Opening next weekend is director Mikael Hafstroem’s (1408) supernatural thriller The Rite and it stars Anthony Hopkins, Colin O’Donoghue, Alice Braga, Ciaran Hinds, and Toby Jones. “Inspired by true events, The Rite follows skeptical seminary student Michael Kovak (O’Donoghue), who reluctantly attends exorcism school at the Vatican. While in Rome, he meets an unorthodox priest, Father Lucas (Hopkins), who introduces him to the darker side of his faith.” For more on the film, watch some clips here.
I recently got to participate in a roundtable interview with Hopkins. During the extended interview, Hopkins talked about what drew him to this project, how does he work with directors as most could be intimidated, how is he so good at scaring people, upcoming projects like Thor and 360, and he also talked about painting, composing music, and so much more. Hit the jump to read or listen to what he had to say:
Question: Could you talk a little bit about how you got involved in the project and was there any hesitation about getting involved?
Anthony Hopkins: There was at the beginning. My agent sent me the script and I didn’t know much about it but I didn’t want to play another spooky guy, you know. I wasn’t sure. I think I was in the middle of doing Thor when this came up. I’m not sure when but over a year ago. I wasn’t quite sure whether I really wanted to do anything like this and then I read the script and then I met Mikael Hafstrom at the hotel up the road here. We had breakfast. And I was pretty impressed by him. He seemed a very nice guy; a very intelligent guy and I had seen two of his films. So I said yes and then he went back to England. I started working on the part and reading it and working on it. I had a couple of ideas so I’d email him some of those ideas that would help me understand this man a little more. And that was it. Learned the lines, learned the Italian, a little Latin which took a bit of time… but I don’t know what my beliefs are about of any of it really. There’s a scene in… you’ve seen the film?
Hopkins: There’s a scene in the courtyard after the first exorcism and I’m talking to the young priest Colin O’Donoghue, who in his character has grave doubts about it (exorcisms). He thinks it’s all a bag of tricks. He thinks its all mumbo jumbo and maybe there’s no such thing, which is the debate: is there such a thing as anthropomorphic presence of the devil or is it mental disturbance. That’s the debate, I guess in the film and probably in the world. And after that I say to him the problem with skeptics and atheists – is that we never know the truth. We’re always trying to find the truth. What would we do if we found it? And I asked Mikael if I could write that line – to describe myself as an atheist, as a skeptic which makes the young priest turn [and say] “you?” and I go ‘oh yeah, every day I struggle. Most days. Some days I don’t know if I believe in God or Santa Clause or Tinkerbell.’ And those are my lines because I think nobody knows. It gives a semblance of humanity to somebody who says they don’t know. Anyone who says they know like Colin the young priest [who] says ‘I believe in the truth.’ Oh the truth, oh yeah lot of trouble that got us into, didn’t it, over the last maybe thousand years. Hitler knew the truth, so did Stalin, so did the Mao Tse-Tung, so did The Inquisition. They all knew the truth and that caused such horror. Certainty is the enemy. It’s like anyone saying ‘the debate is over.’ Who says it’s over. ‘The debate is over. We know.’ We? Who? Human beings – we know nothing. And someone says ‘But are you an atheist?’ Well I don’t know what I believe but who would I be to refute someone like Bonhoeffer who sacrificed his life for his church and ended up in Flossenburg being executed by the Nazis. The great martyrs who died at the stake, destroyed for their personal beliefs. So who am I to refute anything? I would hate to live in a world of certainty. Have a closed circuit, a windowless room where I know for certain; like Jean Paul Satre’s [statement] that we’re living in Hell, a closed dungeon. I’d rather live with uncertainty because Socrates was told that he was the wisest man in Athens and he said –‘well that’s not likely.’ So he went around looking for people who were wiser than him. And he found one who said ‘I’m glad I don’t know anything.’ I think it was Plato who said ‘Be kind because everyone is fighting a great battle’. Whatever the devil is or is not, I think when we turn our backs on our own frailty and our own humanity and say we know for certain, we know the truth – we are in trouble.
Was this a great opportunity to exorcise all your acting muscles because this character goes through so many different levels and extremes?
Hopkins: Well, I have to play a man who is seemingly good priest. A man of God and then the next thing, he’s become Hannibal Lecter – he’s become so weird that yeah, I suppose it’s a challenge. You know I’m adept at that. I’ve been doing it a long time now so I know how to prepare. I don’t have to become a priest or become possessed.
Did you visit exorcisms the way that Colin did?
Hopkins: Colin did. I didn’t. He was in Rome longer than I was because I was only in Rome for one day. I only did one scene in Rome but Colin was there for about a week and I think he went to an exorcism with Father Gary. He maybe went to two or three of them. I know the writers did – they went to a couple exorcisms. The thing is – it is a debate. Does it exist? I don’t know how much the Catholic Church is involved in this. Apparently they’ve pulled back a little on their commitment. Father Gary – he’s the one to talk to about that. I’ve asked him. I said ‘Do you believe?’ and he said ‘oh yeah.’ I said ‘How do you know?’ He said ‘mostly, you can tell. You can look in the eyes and you can tell.’ I said ‘oh’.
You’ve become very adept at scaring people. How do you know what’s going to scare the audience?
Hopkins: I honestly don’t know. I’ve asked myself that question many times. I don’t know. I guess I have a knack for it. But that doesn’t mean I’m a scary person. (Laughter) My wife’s not scared of me. I’m scared of her. When I was a kid, my father wasn’t a very healthy man. He took me to see Dracula when I was about five. Bela Lugosi. It’s like we all flirt with chaos. We all go into a dark movie theater to give ourselves a scare. It’s like if you’re an alcoholic or a drug addict, we flirt with death. We pull ourselves to the brink of destruction and if we’re lucky we pull ourselves back. We all have that in us. We all have that destructive – whether it’s overeating, overworking, oversex – whatever disorder – alcoholism, drug addiction – whatever it is we push ourselves to the brink and then pull back. Because it’s kind of exciting. But that’s all I know. I just know how to scare people. I don’t know how I do it. But it’s a look, a trick, I guess. Mikael Hafstrom was a great audience for me because when we started the exorcism scenes, we were just rehearsing and Colin walks in and I just look at him like this [makes a frightening Anthony Hopkins face – the likes of which, no words can do justice]. And Mikael goes ‘you’re crazy’. But I don’t know. It’s only a look. Dead in the eyes – it’s a trick, that’s all it is. But I know it scares because I can sense inside what it does. So I’m tapping into something that is a shadow part of myself.
We were talking to Mikael about working together – the two of you. His quote was every actor wants to be directed and I was just wondering at this point in your career what is the balance – do you like to be directed closely or do you like to be able to bring something new that might not be on the page and have the freedom to do that on set?
Hopkins: Well, it depends. With Mikael, he’s very open. It’s a balancing act. It’s a trick. Like there’s a little scene in the courtyard and I said ‘I don’t know if I believe in God’ – I wrote that. Not because I’m clever. I wrote it because I wanted to fit like a glove a piece of myself in that because that’s what I believe. I don’t know what I believe, myself personally, but with Mikael I said, “Do you mind if I do this?” He said, “No,” so I wrote it out and I make sure that the writer doesn’t object to it and he said, “I think it’s fine,” so then you can breathe a sigh of relief. Then you start and, I remember that particular scene, and Mikael said, “Okay, let’s do it again. You got it the first time but let’s do it one more.” I said, “Okay,” and he said “Let’s go, action,” and then suddenly you get it. You just fall into the rhythm of it. He (Mikael) came and sat down and said, “That’s it, I think you got it,” and I said, “Yeah, I feel good about that.” Ken Branagh is a different kind of director, we did Thor, and he does many takes. He’s a superb actor and a terrific director, but he likes to get the best out of people and so he will, there’s a scene where I have to banish Thor, I play Odin, and Ken is quite smart he’ll say “that’s fantastic, just one more.” He’ll push you to act bigger and he’ll say, “Just get the grief within the guy he’s banishing,” and you say, “Okay, got it. Let’s go.” And then you’ve got it. Spielberg is the same, he’ll say “Just one more take, one more,” and I would say, “Which one?” He’ll say, “You know,” (laughs) and you think, “Oh, okay.” But you can’t talk about it or use intelligence or rationale because you can think it to death. Or you can overdo it and you can take half the take and you end up doing nothing, so it’s a balance. It’s like being on a seesaw. With Mikael, he let me very much go on the exorcism scene. I knew how to do those scenes. There’s a scene when Colin comes back into the room and my chair’s now facing him, a bit like The Exorcist, and he said, “Oh yeah,” and so suddenly the chair’s moved around and I’m just sitting there staring as he comes back into the room.
You’re having fun, right?
Hopkins: You have fun with it and I know what scares people, I know what is scary on film because that’s what I do. Not because I’m like that but because, for a long time, I sort of had a sneaky little grumble that I would never get over Hannibal Lecter. Then I saw the posters and people and they said, “Well, it sold” so if it does the trick, then fine. I mean, you know, I’ve played other parts. I’ve played many more parts, I’ve only played two bad men, I think. This guy’s not bad. This is a chance to play two parts.
You mentioned Thor and I was curious, based on the footage and what I’ve read it seems it’s very Shakespearian. Did you notice that with the material?
Hopkins: With Thor? Yeah, I don’t know, it’s a big, big movie. Branagh’s extraordinary, how he directed that, put that together I don’t know. Well, it’s a grand passion, you know, it’s about gods so you have to do a little bit of Shakespearian acting to play a god.
Did you actually read any of the comics?
How did you get yourself ready to play Odin? It’s such a big character in the Marvel Universe.
Hopkins: Well, I don’t know, I saw the sets. I saw the designs of the sets and what I was going to wear when I went down to the studio down at Manhattan Beach. I saw what all they were going to put on me and all that and I thought, “Oh wow.” So when they dressed me up I thought, “Well okay, I’m god now, so…” (laughs). It’s a bit difficult to move around because they had steep steps. That was quite tiring because it’s about twenty-five to thirty pounds you’re carrying around with you all day and you can’t really take much of a rest. So, you know, you just come on set and there’s a huge set and you’re in armor and the camera’s pointing at you and you think, “Oh, I’m god.”
As you’ve alluded to, you know what you’re good at. You know what you’re known for and, for some producers, that may seem like you are a commodity. Do you allow that to overshadow the art?
Hopkins: Being a commodity? I don’t mind being a commodity. It’s given me a good life (laughs). Art? Well, I don’t know about art. You know, when you’re doing a movie, I’m not being cynical, but when you’re doing a movie you have a number of choices as an actor. You put this here, you put there, and then you see it all cut together and all of those precious little pieces you put in are maybe on the cutting room floor. So, you don’t have that much control. You have very little control, in fact. It’s up to the editor, director, and the final product is whatever the film studio desires. So, to be realistic, there’s a great freedom, I have no illusions about my position in this world as an actor or anything like that. No illusions at all. I’m very realistic, reality is a very liberating thing. You know, what is so liberating about this whole business is when you see that, you know, big movies are going to come out, huge movies are going to come out, and then you see them up in Malibu in the little Triplex theater a week later, on the scratch negative, and you think, “Well that’s it?” I remember seeing Raging Bull, I was in London at the time and De Niro’s Raging Bull is coming out and I can’t wait to see it. Then I got back to New York, this was many years ago, thirty years ago, I got to New York and I saw it in a little kind of mall with only a few people. It’s very interesting because, for example, I went to Graceland for my birthday about two years ago in Memphis with my wife. We went out to this place outside of Memphis where this big movie theater was, what do you call them, Triplex, you know there was about twelve theaters all in one…
Hopkins: Mulitplex, yes. I went in there, it was a Saturday morning, and I could smell the popcorn and people going in and going to these multiplex theaters and they had this Clint Eastwood film, you know, Gran Torino, and other movies, big, big movies. I just happened to look in and I see people eating their popcorn just waiting for the movie to start but I thought, “That’s it. This is show business. This is the great movie career. And it’s all finding it in the shoebox.” So it’s a great liberation thinking that none of it is important. That’s a great feeling: that nothing matters anymore (laughs). It was quite a revelation.
How do you react when you are watching television and suddenly one of your so many movies comes on?
Hopkins: Oh, I switch over to something else. I never watch them.
We got Colin’s perspective as far as how it was for him to come and work with you, obviously he had nothing but good things to say, but I’m curious what’s it like for you to work with a young actor and spend that much time with them?
Hopkins: You know his story, don’t you? How he got the movie?
Hopkins: Amazing isn’t it? I’m sorry what was the question?
Just, what’s it’s like for you to work with someone like that…
Hopkins: Oh, I just give him a very bad time (laughs). No, the first day we were doing a scene, which is not in the film actually, it was in the rain in Rome, and I said, “How are you feeling, son?” He said, “I feel very nervous,” and I said, “That’s okay, you don’t have to feel nervous.” So we did the scene and I said to him at the end, “Is that the way you are planning to play the part?” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “No, it’s your career…” (laughs). Then that signals that I’m joking and don’t take me seriously. But, no, he did well. “It’s a big close-up, you don’t have to do too much with your face. Do less.” That’s the only tip I ever gave him. Katherine Hepburn said that to me, she said, “Don’t act, no need to act” and I said, “Okay.” So I took that as a great compliment.
How was it to work with a young Italian girl that…
Hopkins: Oh, Marta. She was wonderful wasn’t she?
Hopkins: She gave a great performance.
I mean, for you what was it like to work with her?
Hopkins: Well, we were all kind of devastated by what she did. I mean, it’s, actually those are very depressing scenes to do, and I never try to take this business seriously, but they were, in the end…Well, we were in that dark room in the studio in Budapest and there was no air in there so you got tired very quickly. But it was kind of depressing. She gives a remarkable performance, I think.
I’m curious, with where you are, I’m sure you get your pick of what projects you want to do. Could you sort of talk about what your criteria is at this point and what you may be circling right now or thinking about doing in the future?
Hopkins: I’m doing a film called 360 with Fernando Meirelles and Rachel Weisz. I don’t know really, you know, I work, I enjoy working and I’m just glad that they still ask me. If they ask me to work, I’m very pleased. What was the question again?
How do you pick your projects and what do you think might be coming up for you?
Hopkins: But, what was the question?
Interviewer: How do you pick your projects and what do you think might be coming up for you?
Hopkins: I have no idea, I have no idea. There may be a film with Dustin Hoffman that’s coming up, I’m not sure. I don’t look, I wait for—I’ve got a very good agent, a very good agent, at UTA. Jeremy Zim and Jeremy Barber, those are my agents. I trust them to pick and choose for me. And Jeremy will call me and say, “I’ve got a script, I’d like you to read it,” or “I’ve got two scripts,” I said “Well…” [and they say] “We’ll send them over anyway.” But I don’t go out looking, I’m realistic. Living with reality is a very good trick, it gives you tremendous freedom and it changes the structure of the molecules of your soul by living with reality because you don’t expect anything anymore. Which is a weird paradox, non-expectation and acceptance. Because expectation leads to resentment and depression, so I have no expectations.
At what point did you feel so liberated? Did it happen midway, early on?
Hopkins: Oh a few years ago, a few years ago. I think maybe two years ago. It’s an incremental—it starts when you reach about 70 I think, or mid 60’s I guess you think “Well this is the reality.” I mean you reach a certain age you think “God I’m 50, I’m 60, 70” and you think “Oh!” And then I’m just, I’m not young anymore. I don’t wanna start over again.
I understand that you write music and paint, I was just wondering what these forms of art bring you that acting doesn’t.
Hopkins: Well my wife started me painting—I don’t have an academic background in painting and I don’t have an academic background in music so I’m liberated, I’m free really. I just write sort of freestyling music, and I’ve got a concert in Birmingham I think in July, at one of the festivals in London. And I’ve got a shows of art in Rakiki in Hawaii. But I just paint and they sell, so I don’t know what the hell I’m doing (laughs). I just do it like kids you know. That’s by not being certain of anything and being open. So I go and “Oh what am I gonna do today?” and I sit down at the piano and start composing some music. I worked with a young musician called Steven Barton and he said to me—I work in his studio—he said “You know you’re breaking all the rules. Keep breaking them, because once you start knowing the rules you become kind of pressed down.” It’s very difficult to liberate yourself from what you’ve learned. You know it’s almost impossible because you learn in order to survive.
The exercise of painting and writing music is totally different from acting.
Hopkins: Yeah. Well acting is constricted because you have the lines. But I improvise with it and what I learn on the set. I improvise rhythms and just changes, because I’ve been doing it a long time. But music and painting are—I don’t know if they’re more satisfying, they’re certainly interesting. Music especially. And it seems to sell, people seem to like what I do, so I go on doing it until they don’t like it.
So no expectations?
Hopkins: No expectations. Ask nothing, expect nothing and accept everything, and life is very well.
How long have you been playing piano?
Hopkins: Since I was about six
So this Birmingham, is it a performance?
Hopkins: No, this is a composition. I’ve written three major pieces which are going to be played in Birmingham. And I had the concert in Perusia and a festival last year, Cartona in Italy. And I had a concert down in Texas two years ago.
Have you ever performed?
Hopkins: I did conduct in Texas. I was so scared. It’s a very fast piece I composed called “Schizoid Salsa,” and the conductor said “Come on!” I said “No!” And the orchestra was very kind to me, because it’s a very strict rhythm and the problem was I didn’t know where to stop. I had the score, so he said when you start you just go “Bom!” So he got me up in front of the audience, I got a standing ovation, and I go “Bom!” and they started, and I go “Now when do I stop?” and I glanced over at the pianist and he goes “Bom!” (laughs). And then I got a standing ovation.
So how much of a challenge is acting at this point? Is it just a job? Do you still have the sort of creative fire?
Hopkins: Well it is a commodity
Is it just a job?
Hopkins: No, well sure it’s a job it’s what I earn my living doing. But no it’s still a—challenge is such a heavy word “challenge”, like six of us pushing a rock up a hill, no it’s not a challenge it doesn’t cause me great strain—but I enjoy the process. I can’t even begin to describe it, you go on the set in the morning and you’re working with whoever you’re working with and you kick the lines around a little and hopefully you get to work with somebody who’s pleasant to work with, and you get a pleasant director and, sometimes that doesn’t work out too well but most of the time it does. But all in all it’s a pretty good experience and at the end of the day that’s it, and I go home. It beats working in the theater because that’s so absorbing, you’re in it all day and all night and the next day you gotta get up and do the same thing. With film it’s much easier. So it’s something that I totally enjoy. Really enjoy, really enjoy. And I look back on this film with great nostalgia, in Budapest and Rome. It was really special, this film to do. And I don’t think it was just the film it was being in Budapest, being with Colin O’Donoghue and Alice Braga and Mikael Håfström and a great producer in Beau Flynn. So all in all it was a very good time.