MOVIES : Silence of the Demons : Anthony Hopkins has had his share, but while making 'Howards End' he lifted spirits--his own and those of all around him

David Gritten, who is based in London, is a frequent contributor to Calendar

The scene conjures up an England that has not existed for quite a while: an imposing manor house with a garden gently sloping down to offer views of the English Channel lapping languorously against a narrow strip of beach. The sun is hidden by clouds, and a light drizzle falls as three figures hurry arm in arm down the slope.

The man, in a sensible raincoat over a solid, square-cut gray suit, strides purposefully across the lawn; his female companions flutter beside him in creamy long dresses with bustles and frills. There is something achingly beautiful about this scene, though it also evokes a sense of wistfulness, of something lost.

This is the set of James Ivory's latest film, "Howards End." The year is 1910, the last throes of the Edwardian area; the Great War has not begun, and Britain's empire has yet to start its fateful crumbling.

Though we are in England--in south Devon, to be precise--Ivory has conjured up a mythical country that exists solely as a filmic landscape in which the novels of E. M. Forster are played out. It looks exquisite, this Forsterland--verdant and orderly, tranquil and chock-full of period detail in its clothes, furnishings, bed linens, office equipment and real-estate facades. Its inhabitants may seem like archetypes, but inwardly they seethe with complex calculations. "A Room With a View" and "Maurice" were also shot in Ivory's Forsterland.

Stars do not inhabit Forsterland movies; rather, the best roles tend to go instead to classy British actors such as James Wilby, Simon Callow and Helena Bonham-Carter. "Howards End," which will be released through Sony Classics in New York on March 13 and at the Royal in Los Angeles on April 15, has inadvertently proved an exception; the man in the raincoat is Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins, who has become a star of extraordinary proportions, thanks to his bravura turn as the diabolically clever Hannibal Lecter, the psychotic serial killer in "The Silence of the Lambs," a role that brought a best-actor Oscar nomination.

"We signed Tony up at just the right time," Ivory says dryly. " 'Silence of the Lambs' was finished, and though people who had seen it were excited, it hadn't opened, and no one guessed what a big hit it would be."

"It's extremely primal," Hopkins says, trying to explain the film's appeal. "It's like a myth . . . there's a hero, only it's a female hero . . . that whole business of the girl imprisoned in the pit . . . you can explain it in Joseph Campbell terms, yes." He shakes his head in disbelief. "I'm told that audiences come out of it laughing in exhilaration. They've been on a roller-coaster ride, you see."

Although Hopkins was hotter than hot, he wanted to do "Howards End," and being an "overnight" success after 30 years of acting was not about to divert him; he has spent too long confronting the dark side of his psyche, facing his demons and discovering who he is. So he came to Devon, to toil in a movie budgeted at about $8 million.

On this day on the set, Hopkins' hair is slicked back in Lecterish fashion, but his appearance is different. He seems 20 pounds heavier, though the bulky gray suit might account for that, and his cheeks are fuller, his eyes milder, and a fussy small mustache completes the look of Forster's Henry Wilcox, a prosperous member of the Edwardian merchant class.

"You wear the clothes, which automatically make you stand a little straighter, and even speak a little better," Hopkins says softly, adjusting his wing collar. "After that, you are automatically governed by the plot."

In "Howards End," two sisters, Margaret and Helen Schlegel (Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham-Carter) on a tour of Europe meet the Wilcoxes. A bond forms, though the Schlegels are liberal, urban art lovers, and the Wilcoxes practical and materialistic. Mrs. Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) and Margaret become friends, much like mother and daughter. When Mrs. Wilcox dies, Margaret weds Henry and brings the families together. Henry and the sisters finally settle at Howards End, the Wilcoxes' idyllic family seat, but happiness only follows tragic events in which more than one life is broken.

Henry Wilcox is a complex character; outwardly stuffy and proper, he also is a wellspring of great affection. While inflexible and stern, Hopkins must explore a tender, loving side of his character. Thompson is in no doubt about Henry's appeal: "Margaret is a young woman who's had to be mother and father to her younger sister and brother. She's full of loneliness, and the sense of safety when Mr. Wilcox comes along is overpowering. Part of the reason Tony's so good for the role is that Mr. Wilcox is also very attractive. There's a part of the film when it looks as though they may not be together, and there has to be a sense of what Margaret would be giving up. You have to think she'd be missing a good time sexually."

Thompson is much more articulate about Wilcox than the man who's playing him. Says Hopkins: "People in America have said to me--oh, Henry Wilcox? He's a bad guy, right? Real uptight. But he's not a bad guy. He's the product of his times, that's all.

"I don't think the Edwardians were so repressed, really. They were workaholics, these men who built empires, and they were vigorous--including sexually vigorous." But Hopkins doesn't much like to talk about the nuances of his roles. "Some directors say: 'OK, let's talk about character. ' But, really, what is there to talk about? On stage, sure, you have to establish what the character is. But on film you can put it together like a jigsaw puzzle. It seems to fall into place without thinking."

If this sounds laissez-faire, both Hopkins and Ivory seem content. "Jim's quite fascinating," Hopkins says. "He gives you so much freedom and lets the actors sort out scenes for themselves. It's like working through Zen--it's effortless. If you have a pleasant director and everyone knows what they're doing, everything moves smoothly."

In this regard Hopkins is a typically British actor, working from the outside in, and not given to what other Brits see as the tiresome introspection and self-analysis of Strasberg-influenced American actors. Certainly he sees no reason why acting should preclude fun or a pleasant atmosphere.

Most on the film set agree that Hopkins has lifted spirits on "Howards End." Ivory concurs: "He's remarkably easy and relaxed. There's never any of the arrogance you sometimes find with a certain type of middle-aged male star. He's quite lacking in that kind of thing, which immediately reduces the tendency to tension that might arise through the star's antics. This is evident during a delicate scene with Thompson on an ornate Victorian staircase; Hopkins takes direction meekly, absorbing every word Ivory says, staring up at the director with what almost looks like schoolboy awe.

No one doubts Hopkins' qualities; screenwriter William Goldman, in whose "Magic" he starred, says flatly: "Tony is one of the very best actors in the entire world. Simple as that."

Hopkins leaves much of the decision-making in choosing roles to his agent, Jeremy Conway. "He'll recommend scripts, sort of the ones he doesn't think I should pursue or I'd be bored by," the actor says. "Then I follow my hunches, my intuition." This may explain why Hopkins has sometimes cropped up in movies that seemed unworthy. "You can make mistakes that way," he agrees.

His acceptance of the role of Henry was typical: "I was asked if I wanted to be in 'Howards End' for Merchant Ivory (the partnership of producer Ismail Merchant, American-born director Ivory and German-born novelist-screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala), and I said yes. Just like that. Well, they make good films, don't they? I think they do. The acting's always rather good.

"And I'd read 'Howards End' in 1983 when I was filming 'The Bounty.' So I went along to meet Merchant Ivory at Brown's Hotel to talk it over, and they thought I'd read the script. I said I had, but I hadn't. What I always do is read the first 10 pages or so. That gives you an idea. And I always look at the last page, see if my character's still going." He chuckles. "That's sort of how I do things."

Hopkins is a little bemused by "feeling the same" as he did only a year ago. But since the success of "Silence of the Lambs," his world has changed dramatically; he is no longer merely a talented stage actor who did OK in movies, but rather an enormously bankable film star.

Hopkins has joined the cast of "Charlie," Richard Attenborough's bio-pic of Charles Chaplin currently in production. He also has wrapped filming in Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula," playing Dracula's nemesis, Dr. Van Helsing, the eccentric but brilliant alchemist. Susan Landau, Coppola's associate producer on "Dracula," says both she and Coppola felt that "Anthony was perfect casting, not so much because of 'Silence of the Lambs' but because of his whole body of work."

There is evidence of Hopkins' new status all around him, and not necessarily in material terms. But then Hopkins lives quite comfortably. He has a three-story house on an elegant terrace in a fashionable part of London. A Steinway dominates the living room. Hopkins cares little for cars, and prefers walking; he will march across London for more than three miles to keep appointments. "I may get myself a flat in L.A. now (that) this has happened," he says of life after "Silence of the Lambs." "But I even gave up my green card, you know. So I'm not sure."

Hopkins grew up in the grim south Wales steel town called Port Talbot, where he was born 54 years ago, the son of Dick Hopkins, the local baker. He remembers feeling inadequate and intellectually dull as a boy. But he was a gifted pianist and he used to frequent the town's one cinema, reveling in horror movies starring the likes of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

Richard Burton was Port Talbot's local boy made good, and one day, hearing he was in town, the 15-year-old Hopkins shyly knocked on his door to ask for his autograph: "He was in a T-shirt and shaving with an electric razor. This was about 1952, of course, so I thought this was very sophisticated. I remember his charisma, his fascinating green eyes and that beautiful voice of his." As he walked back home, Burton and his wife, Sybil, sped past him in their new Jaguar: "And I thought, oh, I wish I could be like that, get out of the world I'm living in. I saw that Jag driving away, and thought, how wonderful , how glamorous . Ever since, that's all I wanted."

What he got, initially at least, was rather different. His natural acting talent quickly surfaced, and he went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, landing professional roles soon after graduating. Roles at the National Theatre and London's Royal Court fast established him as one of Britain's most promising young actors.

But there was a dark side--his temperament was marked by sudden mood swings. Like many other Celtic actors--Burton, Peter O'Toole, Richard Harris--he became known as a hell-raiser, a man on a short fuse.

In 1969 he abruptly left his first wife and their 14-month-old daughter. Alcohol was taking its toll: "I thought it was clever to drink people under the table," he says now. "But I wasn't happy." Four years later, another momentous walkout: He quit his career at the National, unable to stomach what he saw as meddling on the part of some of the company's outstanding directors, such as John Dexter and Michael Blakemore.

Hollywood was the obvious place to go, and he settled there in 1975. "I loved it," he says. "I immediately felt much more at home there. Still do, actually." His second wife, Jenni, was starting to become disillusioned with his drinking. Finally he joined a support group for alcoholics after driving from Los Angeles to Phoenix one night with no memory of having made the journey. In personal terms his life had turned around, but the work offered was erratic in quality. Certainly he enjoyed movies such as "The Elephant Man," "The Bounty" and "Magic," in which he played a schizophrenic ventriloquist.

But he also had to endure "International Velvet," "Audrey Rose" and "Change of Seasons," which saw him sharing a hot tub with Bo Derek and arguing fiercely with Shirley MacLaine off camera. It was time to head back home; an offer from playwright David Hare to star at the National in "Pravda" as a ruthless newspaper tycoon proved the perfect excuse. He also triumphed as Lear and Mark Antony at the National, then went on to "M. Butterfly." He was on a roll that has yet to end.

Back on the "Howards End" set in Devon, in an upstairs room of the mansion, Emma Thompson nibbles thoughtfully on lunch. "Tony's a bit saintly, you know," she says. "If I had to take a person out of literature who he's like, I'd say T. H. White's Lancelot. That's because he's been through a terrific amount, met with his demons, fought them and turned away from them. Lancelot's not pure. Actually, he's brutal. But the reason he's the kindest of the knights is that he chooses not to be. Anybody who's made that kind of choice in their lives is pretty stunning."

Hopkins says he will do a "Silence of the Lambs" sequel--as soon as author Thomas Harris has completed his next Lecter book. But he won't allow himself to get typecast. "British actors are lucky, really," he muses. "We're not hidebound. Whereas American actors today. . . . I mean, Kevin Costner has to go on playing heroes. Henry Fonda didn't do that. Cary Grant was happy to play a character who showed fear--and I know I want to."

The last few years, he says, have seen an indefinable weight lifted from his shoulders, one that has burdened him since childhood. "I had an awful sense of something pulling me back that I couldn't get rid of," he offers.

First, Hopkins renewed his acquaintance with the late John Dexter, his old adversary, who directed him in "M. Butterfly." It was an experience he enjoyed hugely: "When I left the play I felt refreshed. It was like I'd purged myself of some demon of regret or resentment.

"My recent films have been like therapy for me. I feel in some way as if I've been let off the hook. I used to agonize over acting, but I really don't any more. Filming has allowed me to put to rest a lot of doubts and demons."

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