With ‘The Father,’ Anthony Hopkins Joins the Oscar Race for Best Actor

His latest film is a tour de force, but at 82 the revered thespian takes it in stride: "I don't know what I'm doing half the time."
With 'The Father,' Anthony Hopkins Joins the Oscar Race for Best Actor
"The Father"
Sony Pictures Classics

Back in 1999, Anthony Hopkins was ready to quit acting after playing the demanding title role in Julie Taymor’s “Titus.” “I put it behind me,” the 82-year-old actor said on a recent phone call from his home in Santa Monica. “Most of the time, things have been pretty good. When I was younger, I had a healthy ego and ambition and I was insecure. The great thing about getting older is that it falls away. I look in the mirror at myself, and say, ‘What’s the big deal? Come on! Thank you very much!’ I don’t know what I’m doing half the time.”

Methinks he doth protest too much. At the moment, the 82-year-old Hopkins is on a roll. Last year he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor as Pope Benedict in “The Two Popes,” opposite fellow Welshman Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis. “I didn’t know Jonathan,” he said. “I was relieved to discover that he had a great sense of fun and humor about it all. He does what I try to do, which is not take it too seriously. Keep it simple and laugh and do it!”

On September 15, Sony Pictures Classics relaunches Sundance premiere “The Father” at the Toronto International Film Festival, heading toward a December 18 award-season release. And Hopkins is back in the Oscar fray. He took home Best Actor back in 1992 for his first nomination, as iconic Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs,” followed by nods for his repressed butler in Merchant/Ivory’s “The Remains of the Day,” the title role in Oliver Stone’s “Nixon,” and John Quincy Adams in Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad.”

“The Father” marks the feature directing debut of French playwright Florian Zeller, who after taking his popular Paris stage drama to the West End and Broadway (where Frank Langella won the Tony Award), collaborated with Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton (“Dangerous Liaisons”) on a film adaptation. Hopkins gives a moving tour-de-force performance as a grumpy octogenarian fighting against the dying of the light, driving away a long line of caretakers as he struggles with his frustrated daughter (“The Favourite” Oscar-winner Olivia Colman).

Of the past five years, Hopkins said, “I’ve had the most fortunate run.” On the set of the late great Ronald Harwood’s “The Dresser,” director Richard Eyre suggested that “I have another go at Lear. I was too young when I did it before. I did it with Emma Thompson, and then landed ‘The Two Popes’ which was a wonderful surprise.”

Zeller sent Hopkins “The Father” back in 2017. “It was one of those scripts that grabbed hold of you,” Hopkins said, “compact, very moving, and the writing was distinct, clear and concise. It was one of those that come along only once in a while. Florian and Chris came out to California. They waited for me. I had to start ‘The Two Popes,’ in Rome, then I went off to England.”

The Two Popes Anthony Hopkins
“The Two Popes”Netflix

The actor enjoyed Colman’s off-the-cuff approach. “We’re both the same,” he said. “She doesn’t do any method prep. She learns her lines, and does it. She finds it easy to act, gets emotional within the scene in the context of the play. She was so easy, a lot of fun, and chatty.”

For Hopkins, it’s all on the page. “I see what’s in front of me, what’s there,” he said. “The object is to empty your brain of all analysis and overthinking, use your creative intuitive intelligence to prep and learn the text, and apply that common sense: Make your marks, say your lines, and go home.”

That meant not overdoing with research. Hopkins didn’t have to face dementia with his own parents, but he drew on their ways of coping with aging. “The film is dealing with a universal subject at this very moment in our lives,” he said, “with loneliness, dementia, and mental illness, and suicide rates going up.”

On the first day, when Colman comes into the apartment and says, “Hello, Dad,” “He doesn’t know who she is,” he said. “He doesn’t know who he is, he’s trying to hold on, he puts on good front. I’m the same age. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out. You go along with it.”

The actor understands how to keep the audience on its toes. “I dig under the lines, like sifting through the sand,” he said. “Maybe I don’t need to play it that way, as indicated. So I play it from the opposite direction, and suddenly play clarity instead of demented, and surprise the audience. One minute I’m lost, and the next I’m bright and breezy and fooling around.”

When his mother was dying, said Hopkins, “She didn’t want any fuss, ‘Leave me alone.’ I think it’s stark fear. My father was like that, he’d be deeply depressed and tearful. He just wanted to be left alone to die. In this case, if you’re looking at somebody, and you think they’re a stranger: ‘Who’s this man in my flat?” Of course you get angry.  My grandmother swore people were stealing from her. It’s common.”

The film plays with the old man’s perceptions of reality, using a single set in Elstree that is subtly altered scene to scene, shot by cinematographer Ben Smithard with “depressing sultry afternoon light in a London suburb,” said Hopkins, who admires Michael Haneke’s apartment-bound “Amour.” “The Father” “is a French film with English-speaking actors,” he said. “No embellishment.”

A few months before he filmed “The Father,” at an Artists Forum workshop Hopkins found himself getting weepy. “It’s a tough business, you have to be prepared for it,” he told the young students. “Be positive. Don’t let anger and resentment embitter you.”

Next up: Zeller has asked him to play the father role in his follow-up, “The Son.”

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