Anthony Hopkins: The Oscar-Winner Finds His Place in the Sun

UPDATED: January 27, 2010
PUBLISHED: January 27, 2010

Anthony Hopkins calls his cliff-top Malibu, Calif., home a sanctuary. And in the obvious sense, it is. From the front yard, you stand several hundred feet above Zuma Beach, gazing out at the pristine Pacific. Breathtaking. Then walk to the back of the house–a large white colonial with a steep red-tiled roof–and you enter another world submerged in junglelike vegetation. A series of paths winds through small, cozy clearings to several tiny outbuildings and a pool. It is utterly private. A hummingbird buzzes my head. Near the guesthouse, Hopkins pauses to study a spider web drenched in a sunbeam.

“Sometimes I don't want to leave,” he says, but not because he prefers to lounge around his self-made paradise. Quite the opposite, in fact. He uses the word sanctuary to define a place that allows him to do all the things he needs to do. When he's not acting, Hopkins is a voracious reader, painter and composer. His paintings sell well, and he finds it stimulating and creative rather than relaxing. Which makes him want to do it all the time.

“I have a busy brain,” he tells me. “I don't find it that easy to stay still. My wife, Stella, checks me. She'll say, 'Just relax, sit down, why do you have to go all the time?' There's always something busy in me, something pushing me. I think it's very necessary to have a tension in life that keeps us moving. If we become totally peaceful, we die.”

An Overriding Ambition

Sir Anthony–he prefers Tony–will probably always be known for his Oscar-winning role as Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic psychopath from the film adaptations of Thomas Harris's novels Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. That's a small sample. Now 72, he remains fit and driven (one of his outbuildings is a gym) and owner of a résumé that keeps expanding. This February, he plays Benicio Del Toro's father in The Wolfman. And he recently worked with Woody Allen for the first time–“That was terrific,” he says.

He's been an actor for more than 50 years now. In fact, the day I visit him is the 54th anniversary of his winning a scholarship at a local acting school in Cardiff, Wales. He was 17. At 24, he attended the Royal Academy, and eventually worked in Britain's National Theater with the likes of Laurence Olivier, who directed Hopkins in two plays. He liked how Olivier worked. Once the players had their roles and his direction down, Olivier turned them loose. “He expected you to be daring,” Hopkins says. “ 'Be outrageous,' he'd say. 'Do something that hasn't been done before.' What a gift to give to someone.”

Back then, Hopkins was consumed with an overriding ambition to become successful, he says. “I had no pretenses about, 'Oh, I'm just lucky to be an actor.' I was, 'I want to be rich and famous and successful!' I'd never say that to people. But if someone asked, that's the answer I'd give. They'd say, 'Oh, get you.' And I'd say, 'You want to stay here for the rest of your life walking around in wrinkled tights? Be my guest.' ”

Harnessing the Anger

Hopkins doesn't come off as arrogant as he says this. “I speak at all times as a human being. We're not saints. We're frail, fallible creatures.” He cops to a lot of anger as a young man–anger he had to learn to let go of–but he knows that anger is what allowed him to eventually rise in his field. You see, Hopkins was a horrible student. He mentions dyslexia and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in passing, but back then, there was no diagnosis for those symptoms other than “problem child.”

“Oh, I was the source of worry for my parents, the only child,” he says. “There's something in me that's not geared to taking instruction. My brain doesn't take that information in. I wish it did. But it doesn't. So I had no apparent future because schooling and education are important, and I didn't seem to have the ability to grasp what was being taught me. My cousins were all brilliant, so I felt very resentful and rejected by the whole society. Very depressed.”

That was the seed. That first audition in Cardiff opened up young Hopkins' brain to the possibility of something that didn't require classrooms and exams, and also allowed him to use his greatest resource: his anger. “I believe that there's something good in nature, in that if you have something that you think is a problem, which I thought I had as a kid, it turns into a great gift if you use it that way. Because it gives you enough GRRRR to help you rise above it, or it sucks you down into the mud. Sometimes a good degree of constructive anger can get you going. And I was a pretty angry kid.”

Happiness as a Choice

Here's where an interesting formula emerges. Hopkins, by trade, plays different roles. But he's discovered within his own acting method a parallel to real life. Taking on a role is a choice, after all, and we choose different roles in life–boss, parent and so on–without thinking what needs to go into them for them to be fruitful.

Hopkins explains: “I sit down and go through a scene over and over, only because I know that once it's in the memory banks, it's secure. Then it's like a cake. You put it in the oven and it cooks. And you go on set or to rehearsal, and you're at ease, at peace.”

He smiles, and a bit of theatricality sneaks into his tone. “Then strange things begin to happen. The information you have in your brain changes the way you are slightly. I don't mean you 'become the part,' but it just changes you. Now… what happens if you pour negative information in there, or positive information? You change the balance of your nature.”

In a way, this is what people mean when they say happiness or success is a choice. Hopkins uses another word. “It's a role,” he says. “When you take a role, you program the mind to say, 'OK, this will be our way.' I've experienced a few people who are willfully miserable. They've said, 'We'll just be miserable.' Or you can reprogram and readjust to say the opposite. Let's do something. Work out, get fit, get healthy, or how about just being cheerful?

“Self-doubt–and I'm loaded with it–keeps us grounded, in a way. We're not gods. But it can also be quite crippling. I have to actually boost myself against my inner nature, which had been for many years negative, destructive, all that stuff. I have to go against myself, my own inclination, and overcome. And there's a resistance inside me that says, 'Are you for real?' ” He nods. “Yes. I am.”

Man of Influences

Even moving into his 70s, Hopkins continues to evolve. He mentions Woody Allen several times, and you get the feeling that the project was a real delight for him. His wife, Stella, drops by the guesthouse to say hello, and he later remarks more than once how she keeps him “in check.” They married and bought this property six years ago and have teamed up to transform the place into its current layout (“There was nothing here,” he says). And it brings one word to light that has probably never been used to describe Hopkins: colorful.

It applies to his dry wit, of course, but also to the atmosphere he maintains here. The outbuildings are painted in playful hues: burnt orange, lime green, purple, arterial red. Near the gym, two ancient horse carts–about 5 feet high and 10 feet long with grand wooden-spoked wheels–overflow with bright flowers in various pots. One cart is green, the other red.

Hopkins himself wears a royal-blue sweater with orange stripes to our sit-down. He paints in explosive palettes as well–I notice flecks of hot-orange paint dried into the nooks of his fingernails.

“When I paint, my credo is, 'They can't arrest me and put me in prison if I do it badly,' ” he says. “That gives me freedom. I follow my inspiration and intuition, and it comes out better than I could expect.”

He owes the colorful influences to time he spent in Tlaxcala, Mexico, and Santa Fe, N.M., during the filming of The Mask of Zorro. He couldn't let go of how the architecture and color combinations of the regions stopped his eye, lifted his mood. So when it came time to decorate his new outbuildings, the solution was obvious.

'What Does Life Want of Me?'

Hopkins, like all of us, is a combination of his influences. Over the course of the morning, we also talk about Olivier, Spielberg, Nixon (whom he played in Oliver Stone's 1995 film) and Wolfman director Joe Johnston, whom Hopkins raves about. “One of the best I've ever worked with,” he says. A deeper influence than all of them was a man named Viktor Frankl.

“He was a psychotherapist who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp and wrote some incredible books. In Auschwitz, he saw what happened when apathy set in, when people reached a point where there was no purpose in life, no meaning for them because of the suffering, the horror of the nightmare that had been unleashed on innocent people. In his book Man's Search for Meaning, he observed that people simply die when they give up.”

Frankl is the author of that “necessary tension” Hopkins mentioned, the force that pushes us forward to fulfill whatever it is we set out for ourselves. Hopkins has used that tension his entire life to overcome anger, alcoholism (he's more than 30 years sober), and his own self-destructive tendencies. But, most of all, to build a success worthy of examination. It's his willful leaning toward the positive that keeps it going.

“In Auschwitz, Frankl had to question his purpose in life,” Hopkins says. “And then, in turn, ask life: 'What do you want of me?' Not 'What is life going to give me,' but 'What does it want of me?' We have to rise to those expectations.”

Becoming Your Dreams

Hopkins has fulfilled his early wish for success both financially and professionally, and he knows it. He claims that he's done everything he's ever wanted to do as an actor and more.

“That was my dream, come out here and be in movies. And that's what I did. We live in such a goal-oriented society, but if you set a little dream, a little mantra in your head of what you want, you become it.” He smiles at this. “That's the mystery. I don't understand it, but that's what happened to me. It still occurs. Things happen, and I think, 'Oh, that's what I wanted to do.' I always wanted to work with Woody Allen, and suddenly it happens. So you never know.”

That's what keeps him pushing forward today, not because of what he wants, but because he's still curious about what life wants of him.

Toward the end of our time together, as we stand under the sun-drenched canopy of trees that cover his property, he says, “You asked me about Olivier. You know what he said about success? 'Success smells like Brighton in summer.' Brighton is just beautiful.” Then he gestures to the sanctuary around us and grins. “I don't know. Maybe success smells like Malibu…”