Nobody plays a villain like Anthony Hopkins. In Westworld, the TV reboot of Michael Crichton’s cult 1973 robots-on-the-rampage film, he’s doing it again – with his trademark soft voice, off-beat pauses, quiet thinking and inhuman acts.
“I’m not like that in my life, I’m the opposite,” he gives a small smile. “But they keep casting me as control-freak nuts.”
Westworld stars Hopkins alongside Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Harris and Thandie Newton and is impressive, expensive television. It’s Sky Atlantic’s most successful new show, bigger than Game of Thrones.
Husband-and-wife writers Jonathan Nolan (Interstellar, The Dark Knight) and Lisa Joy Nolan (Pushing Daisies) pay cheeky homage to Crichton’s movie, but use Hopkins and Harris to flip its ideas completely.
In 1973, Yul Brynner’s black-clad robot gunslinger (a copy of Brynner’s Magnificent Seven bad-ass Chris Adams) picks fights with holidaymakers in the eponymous re-enactment resort and always loses… until, inevitably, the park crashes and the slaughter begins.
In the reboot, Harris dresses just like Brynner – but it rapidly becomes clear that he’s no robot. He kills like a monster, but he’s human. He’s a guest. He is us.
Hopkins is Dr Robert Ford, Westworld’s director – a mysterious man with a secret vision who’s building a new arm to the park and has recently upgraded the almost-human AI “hosts”.
His idea was to add personality, but the result is that they start to remember. It’s not quite “mwah-ha-ha” – it’s way more complex than that – but you can see where we’re heading.
So is Hopkins really the nice guy that he claims? How come he keeps playing villains? When we meet in Los Angeles he reveals that it was being a nice guy that got him started – being nice gave him Dr Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, which won him an Oscar for just 15 minutes’ screen time.
In 1990, he explains, he was worried he was washed up – he’d gone out to the US in 1973 after drawing inspiration from fellow Welshman Richard Burton and taking up acting, and worked there until the late 1980s when he drifted back home.
“I felt I was sinking,” he explains. “America hadn’t worked out. I was doing theatre and there’s something either very lazy in me or very rebellious – I wasn’t a good team player and I felt I didn’t belong anywhere.
“I was doing a play called M. Butterfly when my agent asked me to read the script for The Silence of the Lambs. I thought it was a children’s story,” he laughs. “I got to page 15 and it was a wonderful part – but I assumed they’d made a mistake.”
That weekend, Lambs director Jonathan Demme came backstage, and took Hopkins for dinner. He wanted Hopkins, he explained, because he’d seen him playing surgeon Frederick Treves in The Elephant Man opposite John Hurt almost ten years previously.
“I said, ‘Treves isn’t a bad man,’ ” Hopkins recalls. “Jonathan said, ‘No – he’s a good man, and I think Lecter’s basically a brilliantly good man but he’s trapped in an insane mind.’”
That was all Hopkins needed. “I knew how to play it right away,” he explains with a twinkle. “I don’t know why but I’ve always known what scares people. When I was a kid I’d tell the girls around the street the story about Dracula. I’d go [he reproduces Lecter’s legendary fava-beansand-a-nice-chianti sucking sound best written as “th-th-th”]. They’d run screaming away.”
A few weeks later he was flown to New York and, on Monday morning, sat in the Orion Pictures offices on Fifth Avenue with Jodie Foster, the rest of the cast and the producers for a table read.
“I didn’t know what they were going to make of it but I’d prepared it – my first line to Jodie was: ‘Good morning. You’re one of Jack Crawford’s aren’t you?’ Everyone froze. There was a silence. Then one of the producers said, ‘Holy crap, don’t change a thing.’”
He explains that the key – with Westworld’s Robert Ford as well as Lecter – is to go the opposite way to what an audience expects.
He tells a story about Elia Kazan, the writer and actor who directed On the Waterfront. Kazan told Hopkins about playing a gang boss in a play called Waiting for Lefty… Kazan was on stage and the director urged him to shout and stomp.
Someone involved in the production bought one of Al Capone’s buddies to a rehearsal. “During the break, Kazan jumps off stage and the gangster says, ‘Come here kid… I’ll give you one tip. You don’t have to holler – they know who you are.’” Hopkins grins. “If you’re playing a killer monster, be very quiet.”
The question “what makes a monster?” is at the heart of Westworld. Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Wood play hosts that don’t know they’re not human.
As they gradually remember the horrors inflicted on them by tourists, they start to question their existence.
The show, says Nolan, asks “not what we need to worry about when it comes to AI; it’s what they will make of us”.
Hopkins enjoys fooling around with the idea, but he’s no AI scaremonger. “We haven’t created the human cell yet have we? We haven’t created blood. I recently met a young guy who worked at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] in artificial intelligence. He said we were nowhere near re-creating anything like a human being.
“So I quoted a post-holocaust story about a handful of scientists, philosophers and intellectual geniuses devising a computer to find the final answer to the meaning of life. They feed the works of Thomas Aquinas, Jesus, Buddha, Marx, Freud… everyone.
“Then they ask, ‘Is there a God?’ A sudden bolt of lightning kills them all and the computer says, ‘There is now.’”
He manages to send a shiver down the spine with that punchline, and you can see why the https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eX3u0IlBBO4
There’s no acting in his family tree – his dad was a baker in Port Talbot and it wasn’t until a chance meeting with Richard Burton aged 15 that Hopkins decided to make a career of it.
Before then, he’d half hoped he’d be a musician – he’s composed everything from songs to a waltz and he released an album of his own classical music in 2012.
“It was all a series of accidents,” he explains. “Acting is like life – you shouldn’t push life. You shouldn’t try to be certain. We have no idea what could happen in the next two minutes – that’s how much control we have. But we all want to escape mortality so we push and we push…”
Which leads him back to the idea of the theme park. Crichton took his inspiration for Westworld from seeing Disneyland’s animatronic Abraham Lincoln.
Hopkins has only been to Disney World once, back in 1968, with “a young woman called Connie who was close to Walt Disney,” Hopkins recalls. “She was the first person who told me the story that Walt Disney’s body had been put into deep freeze just before his death so that he could be revived when technology could cure him. Is that true, do you think?”
He gives a slow, lazy smile and it’s hard to tell if he’s teasing or not. “That would certainly be an interesting part to play,” he muses, and you have no doubt that if anyone were to write a movie about Disney returning from a cryogenic deep freeze, there’s only one actor anyone would consider for the role…
Westworld continues 9pm tonight, Sky Atlantic