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Acting on ‘Instinct’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Besides the fact they’ve both won Oscars, actors Anthony Hopkins and Cuba Gooding Jr. don’t seem to have much in common. Hopkins is a loner and veteran actor with roots in London theater. Gooding is a gregarious rising star 30 years his junior who broke into show business by break-dancing at the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

That’s why it’s surprising to find them in a tastefully decorated Bel-Air Hotel suite, amid respectable platters of salmon and fresh fruit, cavorting like frat boys. There’s Sir Anthony playfully wrapping his arms around Gooding’s neck. “Show me the money!” Hopkins roars in Gooding’s ear, taunting him with the greedy mantra Gooding made famous as the brash football star in his Oscar-winning performance in “Jerry Maguire.”

Gooding laughs heartily, as if it’s the first time he’s heard this routine from Hopkins. It’s not. In fact, this is how the pair began work every day on the set of “Instinct,” the new psychological thriller from Disney in which they co-star; the film opens Friday. But the act remains freshly amusing to Gooding, so Hopkins presses on.

Still play-wrestling, Hopkins slips into an imitation of Burt Lancaster, one of his favorite actors. He clenches his teeth, bulges his luminous blue eyes and scrunches his moonlike face in a demonic glare aimed at Gooding: “Show me the mun-ay!”

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“I get that line a lot when I’m in a bar and that’s when I’m tired of it,” Gooding says a few minutes later, still chuckling. “But when he says it, it’s . . . funny.”

The offscreen bonding and mutual respect are genuine enough between the actors. Hopkins, 61, has appeared in almost four dozen films and as many stage plays. He solidified his standing as one of our greatest actors with his Oscar-winning portrayal of the lip-smacking psychopath Hannibal Lecter in 1991’s “Silence of the Lambs.” Once a hard drinker with a reputation for an explosive temper, Hopkins says he’s mellowed. Although dressed today in studied attire of an open-collared black shirt, flecked tan jacket and brown loafers, he says he prefers jeans and casual dress.

Gooding, on the other hand, looks like he’s stepped out of a men’s fashion ad. He’s dressed to play the part he wants for his career: to be, in his words, a "$20-million player.”

In “Instinct,” Gooding’s character, the ambitious psychiatrist Theo Caulder, jumps at the chance to evaluate Hopkins’ character, Ethan Powell, an anthropologist facing murder charges for something terrible that happened in the Rwandan jungle where he had been living among wild gorillas. The scenes between Hopkins and Gooding are tense, emotional and sometimes physical--so physical, in fact, that Hopkins popped an Achilles’ tendon during one dramatic encounter.

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In the film, each man tries to bend the other to his will. But there are no mind games between them in real life. They readily praise each other, then offer nods of agreement and encouraging words as they take turns responding during an interview that Hopkins kicks off by saying: “I’m just warning you: Don’t take anything we say too seriously.”

Question: What did you know of each other before you started working together?

Hopkins: Well, I’d seen him.

Gooding: And I’d seen him. [They laugh.]

Hopkins: I thought he was just terrific. The energy. I love actors with energy. And enthusiasm. Not afraid of it. You know, so many people are afraid of enthusiasm and energy. I think it’s great.

Gooding: I’m probably like every actor coming up. I just wanted to work with him. . . . I was in an interview and it was brought up how many Academy Awards you’d won. I thought you had won three.

Hopkins: I was nominated for four, but won one.

Gooding: But I thought it was three.

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Hopkins: Yeah, let me think. It was three, yeah. [They laugh.]

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Q: What attracted each of you to your parts in “Instinct”?

Gooding: This is a role that I wanted to do from the first time I read the script. And it was not offered to me. I had to fight for it. I went to the first meeting with the director, Jon Turteltaub, to see if we would jell or anything. We met in a bar, actually, in Burbank, and we sat down and I had on a Brooks Brothers suit, dressed like the character, and I was trying to study everything he was saying without saying too much about me. Because I didn’t want him to have any opinion of me. He already knew me as the flashy crazy guy and I just wanted to be still.

And he said, “You know, the studio is pushing for a name, but I’m looking for someone who can bring the undercurrent of emotions to this,” and the next thing I know we get into this emotional conversation. We started talking first about animals . . . and then we started talking about family, and I started talking about my sons, and the things that happen between fathers and sons, and my personal relationship with my father who wasn’t really there until I got older. . . . And I was like crying or something in this bar, and it just came out from this conversation. And at the end of it I walked away knowing that this guy was going to fight to get me into the role.

Hopkins: I’ve been asked many times why I do certain films. I’ve done some bad films. I’ve done some average films. Sometimes I haven’t thought that clearly about films, just jumped in the deep end and run with the money. I have a desperation to work. I come from England, and English actors are always desperate for work. But I came to America in 1975, and I rapidly changed. I always wanted to be in American movies. I love California, and I want to stay here. . . . Generally what’s happened is that I’ve accepted anything to keep myself in American movies.

So I did “Silence of the Lambs” and I’ve done a few other American movies. And I got this script and I have a really strange open attitude about things. I get a script and my agent calls and he starts enthusing about it, and I go into neutral. I don’t want to be disappointed. It’s an automatic response. But it was a powerful script.

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Q: So you wanted to prepare yourself for not doing it?

Hopkins: Yeah, it’s an automatic response I have. I never get excited about things. I used to, but I don’t anymore. It saves me a lot of gas. And I think, whatever is going to be, will be.

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Q: Now that you’ve done it, maybe you can say why you wanted it?

Hopkins: This part is very close to my personality in a way, because I’m a dropout, a bit of a loner. . . . I’m kind of an aging hippie. I like to not get involved in the movie business. I live very much alone. I’m a wanderer. There’s a line in the movie when Cuba asks the daughter, “Did you see your father in Africa?,” and she says, “He’s always glad to see me but even more glad when I leave.” And I thought, that’s me.

Gooding: Oh, wow.

Hopkins: Yeah, I’ve never been very close with family. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me except that I’ve never felt comfortable in groups of people or with family. I can’t stay in anyone’s house too long. If someone invites me to dinner, I go, I just can’t wait to get out, especially if there are children around.

I feel very uncomfortable in people’s homes. I think it’s some quirky thing, seeing myself as an outsider, which is fine. I mean, it doesn’t make me a criminal. It’s just the way it is, so this part was so much like me. I wander off into the mountains. And if I had the courage I would go off into the jungles and never be seen again. There’s some sort of fantasy that I’d actually vanish in the hills one day and never be seen again.

Gooding: We don’t want you to go into the mountains.

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Q: There’s a theme in this movie about the absent father. Since both of you have experiences with that in your personal lives some of the scenes must have hit pretty close to home.

Gooding: Absolutely. It’s one of the aspects of this script that I thought was interesting with this character. He’s obviously very good at what he does, but in order to be very good at what he does he has to alienate himself from everybody physically and mentally. I’m that way because I have kids and I have my wife but when I go off and do films, the hardest part for me to deal with is being away from my family for a long span of time. But when my family is around on the set I can never release myself and do the character.

As a kid we moved around from home to home. We lost all of our personal belongings by leaving them in storage too long. My parents remarried after 13 years of being divorced. Whatever makes my mom happy, that’s how I feel about it. My dad and I have a good father-son relationship. I know him better now than I ever have in my life.

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Q: [to Hopkins] You had a daughter from a first marriage that you were separated from for a while, and then reunited with later. You have a scene in the movie that replays that whole situation. What was that like for you?

Hopkins: I don’t have to go through all of that, because I already have access to that very quickly. I didn’t have to gnash my teeth or show any great emotion. It was very easy for me to be distant. It’s only recently that I’ve gone through some kind of changeover. At the beginning of this year I came back and I decided to just take off--run up to the hills really--and I’ve been chilling up there. Which has in fact warmed me up and I’m much closer to people now.

I’ve never been unfriendly, and in fact I’ve always given off the wrong signals. I never knew how to be a friend, so I would be over-enthusiastic and then people get the wrong idea and then suddenly people wouldn’t hear from me and I would cut off. I wouldn’t return their phone calls. . . . But now I’ve come to understand myself and this is not a way to live. It’s better just to relax and be a bit more close to people.

I wrote to my daughter the other day. I haven’t seen her in a long time. “If you ever want to come to L.A. on a holiday . . . signed, your wayward father.” I cut out of my first marriage after two years. It was a sad affair. And I think I cut out from family years ago. It’s made me a little isolated and not to be trusted, and that’s a role I’ve played for years.

*

Q: When did you pop your Achilles’ tendon?

Hopkins: The scene where I grab him off the table.

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Q: That sounds pretty painful.

Gooding: Oh, you don’t know the half of it. He refused to go to the hospital.

Hopkins: And I said, “I think I just broke my Achilles’ tendon,” and I went on working.

Gooding: It’s true. We kept filming. Did more takes. He filmed for two weeks more until he finally agreed to go to the doctor. And the doctor said, “You need an operation.” [Hopkins starts to talk, but Gooding says, “Hey, let me tell it!”] The doctor says, “If you don’t get an operation soon, you’re going to walk with a limp . . . forever.” And he goes, “That’s OK. I’ll just use a cane.” Do you remember that?

Hopkins: I do. . . . It was so weird. I had this fixation in my head that they’re going to close the film down, and I had been responsible for closing the film down in Canada [“The Edge”], only for a few days. And they said, “You’re going to be crippled if you don’t get the operation.” And I said, “Well, I’ll play the crippled parts.” And they said, “You want to walk with a limp for the rest of your life?” And I said, “Well, I don’t mind, I’ve had a good career.”

I’ve been through the wars, I’ve been through my trials and tribulations. I’m very fatalistic about it all now. It’s a very strange attitude, which is much more prevalent in my life now these last few months since I’ve had time to rest.

When I was a kid I was very slow in school. I was a bit of a dummy, and I didn’t know what was going on, and from an early age I remember a sense that I couldn’t fit in. . . . So I ended up doing things to become successful, to show them, to get my revenge on them--the teachers and the other kids who laughed at me. My rage carried me to this profession. I kept working, working, working. Finally, it’s like a long lost message that happened to me just recently that says, “Tony, it’s time you paid attention and stopped doing this.”

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Q: [to Hopkins] You seem at peace now with where you are in the world.

Hopkins: It’s taken a long time for me to get there, buddy. [Laughs] I don’t want to ever go back into that mayhem again, to that treadmill. It’s time to cool down and enjoy the fruits of my labors.

Q: [to Gooding] You’re still on that treadmill. Can you afford to be as calm about things?

Gooding: No, no. I need to work. . . . It’s so funny you ask me this, because I don’t have this plethora of great roles to say, “There’s so many, I’ll just take a few months off.” I either have a [lousy] offer, or a small offer in an independent film, or one big role that’s just about to happen, and that leaves a lot of time between roles for me.

I hate to bring the African American thing in, I really do, because this has been colorless, this conversation. But the one thing I don’t want to do is put myself where they can pigeonhole me. . . . I just want to be an actor who is working in quality films.

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Q: [to Gooding] Was one of the reasons then that you took this role because you didn’t have to be African American to do it?

Gooding: Absolutely. I saw this character, I saw the complexity with what he’s going through in his personal life, his business life, and I thought, “There’s something that’s not solved by energy on the screen.”

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Q: How do you relax?

Gooding: Oh, I still play ice hockey a lot. I go to a boxing gym. . . . I still can’t completely enjoy a vacation. I’ve finally settled down last year. I would lease cars, because I wanted a BMW, I wanted this, I wanted that. I would get in them and I’d drive them and go, “I hate this car!” . . . It’s so funny, because it’s in the Bible--material gain will get you nowhere. It’s all inside. When you let go of that--the cars, the money--you free yourself up.

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Q: What’s winning the Oscar meant for your life?

Gooding: The first thing I can say is, people watch what you do. I mean, they want to find a reason behind everything you do or what you say. . . . It’s an accomplishment. You’ve shown that you’ve accomplished something. That’s what everyone in life is trying to do--accomplish something. People want to know how and why you did it.

You know, I’m going to say something that’s really embarrassing to me. I dropped my damn Academy Award at a party. It busted--the gold flew up the leg. So I don’t even have it in my house now.

Hopkins: I was so surprised I won, I didn’t know what to say. I just remember I wished them luck in Wales. I remember getting up in the middle of the night and I went in to the other room and looked at it on the table. As the time has passed by, yeah, it’s nice. Quite honestly I don’t feel comfortable with all the hoopla. I guess I’d rather stay home and read a book. In fact, when I went to the Academy Awards that night I said to my friend on the way, “Look, with a bit of luck, we’ll get stuck in the traffic, and they won’t let you in after a certain time.”

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Q: [to Hopkins] There was an interview recently when you said you were ready to retire from acting.

Hopkins: What I said was that I needed to take a long rest, which is what I meant.

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Q: You said acting is bad for the mental health.

Hopkins: Oh, I think it is.


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