Anthony Hopkins on acting, Thor, and scaring people in ‘The Rite’

There is something about Anthony Hopkins that puts you at ease the moment he enters the room. The man has had long and very distinguished career and if he wanted to put on airs, not a soul in the world would begrudge him. When he sat down with us at a large banquet table at the press event for ‘The Rite’ he smiled and got to work. How many films has this man promoted in his lifetime? How many interviews?

In the film Mr. Hopkins plays Father Lucas Trevant, a practicing exorcist who takes a skeptical young seminary student, played by Colin O’Donoghue, under his wing. The film uses the titillating subject of exorcism to look at more somber issues of faith, psychology and mental illness. Hopkins and O’Donoghue play two sides of the same coin: both have the indescribable traits that make for good priests, yet both wrestle with their faith and tend to fight their fates. Director Mikael Hafstrom gingerly treats the subject with a mostly objective eye, he presents us with dream and hallucinatory scenes which let us doubt our own eyes when we see the more involved demonic possessions. Deeper questions of faith can be boiled down to the final question of “what is real?”

It was great to sit down and hear some of the building blocks of the Father Lucas character from a master craftsman such as Hopkins, and I was grateful for his time. The interview below is edited for length and readability.

Could you talk a little bit about how you got involved in the project and where there any hesitations about getting involved?

Hopkins: There was at the beginning. My agent sent me the script and I didn”t know much about it but I thought I didn”t want to play another spooky guy, you know?  I wasn”t sure and I was in the middle of doing “Thor” when this came up.  I”m not sure what…over a year ago and I wasn”t quite sure whether I really wanted to do anything like this.  And then I read the script and then I met Mikeal Hafstrom at the hotel up the road here. We had breakfast and I was pretty impressed by him.  He seemed a very nice guy, very intelligent guy.  And I”d seen one or two of his films.  So I said yes, and then he went back to England and I started working on the part and reading it and working on it.  And I had a couple of ideas so I”d e-mail him some of those ideas.  But it helped me understand this man a little more.

Hopkins: There”s a scene in the courtyard after the first exorcism when I”m talking to the young priest, Colin O”Donoghue, who’s character has grave doubts about it. I say you know the problem is with skeptics and atheists is that we never know the truth.  We”re always trying to find the truth.  What we would we do if we find it?  And I asked Mikael if I could write that line to describe myself as an atheist-as a skeptic-which makes the young priest see that oh yeah, I struggle with faith as well. Because I think nobody knows.  It gives a semblance of humanity to somebody who says they don”t know.  Anyone who says they know, like Colin’s young priest, says “I believe in the truth.”  And the truth, yeah, the trouble that got us into in the last 1000 years.  Hitler knew the ‘truth’ so did Stalin, so did Mao Tse Tung, they all knew the ‘truth’ and that caused such horror. Certainty is the enemy.

Did you visit exorcisms the way Colin (O’Donoghue) did?

Hopkins: Colin did.  I didn”t…he was in Rome longer than I was.  I was only in Rome for 1 day, I think.  But Colin was there for about a week, and I think he went to an exorcism with Father Gary.  I think maybe he went to 2 or 3 of them.  I know the writer did.  I don”t know how much the Catholic Church is involved in this.  Apparently they”ve pulled back a little on their commitment.

You”ve become very adept at scaring people with an expression-a couple of films now.  Can you talk a bit about that?  I mean, how do you know…?

Hopkins: About that? (at this point the man makes the freaky ‘Hannibal Lecter’ stare and looks at each one of us. It’s truly blood chilling and we all laugh nervously-AD)

How do you know what”s going to scare the audience?

Hopkins: I don”t know.  I honestly have asked myself that question many times.  I don”t know.  I guess I have a knack for it, but it doesn”t mean to say I”m a scary person.  My wife”s not scared of me.  I scared of her! (laughter)   When I was a kid my father took me…my father wasn”t a very healthy man, he took me to see “Dracula” when I was about 5, you know? I saw “Frankenstein”  and then Bela Lugosi”s “Dracula”…  I think l we all flirt with chaos.  We all go to the dark movie theater to get ourselves a scare.  It”s like, if you”re an alcoholic or a drug addict or something, we flirt with death.  We pull ourselves to the brink of destruction and if we”re lucky we pull ourselves back.  We all have that in us.  Whether it”s overeating or it”s overworking or over-sex or whatever it is, alcoholism, drug addition.  We push ourselves to the brink and then pull back because it”s kind of exciting.  But that”s all I know.  I just know how to scare people.  I don”t know how I do it, but it”s a look-it”s a trick I guess.  I think you deaden the eyes. I know it scares because I know…I can sense inside what it does. 

You”re having fun, right?

Hopkins: You have fun with it. I know what is scary because that”s what I do and not because I”m like that. For a long time I sort of had a sneaky little grumble of ‘oh, I”ll never get over Hannibal Lector,’ you know?  And then I saw the posters and people and they said, well it sold so if it does the trick then fine.  I mean I”ve played other parts, but…I”ve only played 2 bad men I think.  But this guy”s not bad.  This is a chance to play 2 parts, you know?

Thor looks very Shakespearean, How did you get yourself ready to play such a big character in the Marvel universe?

AH:    Well, I saw the sets.  I saw the designs of the sets and what I was going to wear and went to the studio down in Manhattan Beach.  Saw what they were going to put on me and all that.  And I thought,”oh.”  So when they dressed me up I thought okay I”m a god now so…it”s a bit difficult to move around because It”s about 25 to 30 pounds you”re carrying around with you all day.  And you can”t really take much of a rest.  So but you just come on set and it”s a huge set and you”re in armor and the cameras pointing and you say, “oh I”m God.”

As you”ve alluded to, you know what you”re good at. You know what you”re known for.  And for some producers that may think that you”re a commodity but do you allow that to overshadow the art?

Hopkins: Being a commodity? I don”t mind being a commodity.  It”s given me a good life.  Art?  I don”t know about art.  You know when you”re doing a movie…I”m not being cynical but when you”re doing a movie you have a number to choices to do as an actor. But then you see it all cut together and some of the little…all those little precious pieces you put in maybe on the cutting room floor.  So you don”t have that much control.  You have very little control, in fact.  It”s up to the editor and the director and the final product is, you know, whatever the film studio desires. So to be realistic is a great freedom.  I have no illusions about my position in this world as an actor or anything like that. I”m  very realistic.  Reality is a very liberating thing.  But what is so liberating about this whole business is when you see that big movies are going to come out…huge movies are going to come out and then you see them up in Malibu in the little triplex theatre a week later and  you think,  this is show business.  This is the great movie career. And it”s all funded in the shoe box.

How do you react when you”re watching television and suddenly one of so many movies that you have done…

Hopkins: I switch over to something else!  I never watch them.

We got Colin”s perspective on how it was for him to work with you and I”m curious, what”s it like for you to work with a young inexperienced actor like him and spend that much time with him?

Hopkins: Oh, I just give him a very bad time!  No, first day we were doing a scene which is not in the film actually, it”s on the Reinne in Rome and I said, “how do you feel?”  He said, “I feel very nervous.”  I said, “oh that”s okay. You don”t have to be nervous.”  So we did the scene and I said to him at the end because he was a little bit…I said, “is that the way you”re planning to play the part?”  He said, “what do you mean?”  I said, “well… it”s your career!”  Then I said, “I”m joking. Don”t take it seriously.”  I said, that”s good.  “It”s a big close up, you don”t have to do too much with your face. Do less.”  That”s the only tip I ever gave him.  Katherine Hepburn said that to me when I….she said, don”t ‘act.’  I said, okay.  Don”t need to act.  So I took that as a great compliment.

And how was it to work with a young Italian girl Marta Gastini? (The young actress that played the possessed pregnant teen)

Hopkins: Oh we were all devastated by what she did.  I mean it”s…actually those were very depressing scenes to do and I never tried to take this business seriously but they were, at the end, well…we were in that dark room in the studio in Budapest and there was no air in there so you got tired very quickly, but it was kind of depressing.  But she does a remarkable performance.

How do you pick your projects and what do you think might be coming up for you?

Hopkins: I have no idea.  I have no idea.  There may be a film with Dustin Hoffman that”s coming up.  I”m not sure. I”ve got a very good agent and I trust them to pick and choose for me. I don”t go out looking.  I”m realistic.  Living with reality is a very good trick.  It gives you tremendous freedom and it changes the structure of molecules of your soul by living through reality because you don”t expect anything anymore, which is a weird paradox.  Non-expectation, non-acceptance because the expectation leads to resentment and depression, so I have no expectations.

At what point did you feel so liberated?  Did it happen mid-way, early on?

Hopkins: Oh a few years ago.  A few years ago, I think maybe 2 years ago. It starts when you reach about your mid 50″s-60″s I guess.  You think, oh well this is the reality and, you know, and when you face a certain age you say “my God I”m 50. God, I”m 60, 70.”  And you think, ‘oh.’  But then again I”m glad I”m not young anymore.  I don”t want to start all over again.

Well, how much of a challenge is acting at this point?  I mean, is it just a job?  Do you still have the sort of creative fire? 

Hopkins:  Well, I’m a commodity. (smiles)

I mean, is it just a job?  Is it still fun?

Hopkins: Sure it”s a job.  It”s what I make my living doing, but it”s…they look after me very well.  No, it”s still…a challenge is such a heavy word.  That challenge like Sisyphus pushing the rock.  No, it”s not a challenge in that sense.  It doesn”t cost me any great strength. But I enjoy the process of it and I can”t even begin to describe that you go on the set in the morning and you”re working with whoever you”re working with and you kick the lines around a little and hopefully you”re going to work with somebody who”s pleasant to work with and you”ve got a pleasant director and sometimes that doesn”t work out too well but most of the time it does.  And all-in-all it”s a pretty good experience and at the end of the day that”s it. I go home. It”s something I totally enjoy, really enjoy. I really enjoy it.  And I look back on this film with great nostalgia when I was in Budapest and Rome.  It”s kind of nostalgic. A really special film to do and I don”t know if it”s just the film was being in Budapest being with Colin O”Donaghue and Alice Bragga and, you know, and Mikael Hafstrom and a great producer in Beau Flynn and so all in all it was a very good time.