In the Starz-BBC co-production of “The Dresser,” Anthony Hopkins plays a past-his-prime Shakespearean actor known only as Sir who is on the way to mental breakdown. Ian McKellen costars as Norman, the faithful assistant of the title whose own career and identity depend entirely on Sir.
With Sir, Anthony Hopkins explores the specific toll of performance, with its contradictory demands of ego and humility. He is at the end of a tumultuous career and realizes that his life has been wasted.
Hopkins visited The Envelope recently to talk about the production and his take on Sir in particular.
Sir begins “to realize that I have no friends, I’ve been a tyrant, that people have tried to love me, and nothing has worked,” the actor says. “But he’s determined that, one day, he’s going to find the moment of height. And in his breakdown, they get him on stage and he hits that moment, a divine moment, and he knows, ‘I’ve got it. I’ve done it.’”
Am I right that you had never worked with Ian McKellen before?
No, and he’s an incredible actor. We had friends who knew each other, but… So it was a great moment to meet and start rehearsing and shooting it.
You famously haven’t been on stage in a while. Did doing “King Lear” as a play within the movie bring back memories?
Oh, yeah. Because the last big production I did at the National Theatre was “King Lear.” That was 30 years ago. I was too young for the part, but I had a go at it but I sort of dreaded going on at night, and then to do this again was a return journey to the same experience, except this time I’m 78 years of age. And it was a wonderful moment because I knew the terror of going on stage, but in “The Dresser” he realizes his life has been wasted, that he’s consumed by acting. And that’s something that I avoided years ago. I didn’t want to become consumed by the profession I was in. I wanted another life outside of the acting business, so that’s why I made my break. And then to go back to do the theater with Ian McKellen was a great bonus, I think one of the happiest things I’ve been involved in in a lifetime.
Did you guys share war stories from the old days?
The rest of the cast were a little younger than us, they didn’t want to rehearse because — there was Edward Fox, Ian and myself — we would just recount stories about Olivier and Gielgud and the old days on the touring companies. And they’d say, “Don’t rehearse. Go on talking.” And Ian and I had a great laugh.
So you are going to do “Lear” again, yes?
I’m hoping Sir Richard Eyre will direct it. I’m hoping for that. And Colin Callender is going to produce it for the BBC in London sometime next year.
We can’t be saints. We are what we are, all the warts, all the mess, all the sins and the goods and all that.
For many actors, Lear is the ultimate — and, as you said, you say you were too young to play it, but —
Yes. Now I get it.
Because of the patience, because of that —
The lack of patience, in my own life, in all our lives, because whatever one’s beliefs are, we’re … accepted or loved in spite of ourselves, for whatever we are, instead of what we should be. Morality says you should be this. Well, no, we can’t be anything. We can’t be saints. We are what we are, all the warts, all the mess, all the sins and the goods and all that. And, at the end, we make mistakes and, finally, you think, well, that’s it, I did the best I could. And, at the end, that’s what he realizes.
Has there been a film role that consumed you momentarily?
“Nixon.” That was an act of madness, that was, because Oliver Stone — he persuaded me to do it. And I thought, well, why not? And it was the hardest, toughest one I’ve done, but Oliver was great to work with, because he pushes you into a corner. He just keeps pushing you until you break out of your resistances or fears and just do it.