From recent endeavors like “Proof” and “Titus” to historical favorites like “Othello” and “Hamlet,” Sir Anthony Hopkins has an impressive resume of stage-to-film adaptations. Despite discovering an invaluable foundation in the theater as an up-and-coming actor, Hopkins doesn’t want to go back. And yet, there’s something about the allure of the stage that permanently grounds him to a version of its storytelling.
In “The Dresser,” his character wrestles with an obsession over his role as an actor, and Hopkins was intrigued by the question of, “Why do I do it?” In a recent interview with IndieWire, Hopkins tried to provide an answer. In doing so, the veteran thespian passed down a few key lessons on acting, adapting plays for the screen and how to find the right “theater actor” for your project.
Theater vs. Film: Where To Start
Hopkins is a household name for legendary performances in iconic film roles, but he got his start in the theater. So when asked if his background on stage benefitted him on screen, he was emphatic in his response.
“Oh, yes. Absolutely,” Hopkins said. “Because it gave me the sheer discipline and the foundation to learn text and the technique of speech, as well as to take on masses of literature: Chekhov, Ibsen, Shakespeare. And it’s stayed with me over these years.”
His first words of advice for young actors follow a similar path.
“Get a training in the theater. When young actors get choosy, they should just work. Whatever work comes in, just do it. Accept anything just for the sheer experience of it.”
Why Make a Play Into a Film
Personally, Hopkins did “The Dresser” as a way to sneak his way back into stage acting.
“Well it was a way of going back; a pain-free way of revisiting a world I knew 50 years ago — the theater and the touring companies. I left the theater some time ago and came out here to live. So I have a strange nostalgia for those days, but didn’t want to go back to it in reality. So I thought it would be a good way to exorcise those memories by doing a play — on film.”
But there’s the appeal of transitioning a play from the stage to the screen goes behind personal practicalities. The artistry of the endeavor has to be equally (if not more) tempting.
The Meaning and Mystery of Acting
Hopkins had a specific reason for making “The Dresser” into a film, as it pertained to a question he’s been pondering for some time.
“I’ve been quietly intrigued by the meaning of the role of an actor in life,” Hopkins said. “What it’s all about? Is it to be taken seriously? I think a lot of actors feel guilty about what they do, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt guilty, but I’m kind of puzzled by why actors do what they do and what draws me to it. Why do I do it?”
Sir, his character in “The Dresser,” is a man nearing the end of his career and is forced by circumstance to reevaluate its meaning.
“He feels that his life is wasted, and he has a big mental breakdown,” Hopkins said. “The man is consumed by his obsession to hit the ceiling with ‘King Lear.’ He’s dedicated his life to this part, touring even during the war. Then, when he realizes he’s actually conquered it, it’s too late. He realizes the aftermath of his life has been, in a way, wasted.”
“He’s never been loved by anyone. He’s never loved anyone. He’s just an isolated old man. And I was fascinated by that because I used that trick myself — a way of thinking, many years ago. As much as I enjoy what I do, and love doing it, I don’t ever want acting to take over my life and eat into me, you know?”
Finding a Partner in Crime
“The Dresser” is essentially a two-man show. Finding someone who would understand the theatrical history — and had some of their own — was key to making the on-screen partnership work. And yet the story of Sir Ian McKellen’s casting is almost shockingly simple.
“I said, ‘I wonder about Ian McKellen?’ So they approached Ian, and he said he would love to do it. And I had never worked with Ian before. We knew each other for over 50 years but never really worked together. I think we spent about 10 minutes chatting backstage when I went to see him after one of his performances, but we were not close friends at all.”
So why did McKellen come straight to mind?
“Ian is one of those dedicated theater actors. He’s a wonderful actor, and we would have conversations about that during the rehearsals.”
There’s those words: “theater actors.”
And Yet, Hopkins is Headed Back to the Theater — Kind Of
Even though Hopkins claimed to not want to get back into the theater, McKellen changed his mind — almost.
“He said he was determined to get me back into the theater,” Hopkins said. “And I said ‘I don’t think so, I’m in no hurry to go back.'”
“I’ve known many actors who have been in the theaters for years and years, and not many — but some of them — have turned into sullen and bitter people. And so that’s what I was interested in: seeing what it is like to get into the skin of this crazy old actor who goes mad. And the funny thing is, because of that, I’m now going to do ‘King Lear’ again in Britain for the BBC. Having played the actual King Lear 30 years ago, and then again in this film, I suddenly realized: Now I know how to play him — I think,” Hopkins said with a laugh. “I may be wrong, but it’s my interpretation.”
From stage to film and from film to TV. Hopkins, it seems, has the bug. Again.