Simply Put, It’s Chemistry : Two actors, two Oscars, two tart tongues--Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins do the Tracy and Hepburn thing

<i> Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

They are reigning darlings of the art-house crowd. Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson--Oscar winners and co-stars, first paired last year in the surprise hit “Howards End,” the film adaptation oM. Forster’s classic novel. This year, they are re-teamed in a second movie from the Merchant-Ivory team, “The Remains of the Day,” from the 1988 British novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.

In both films, they play unlikely lovers--he is stolid, proper and unreflective, while she is all sharp angles and tart common sense: a British Tracy and Hepburn.

Off screen, they also play as opposites, separated by more than 20 years, a generation of experience. He is a classically trained stage actor once considered heir to the tradition of Laurence Olivier. She is a self-taught comedian who first performed with the Cambridge Footlights at the Edinburgh Festival.


At 55, he has known equal measures of professional acclaim and disappointment. She, however, has moved effortlessly ahead--first in her marriage and professional collaboration with actor-director Kenneth Branagh, and now on her own, winning the Oscar at age 34 for her role as Margaret Schlegel in “Howards End.”

He has a reputation for only recently taming his demons, for his bouts with alcohol, for dabbling in Eastern religions--an actor who approached his career “like a bull facing the red flag.” He won his Oscar for “The Silence of the Lambs,” playing the serial killer Hannibal Lecter. She, on the other hand, is breezily self-confident, insisting she has never experienced frustration in her career. “But then, you see, that’s been my luck,” she says airily.

They are, apparently, devoted to each other as friends and colleagues. After “The Remains of the Day,” they went their separate ways, at least temporarily: He plays writer C. S. Lewis in “Shadowlands,” and she is a lawyer defending Daniel Day-Lewis in “In the Name of the Father.” Both are due before Christmas.

Without further ado, we draw the curtain on Tone and Em, as they call each other, in their best drawing room comedy manner. He, seated on the hotel suite sofa, is dressed soberly if nattily in a dark blue double-breasted suit and navy polka-dot tie. She enters left amid an entourage--a vision in gold silk, a fringed shawl slipping about her shoulders, sweptback hair and lashes heavy with mascara.

E.T.: Oh, I told you I wouldn’t do anything with him! Leave, please! How are you? You look fantastic!

A.H.: So do you! You look fabulous. Somebody’s done your hair.

E.T.: Oh, this lady who did my hair years and years ago. Isn’t this nice (patting her trousers)? It’s Giorgio Armani. I borrowed it.

A.H.: Why? Can’t you afford anything yet?

E.T.: No, but you’re very rich.

A.H.: Yes, I am very rich.

E.T.: I’ve got these long nails that I really ought to cut. I love your suit.

A.H.: Smart, isn’t it? (Pats his trousers.)

E.T.: (Opening his jacket to look at the label.) Oh, Valentino--you tart! He’s gotten very smart. Yesterday, he was wearing a pink shirt.


A.H.: So what do we have to do today, talk about ourselves all day?

E.T.: You’re going to be discussing me all afternoon.

A.H.: Oh, yes: “What is she really like to work with?”

This is your first film together since Howards End, which is where this great collaboration began. What attracted you to work together?

E.T.: It’s never just the roles, it’s the combination--role, director, co-stars--that counts. When I found out about “Howards End,” I learned I would be working with Tony, whom I had met years ago in the lift at the BBC. What was I doing at the time?

A.H.: You were with your mother and you had just had lunch.

E.T.: I mean, what was I doing ? I must have been doing a play or something. But I looked into Tony’s icy blues and thought, “Help!” I was terrified. You were quite a frightening person to meet.

A.H.: Was I?

E.T.: This was about a trillion years ago. When I found out I was going to work with Tony and Vanessa Redgrave--the pair of them!--in this wonderful material with this director James Ivory, I couldn’t believe it.

A.H.: What was the first scene we had together? Oh, the one when I come in with the dogs. You had been filming for a week and I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do with my character. And here we were in this very fast scene with these yapping dogs, and you’re very good on lines and I have to struggle. And I said, “Thank you very much, Miss Schlugel” instead of “Schlegel,” and we were just gone; we couldn’t stop laughing. Jim kept saying (imitates an American accent), “I don’t know what’s so funny, they just seem to laugh all the time.”

So the great working friendship developed. How did that affect working together again on this film?


E.T.: We have a great time working together, but that’s not always the case with actors. We’re lucky.

A.H.: Humor has a lot to do with it, being able to relax, really. It sounds like an affectation to be joking on a set a lot, but we are honestly like that. Emmy has a great sense of humor. If you’re intense all the time, you can’t really function. I’m just getting a coffee, do you want one?

E.T.: Oh, yes, thanks, matey--white coffee, please. I love to work with people again because for me when you go onto a set it’s about creating a family. Because if you know everyone very well they sort of become invisible. If you’re working with someone you don’t know very well, you feel as if you’re being watched and then you start to perform, and the camera sees you “performing” instead of acting.

How did you both come to be in this new film? Had you read the book?

A.H.: I had read it a long time ago and thought it was a very good book, a very sad book and even a funny book, but I never thought about it being a film. I don’t ever think that way, do you?

E.T.: No, but I had read it. I’m just trying to remember when.

A.H.: But then I heard that somebody was going to do it--Mike Nichols. He asked me--this was long after “Silence of the Lambs”--if I wanted to do it and I said yes.


He was originally going to direct it and Meryl Streep was possibly going to play the role of Miss Kenton.

E.T.: Yes, and she would have been brilliant in it.

A.H.: Well, I wanted her in it.

E.T.: (Laughing) I fed you that line! I fed you that!

A.H.: There was some trouble with the first script and then James Ivory was assigned to direct and I got the new script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala . . . I kept thinking about the end of the film, the final meeting with Miss Kenton at the seaside resort, and that touched me a lot.

How do you build a character?

A.H.: Going back to “Howards End”--I was in makeup and I had just come from wardrobe and been outfitted in all those Edwardian clothes that, what’s his name--oh, Wilcox--wears. And I’m sitting there trying not to give him too much thought because I like to keep my mind in neutral when I’m working, and the makeup artist says, “Do you want a mustache?” I didn’t want to, but when she cut my hair very short and put on the mustache, I said, “That’s it.” With Stevens in “Remains of the Day,” it was the same thing. You put me in this butler’s outfit and the rest is just common sense. I knew that I couldn’t walk around with my hands in my pockets, leaning against the walls.

It can’t be that simple. You’re one of Britain’s most respected actors.

A.H.: Well, once you’ve learned the part--and I try to learn the whole film as much as possible--you’ve got the whole recipe inside you so your mind can make unconscious decisions.


E.T.: I don’t think it bears much discussion, acting. To poke at its heart and prod its entrails is very dodgy.

A.H.: Emma is right. Somebody asked me the other day, “What is the arc of the part?” And I had to say, “I don’t know.” And he said, “Well, what is the metaphor of the part?” I think he’d had too much film school.

Emma, does your work in comedy affect how you train for a role?

E.T.: Being in a revue is the ultimate training, going from character to character and changing the lines every night. Fear! Terror! And comedy? Trying to make people laugh? It’s the hardest thing. But we work very similarly--you just do it. Sometimes we read a scene, like the big fight in the garden--and we rehearse extensively because of all the moves involved. But then there are other scenes where we read them and say, “Oh, let’s not touch it, let’s just let it happen.” Once you’ve created this person, you must allow that person to do whatever they would do under the circumstances.

Tony, you’ve played a number of men out of touch with their feelings, like Wilcox and Stevens, but also evil men, like Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Do you have to like the people you play?

A.H.: You do have to like them.

E.T.: You have to know why they do what they do.

A.H.: The worst thing you can do if you play an evil man is to judge them. I played Hitler once, and if you play him like a zombie, like sometimes actors play Nazis on television, it’s because the actor has divorced himself from the character and is judging him.


Let’s talk about Emma’s character in “Remains of the Day.” Miss Kenton is of a very different class from Margaret Schlegel, but they are similar, spunky, plain-Jane types. I would have expected that a housekeeper in an English manor house would have been more deferential, even mousy. And yet she says she is a coward, too frightened to leave.

E.T.: You understand that those women had nothing! She was lower middle class and she decided to have a career, which in those days was a big decision. So she had to be strong, even powerful. Eventually she does leave but in such emotional turmoil and in such a tragic way--marrying a man she doesn’t love to spite the man she does love.

I found that very interesting and similar to Margaret Schlegel, that these two women had developed pretty good careers and then the idea of love, the desire for the conjunction, sexual, emotional and all the rest of it, just stops her in her tracks. Miss Kenton is like this bird, who just flies against this horrible monolithic personality, until she breaks her wings. It’s a horrible thing to watch. She’s desperate, desperate.

By the end of the film, she seems to have come to terms with that a bit. Or at least she recognizes, by way of her marriage and her child, the need for human relationships , where Stevens still does not.

E.T.: At the end, she is a quintessentially disappointed woman. Yes, she has a child, which she loves, and that has made up perhaps for the fact that she made the wrong decision. But if that is something that would make you happy, then you are an extremely undemanding personality. I find it extremely sad.

A.H.: I find the scene between Emma and Tim (Piggot-Smith, who plays her husband) so heartbreaking, because it’s all about lost opportunity. He’s lost his hair and he looks like an alcoholic, and she’s become very brittle. That’s an essay in regret and despair, and not just British despair; it’s universal. Back then, people just didn’t jump into bed with each other.


E.T.: The consequences would have been too terrible. If Stevens and Miss Kenton had gotten together it would have been grave.

A.H.: He couldn’t even have stood to have a kiss between them.

E.T.: He would have imploded, wouldn’t he?

A.H.: To open up the Pandora’s box inside himself would have been unspeakable, because who knows what kind of demons would have come out. Most people’s fears are sexual repression, the fear of what we could unleash in ourselves.

E.T.: And also a fear of love, because you know instinctively that it contains pain.

A.H.: Yes. I think that scene at the bus stop where you break down and cry is so devastating, because you were the one who was committed and Stevens still doesn’t understand.

E.T.: Yes, and we weren’t sure that (crying) was the right thing to do. But she thinks she’s going to be able to deal with seeing him, and then she realizes that he’s come to ask her back--and it’s too late.

A.H.: And Jim kept saying, “No tears, no tears. Let’s just keep it very dry. Do it again.” It’s very hard; those scenes that are painful. . . . To use that overused word, Chekhovian . That regret that people have when they have not fulfilled themselves.

Their relationship is also sort of a metaphor, if I can say that, for the failed political aspirations of a certain class of Britons. How aware do you need to be of history to play a period film?

A.H.: Honestly, I’m not very bright about all that social context bit. With this film, you need to understand the climate of the rise of Nazism and the function of the British Fascist Party and how quite a few members of the aristocracy initially had sympathy for the Nazis because it looked like they had a solution to the world’s economic problems.


E.T.: I always like to read around the subject that we’re filming. On this, I read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” and “The Berlin Diaries.” You remember what Hitler did when Paris fell: He made them go back to the same clearing, the same railway carriage where the treaty had been signed. It’s one of the reasons fascism came to power in the bloody first place, that terrible rage of having been smashed in the first war. Many people in England felt that the Versailles Treaty was very harsh.

A.H.: Yes, remember that Bernard Shaw even called Mussolini a superman. Gandhi called him a superman. In hindsight it is easy to condemn, but you have these facts to be conversant with the time.

Listening to you talk about the film and its themes--repressed middle-aged people, a forgotten political era--it hardly sounds like the stuff of a hit movie. Yet, who would have thought “Howards End” would be such a success?

A.H.: Yes, it is odd that something like “Howards End” was a big hit. I think sometimes the market research at studios has a hard time letting go of some of their preconceptions that American audiences need more--more explanations, more action, more violence, more sex. I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s about stories.

E.T.: That was a great story with great characters, a complex story. Normally, we see very simple film relationships--mostly based on sex--and that is difficult to relate to. I mean how can you relate to a husband and wife who just stare at each other sexually all the time? You think, “You can’t be married, because that’s not what it’s about.” I think films today reflect a pretty morally bankrupt period in our history. We don’t really care much about the young except how much money we can get out of them. We don’t care that they don’t have hope. If we don’t represent people--particularly women--over the age of 40, well, no wonder we have a whole generation who are frightened of getting older.

Is that a peculiarity of the American perspective?


A.H.: Well, it’s a fear of death, really. I caught the American bug with fitness when I lived here. But in England we’re indoctrinated with that old system of “Don’t get out of line, because it will all end in tears before bedtime,” which is a very British attitude.

E.T.: Instead of celebrating success in England, which they do in the States too much, it’s very much a kind of a slapping you down. I think that it is sometimes painful but also in some ways very healthy.

A.H.: In Britain there is a grittiness that keeps you anchored. And in England actors are luckier; they have an easier time of it because there is a repertory system where you can get training and work as an actor.

E.T.: Yes, in America the tradition of theater came from somewhere else, and films started a whole different world. What I find about acting in England is that we’re not taken very seriously. My mother (actress Phyllida Law) is a saint, but she can’t get insurance for her car because she is an actress.

A.H.: Because we’re still vagabonds and tramps. One day on this film, the Duke of Beaufort and his wife and Princess Michael were down for a hunting weekend (at the estate, Badminton House in Gloucestershire). They came down into the room where we were shooting the scene where my father dies, and they came into this little bedroom and said: “Oh, this is where you all are. Ah, now who’s that? Is that the cameraman? Oh, jolly good. Must be a lot of fun.” They were just being friendly, but it is good to meet that every once in a while, because actors can get so self-important.

E.T.: And it is great fun not being quite respectable. Three years at drama school, you’re put with your contemporaries who tell you you’re rubbish, smack you about. You have a laugh with them and rub a few edges off. Once you’re up there in front of the camera, you really can no longer fail. I didn’t do a film until I was 27 and sort of a mature-ish person. I don’t know how people cope in this country when they’re 15 and become famous. It’s hellish.


So are you better equipped to deal with fame at this point in your career? Have the Oscars changed anything for you?

A.H.: For me, it’s a nice game, a bit of a laugh. That sounds very British, but it is. I’m on a bit of roll now, doing about two films a year, but nothing really changes.

E.T.: Nothing changes at the root. What does change is that more people in the business know about you, you’re more likely to get opportunities offered to you and people are much nicer to you in offices! But I’ve only made one film in America, “Dead Again”--one out of nine. The others may have been successfully released in America, but I haven’t been making American films. So I’m not here because I’m hankering after a bigger career. My next film is another English one with (playwright-screenwriter) Christopher Hampton.

Emma, you’ve been fairly outspoken about the lack of good roles for women.

E.T.: They are pretty bad, and not just for women but the men’s roles too at the moment. In England, as an actress, it’s such a blessing, you never have to think about how you look. You’re cast to play a character--in that sense I’m a character actress--and that is so much more interesting. Here, women go off the map at age 28. You’re not supposed to look your age. I want to look my age! Where is our love of growing wise?

You wrote a screenplay of Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility ,” which has a woman protagonist, partly to help fill that gap, didn’t you?

E.T.: Yes, I did. It’s such a modern story, really. We’re giving it to Columbia tomorrow.

A.H.: Oh, you’ve finished it?

E.T.: I have, Tone. And there’s a part in it for you, my darling.

Is there a closer working relationship between British actors and the American film industry?


A.H.: When I first moved to California, in 1975, I was living in Benedict Canyon, and I would get up in the morning and look at these palm trees and I loved it. Of course, you also want good scripts, and they didn’t come, so I did go back to London, not with my tail between my legs, but because I realized I was a foreigner and I wasn’t going to get first choice. But I think in general, America has been very generous to British actors.

E.T.: Also, my generation was brought up on films. That’s different from when Olivier said to Burton once, “What have you decided to be, dear boy, an actor or a star?”

A.H.: I always wanted to do films because I always thought I was a bit of a dunce in the theater. I was virulently ambitious. I was frustrated as a kid, born in Wales; my father was a baker. I was hopeless at school. Then came a moment when I met an actor in south Wales who happened to be Richard Burton, and I said I want to be like him. I think a lot of people in this profession are damaged goods.

Emma, your entry into acting was quite different.

E.T.: Yes, but remember I was brought up in the theater tradition. I was at the Avignon Festival, this French theater festival where you smoke Gitanes in the morning and try to be cool. I remember waking up in the middle of the night in this dormitory and sitting down and writing to Dad that I could not not do theater, because I could never turn my back on these people. I love actors, whether they’re in a comedy sketch in Edinburgh or making “In the Name of the Father” with Daniel Day-Lewis.

A.H.: Oh, you’ve finished that? How was Dan?

E.T.: He was brilliant, lovely and quite shy. Not like us, tarts really!

A.H.: Oh, yes, tarts! Media sluts! That’s what my assistant calls me: a media slut who gives coffee to the paparazzi : “Hi, please come back!”

E.T.: Camera, camera! Eyedrops! Eyedrops!

A.H.: Actors, we’re pathetic. When I was doing “M. Butterfly” in the West End, I had a co-star who would stand in the wings and through a little peephole he’d say to the audience, “Please love me, please love me.”


E.T.: I love actors! Because even with all their pretensions--and people get sort of daft about it--they’re always unsure, always vulnerable.

A.H.: As long as you don’t go mad and think you’re divinely gifted or something, as long as you keep a balance, it generates its own sort of destiny.*