Tilting With Demons

Sean Mitchell is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Presumably it is safe to say, without a Nexis search, that Anthony Hopkins is the only actor who has now played both Richard Nixon and Pablo Picasso in major motion pictures. Surely he must be one of the very few who would even attempt such a thing. Tom Hanks and Kevin Costner get the big American hero roles and that's fine with everybody. But you want to try Nixon and Picasso, back to back?

Hopkins, who is Welsh by birth, English by training and American by residence, got Nixon, of course, from the iron whim of Oliver Stone. His Picasso, which arrives on screens in "Surviving Picasso" on Sept. 20, comes via his old "Howards End" friends, producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory--possibly former friends now, but more about that in a minute.

It's a late summer afternoon at the Four Seasons Hotel, and in the all-but-deserted restaurant on the first floor, Hopkins has just ordered a small pot of tea. Anything but Earl Grey, he said. "Have you got something that's not flavored?" English breakfast would do, plus, if the waiter could accommodate him, please, a few cookies.

Hopkins has a courteous, even courtly manner that offers no clue to a previous life when, by his own account, he was a heavy drinker and volatile personality.

He is healthy-looking, thick through the chest, his silver hair swept back from a bold forehead. He wears a pressed blue-denim western shirt underneath an expensive-looking blue blazer.

"I've had two journeys here," he says, resuming an interview about his career, his voice set in a low, almost humble register. "I came out in '75 and did some television, got an Emmy Award, and I thought, 'Right, here we go.' " (The Emmy was for "The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case"; he won another, in 1981, for "The Bunker.")

"And of course as an English actor I didn't expect to get first choice over Robert De Niro or anything like that," he says. "But after awhile things got worse, and I thought, 'I'd better go back.' Then suddenly, lo and behold, out of nowhere came 'The Silence of the Lambs.' Now, I'm a little older and a little wiser, I hope. And it's all happening again at the back end of my life. I'm 58 and my hair's falling out and I'm getting a little slower. But there's a little more cash in the bank, so I don't have to struggle. I can have a laugh now."

Though perhaps still thought of by many as a British thespian of the first rank, Hopkins has put Britain and Wales and the theater behind him. He loves Los Angeles, loves America. He was cut out for it all along, one could surmise by listening to him go on about his rootless, restive soul and the solo open-road marathons in which he jumps behind the wheel of his "Mitsubishi jeep thing," a Montero actually, and heads for Dallas or Salt Lake City or Seattle (or all three in one recent 5,000-mile impromptu odyssey) just for the drive.

He has a house in Pacific Palisades and lives there by himself. His second wife, Jenni, remains in England much of the time. (He has a grown daughter from an earlier marriage.)

"I live out here, she lives there," he says. "She seems to accept it. I told her, 'When you married me you took on a pile of trouble.' She said, 'I wish you could settle down.' I said, 'I can't.' I'm good at my job but lousy at relationships with people; don't keep friends for very long. I'm happy. I'm in love with my own solitariness. I spend hours in my house, eventually I'll have a meal. But I'm a lousy cook.

"I made some soup the other day for the first time in my life. I eat on the hoof, standing up and drinking out of bottles. I can't sit down to eat; it bores me, sitting down to eat. I'm hopelessly not domesticated."

He comes from the tradition of fake noses and Shakespeare for breakfast and training one's voice to hit the second balcony. But even while it has enabled him to become Hannibal Lecter as well as C.S. Lewis and King Lear, win an Oscar and be knighted by the queen at Buckingham Palace in 1993, he says he very much admires the opposite, personality-based tradition of Hollywood. And so he is more than happy to be here.

"When you look at something like Olivier in 'Lady Hamilton' with Vivien Leigh, I mean she wiped the screen with him. Because he's got wigs and false noses, and she's just a pure movie star. She just wipes the screen with him, just as Marilyn Monroe did in 'The Prince and the Showgirl.' . . . He's a great actor, but not the superb film personality that she was.

"There's something charismatic about American actors like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Bogart, Monroe, Sinatra. We don't produce anything in Britain near that dimension of personality. People like John Wayne may not have the ability to play King Lear and neither does Eastwood, but they're so much more watchable."

Maybe this is what you would expect to hear Sir Anthony Hopkins say. Maybe not. Quietly, he unburdens himself of any number of frank assessments of himself and others on this afternoon.

When Oliver Stone offered him the role of the disgraced American president last year, Hopkins says, he accepted it reluctantly--this after he had already signed on to play Picasso with Merchant Ivory. Which meant doing two psychologically strenuous pictures back to back. Still, he agreed to "Surviving Picasso" before he had even read the script.

"I didn't know how they could see me as Picasso, but I thought, 'Well, they have some faith in me to do it.' I said yes in case they might give it to someone else."

He burrowed his way into the part of Nixon not through mimicry so much as by calling up memories of his own inadequacies as a schoolboy in Wales ("I was a stupid kid, hopeless"). He says it was the hardest thing he has ever had to do, but the result earned him his third Academy Award nomination. (He won his Oscar for "Silence of the Lambs" and was also nominated for his leading role in "Remains of the Day.") With Picasso, he was forced to dig even deeper for links to his own character, but at the same time he had the advantage that Picasso is less familiar as a TV Age public personality than Nixon was.

Sipping tea, Hopkins sums up the challenge this way: "The most revolutionary artist of the century, he was capable of everything. He came along at the same time as quantum physics, which was demonstrating that we're living in a universe that is not what it seems to be. Picasso was doing paintings about the reality that is beneath the surface of what we perceive as reality. How do you play a man like that? I don't know, really.

"I watched some documentary films about him walking about and painting. I focused on parts of him: that peculiar blackout stare when he was painting, the walk."

He approximates a physical resemblance with makeup, including a shaved pate and dark contact lenses. And he tries to carry himself in Picasso's frame.

"It took me about 10 days to feel physically right for the part," Hopkins says. "I wanted a low-slung feeling, like an Andalusian peasant. I wore flat-heeled sandals, and one morning as I came down the steps, I had a cigarette in one hand and I just felt the turn of my head and my shoulders and I got the sensation: This is how he is--I think I've got it now. I looked at a Polaroid and I said, 'Yeah, that's him.' "

Although Hopkins is in nearly every scene, "Surviving Picasso," as the title suggests, is not a full-length biography but a 10-year slice of the painter's later life spanning his extended liaison with Francoise Gilot (they had two children together), whom he met in Paris in 1943 when she was a young art student and he was in his 60s.

Based in part on Gilot's 30-year-old book "Life With Picasso," as well as on Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington's more recent "Picasso: Creator and Destroyer," the film--written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala--is technically Gilot's story, but Picasso is its subject. Through Gilot's involvement with him, the filmmakers create a picture of his genius, his cruelty, his passion for and cavalier treatment of his wives and mistresses. The portrait of Gilot herself is secondary.

"I come across as boring because I'm the storyteller," says Natascha McElhone, the young British theater actress who plays Gilot, remarking on the film's narrative technique.

Just as he didn't do a full-on David Frye impression of Nixon, Hopkins decided not to try a Spanish accent as a way of impersonating Picasso. Instead he shifted his formidable voice into a mellower-than-usual range to fit the tone of the way the painter spoke.

"The things I have in common with Picasso," he says, "is that I'm a very hyperactive, A-type personality--and sensuous. I like smoking and drinking and destroying myself. I love doing all those things. I've learned to dispense with a few of them that were killing me slowly, but I've got big appetites. I want to move fast. I get very impatient. I can't sit still for long. And watching Picasso and what I've read about him, he couldn't sit still for long."

In Hopkins' skin, Picasso is complex and hardly a monster, yet the movie raises issues of bad behavior in the supremely talented and implicitly asks what genius can be said to excuse.

"I don't think genius should excuse anything," the actor says quickly. "John Gielgud was the greatest star we ever had in England of the classical theater . . . and he was one of the most pleasant, nicest men you could meet. There's nothing cruel about him. He was never sadistic to people. He was eccentric. I think he was a genius."

But there's Gielgud, and there's (supply your favorite terrifying Hollywood star or director).

"Oh, there are some monsters out here," Hopkins says, while seeming to have it both ways about his subject. "The difference is that Picasso was on his own, solitary. The women in his life suffered--two committed suicide, he consumed people. But I don't think it was malice aforethought. I think he was a man so consumed with the driving force of genius, as Beethoven was, that human relationships were meaningless.

"Here, though, I've witnessed and been with a couple of powerful people who destroyed other people on sets--even pipsqueaks and upstarts who . . . a particular AD [assistant director] who was the most unspeakable human being I ever met. He enjoyed destroying women on sets. I couldn't stand the man, I couldn't bear to be near him. And I attacked him one day. Those people, that kind of power, which is synthetic power, based on money and greed, that's horrifying, I think.

"Joe Levine was like that, an immense bully," he says of the late producer. "He attacked people who couldn't fight back. Picasso wasn't like that. Picasso wasn't a bully."

Hopkins, meanwhile, points out that bullying is not the only type of bad behavior found in the film business. There is another type that troubles him--and in fact troubled him on this film.

He is asked about what might come next out of his close association with the Merchant Ivory team, who cast him as Henry Wilcox in "Howards End," as Stevens, the remarkable butler in "The Remains of the Day," and now as Picasso. His answer is not at all what is expected and suggests that he might have done his last Merchant Ivory movie.

"Work with them again?"


"Well, life's too short to hold resentments, but I was pretty angry at Ismail because they do spiteful things like not pay the crew. And they hold back money, to gain interest. They didn't pay me for a month. I was going to sue them, and I vowed I would never work with them again. But Ismail's got the charm of the devil, you know. And I think, 'Well, I'm not going to hold a grudge.'

"Jim [Ivory] is different. I think he's embarrassed by it all. I should take the high road, but, no, I think it's good to blow the whistle on them. James Ivory is an odd fish but a wonderful director. I don't think Ismail deserves him. I like Ismail, but they have a very underhanded way of dealing with people. They're really cheapskates. They'll take the stripes out of your socks. I'll keep my hand on my wallet next time."

When apprised of these remarks, Merchant, speaking from his office in New York, says that indeed one of Hopkins' payments was delayed by the bank because of cash-flow accounting constraints, but he adds: "You know it is not easy to make an independent film. If I were sitting in Hollywood as a producer it would be a different thing." (Warner Bros. acquired "Surviving Picasso" for distribution after it was completed.)

"After Tony did 'Nixon' he was really quite exhausted," Merchant says. "He was going through a bad time. We were given X amount of money [$17.2 million] to do the film; it was not an open-ended coffers situation like Warner Bros. and other companies give to some production companies. We have to run a tight ship, so much so that Jim, David [Wolper, also a producer] and myself had to put up a portion of our salaries [as collateral for insurance to complete the picture].

"Everybody knows who we are and what we've done and how we work in films, so it's not something new as such. And each time he [Hopkins] has worked for us he has been treated like a king."

Bob Palmer, Hopkins' manager, chooses to describe the contretemps as a family squabble: "Tony knows how they have to cut corners, and it angers him eventually and he speaks his mind. But he would work with them again if the script were right."

Such rancor, not uncommon in the daily business of Hollywood, nevertheless can cast a shadow over an actor's view of his work in a particular film. Hopkins says he just saw the finished picture the other night. How did it look to him?

"I saw it with a friend of mine, and he said, 'What do you think?' I said, 'Yeah, I don't know. I think it's an elegant-looking film.' I can never tell."

Despite his success on the stage in London and New York in roles such as the psychiatrist in "Equus" and Antony in "Antony and Cleopatra," Hopkins claims never to have fit well into the English theater world:

"I'm not an intellectual, and I always feel like I'm back in school when I'm in the theater. There's a kind of Englishness about it--Shakespeare and all that. I was onstage doing 'Antony and Cleopatra' opposite Judi Dench, who is such a great Shakespearean actress, and I used to think, 'Aw, Tony, just forget it, just go home. Who do you think you are?' That was my own inner demon, I suppose. Some people thought I was very good in 'Lear.' But there are some actors who can do it beautifully--Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi. Fine English actors. But I just don't have the patience for it. I get bored after two nights, the same thing."

His statements that he is through with the theater are a little embarrassing at the moment, he acknowledges, since he would be flying back to Wales in a few days to be present for the dedication of a new theater in his name, an event important enough to be on Prince Charles' social calendar.

"I'm ashamed; no, I'm not ashamed. It's not my bag. I'm full of admiration for the people who can do it. Mind you, I'm very lucky to have another career. But I set out to get this one. Maybe in a couple years I'll go back and do a couple plays, I don't know. But I'm not ready for it yet."

It's hard not to draw parallels between Hopkins and his boyhood idol, Richard Burton, who grew up in the same Welsh village of Port Talbot and who fled the English stage for a boozy preeminence in movies. (Hopkins starred with and directed Kate Burton, Richard's daughter, in the recent independent film "August.") Unlike Burton, he swore off alcohol 20 years ago. "I had to stop because I was becoming impossible to work with. I was so frightened I got help for it, and that was the end of that."

About Burton, he says: "People say meanly that he sold out his great theatrical talent. No, he chose the life that he wanted. He married a beautiful woman, Elizabeth Taylor. He shook the rafters for a while and then burned out. But at least he made a bit of noise in the world. He didn't fit in with the theatrical loveliness of Britain, the little closed society that the British theater is. He didn't belong in that, and I don't belong in it either, which is why I got away."

After his work with Stone and Ivory, Hopkins next heads off to Canada to work with New Zealander Lee Tamahori ("Once Were Warriors," "Mulholland Falls") on a film for Fox called "Bookworm," written by David Mamet. It's the story of a rich, bookish man (Hopkins) married to a model (Elle Macpherson) whom he suspects is having an affair with a handsome young photographer (Alec Baldwin).

Briefly, Hopkins sketches the action: "I go along on this photographic shoot up in Canada, and it turns into a survival contest in the Canadian wilderness. I shouldn't say too much more. It's harrowing."

But one gets the feeling he's looking forward to it, really looking forward to it. He is, of course, planning to drive to Canada by himself. And whatever surprises the role holds in store for him, he knows that this time out he will not be persuading the world that he is walking in the shoes of a famous public figure for a change. Even for an actor as gifted as Hopkins, that must be some kind of relief.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World