Hannibal Lectures

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The volunteer teacher at the Ruskin School of Acting in Santa Monica contemplated two acting students doing their first perfunctory performance of a scene from "Macbeth."

As soon as they finished, he jumped in with his distinctive Welsh baritone: aristocratic, playful, intense and kind. "Let's try this

Two dozen tries later, David DeSimone was huddled in a chair, howling at the pain of existence; April Beyer was smiling malevolently, a woman obsessed. "This is great. This is terrific," the teacher said.

Then he asked them to try it half a dozen times more.

Lunchtime came and went. None of the 40 students left, preferring to see whatever Anthony Hopkins would say or do next.

When they enrolled, the students, whose class is a small industrial space in the Santa Monica Airport, never imagined they would be learning from one of the world's most celebrated actors. Last September, student Marilyn Anderson, an acquaintance of Hopkins, asked the star if he would talk to the class. He did, and he has returned most Saturday mornings since then to lecture, demonstrate, advise on scenes and talk about his life and craft.

"Now they love me because I'm the one who brought him in," Anderson said.

It is rare for an actor of Hopkins' stature, at the top of his career, to offer his services to a new generation of actors. "I've never heard of it," said John Ruskin, the school's founder. "That's part of what makes it so amazing. He could be doing anything he wants, and he's offering himself to our school and our students."

Hopkins said all he wants in return is a cup of coffee. He enjoys himself, he said, and not just because he's "giving back."

"That's too Mother Teresa for me," he said. "It's a wonderful feeling to see somebody suddenly opening up.... I feel I have an intuitive thing about actors, especially younger actors. And I feel I can help out a bit and give encouragement because it's a tough business."

Admittedly cynical about the harsher or more pompous aspects of professional acting, Hopkins has had his own tempestuous run-ins with directors and teachers. He sees his task as a teacher mainly as helping students relax. "I want to make sure they feel comfortable," he said.

No matter students have talent, he said, "I have to treat people with courtesy and respect. The whole point of this exercise is to respect people's gifts, to respect what they can do, to respect their courage."

At 64, the actor is unexpectedly tall and muscular, formal enough to wear a sport coat to class, casual enough to wear his loafers without socks. He has a friendly, unpretentious air marked by exuberant gesturing and quick sentences, coupled with a reserve bordering on shyness.

Known as a veteran actor of the no-nonsense British type, Hopkins has acted in 50 films and an equal number of television projects, plus stage performances and stints as a composer or director.

He's won many of the world's top acting prizes and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1993, but he has also been chided for choosing projects beneath his talent, such as "A Change of Seasons" (1980) with Bo Derek. ("Everyone makes mistakes," he told the class sheepishly.)

Hopkins will soon be appearing in the comedy "Bad Company" with Chris Rock and has another film scheduled for release later this year, "The Human Stain," with Nicole Kidman. (The film will have some "raunchy" scenes in which he will appear nude, he said.)

He's now filming "Red Dragon," reprising his most famous role, that of killer-psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter, for which he won an Oscar in "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991). He was nominated again for best actor for performances as a repressed English butler in "The Remains of the Day" (1993) and for the title role in "Nixon" (1995).

Ruskin said he so idolized Hopkins that he feared meeting him would be a letdown. In fact, he said, "I was more in awe of him as I got to be around him."

Ruskin, an apprentice of the late Sanford Meisner, the influential director of the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York, established his acting school 15 years ago. Meisner taught his acting technique, which aims to replace thinking with visceral responses, to thousands of actors, including Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Steve McQueen and Grace Kelly.

The Santa Monica school has about 115 students and is forming a nonprofit company, the Parnassus Group Theatre, which will stage performances and offer free classes and tickets to underprivileged students. Hopkins has also offered to direct a company production this fall at Theatre Palisades in Pacific Palisades, Ruskin said.

The Saturday students have completed the basic two-year course, in which they are taught to observe their own and their fellow actors' emotional lives, and now attend a master class. Most are in their 20s and 30s. A few are full-time actors or aspiring professional actors, but some are interested mainly in personal development. Many hold day jobs that range from bartender to bookkeeper to substance-abuse counselor.

Beyer, 30, an improv actor who also helps run a matchmaking company, said that if students sound gushy about Hopkins, it's not just because he's a star and a world-class talent. What the students most admire about Hopkins is that he has so thoroughly explored his inner geography that he radiates a delighted acceptance of the terrain.

Hopkins has shared parts of his personal life, his previous struggle with alcoholism, for instance, and his lonely, depressed childhood in Wales.

He's told them about his continual efforts to keep his ego in check and how he locates and controls his emotions in a scene.

Student Cass Allen, a physical therapist, said Hopkins showed her a part of herself she didn't know was there. She was playing the part of the deaf girl in "Children of a Lesser God," a role that required a confrontation.

"I already felt really confrontational for me," she said. "He said, 'Do you mind?' to my scene partner," stepped into the scene and then physically restrained Allen.

"He said, 'I want you to try to get free in this part and let yourself go.'

"He knew from his experience, which he was sharing with me, that if there was a constraint like that, I could go to a place of anger and rage....

"Afterward, he was saying, 'It's fun! It's fun to go to that terrifying place!'"

In the dim classroom-stage decorated with holiday lights, Hopkins sipped a cup of coffee. Ignoring the buzz of a small plane, he instructed his students not to take him too seriously.

Acting isn't something he fully understands, insisted Hopkins, who was trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and understudied Laurence Olivier at London's National Theatre.

It's just something he does.

Acting in Hollywood is all about casting, he told them. "If you cast a movie well [half-beat, smile], no acting required!"

Among his insights about art and life:

* Actors should know their lines by heart because the text is all the information they have. For his movies, he said, he will read a scene 200 times at home, out loud.

* Stillness is more powerful than movement.

* Doubt is good. Certainty is fascism. Absolute knowledge is insanity.

* Many actors have self-destructive tendencies. Those who succumb, such as Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, don't have people to protect them, nor do they protect themselves.

* Ego is an actor's worst enemy.

* Most of it is luck.

To demonstrate some of his points, he sat down at a table on the stage and performed a monologue from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." Hopkins apologized in advance in case the exercise appeared to be an ego trip. "Indulge!" the students cried.

As he started to speak, it wasn't immediately clear whether he was acting or just reminiscing. His audience seemed hypnotized.

After class, Hopkins chatted amiably with the students and made arrangements to meet some later. Then, taking a seat on a couch, he fielded some interview questions with short answers, which he instantly revised.

Waving off the students' praise, he said, "I'm not that humble. I've got my ambitions. Or I used to have. I don't have any. I just enjoy my life. If you have too much humility, you can't work."

He can be quite tough on actors who don't know their lines and on directors who try to manipulate him, he said. "Directors are wonderful. I enjoy the process. I'm not saying this to be falsely modest. I'm always risking. I hope they haven't found out yet I don't know what I'm doing."

Hopkins said he finds it moving to work with actors, no matter how young they are, to help them strip away what is nonessential and "wrinkle out their sense of sadness."

In directing the students performing "Macbeth" and in most of his teaching, what he wants the actors to understand is that underneath all great dramatic art--from tragedies like "Macbeth" to Woody Allen comedies--is the recognition that "one day we will have to depart this realm of life. Everything is one long farewell all the time.

"They will understand it," he said, "when they get older."

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