Actor Sir Anthony Hopkins

Oscar-winning actor discusses his acclaimed career and why he feels it’s healthy to keep low expectations and to live in doubt.

Sir Anthony Hopkins has been called one of the greatest actors of all time. He can boast an Oscar for his star-making role in The Silence of the Lambs and a long list of film credits, including August, for which he wrote the score, Slipstream—his feature screenwriting debut—and, his latest, The Rite and Thor. He also has two Emmys. The Wales native was knighted in '93 and became a U.S. citizen in '00. He volunteer teaches, everything from Shakespeare to monologues, at a Southern California acting school and is also an accomplished painter and pianist.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Sir Anthony Hopkins, although he doesn’t really like that, back to this program. The Oscar winner is in theaters this weekend with his latest project, “The Rite.” The movie opens everywhere around the country this weekend. Here now a scene from “The Rite.”
Tavis: That’s a great scene. I can guarantee you it gets a whole lot scarier as the picture starts to develop. But to that scene right there there’s a powerful line in there, Anthony, that I want to get your take on, and that is whether or not you believe that certainty is the enemy in our lives. Is certainty the enemy?
Sir Anthony Hopkins: Ah, that’s an interesting question. I believe that. In fact, I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Peter Berger, the American philosopher – German philosopher – I’m not sure of his nationality, but it’s called “In Praise of Doubt.” That certainty is the enemy of mankind. If you’re certain about everything, you have the Inquisition, you have Nazis and you have – that certainty is something to be guarded about.
But that doubt, there’s one of Calvin’s friends who broke away from Calvin, now, with his predestination philosophy because he thought that was the way to tyranny. He said that doubt is the greatest part of the human condition because it leaves us open.
And who was it, I think it’s – I’m being very intellectual now.
Tavis: No, I want to hear this, please.
Hopkins: Blaise Pascal said that faith is a wager because if you have it nobody can prove you wrong, because if there’s a transcendent life you’ve won the bet and if there’s nothing else (unintelligible). (Laughter)
But I don’t know, you ask anyone, does anyone know of anything? Nobody, not one single human being has an answer. None of us know. Everything is a mystery, according to Einstein and Darwin, all the whole bunch of them – physicists, scientists, atheists. No one knows.
So if an atheist argues with me and says, “Well, it’s all nonsense, I say, “Okay, well, that’s your opinion.” I live in doubt all the time. But there’s a – I think doubt is a very healthy way to live.
Tavis: Are you comfortable in this space, this space called doubt where you admit you live in doubt?
Hopkins: I am. When I was a young guy, I knew everything. (Laughter) Now I know very little. I know less and less as the time goes on.
Tavis: That makes you smarter, though.
Hopkins: Well, yes.
Tavis: When you realize how little you do know.
Hopkins: We know nothing. We know nothing, and I do, I feel at peace with it. I’m in this business, the movie business and all that, and it’s fun; I’m having a great life. And I’m 73 now and they still phone me up and ask me to do a job here and there.
But I have to take it with a kind of pinch of salt, because I work with the young actors and just working with this terrific young actor, Colin O’Donoghue –
Tavis: Yeah, in this movie, yeah.
Hopkins: That’s right. He plays the priest. And he’s full of intensity, he’s 30 years old, and I suggest, “Enjoy yourself. Enjoy your life.” Nobody knows.
Tavis: How certain, since we’re talking about certainty and doubt and I want to go somewhere with this, how certain do you have to be or is it better if you are in doubt about the roles that you choose?
I can’t imagine you want too much doubt about that you chose to play. You want to be certain of something about the character and what you think you can do with it.
Hopkins: No, you’re never certain, because you get a role and you think oh, this is going to be a winner. (Laughter) Yeah, and it can end up on the cutting room floor. This can be a role, and you think – there’s a story of a famous actor. I can’t remember who it was but he was in Hollywood in the ’30s and he was given this script.
He was under contract to the studios. I don’t give his name because I don’t know it, but it was quite a famous star. This studio signed him under contract so he decided he was going to walk through the film. And he told his fellow actors (unintelligible) he said, “I’m just going to walk through this. It’s nothing to do with you. This is such a load of rubbish I’m just going to walk through it,” and he got a nomination for an Oscar. (Laughter) So you never know. You never know.
Tavis: That’s how this town works.
Hopkins: Yeah. So I never cling on to hope or certainty. They’re the enemies of peace. Keep low expectations and life gets pretty good. If you have high expectations you’re going to get resentments and all kinds of tension.
Tavis: I’m going to come back to “The Rite” in just a second and we’ll dig into this, but since you never know, take me back 20 years ago this year when you did “The Silence of the Lambs.”
Hopkins: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: Did you think that you and Demme – our friend Jonathan Demme – had a hit there? What did you think that thing was going to be? Obviously you won the Academy Award for it; Demme won the Academy Award for it. On the front side, not the back end, what did you think it was going to be?
Hopkins: Well, I had a hunch about that. I read it in the dressing room of a theater in London, 1989, and my agent phoned up. He said, “They want you to play this character, Hannibal Lechter.” So I read it and I thought, this is a sure winner. I didn’t know why.
It was a small part, but I had no idea that I was going to be that involved in it. But I thought it was such a well-constructed script, and I had an instinct that that would be a box office hit, but you never know, and it just so happened that it was.
I didn’t bet on it, but it was and it was all instinct. It was a great time to work with Jonathan Demme and Jodie Foster. (Laughs) Talking about certainty or doubt, I went to the Oscars that night, that fatal night in 1992, whenever it was, and I put all my expectations – I didn’t even want to show up. I was hoping that traffic would be so bad coming down Sunset I could go to a restaurant and have dinner and not show up and watching that. (Laughter)
When I went in and Kathy Bates called my name, I had no idea. I thought it would go to Nick Nolte or Warren Beatty or Robin Williams or – De Niro wasn’t there.
When she called my name, I thought, that’s a surprise, and I didn’t have a speech. So I said, “Thank you very much” and that was it. It was fun, though.
Tavis: What happens when you think – again, doubt and certainty – you had a good feeling about “Silence of the Lambs;” obviously, it worked out. What happens, how do you navigate your way forward when you think that about a project and it doesn’t work out that way? You think it’s going to be a hit and it’s going to be well-received and it doesn’t.
Hopkins: No, I don’t think – I really don’t exercise my brain that far into thinking it’s going to be a hit at all. Chances are it could be 50/50 or not at all. It’s a much easier way to live. But I do my best. I support the film and whichever the film is, and go on the road and do the talks, like I am now.
Tavis: Which we appreciate, by the way.
Hopkins: No, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Tavis: (Laughs) So were there any – again, certainty and doubt – what kind of doubts did you have, if any, or just unease about comparisons that might be made between “Silence of the Lambs” 20 years ago and this movie called “The Rite” where you’re performing exorcisms. Did you have any doubt about comparisons that might be made between the two?
Hopkins: First time I got the script I didn’t bother to read it. I thought I didn’t want to do it. My agent said, “Well, think about it, because it is good and Mikael Hafstrom is a good director. So we met, I met the director, and we did it.
But I never – what I can say is that personally I enjoyed every moment of it. We were in Budapest and I was in Rome and I look back on that period with nostalgia. It was only last summer. But I didn’t, as they say, track it – is this going to be a big hit or not? I hope it’s going to do well, but the movie business has changed so much now. I’m not cynical about it, but you get a big movie release, whatever the movie is, and you’ll see it in a little multiplex about a week later.
It’s like okay, next, next, next. That’s the American way. Nothing lasts here, and in a way there’s a comfort in that. You can’t take yourself too seriously, and when you see it in a little multiplex there – do I have time to tell a story?
Tavis: Absolutely.
Hopkins: I was in Memphis for my birthday; I went to Graceland this year.
Tavis: Your birthday, by the way, is New Year’s Eve.
Hopkins: New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Eve. (Laughter) Don’t forget. It’s my 70 – my 41st birthday. It was in Memphis, and we went to Elvis’s place for the birthday.
Anyway, a friend of ours owned a cinema chain in Memphis and so we visited one Saturday morning to see this cinema chain, this big theater in this wasteland of nothing, and there are about 13 cinemas or 15 cinemas, movie theaters, in this big block.
And there were these big films, “Grand Torino” and all of them, they were all up there, all being advertised, and I said to Diane, my wife’s friend, and I said, “Can’t I just go around?” It was daytime, it’s about 12:00, and people are going in with their popcorn and the lights were still on and people sitting there.
And I thought, that’s it. That’s the big movie business. This is the big movie business. This is the glamour of Hollywood. It’s a box, and people are sitting there and nobody cares.
I’m being cynical, but it’s true. It’s become a conveyor belt. So I personally, at this grand age, find that kind of comforting, because you can’t take it, you can’t dig down into the seriousness of success anymore. And I’ve had a good time with it.
Tavis: Let me push you on that.
Hopkins: I am being cynical, I guess, but –
Tavis: No, no, I want to push you on that, respectfully. One way to look at it is the point you’ve made now, that you’ve gotten comfortable with it.
Hopkins: Yeah.
Tavis: You could be angry about that. You could have angst about that, you could be bitter about that, given how seriously you take your craft, and you take your craft seriously. But for the rest of the business, it’s a conveyor belt. You could be angry about that.
Hopkins: No, I’m not. I worked hard, I work at it, but I don’t take it seriously. I work hard. I work (unintelligible) do everything that’s necessary. But I’m being – am I being honest? Yeah, I think I am. Yeah, I work hard at it, I try to do the best I can, give 150 percent, if possible, but it’s all – oh, I’m going to say something really – it’s absurdity, really.
We’re talking about the whole philosophy of life, life is a mystery, and with acting as well, it’s – I look and I think, what am I doing? And that keeps me wry and ironic, so when I – with young actors I say, “Relax, it’s no big deal.” But when you’re young, everything’s important.
But things have changed so much now. Everything is downloaded onto computers. I’m not a computer-savvy guy, but with downloading and how the movie industry has changed and (unintelligible). So I can’t get invested into the skin of something like that.
Tavis: You’ve mentioned this young actor Colin O’Donoghue –
Hopkins: Yeah.
Tavis: – who is in this movie with you. You mentioned his name a couple of times, and I understand this is his first feature film, his first big film with Anthony Hopkins. So I did a little research because I was curious as to what your first feature was. I thought I was right about this and sure enough, this guy gets to hang out with Anthony Hopkins, Academy Award winner, four-time nominee, and you were hanging out in your first feature with no less than Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn, “A Lion in Winter.” What do you recall about that auspicious start?
Hopkins: It wasn’t so much hanging about with Peter O’Toole as being unconscious. (Laughter) Whoa. (Unintelligible) most of it was in a coma. Peter liked to drink, and I used to as well. Hepburn hated drinkers, but she said, “God, if you drink, I’m going to go home to Hollywood. But she’s a good sport and O’Toole is a genius, a great, great actor.
I was then 29 years of age, I remember that – it was a long time ago – and I felt – well, when you’re young, I don’t waste time being nervous, but I was pretty much in awe working with her and O’Toole.
In fact, I’d seen O’Toole at the Bristol Old Vic Theater in Bristol, England, playing Jimmy Porter in “Look Back in Anger,” it was 1957. He’s like somebody, if you didn’t pay attention he’d come off the stage and hit you; he was such a great, great actor. I think really a true genius of an actor.
So working with him was – we had our wild moments. (Laughter) But he was great to work with and every day he was on set he was very professional, he never drank, but at night, we – well, we didn’t become close friends; he was different, a slightly different generation than me.
Tavis: I want to circle back to this movie, “The Rite.” So again, Colin gets to hang out with you on this particular set. This thing is, as I said earlier, is scary to be sure and yet there’s some funny moments in this.
Hopkins: Yeah.
Tavis: It’s kind of arresting in a funny way when you’re performing an exorcism and you answer your cell phone in the middle of it.
Hopkins: Oh, yeah (Laughter) Yeah, that happens, apparently. We had Father Gary Thomas, who was our advisor on the set. He’s performed exorcisms, and we get – and I said, “Is this for real?” He said, “Oh, yes,” sometimes his cell phone would go off and he’d switch it off.
I said, “Well, is it that informal, an exorcism?” He said, “Yeah, it’s quite ordinary.” I said, “Well, what do you mean it’s ordinary? What you’re doing is not ordinary.” He said, “Well, you say the incantation, you say the prayers over them in Latin and whatever you throw in there, sprinkle them with holy water.”
And I began to think, I said, “Well, is that for real?” Now, he says yes. Do I accept what he says is the reality of it all, that the devil is an anthropomorphic creature? I don’t know. I have my doubts. But I wouldn’t argue with him, he’s a very nice guy. But he was very informative about it. Colin actually went to see an exorcism in Rome and it was a nun who was being exorcised and he said that was quite interesting.
This very gentle Italian says, “Buon giorno, buon giorno,” and then they “E nomine Patris,” and she started cursing and shouting and screaming. As he says to me in the film, “Is that a psychiatric disorder, is it a mental disorder or is it a possession?” The man I play, the priest I play, is a man also in doubt, because I say I don’t know whether I believe in God or Santa Claus or Tinkerbell,” and that is my premise. I don’t know what I believe.
There’s a thing that if you – somebody in faith is always troubled by doubt, and somebody by doubt is always wanted by faith. So it’s a kind of paradox.
Tavis: Speaking of paradox, this movie, if it’s about anything, it’s in part about this tension, always this tension between faith and science. I raise that to ask whether or not on this picture or any other you find yourself wrestling with your own beliefs about the subject.
Now, you’re playing a character, but do these films from time to time cause you to wrestle with your own beliefs? Do you ever find yourself reexamining your own assumptions based upon characters that you’re playing in film?
Hopkins: Oh, yeah, yeah. I was an agnostic for many years. I don’t know what I am now, but I’m not – well, agnostic is another open – it’s full of doubt. But yeah, actually, because I love to read anyway, and so I’ve been reading everything I can, not intensely, but I love to read so I read “Origin of Species” by Darwin and I can’t make head or tail of E=MC squared by Einstein, but I try to baffle my way through that.
And other books, the sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who sacrificed his life for his church in Germany. He was executed by the Nazis. So I think well, these great men, these great minds, these great, brilliant men – Einstein, Bonhoeffer, St. Augustine, they must know something more than I do, so I don’t argue with any of it.
But I have – my life has been a kind of mystery to me. By all my logical, linear thinking I started out in school as a little boy, I didn’t have a clue about anything. What they were talking about in school, couldn’t play sports, couldn’t learn, and I was bottom of the class. (Laughs)
Then so what am I doing here? I don’t know; I found a way into the acting business because I thought, well, it beats working for a living, and so that’s what I do. But I still feel like a bit of a stranger in it all. I’ve never really belonged anywhere.
Tavis: What do you make of the fact every one of us has – not just has, each of us is a story, our lives are a story, each of us is on a journey. What do you make of the fact, and I’m always curious when I hear this from actors who will say, either seriously or jokingly, that if they weren’t acting they don’t know what they’d be doing because they’re not talented or gifted to do anything else, and I hear that sentiment being expressed by you, although we’ll come to your painting in just a second.
But when you start your life and you really don’t fit in anywhere, and you’re at the bottom of the class and you can’t play sports, et cetera, et cetera, what do you make of the fact that you end up finding your vocation, your calling, your purpose in life, and it suits you so beautifully and you’re so gifted at it?
Hopkins: Well, it’s a mystery. It’s a mystery. I was born in the same town as Richard Burton, the actor, and I saw him, he used to come – he and his wife drove by in the car in my father’s shop and Burton would come home from Hollywood and ask him for his autograph, and I thought, I want to be like him. And that’s all I said to myself, I want to be like that. I want to get out of this environment of my own empty mind.
Lo and behold, a few years later it all began to fall into place, all in a strange, mysterious way. Not mysterious, but I don’t know, synchronicity is something – now, that I do believe in. So I ended up here, and I visualized a lot of things happening to me, because I was a lonely kid because I didn’t understand anything about school.
So I visualized myself doing it. I wanted to be a musician but I didn’t have the talent for it, so I decided I wanted to be famous, so I became an actor. Took a long time and a lot of years, and yet I had no real struggles with it, just being – my life has been very easy compared to – it’s very interesting that Richard Burton was being interviewed by Dick Cavett, and Burton was never close to his father and came from a very large family.
He told Dick Cavett, this was years ago, he said, “I went home,” and he arrived at his sister’s house. He said, “Where’s Dad?” and his father was down the pub having a drink. He said he was never close to his father, so he said, “I arrived into the pub,” and he said, “My father was there.” He said, “Hello, Dad,” and he said, “Oh, hello,” as if I’d just been around the corner for a pack of cigarettes. And he said, “Hello.” (Laughter)
He said, “I’ve been reading in the paper that it says, ‘Richard Burton,’ and ‘75,000 pounds last year.’ Is that true?” He said, “No, it’s wrong. I had 175,000 pounds.” And he said, “My father looked at me and said, “What for?” (Laughter) And he said, “I’ve been asking myself that question ever since.”
That’s me. I’m just waiting for somebody to tap me on the shoulder, “What? I’m not supposed to be here?” (unintelligible) back to the bakery in Port Talbot.
Tavis: That’s a great story, (laughter) and it leads me to this.
Hopkins: That’s my life as well. I don’t know what I’m doing here. I look at photographs – I’ve got an iPhone, you know the and you can flash down on your photograph of where you’re born and then you’re standing in the same street?
Tavis: Right.
Hopkins: I’m obsessed. I look at my grandfather’s house, I’ll be beep, beep, beep, beep, and it zooms, and there’s my grandfather’s house or my house where I was born, or the area. I’m looking at that – how did I get from there to here? How did that happen? Nothing to do with me. My philosophy is that my life is none of my business, because I used to be here.
Tavis: I like that, actually.
Hopkins: But my life is none of my business. I woke up one morning, I was born, I was useless in school and I’m suddenly living out here, I’m sitting on the set with you, and I think, what on Earth is this about?
I was brought up on Warner Brothers movies. I saw Bogart and Bacall in “To Have and Have Not,” sitting in the dark cinema, post-war years in London, and many, many years later, many years later, 30 years later I’m in a dressing room in New York doing “Equus,” and who should walk into the dressing room the first night? Lauren Bacall and Richard Burton’s ex-wife. I thought, what on Earth is this all about? I can’t explain it.
Tavis: How does the painting that you do so well fit into all of this, that you can’t explain.
Hopkins: Well, again, I have no education, I have no academic background in painting or in music, but I write music and I compose music and I write and I sell paintings, and my rule is, well, they can’t arrest me. (Laughter) They can’t (unintelligible). So I paint and my wife says, “Go and paint,” and she’s the boss, and she says, “Go and paint,” and she’s the business side of it, and she says, “Go and paint,” and I say, “Okay.” (Makes noise) And they sell it. (Laughter)
I’ve got a show in Hawaii and I write music and I’ve got a concert in Birmingham right now.
Tavis: And you’re conducting.
Hopkins: Yeah, I conducted the (unintelligible) symphony.
Tavis: I heard about this.
Hopkins: I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.
Tavis: You and Shaquille O’Neal both conducting.
Hopkins: Yeah, I stood up there and they said (unintelligible) “Just do this,” boom. (Laughter) He said, “And then we do this to stop.” And I started a piece I wrote called “Schizoid Salsa,” a friend of mine, Steve Barton, was playing the piano, very fast piece. So I went (makes noise). And I thought, when do I stop, and said, “Now!” Boom. (Laughter) And I got a standing ovation. Can I tell you one more story?
Tavis: Please, tell me, I want to hear this, yeah.
Hopkins: Do you remember Ben Johnson? Ben Johnson, he was in a movie called – he was an old cowboy actor and he was in “Shane” with Alan Ladd and he was discovered by John Ford. Anyway, he did “The Last Picture Show” with Jeff Bridges.
Tavis: I know that well, yeah.
Hopkins: Yeah, and I met him at a party, and he was sitting on the floor eating a little plate of nuts or something, and I said, “Could I talk to you?” and so we talked. He said, “You’re an actor?” I said, “Yeah.” I said, “I thought you were great in ‘Last Picture Show.'” He said, “Oh, yeah, that,” he said, “I don’t even remember it.” He said, “You know, I got the script,” he said, “I couldn’t make sense of it.
“This young director,” he said, “This young director, I didn’t know who the hell he was.” He said, “And they had me fishing in a scene and smoking a cigarette, and I had to tell them about my life and about an old girlfriend.” And he said, “I could never learn lines. I’m a horse wrangler.
“I worked with Duke Wayne,” and he said, “I was sitting there smoking a cigarette,” he said, “So they wrote it on a board across the outside of the pond, in big writing so I could read it.” And so this, and then – “They gave me an Oscar, so go figure.” (Laughter) So there you are.
Tavis: Well, for a guy who has not figured out yet who he is, what he’s doing or why he’s here –
Hopkins: Don’t try and figure it out.
Tavis: – yeah, he’s doing all right. He is Sir Anthony Hopkins. He is an Academy Award winner and nominee four times. His new project is called “The Rite.” Anthony Hopkins, always a delight to have you on the program, and give my best to your wife. I was teasing when you walked on – the camera can’t really pick this up but there’s a wonderful pattern in this suit that you have here, and you said your wife picked that out.
Hopkins: She picked it out.
Tavis: And your wife got you losing this weight, you look amazing.
Hopkins: Yeah, yeah. She gave – she didn’t give me the microphone, though (unintelligible). (Laughter)
Tavis: Your wife is hooking you up.
Hopkins: Thank you very much.
Tavis: I love it.
Walmart – Save money. Live better.]

Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm