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Anthony Hopkins

Rhythm Dictates Melody

Anthony Hopkins Talks About His Process Approaching "The World’s Fastest Indian"

By Cole Smithey105_0553

Writer/director Roger Donaldson ("Thirteen Days") comes full circle on the subject of his 1971 documentary "Offerings To The God Of Speed," about the late New Zealand motorcycle enthusiast Bert Munro who took his 1920 Indian Scout to the Bonneville Salt Flats to break speed records. Anthony Hopkins teams up with Roger Donaldson for the first time since their work on "The Bounty" in 1984 and gives an impassioned performance as Munro that sits snugly against the actor’s canon of brilliant character studies. Hopkins transports the simple story about an aging man with an ageless dream into the stuff of legend.

I had the joy of sitting down to talk with Mr. Hopkins at the Regency Hotel on his recent visit to Manhattan.

CS: When did you first hear Bert Munro’s story and why did you want to play him?

AH: Roger Donaldson sent me a DVD of the documentary, and the script, and he said, "watch the documentary first and then read the script and see what you think." So, I watched the documentary and I thought it was very good and I phoned him and said, "Yeah, I’d like to do it."

CS: Bert’s a very colorful character. How do you play an innocent guy after playing all of the villainous roles you’ve played?

AH: Oh, I’m just an actor. That’s all I am. It’s no big deal.

CS: Bert has such a wide-eyed view of the world.

AH: Yeah, it’s a bit like me when I came to America. I’m always taken by surprise with things. That’s how I’ve treated my whole life actually. I’ve always been in a state of surprise because I moseyed onto this train called show business many years ago, and I’m still going.

CS: The last time you worked with Roger was on "The Bounty" and there were stories that you were very temperamental and had heated arguments with him. Have you mellowed?

AH: Yeah. We were reacquainted about three or four years ago at a party. He said, "Well, we’ve both mellowed out a bit and a lot of water has passed under the bridge." And I said, "Well, maybe we’ll work together again," and that’s how this came up. I think as you get older, you get a bit more sensible maybe, and get a better perspective on things. I figured out some years ago that the director’s in charge of the movie. It doesn’t mean to say that every director’s good, or that the actor’s good but it’s the director’s job to run the movie. He’s the boss.

I remember on the first day we were filming. When the wheel comes off the trailer, Roger said, "Can we do another take?" I said "Yeah." So he did about 15 takes. But he’s a perfectionist and he wants to get it right. I thought, well this is the program, I’ll just go along with it.

CS: Do you look back and wonder why you were such a hothead when you were younger?

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AH: Well, I don’t regret it. That’s the way it was then. When you’re younger you’ve got a lot of ideas and you’re probably more insecure. I work with young actors now and I see their insecurities, and I make them laugh because I know exactly what they’re going through. When you get older you think, it’s only a movie after all, it’s not brain surgery.

CS: When you were a kid you said that you had no brains, and that’s why you became an actor.

AH: I couldn’t figure out anything when I was in school. I became an actor because I didn’t know what else to do. Academically, I wasn’t good. I remember a kid from school who could understand math and was like a genius and he ended up driving a truck. David Davis was his name. He was amazing. I hated him because he never did any homework because he just got it all the time. I don’t have that kind of brain or mind structure. We’re all different. Some people are musicians, some people are actors, some people are agents and some people are accountants… We’re all different.

CS: How has the way you approach roles changed in recent years?

AH: Well, I’ve always taken the same route. Which is to learn the lines literally. I read the script, maybe twice, and then I go over my text of the lines and after about ten times I get a rhythm in my head. Then I can hear rhythms that click into somewhere. I don’t try to analyze it, then certain rhythms of speech come up and take me into another area and I begin to feel like someone else. I’m not schizophrenic, but this is just to use another rhythm of my own self.

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CS: Do you sense a musical context to your approach?

AH: I suppose so. I don’t necessarily analyze any of this. But I started off when I was a kid playing the piano, and I wanted to be a musician. I say that in retrospect—I wanted to be a musician—I don’t how much I wanted to be a musician. I just wanted to be famous because I wanted to escape from what I felt was my limitation in life. I wanted to write music and I didn’t know what I was doing and I never had the technique or the understanding of it. But I’ve always played the piano, and I can improvise on the piano. The problem is that I can’t write down what I play. I can read music but I can’t write it down. So, my wife Stella said, "Why don’t you get some help?" So, I phoned up a composer who she knew, and he gave me the freedom of his studio and we used a synthesizer keyboard. I know my way around orchestral instruments so we became good friends. He’s a composer with absolutely no ego at all and he helped me with all of the electronic stuff on the computer. So, I built up the first big piece I had which I call Margam, which is where I was born, and it sounds pretty good. It’s being performed in San Antonio in May by a symphony orchestra down there with three other big piano pieces.

So, music has always been with me but my wife turned the key in me. She said, "You are a musician." And with painting, she’s got me to do some paintings for this gallery in San Antonio again. She said, "I want you to do a hundred paintings for this little gallery." So, I did these little pen drawings. They’re like felt pens, but they’re different brands of felt pens; some of them are like felt brushes. So, I paint these landscapes. And then she got me to do acrylics, and I’ve done 25 acrylics.

I think it’s all a happy design. I’m not saying I’m Picasso, but I do enjoy of the free expression without knowing that much about it.

CS: Bert feels like his whole life has been leading up to that first race that’s portrayed in the movie. Do you feel like you’ve had your Bonneville moment, or do you feel like you’re still waiting?

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AH: I feel like when I came to New York 30 odd years ago, I was staying at the Algonquin on September 13, 1974 and I went out on Fifth Avenue to get a newspaper and I thought I’m home. I had that feeling about it. That scene where Bert arrives at Bonneville—I’d learned that speech—and not because it was a huge moment at being in Bonneville because I’m not interested in world speed records, but it was a cold morning and Roger said OK, action and I got quite emotional about it because it was similar to my own life.

CS: Did you have to learn anything about the mechanics of motorbikes for the movie?

AH: Yeah, we had a mechanic and he showed me what to do with pouring metal into the mold. It was easy.

CS: Which of your roles took the most preparation?

AH: I think Nixon. Playing an American President, that’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination. Oliver Stone is an amazing director and he put the pressure on. I didn’t want to do it. I remember he came to England to meet with me and I’d already turned him down. He said, "You’re chicken, huh?"

I remember going to meet him that morning at the Hyde Park Hotel and I had a moment of clarity. I thought, well I can stay here in Britain and play nice boring safe parts for the BBC or I can work with this crazy director in America and maybe fall on my backside or make it successful. I thought, well I’ll just take the risk and I went to the hotel and the gruff old bear that isOliver said, "So, you’re not going to do it?" So, I said yes and I went to America and I remember learning the script and thinking, "what have I done?" I’ve taken on this nightmare. When I got to California we started rehearsing and then I realized that I was in the hands of a great director. He puts a lot of pressure on you, and you get to a point where you either crack or you get it. He was relentless until I got the feeling of the part. I really liked Oliver. He’s a great director.

CS: When you’re playing a real person like Nixon or Bert, how important is it for you to be accurate to that person and how important is it to have the freedom to create your own character?

AH: Well, I could never become accurate as Nixon because I don’t look anything like him, and I don’t look anything like Bert Munro. Perhaps, if I was Rich Little or Frank Gorshen or one of these great mimics. Actually, Rich Little came to the set for Nixon one day and I resisted doing Rich Little because if you do that you become a mimic. If you try to strive to get it absolutely accurate, then it’s not a performance. It’s a mask. You may as well wear a Nixon funny head or a Bert Munro mask because that isn’t what acting is about. That’s my opinion. So, you just airbrush it with a couple of pen strokes here and there and Roger would, on the set everyday, say, "Tony, you’ve lost it a bit this morning. Now, let’s watch those sounds." Indian3

But, the New Zealand south accent was easier for me because Bert sounded a little bit Cornish or maybe Irish, so it was easier. The North Island is much more of a pinched sound. It’s a difficult sound to get.

CS: There was a poll done by the Old Vic Theatre, and you came off as the number one British actor of all time—above Laurence Olivier, Alec Guiness and Judi Dench. When asked who is the greatest living actor, many people will come up with your name. How do you explain this phenomenon?

AH: I honestly don’t know. I’m very pleased if they call me that. I’ve thought a lot lately about it, but I honestly don’t know. I blush at it because I’ve worked with Olivier, and he was a great, great actor. It’s great to be told that but I guess I’ve got a few enemies in England now.

Maybe I have an attitude, which is open. I don’t what’s happened to me in the last few years, except that something’s opened up in me in the last ten years. I don’t know how to explain this. If I say I don’t take any of it seriously, I really mean it. I don’t. But I do my job. I do what I’m paid to do and I show up and I’m always prepared. I prepare by learning the text so well that when I show up, I’m relaxed and focused for the part. Now, whether that’s good or bad I don’t know. Whatever I’m going to say is going to sound very egocentric and self-centered so I’d better shut up. When I got the Cecil B. Demille award recently [at the Golden Globes] I was standing up there thinking, have they got the right person? I still do that.

Posted by Cole Smithey on January 31, 2006 | Permalink
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