watoday– When Anthony Hopkins saw himself on screen in The Father, playing an elderly man stumbling through the fog of dementia, he suddenly felt he was watching his own father. Richard Hopkins, a baker in the Welsh industrial seaport city of Newport, dwindled gradually with heart disease. “He became very depressed and belligerent,” Hopkins remembers. “And argumentative. I’d say something and he’d say ‘what do you mean by that?’ And there was a kind of listlessness. And the hurt, the pain he could cause my own mother. ‘Do you want another cup of tea?’ ‘YES!!’ It all came out of fear. And I looked at The Father and recognised it with great fondness. I thought ‘that’s my old man’.”
The Father is adapted from the play of the same name by celebrated French writer Florian Zeller, who wrote it for the cinema with his regular translator, Christopher Hampton. Hampton is an old cinema hand, with an Oscar for Dangerous Liaisons to his credit, but this is Zeller’s first film; he also directed it. When it was first shown at San Sebastian Film Festival last year, it was clearly remarkable but overshadowed by that festival’s big hit, Another Round; since then, it has been recognised with six Oscar nominations, including best picture and best actor.
And Sir Anthony Hopkins, usually a maddeningly monosyllabic interviewee, is so taken with the film that he turns into a torrent of Welsh eloquence talking about it, along with life, death, acting technique – hitherto a no-go zone with him – and anything else that comes to mind. He even starts quoting Schopenhauer.
Zeller thinks now that the reason he wanted to make the film in English was so that Hopkins could play the title role, even changing the character’s name from Andre to Anthony as a sort of signal to the actor that he was needed.
“I wrote the script dreaming of him,” he says. “I was aware it’s not an easy dream to fulfill, because I’m French and he’s Sir Anthony Hopkins, you know! But until someone comes and tells you it’s not possible, that means that potentially it is possible.” Not knowing anyone who could speak for him, he just sent the script to Hopkins’ agent. Then the call came, asking him to come to Los Angeles to have breakfast. Sir Anthony Hopkins was in.
The peculiar brilliance of Zeller’s film, even more than the original play, is the way he has wound the confusion and terror of dementia into the narrative itself. Zeller’s grandmother, who raised him, started losing her memory when he was 15. He knew what it was like to see a loved elder disintegrate, but he didn’t want to go over that ground.
“I wanted to tell the story from the inside, as if the audience was experiencing a slice of dementia, trying to understand what is going on as if they were in the middle of a labyrinth, trying to understand where they are,” he says. “Who is this person who has just appeared in an armchair, reading a newspaper? You think you know what the reality is supposed to be, but suddenly there is another reality and you have to make sense of it. The whole film is about playing with this sense of disorientation.”
Olivia Colman plays Anthony’s daughter, who is trying to find him care because she has met a man and is moving to Paris to live with him. But perhaps she hasn’t moved to Paris at all, because in the next scene they seem to be living in the same flat, with Mark Gatiss as someone who is apparently her husband. The flat, which has many doors and corridors, also seems dangerously unstable; the walls change colour and the furniture shifts around from one cut to the next. Then there is a different daughter, played by Olivia Williams, and another frightening man.
It is like a puzzle, says Zeller, where some of the pieces have been deliberately made not to fit. “The moment comes when you have to let it go and accept that your brain is not capable of understanding everything. And when you let it go, you can understand the whole film on another level. An emotional level.”
Meanwhile, the character Anthony is also trying and failing to understand what is happening around him; it is not giving anything away to say that his struggle culminates in a brief moment of clarity when he recognises that his brain no longer works that way. It is painful to see, but also joyful: there he is, a whole human being.
“I knew from the very beginning it was the most important scene of the film,” says Zeller. “The challenge was to go into purely emotional territory and to explore something we didn’t know yet, in a way. As if it was for Anthony a door he could open to let his own personal feelings and emotions overwhelm the scene.”
It would be a surprise if Hopkins described anything as overwhelming. What he recalls is a first take that didn’t work. “Florian only does one, two takes at most,” he says. “It’s a long scene. I started off and I knew something was …” He lets that drift. “At the end, he said ‘cut, good. Tony, can we do one more?’ And I said ‘yeah … can I go away for a few minutes? I want to clear my brain.’ It’s always good to walk away, take a walk around the set.” He did that, came back, walked away again. The crew was adjusting the lights. The set was a hospital room. “Florian said ‘are you OK?’ Yes.”
Even on Zoom, Hopkins commands the room; his voice is soft but compelling. You can almost hear that metaphorical door opening.
“I just looked around the set,” he says. “I saw on the nightstand a pair of glasses I wore, a book and the photograph of the two daughters. And it suddenly hit me, just in that moment, about the transitoriness of life, the fragility of life. All our little possessions, our glasses, our little things: when you’re dead, you’re gone forever and they are the stagnant last remains. And then they’re scrapped or sold or rot away somewhere in a cupboard and you think ‘that’s life’. It hit me so profoundly. We can’t prove the past exists. I can’t prove to you my mother and father ever existed; we have photographs, but did they really exist? Time is so peculiar.”
Hopkins’ father died in 1981. He remembers having a similar perception of life’s evanescence even then. “Watching him losing it was awful. And when he died, we were all relieved. I remember the day after, going down the road outside the house in Newport and all the blossoms were coming out on the trees and I remember thinking ‘Thank God it’s over. He’s gone now. Life is good. Life is sensational again’. That was a wake-up call for me, because I was young, in my early 40s, but I remember thinking well, one day it will be me. And then next day, walking down the street with all the cherry blossom, I thought ‘there’s life’. It’s transient.”
When Zeller asked again if Hopkins was OK, he was ready to work. “I said yes and so we started and the scene worked because of the effect that had on me. That was all.”
Zeller remembers that everyone on set was crying. “It was so obvious it was connected to some place in his heart that was so painful and pure. As soon as I said ‘cut’, I ran into his arms to thank him and he was crying as well.”
It was no big deal, says Hopkins briskly. “It didn’t take too much work. When you have to search for feelings, then you start overacting. And the first take was like that, I think. And then when we did the second one, it was easy.”
Find the moment, pin it down, move on: that would surely be the core lesson in a Hopkins acting masterclass. At 83, he works constantly. He is obsessive about detail – he and Zeller emailed each other for months about what music he should hum in the film, settling on an aria from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers – but doesn’t like rehearsing. Zeller’s single takes suited him.
“The situations are fairly simple, if you keep them simple,” he says. “If you keep analysing and questioning, then you get into trouble. As I get older, I really believe that. I know a lot of young actors want to do that, because there’s that feeling that you’re working hard and taking it seriously. And that’s OK but there’s a simpler way, I think. I know my way around now. I’ve had enough experience of life to feel fairly well-versed in knowing how my own mind works and how life works, as much as I’ll ever know.″
So does he think he has become wiser with age? He chuckles. “Yes, I’m wise enough now to know that I know nothing,” he says. “I’m at a contented, peaceful stage of my life where I am aware of my mortality and I know one day it will all be over, but I hope I go on for many more years. What keeps me going is the possibility of working and enjoying the day. In lockdown, which is a very strange situation, to make the best of it I play the piano and read and paint. To be at peace.”
Something strikes him. Just last year, he says, his wife Stella met a former schoolteacher of his, now in his 90s, who told her Hopkins hadn’t been very bright at school “but suddenly, in 10 years, he was on his way, becoming an actor and all that”. He can’t say himself how that came about. “I look back over my life and I think well, I don’t remember doing anything, really. It was like I was given decades of things to do.”
As Schopenhauer says – “I’m showing off now, with a bit of philosophy” – when you look back, it is as if someone else wrote your life as a novel. You’re a character, but the plot comes from elsewhere. “We ourselves have no idea how we get here.” He doesn’t, anyway. Something got him from the Welsh suburb where he was born to the National Theatre and the BBC and thence to Hollywood, but what?
“I can’t take credit for anything. I showed up on time. I made many, many mistakes. I’m an old sinner, like everyone else is. And yet I’m here! And I look back and I think how the hell did that happen?” He beams. “And it’s a wonderful freedom, because when I think of it, I think yeah, there’s more to life than I can even begin to comprehend. Am I talking about God? I don’t know. I’m talking about the divine process of being alive. It’s such an experience. Just to be here this morning! So that’s how much I know. I know nothing.”