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The Lion in Winter

Sir Anthony Hopkins at Play

By Luisa F. Ribeiro | Posted 7/15/1998

Sir Anthony Hopkins' snow-white hair and beard belie his hearty bearing and natural grace and poise. But while meeting the press last month at a Beverly Hills hotel to promote his new movie The Mask of Zorro, the 60-year-old actor enters the room gingerly, using a black, silver-handled cane. He settles down carefully, his bright blue eyes twinkling roguishly as he replies to a flurry of concerned questions about the cane, saying he snapped his Achilles tendon while "beating up Cuba Gooding Jr." during work on his upcoming film, Instinct.

Enjoying the startled uncertainty engendered by his remark, Hopkins pauses a moment before explaining that he actually injured the tendon last March while performing a simple stunt on the Instinct set. "I went on working for three weeks," he says. The blue eyes crinkle slightly around the edges again as he adds playfully in his distinctive honey-laced British accent, "I'm so macho." Told by doctors that his injury necessitated immediate surgery or he might be crippled for life, Hopkins continues, "I thought, well, I've had a good career. [I'll] play Ironside or Long John Silver parts."

After more than three colorful decades in theater, film, and television, during which he's earned honors ranging from an Oscar (Best Actor for 1991's Silence of the Lambs) to a knighthood, Sir Anthony now clearly just wants to have fun. His acknowledged adventurous spirit (which manifested itself early in his career as bad-boy recklessness) has been curbed lately not so much by age but by physical injuries, both sustained while at work making movies. In 1996 he underwent surgery to repair a dislocated disc in his neck which he suffered while making The Edge with co-stars Alec Baldwin and Bart the bear.

A "badge of honor," Hopkins calls the painful disc procedure, showing just the slightest trace of ruefulness before quietly adding, "It's made me tougher and stronger, made me value my own health. I do too much, do too many . . . " He trails off and focuses on a distant horizon beyond the room.

Hopkins survived the grueling six-month shoot of Zorro unscathed, avoiding anything done on horseback (he was almost killed on a horse during his first full-length film, 1968's The Lion in Winter) but doing all of his own fencing and whip work. He is characteristically blunt about his initial response when the role of Zorro was offered to him: "Bit old, aren't I?" After looking over the role of Don Diego de la Vega, who passes the heroic mantel of Zorro off to a younger man (played by Antonio Banderas), Hopkins says, he made one request of director Martin Campbell. He asked to have a line inserted that acknowledged Don Diego's advancing years, "just to give the audience the feeling that [I know] I'm pushing my luck here."

Hopkins circles around the theme of luck repeatedly. Although production for Instinct was halted for two months while he recovered from surgery to repair the torn tendon, it has only been in the last decade, beginning with his Silence of the Lambs turn as the nefarious Hannibal Lecter, that the actor has has acquired tangible industry respect and clout.

Despite the rash of injuries, "I'm enjoying myself enormously," Hopkins says. "These things can happen to anyone. I could be playing a butler like in The Remains of the Day and fall over a stand and break my ankle." Concerned when Instinct's producers indicated they would place the film on hold until he recovered, he recalls, "I said, 'Oh screw it, I don't care.' That was my attitude."

The cavalier manner and intense determination to forge ahead at all costs are hallmarks of this driven man who has played hard all of his life. Brash, wildly temperamental, and a ferocious alcoholic for much of his adulthood, Hopkins admits he used to worry about his craft. "When you're younger, you're just in doubt all the time, racing ahead," he says. "[But] you stop thinking about it. If they're fool enough to employ me I'll take the job. If they haven't seen through me yet, I guess I must be giving them something they want."

Hopkins has been sober for years and clearly relishes the cachet that his hard-won popularity has allowed him, appearing in such disparate films as Howard's End, Shadowlands, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Legends of the Fall, Nixon, Amistad, and Surviving Picasso. In 1996 he made a respectable film directorial debut with August, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. He also composed the musical score.

Hopkins is scheduled to begin work on a film version of William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus with Jessica Lange later this year, and he claims it's as close as he ever wants to get to his old stomping ground of the stage. "I don't ever want to go back," he says firmly. Queried, he whispers a near-blasphemy for one so closely associated with the theater: "It's so boring--night after night, speaking the same lines."

He's equally candid about his latest film. Zorro, he says, is "ridiculous, [but] a lot of fun. . . . I'm not a serious actor, I never have been. I've been cast in serious parts, but I'm not serious. I don't even feel like an actor. I feel like I visited the acting profession one day and was roped in and don't know how I can get out of it."

Coming from a man awarded his country's highest honor for his contribution to art and culture, this is either glib--or wise--talk. Hopkins brushes aside the suggestion that he is aware of the power of his performances. "It's dangerous to be aware," he says. "Once you become aware of that, you become impossible. There are people around who do that, so in love with their own publicity. They come on surrounded by their own bodyguards and you think, What are they doing here? How do they get close to the camera? How do they begin to function? Maybe they need that, but I don't."

What challenges remain for him? "Just staying alive," he replies immediately. He lifts the cane slightly. "This has been good for me because I like to do everything. Its workaholism, I suppose. [Now] I get out of bed in the morning, feed the birds in the garden, and that's the stage I've reached in my life. I don't want to go back to any other way. Don't want any more than that. That's the biggest challenge, to discipline my speediness. Because it finally kills you if you don't slow down."

What does he get out of acting these days? "I just have a good time with it," he says. Does anything about it drive him mad? "Nothing." Nothing at all? Pause. The blue eyes flicker toward the mysterious horizon. "People who do too much."

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