"I'm on a bit of a roll,” says Anthony Hopkins, who won a Best Actor Oscar in 1992 for playing Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs and this year's AARP Movies for Grownups Award for Best Actor in The Father, about a man who resists the help of his anguished daughter (Olivia Colman) as he slips into Alzheimer's disease. Even more effectively than previous acclaimed movies about the debilitating illness — such as Still Alice with Julianne Moore and Away From Her with Julie Christie — The Father brings viewers inside the mind of the patient, finding cinematic ways to make the audience share the hero's Alzheimer's experience, a bewildering world of shifting memories and moments.
SEE ALL THE 2021 WINNERS: Complete List of AARP's Movies for Grownups Winners
The Father adds to Hopkins's latest streak of great roles (and awards to match). “I've done The Dresser with Ian McKellen (2015), King Lear (2018) and The Two Popes with Jonathan Pryce (2019). I'm fortunate to be in work."
Why getting older makes him a better actor
Born: Margam, Wales, U.K.
First break: Laurence Olivier hired him as his understudy in 1967’s The Dance of Death, got appendicitis, and said Hopkins “walked away with the part of Edgar like a cat with a mouse between its teeth.”
Greatest hits: The Elephant Man, Howards End, The Remains of the Day, The Silence of the Lambs, Nixon, The Father
Education: Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, Royal Academy of Dramatic Art
Accolades: 5 Oscar nominations, one win, 5 Emmy nominations, two wins, knighted by Queen Elizabeth
Hopkins thinks he's also fortunate to be grown up enough at 83 to handle such roles. “The Father has been compared to the story of King Lear [who goes mad] and his daughter [who, like Colman's character, tries to save him]. I played Lear many years ago, in my 40s, and I was too young to do it. I didn't have that life experience. When I did it again at 79 for the film, I thought I've got enough life experience now to understand the nature of this old man.
"And for me to play The Father was easy, because he's my age — no acting required! I tell this to young actors: Just relax. Don't do too much. Because everyone wants to make a moment of it. Just keep it simple. It's like martial arts — Bruce Lee said, ‘Be water,’ give in to gravity to throw your opponent over your shoulder. If you're playing a big tragic moment, don't play it intensely. Once you tense up, you're stumped, because there's no flow to it."
The secret behind Hannibel Lecter
Easy does it was the secret of Hopkins's breakout to A-list fame as Lecter at age 53 — the second- shortest Best Actor performance in Oscar history (24 minutes 52 seconds, versus David Niven's 23 minute 39-second role in Separate Tables). “When I was younger, I'd struggle and try to make it complicated. But when the lights go down, the audience puts itself into a state of mass hypnosis, and you become part of them — another reality. A cop tells Jodie Foster, ‘He's a monster!’ The audience expects to see a monster; instead they see a man calmly standing, saying, ‘You're not real FBI, are you?’ That's even more terrifying."
Hopkins says the same technique works in capturing the terrors of dementia. When the illness confuses the father so that he doesn't recognize his daughter — in these scenes, she's played not by Olivia Colman but another actress, Olivia Williams — or his daughter appears with a new husband he's never seen before, Hopkins doesn't play it over-dramatically. “The character thinks he's anchored in reality, and there's a strange man or woman in the room, and he says, ‘Who are you?’ I don't have to act out confusion. The audience does that for me."
Dementia and the power of memory
Dementia hasn't struck his own family, but he knows some of its sufferers well. “It can strike anyone at any moment. A family friend of mine thought he was in New York when he was living in Pacific Palisades, L.A. ‘Where's the Hudson?’ he'd ask.” Except for an occasional “glitch” in his own memory — somebody's name that temporarily eludes him — Hopkins hasn't had any worries, which could be thanks to reading all those scripts 200 times each to memorize them. “I have a superb memory; I remember too many things. So what I do is read a lot, play piano to maintain coordination, paint and learn poetry — Auden, Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Pound, Dylan Thomas, not just the poems but short stories. If you asked me to quote from Hamlet, I could. Memory is such a piece of machinery, and it does keep the brain active.”
Hopkins says that he is loving his 80s, full of hit roles both highbrow (The Father may earn him yet another Oscar) and mass-market (Dr. Ford in HBO's Westworld, Odin in Thor: Ragnarok). “The past five years have been extraordinarily lucky,” he adds, “and the best time in my life.”