Born in Port Talbot, Wales, Hopkins admitted that as a student at school he would rather immerse himself in the arts, than attend to his studies. His career began on stage, but the big screen was a place he unabashedly aspired to part of, much to the discontent of his seasoned theatrical co-star, including such eminent figures as John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier.
“In was never comfortable being in the theatre, I have to admit. I couldn’t stand being cooped up for more than three performances. The thought of six months doing one character drove me crazy. I admired people who could do that repetition, but it wasn’t for me.”
He talked briefly about his own acting process, and how that changed early on:
“When I started out as an actor, I found I was very much using the Stanislavski, method approach. I would write subtext all over my scripts. It was all invaluable and nothing was wasted, but I remember a theatre director finding one of these scripts and asking what all my scribbling was. He told me to just act, and that he wouldn’t have cast me if he didn’t think I could do it. After that my approach was to just learn the text thoroughly, and get on with it.”
The first clip offered up was a scene from one of his early parts in cinema, in which he played opposite the legendary Katharine Hepburn (as her son) in 1968’s The Lion in Winter. Hepburn had some interesting advice for him:
“She said, ‘you know, you don’t need to act, the scenery seems to be doing that for you’. I remember that moment and working with this great movie star, and the sense that it was a tremendous and powerful boost for me. This was something I’d always wanted to do, and it was a very showy part.”
Scenes to follow included his work in such films as 84 Charing Cross Road, Steven Spielberg’s Amistad and Remains of the Day.
His most iconic role, and the one which changed the whole course of his career, was that of Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter in Jonathan Demme’s multi award-winning psychological horror, The Silence of the Lambs. Hopkins talked about how he chose to be introduced in the film:
“The first day we were filming, I arrived in Lecter’s cell and Jonathan [Demme] asked me how did I want to be seen [when Agent Starling is first introduced to the character]. He asked if I wanted to do some sketching or perhaps be lying on the bed. I said I wanted to be standing, and in the centre of the cell. He asked why, and I said it was because I’d have smelled Starling coming down the corridor. He said I was weird (laughs) but he agreed to shoot it that way, and that approach proved to be terrifying. The first ten minutes of the film, there’s talk of this Lecter being a monster, but the idea was to reverse that preconception.”
“I remember Oliver Stone called me and said he wanted me to play Richard Nixon. I thought that he must be out of his mind. Before we met, I decided I was going to turn it down and he called me a chicken. I was on my way to see him at The Dorchester on a cold January morning, and I said to myself, he’s a great American director, he’s offered me the part of a lifetime. It could be a disaster, it may be great – just do it! I met him and agreed to do it, and then the nightmares started (laughs)”
The clips concluded with a scene from another recent biopic, this time with the actor playing the role of Alfred Hitchcock during the making of Psycho. In the film it suggests how his wife, Alma (played by Helen Mirren) was instrumental in the director achieving the success that he did. Hopkins revealed that he actually met the master of suspense towards the end of his career:
“We met on a Friday afternoon in Los Angeles in 1979. We shared agents and we were having lunch and Hitchcock was sat across from us and I was asked if I’d like to meet him. We walked over to him after we’d eaten, and he was looking enormous at this point. He was a very ill man and he’d had a number of operations. This was probably around six months before he passed, and by all accounts, he was becoming impossible and quite irascible to work with, but they kept the studio open for him. He wasn’t, apparently, close to his wife but at the American Film Institute he did finally thank her for her tremendous power in his life, because she was brains behind the whole machinery of the Hitchcock movie industry.”
A brief Q&A was thrown out to audience members towards the end, where the actor (exquisitely) recited a number of poems to the rapturous crowd. A highly memorable evening, in the company of an equally remarkable cinematic figure, who proved to be every bit as loquacious and dynamic as imagined.