The wanderer

With a classical music album out, Anthony Hopkins tells Dan Whitehead that acting was always a diversion from his true passion

“I’m a bit all over the place.” Not, quite frankly, the sort of thing you expect to hear from Anthony Hopkins, an actor who has made his name with such controlled and commanding performances as Hannibal Lecter, all coiled menace and quiet malevolence, or the stoic Henry Wilcox in Howard’s End. Yet it’s a phrase that keeps recurring as we talk about Hopkins’ personal passions and his attitude to creativity and art. The occasion, fittingly enough, is not a new film but the release of an album of his classical compositions, the latest in a growing line of endeavours outside of acting.

“Wandering has been the theme of my life.”

“I was always a bit all over the place,” he confesses, years spent living as a US citizen in Los Angeles having made little impact on his hypnotic Welsh murmur. “Wandering has been the theme of my life. I wanted to be a musician but in a loose, vague sort of way. Then I got sidetracked, so I got stuck with acting for the last 50 years.”

Musically gifted as a child, but without the academic discipline to master the piano scales, he nevertheless continued to improvise and play as his acting career took off. Eventually, several years ago, Stella, his wife of almost nine years, insisted he start writing these pieces down and compiling them into a coherent body of work. It was Stella who started sending the result to composers such as Andre Rieu, leading to performances and this recording with the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Yet despite the glamour and success, he often looks back to his Welsh childhood for inspiration.

He speaks much as he does on screen, in authoritative soliloquies

“Whenever I hear a French horn, there’s a location in Port Talbot, at the back of my grandfather’s house,” he recalls. “God knows why that comes to my mind but it’s always there. I don’t know how the sub-conscious works but I suppose I compose from that part of my mind. When I was a boy I always wanted to be a musician. I was always drawn to music, even though I didn’t have any set tastes. I was able to read music at a very young age. I don’t know why, but I was able to grasp it very quickly.”

He speaks much as he does on screen, in authoritative soliloquies, delivered low and fast, each full stop punctuated by an almost imperceptible hardening of the consonants. Any hint of pretension is quickly shot down with a self-deprecating aside.

“I have pretty catholic tastes in everything, really,” he says when I ask why he chose classical as his genre. “Taste is such a posh word, such a grand word, you know? I love country and western music, I love jazz from the 1940s, big band music. With classical, I was drawn more to people like Vaughan Williams, Frederick Delius, Elgar, French impressionists such as Debussy and Dukas, and I also like Russian, so it’s all over the place really. I find it much more easy to compose this quote – classical music – unquote.”

Instinct rules over intellect, and end results are immune to analysis

There’s that “all over the place” again. It soon becomes clear that for someone who can seem almost clinically precise in his delivery as an actor, in private he adopts a laissez-faire approach to life where instinct rules over intellect, and end results are immune to analysis.

“I practice every day, as much as I can anyway,” he says of his musical regimen. “Rather complicated pieces, like Chopin, not because I’m aiming to become a concert pianist but because it trains my brain. I can take a little tiny section and hone that into my brain, into my neural pathways. What that does is, I stop in the middle of it and can then start improvising, which comes very fluidly. With painting I’ll just paint whatever comes to me, see what shapes emerge, and it’s the same with music. There’s nothing hard or fast about it. Everything’s pretty ephemeral.”

His CD, simply called Composer, bears this out. Its nine tracks are an eclectic mix, ranging from pastoral works such as the opening track Orpheus to the Latin-infused feel of the album closer, The Plaza. In between you’ll find an intricate waltz, strident bombast and even a hint of the blues. It is, as he says, all over the place, though in a free-associating, improvisational manner rather than the fumblings of a directionless magpie.

Naturally, working in film offers numerous musical opportunities. Several of the tracks on the album were composed for the films August and Slipstream, which Hopkins also directed, and he often seizes the chance to watch Hollywood’s great soundtrack artists at work. “I’ve been to many scoring sessions on films I’ve worked on. I watch John Williams, people like that. I really admire musicians. I love watching musicians in the orchestra. They don’t seem to have the egos that actors have. They just get on with it, without any fuss. Actors get so ceremonious about their work, about how important it is, and it’s all such bullshit. But musicians are just plain, easy guys who just come in with their shopping bags, newspapers and cigarettes, pick up their instrument and do it, without any fuss, without any temperament. I feel much closer to them than the acting business.”

Throughout our conversation, acting repeatedly gets short shrift. He’s not exactly dismissive of it, but there’s a definite ambivalence. “I sit down with a script and if I like it then I’ll do it. I go through it over and over and over until it’s like a wash, and out of that emerges the image of the person I’m playing. I don’t understand it, I don’t comprehend it, I don’t get intense about it. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I don’t try to figure out the results.”

“I suppose you’re right. Acting’s the day job.”

Is acting more like a day job that enables him to indulge his passions elsewhere? There’s a pause and I realise I’ve just suggested that Sir Anthony Hopkins, Oscar winner, Bafta fellowship member and peer of the realm, approaches his craft in much the same way that a plumber might approach a blocked U-bend. I cringe and await the stinging riposte but instead he laughs out loud. “I like that!” he chuckles. “That’s an interesting one. I suppose you’re right. Acting’s the day job.”

Despite his weariness with the industry, it’s not a day job he plans to give up any time soon. He has several films already lined up to shoot this year, including playing Alfred Hitchcock – “a very complicated man” – in a movie about the making of Psycho, and a repeat turn as Odin in the superhero sequel Thor 2. “I’ll grow my beard, have a laugh and get on with it,” he laughs.

“I’m surprised I’m still acting,” accepts the 74-year-old. “I’m surprised I’m still around. I guess I’ll work until my teeth drop out. I just learn my lines, show up and do the best I can. I don’t have a grand theory about it. I thought I had one as a young actor but now I just loosely go about my business. This is my life, really. It’s not about work or art. I don’t think any of that is important. It’s just how I express myself.”

Photo: Jeff Katz

Anthony Hopkins: Composer is out now

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