Anthony Hopkins’ performance in the new drama The Father is anything but simple.
Tasked with playing the dementia-plagued patriarch of the title, who is quickly losing grip on what is real and what is not, the 83-year-old actor is required to balance character with the absence of character. As retired engineer Anthony – the name is just a happy coincidence, given that filmmaker Florian Zeller is adapting his own 2012 play – Hopkins must give audiences a fully complete portrait of a person fighting to retain his autonomy (his London flat, his ability to cook and care for himself, his relationship with his daughter) while also struggling to remember just who he is in the first place. It is a remarkable balancing act that would put even the most tested and acclaimed actor through their paces. But, to hear Hopkins tell it, it was no biggie.
“It sounds complicated, but it is really simplistic in a neurological way,” Hopkins says in a recent interview, Zooming from his Los Angeles home. “Acting is really your brain sending messages to your body on how to do it. If you know your stuff and you do your rehearsals – if you know the language of the script – then your brain just tells you what to do. It’s mechanics. If you know your stuff, there’s no hardship at all.”
As glad as I am to hear that Hopkins doesn’t break a sweat over this stuff, it is still a little hard to believe. In The Father, which netted Hopkins his sixth Academy Award nomination this week, the actor is not only required to answer many of Zeller’s existential challenges – such as: what is a person, if a person cannot remember who they are? – but to appear in almost every second of footage. While Olivia Colman, Rufus Sewell, Mark Gatiss and Olivia Williams appear as members, or maybe they are vestiges, of Anthony’s family, The Father is very much a one-man show.
“It is rather easy, because if you’re prepared, and with this film I very much was, you don’t have to push too much effort into it,” Hopkins says with a breezy calm. “What has always been extraordinary for me is that if you know the text, your body will follow you into doing what you need to do.”
All right, sounds easy enough. But what if the director wants to see you sweat? What if you need to show your work on-set? Hopkins has certainly worked with his share of filmmakers who have a reputation for intensity. For making demands, and having those demands met without question.
“It does depend,” Hopkins answers. “There are some wonderful directors who love to control everything. Kenneth Branagh, he knows everything that he sets out to do. Oliver Stone, he likes to do a lot of takes. But that’s okay, because he’s a perfectionist and a real wild genius. So is Spielberg. I just don’t like the screamers and the shouters. None of those directors are. They just pay tremendous, fantastical attention to detail.”
With Zeller, a French playwright making his directorial debut with The Father, there were not an inordinate amount of takes. There was no screaming, either.
“Being the author of the original play, he was so close to the work. He was the designer, really, too. He designed the set. He made the blueprint for what he wanted. But much to my relief and pleasure, he wasn’t a control freak,” Hopkins says. “He was very quiet, always apologizing. But also the most remarkable man. For his first movie, I was astonished.”
While our conversation happened in advance of the Oscar nominations, the actor didn’t seem all that concerned with, say, how The Father might fare in this year’s heated and especially strange awards season. Instead, he just wanted to chat about what he viewed the night before.
“I watched Barry Lyndon, a film by Kubrick, another demanding director. An extraordinary film,” Hopkins says. “The detail in it. And you can see Kubrick’s fanatical attention to detail in the film. It’s always a pleasure, an education. He’s very much like Ridley Scott, another director who has a vision. And that’s fine for me. If they know what they want, you don’t have to do much work. Except sometimes a lot of takes. But that’s okay. Really.”
Easy enough, then. Even for one of the hardest-working actors around.
The Father opens in select Canadian theatres, dependent on local health restrictions, March 19; it will be available on-demand, including Apple TV/iTunes and Google Play, starting March 26
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