The “heart and soul” of a film is an often-overused term, but it’s practically unavoidable when it comes to Anthony Hopkins in James Gray’s Armageddon Time.
Gray’s autobiographical film, drawn with exquisite detail from his childhood growing up in 1980s Queens, New York, follows an 11-year-old named Paul (Banks Repeta) with dreams of becoming an artist. Made with both nostalgia and self-examination, Armageddon Time touches on larger social currents – a Black classmate (Jaylin Webb) faces distinctly different opportunities at school; the Trump family makes an appearance – while crafting a vivid portrait of Gray’s Jewish-American family.
The parents (Jeremy Strong, Anne Hathaway) have a strained, disciplinarian relationship to their son, but Paul’s kind grandfather (Hopkins) is a deep reservoir of support. In warm, intimate scenes, Hopkins’ grandfather, Aaron Rabinowitz, mentors Paul even as his health is deteriorating. For the 84-year-old Hopkins, who won best actor at the Academy Awards last year for his patriarch slipping into dementia in The Father, it’s another radiant twilight performance and a gentle, masterful capstone to one of acting’s most distinguished careers.
Just as the film’s small, specific moments reverberate with larger meaning, Gray’s film – about a young artist’s coming of age and the people who formed him – has profound connections for Hopkins. It’s a role deeply felt by the actor, resonate with echoes of his own grandfather. Growing up in the working-class Welsh town of Port Talbot, Hopkins says he was closer to his grandfather than he was to his parents.
“We spent a lot of time walking together. He was the one who gave me the liberty to be free of myself,” says Hopkins. “I tended to be a bit slow in school. My father was always worried, of course, so was my mother. My grandfather said: `Don’t worry about it. You’ll do fine.’ He had an old country philosophy about it. He used to call me George because it sounded very countrified, very English country. He was born in Wilshire. `Don’t worry, George. It’ll all be all right.’ And I still use that.”
Hopkins rarely does interviews at this stage in his life. But he recently spoke by phone during a short stay in the Hamptons while en route from Wales to Los Angeles. Gray, who joined the conversation from New York, was delighted to hear of Hopkins’ whereabouts. “You’re so fancy pants,” he said.
Armageddon Time, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and Focus Features is releasing in select theaters Friday, is an exhumation of a personal past that Gray has tailored to the actors. Robert De Niro was initially to play the character before the pandemic altered the film’s production plans and Gray’s conception of the character. Rabinowitz, who hasn’t completely shed Hopkins’ own Welsh accent, is the son of Ukrainian Jews who emigrated to London.
“I needed somebody of a great stature to play my grandfather because he was the person who loved me and made me feel wanted,” says Gray. “Really, there’s a very short list of screen legends and great people in the world today. Tony Hopkins is number one.”
Hopkins responded immediately to the screenplay. “What I like is: less is more,” Hopkins says. “If a script is too full of gobbledygook or direction and all that, I tend to turn off. When a script is clear and concise, it’s like a roadmap.”
Hopkins immediately began firing off long emails to Gray with reflections of his own grandfather as the two exchanged memories with one another. Hopkins’ own recollections, in many ways, mirrored Gray’s.
“My sad remembrance is one day in 1961 we had a drink in the hotel up the road in Port Albert,” Hopkins says of his grandfather. “He wanted me to go for lunch up to his house. I was too busy, too young. I said, `I’ve got to go now, see you soon.’ He turned around and waved and he was dead within two months. I always remember that. It’s a bit of a sword in my chest, that memory.”
“I have a similar memory,” Gray adds. “I remember saying goodbye to my grandfather in a very unsentimental way. I didn’t contemplate his mortality at all. I remember waving and saying `Goodbye, grandpa,’ and then I never saw him again.”
“That’s it,” says Hopkins. “That stays with you for the rest of your life.”
Countless details in Armageddon Time are derived directly from Gray’s childhood. The interior of his house was meticulously recreated. Hopkins wore his grandfather’s clothes and hat. But the director also insisted, the first time he met with Hopkins, that he didn’t want an imitation. “I said, `You will always win any creative dispute with me,”' says Gray.
Hopkins, himself, has no personal experience being a grandparent. He long ago drifted apart from his only daughter, Abigail, from his first marriage to Petronella Barker.
“I never think of myself as a grandfather,” Hopkins says. “I’m 84 but I’m physically very strong. A few aches and pains. But I feel like a 50-year-old, full of energy and life. I try not to think about the future or the past very much.”
In Armageddon Time, the grandfather imparts some memorable words of wisdom, most notably his advice to Paul to “be a mensch” to his unjustly treated friend. The line came directly from Gray’s own childhood.
“I was very obnoxious as a kid. The older I got, the more unruly I was,” says Gray. “My grandfather would say, `Come on. Be a mensh.’ He’d say that to me to sort of reorient me. I don’t understand this entirely, but he had more authority over me than my father did, even though my father, in his inept way, was trying to enforce discipline. My grandfather, he ruled with a velvet glove.”
Hopkins, too, wove in moments crystalized in his memory. Just as his grandfather called him George, Hopkins calls Paul “Jellybean” in the film. Another improvised line – “Never give in” – came from something his grandmother told Hopkins, a self-described loner as a child, when he was being bullied in school.
“Most of my life came from my grandmother: `Never give in. Never give up,’ she said,” Hopkins recalls. “What I got from that was to have grit inside yourself and stop feeling sorry for yourself. That’s what I’ve practiced all my life.”
The most poignant moment in Armageddon Time comes in a scene where the grandfather meets Paul to set off model rockets near the old World’s Fair grounds in Flushing. It’s a lovely, unsentimental scene beneath a soft, gray autumn light, with Hopkins sitting on a park bench. He knows he’ll die soon, though Paul is naively unaware.
For both Hopkins and Gray, the scene stands out as a rare fusion of fiction and reality – of memory real and imagined.
“I used to go there with my grandfather to set off model rockets just like in the film,” says Gray. “It’s almost like a modern ruin, that old World’s Fair building that’s decayed now and falling down. Just putting Tony on that bench and the boy, it felt like a strange flashback in my own life. It’s very unusual in cinema to be able to do something that feels like it’s grabbed from your own memory. It felt like a huge gift.”
“I’m not American, I come from Wales. But that park, that area, was so America to me,” says Hopkins. “It was like the twilight years of the world. That open space and the boy playing on the grass. It just brought back the memory of my own childhood. I can’t say exactly what. All dreams and memories are flawed, anyway. But it reminded me of my grandfather. That everlasting light. That light and the knowledge that I’m going to die.”