’s like John Osborne’s response when someone said to him, ‘Mr Osborne, your play is so offensive,’ and he said, ‘Life is offensive.’”
We have a big chuckle at that, which diffuses any awkwardness around what must be a sensitive subject; the anecdotal aperçu is the actor’s shield of choice against personal intrusion.
His father, Richard, was a baker, as was his father before him. The family lived in Margam, a suburb of Port Talbot, south Wales, close to the childhood home of Richard Burton. Hopkins remembers asking the actor for an autograph at 15, and “he was very gracious, very nice”. The two actors met again, many years later, in New York in 1975, as Burton prepared to take over Hopkins’s role as the psychiatrist in Peter Shaffer’s Equus. “He was a phenomenal actor,” Hopkins says. “So was [Peter] O’Toole – they were wonderful, larger-than-life characters.”
Hopkins drew on his father, and his childhood, for Lear. “My father was a tough old man. He wasn’t a tyrant, but he was a hard man. As was my grandfather, his father – and all those ingredients that were in my father are in me. I’ve survived over the years and become more mellow, but I know how to reach into it, you know. The violence and the anger – I know all about that stuff. Instinctively, deep down inside my nature.”
But alongside the toughness was a sensitivity: “My father didn’t have much confidence in himself. He could get angry about things. He was a good father but he was limited by having had no education. All he knew was hard work and hardship and I inherited that from him – that ethic for work. My philosophy is: ‘Stop whingeing – get a life’. And that was my father’s philosophy: ‘Grow up and get on with it’.
“I have gratitude for it in a way. It’s a great gift to be all of the things that you are – you can either die of them or make light of them. Any discomfort from the past, any pain… use it!”
Has he, like Lear, ever feared losing his mind? (There are legions of stories from his drinking youth of unstable behaviour and dissolute ways – many told by himself.) There was a recent video of him dancing that went viral. “Oh that!” he says, “It was just a bit of fun. Happened a few weeks ago. Stella had a meal with her friends at home, so I sent her a quick video and her niece put it on. Apparently it had a lot of viewings and everyone thought I’d gone mad.
“I don’t think I will go mad now,” he adds. “The best I can say of myself is that I’ve tunnelled through the mountain of my life and come out the other side. I think once you get past the mid- 70s and you’re in your 80s, then you feel OK because you know your time is limited and you’d better get on with it and enjoy it.
“In my 50s and 60s, I was discombobulated. I was not sure which way to go in life – although I was a very successful actor. Like when I was doing King Lear with David Hare, for some reason I was angry and very confused. Well, life is strange and it is baffling. And you come to a point when you think, ‘Oh shut up! Get over the past. Get on with your life. WAKE UP!’
“It’s like Tony Bennett said, of Amy Winehouse, I think, ‘Life teaches you how to live it… if you live long enough’.”
Is he frightened by the prospect of death? “Not at all. I’ve got no choice,” he says in an amused voice. “What’s the point of being frightened? We’re all going to die.” He is intolerant of what he calls “gloopy American sentimentalism”, with a particular loathing of death euphemisms. “It’s the inability to use words properly. ‘He passed on.’ What do you mean? He died.’
“Lear understands there’s nothing nice about death. There’s no respectable way of looking at it. When you’re dead you’re a lump of meat and you decay very rapidly. Cordelia’s dead. Face it. Dead!
“I say this to the young kids, Don’t take yourself so seriously! We’re all going to be dead one day’. I tell myself every morning: ‘You’re not so hot. You’re not that important.’ We spend so much time worrying about what people are thinking of us, and they’re not thinking of us. They’ve got better things to do. They’re thinking about themselves. It’s like Humphrey Bogart said, life is for the living – ‘We’re all just three drinks behind.’ I like that philosophy.”
In his life he must have had his share of courtiers who fawn and flatter. But does he also have his own version of the Fool and true, straight-talking Kent – who dare to say the unsayable to him and protect him from his own ego and vanity?
“I am very guarded about that,” he says. “I have an assistant and my wife. You talk about power. Look at Hollywood! How insidious it is. Look how people feel entitled to this, that and the other, and they can only be surrounded by ‘Yes’ people. It’s a poisonous, toxic atmosphere and I don’t want to be surrounded by people like that. The ‘lovey’ and the kissing cheeks – I can’t stand it. There’s so much hypocrisy… and they know nothing.”
Hopkins has reached the age when he realises how little we all know: “Uncertainty is the greatest value – that is the road to wisdom. If you’ve got certainty, you’ll end up being like Hitler.”
See the new teaser trailer for King Lear, starring Anthony Hopkins
Living in America, there’s an obvious person in power who has a lot of opinions but rather less knowledge… “I don’t discuss politics,” he cuts me short. Do you take an interest in current affairs and politics generally? “No.”
Decades ago, the actor would take off in his car to explore the States on his own, stopping for the night at motels off the highway – Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, driving from Charleston, South Carolina – 600-plus miles – to Pittsburgh in one day. He doesn’t go on odysseys any more, but he still loves to drive and he and his wife cruise up to Big Sur and walk the trails.
I picture him, I say, in his Malibu house, on his balcony overlooking the ocean… “Oh, I don’t have a balcony. Just a little house on a cliff. It’s an ordinary ‘Cape Cod’ house, 50 or 60 years old. A bit ramshackle, but we love it.”
Do you like luxury at all? “Not particularly,” he says. “I like to have a good meal, but I don’t go to openings of new restaurants or that sort of stuff. I like to work hard and I exercise and keep fit. I’m not really about being opulent.”
He enjoys working with people but he doesn’t have friendships with actors. Or many friends at all. “I like people but I’m very much on my own. I paint, I write music and I play the piano [in 2013, Dutch violinist and conductor André Rieu led his orchestra in playing Hopkins’s early piece The Waltz Goes On, and he has released an album of his compositions, Anthony Hopkins: Composer]. And that’s as good as it gets for me. I have no ambitions. I have no desire to prove anything.
“I’m happily married but my wife worries because I work too hard. I will go on working because what else would I do? I’ll retire when my teeth and my hair fall out. What’s the point in sitting and staring at the TV?” He chuckles. “I mean, I can’t play golf, and I don’t wish to.”
We speak on his day off from filming a Netflix movie, in Rome, about the relationship between Popes Benedict (Hopkins) and Francis (Jonathan Pryce). Could he ever be lured back to the stage? “Maybe one week doing Lear.”
Towards the end of our interview, we have a friendly mutual beef about the culture of our times, when everyone seems so hypersensitive, and discuss my fears that this will stultify creativity.
He is sure it will pass and compares it, rather dramatically, to the witch-hunts of McCarthyism. Not long after we say our goodbyes, Hopkins calls to say that he wants to pull back a bit on his comments. “My attitude is that if people want to be like that, fine. I’ve no judgment because people do what they have to do. I don’t want to be involved in that argument; it’s all so touchy. I’ve lived long enough to figure out that most of my opinions aren’t worth anything, anyway.” All the fire and fury of his youth and the scrappy belligerence have evaporated. He is Lear’s calm after the storm, sanguine and philosophical.
I ask him whether he thinks he has accrued wisdom with age and he responds with that familiar slightly shy, tickled laugh: “I hope so! I’m certainly enjoying my life now and I may as well get on with it because I’m going to be asleep for a long, long time.”
King Lear is on BBC2 at 9.30pm on Bank Holiday Monday 28th May 2018