The sound of clinking champagne flutes led to a small group of crisply dressed Santa Barbarans mingling on a thatch of lawn bordered by eucalyptus trees. There was more than a whiff of exclusivity at this gathering, the first in a series of salons held at the famed San Ysidro Ranch in Montecito.
It was unseasonably warm and several guests had overdressed, but not Jeff Bridges and his wife, Susan, who wore the California uniform of loose white linen and expensive sunglasses. "Everybody's so New Yorked out for this!" said Susan Bridges to the event's co-host Holly Palance (daughter of actor Jack Palance), who wore a blue pinstriped suit.
While Oprah Winfrey, a part-time local, and producer Ivan Reitman didn't show as expected, former U.S. Ambassador Henry Catto Jr. was there along with friends of Palance and co-host Alyce Faye Eichelberger, Cleese's wife. (The afternoon salon was modeled after a series Eichelberger hosted in London in the early 1990s. She and Cleese moved to Santa Barbara to "semi-retire.")
Eventually, everyone crowded into one of the resort's quaint stone cottages as Cleese and Hopkins took their places on a small, elevated platform. "So, you weren't really good at anything as a kid," Cleese began dryly, prompting chuckles.
"My first day at school, I realized I was on the wrong planet," Hopkins answered, his face slightly reddening. As evidence, he repeated his father's opinion of him: "I don't know what the hell is going to become of him. He's hopeless."
As he recalled that moment for Cleese, Hopkins became wholly different from his fiercely controlled screen image. The Welshman famous for, among other roles, portraying a cannibalistic serial killer fidgeted in his chair like an adolescent. Acting, he said, was his escape from the "desolate inner landscape of my childhood."
Hopkins' vulnerability and easy, self-deprecating humor held the onlookers rapt as he detailed his five-decade career, which began in the British theater, an experience he likened to "a long, wet Wednesday afternoon," and more recently landed him global fame and an Oscar for his starring role in "The Silence of the Lambs." "I've always played very strange men," he said. "I'm always playing loners."
That is, until his upcoming role in "The Human Stain," a film due out this year based on the award-winning novel by Philip Roth. Hopkins portrays a New England college professor with a terrible secret who falls in love with a young, troubled janitor played by Nicole Kidman.
"She actually becomes my lover," Hopkins said, incredulous that, at 65, he could play a romantic lead opposite 35-year-old Kidman. "I'm too old to be ashamed anymore."
In fact, he said, he's content to take some time off from the business, recover from a difficult year (Hopkins and his wife of 29 years divorced in April) and enjoy life at his home in Malibu. "Finally, nothing is of any importance," he said. "It's the biggest freedom."
The interview ended with irreverence when Palance, who first met both men 20 years ago in London, noted how California had changed Cleese and Hopkins. "They certainly didn't look like this, all tan in their open blue shirts," she said. Hopkins quipped: "We've sold out. We've become Americans."