Anthony Hopkins on working with Olivier, other great actors
(First of two parts)
LOS ANGELES—Laurence Olivier slapping Maggie Smith for real, onstage, everyone’s stunned reaction and afterward, the actress’ classic retort to the legendary actor backstage—this priceless anecdote (and more) was shared in a recent chat by Anthony Hopkins, who witnessed this scene.
Anthony, an acting great himself, was inspired to share his personal stories of Laurence, Maggie, Richard Burton, Albert Finney, Ian McKellen and other acting titans because of the project at hand. He and Ian (believe it or not, it’s only their first time to work together) star in the latest incarnation of “The Dresser,” Ronald Harwood’s play about an aging actor, Sir (Anthony), and his personal assistant or dresser, Norman.
Richard Eyre brilliantly directs this BBC production, produced by Colin Callender, and aired by STARZ in the United States, that’s set in a small English theater during World War II. As bombs fall and sirens wail, a troupe is about to perform Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” But Sir is missing and Norman tries his best to keep the production going.
“The Dresser’s” theater setting got Anthony in a talking mood about his anecdote-rich life on and off the stage. He was also jovial as he sat comfortably in an LA hotel. Asked who his dresser is in real life, he credits his wife, Stella Arroyave.
Excerpts from our conversation:
On why “The Dresser” resonates with him
A few years ago, I was in Barnes and Noble, and I found the play, “The Dresser.” I bought it. I had seen the original production in London with Tom Courtenay and Freddie Jones, and the movie with Albert and Tom (Courtenay) again.
When I read the play, I thought this would be interesting because it would be a painless, pain-free visit to my past. Because I had dark nostalgia about those years at the National Theatre (London). I never fitted in anything really well.
I had been involved in tours with Laurence and Albert and people like them when I was a young actor in the 1960s. I remember the drudgery of every town. I was playing small parts. I remember that Laurence was doing “Othello,” and he was then in his 60s. He was ill and later found out that he had prostate cancer. He had survived that.
I remember Sir Laurence cursing, because he had to go onstage yet again that night. He was beginning to lose his memory. So I thought it would be good to take this part and revisit that world that I remember. Of course, this was a generation before (Laurence’s time) because this takes place during World War II and the air raids over Britain that I remember.
So, I mentioned it to my agent, and he talked to Colin Callender, the producer. So, I met Colin out here (in Los Angeles) and he said, “Yes, we could do it.”
What fascinated me about Sir was his sudden mental crackup before going on this “(King) Lear.” Sir never quite did it, because he directed his own company like Donald Wolfit (the English Shakespearean actor-manager who inspired playwright Ronald Harwood to create the Sir character) had in his own old-fashioned way.
But he was dying to break out and he didn’t know how. And the night he went mad before they finally threw him onstage, it’s as if he burst through the bonds of his own limitations and finally touched the gods. Of course, he dies, because he achieved it.
On his own experience with dressers
In the National Theatre, there was a dresser who dressed all of us. I remember he was one of the loneliest men I ever met. I have worked with several dressers. They’re a different breed—they are dutiful. Ian’s Norman is typical of certain dressers I knew in the ’50s who were lonely men. They didn’t have anything else to do but dress actors. And actors can be very complicated and difficult and give them a rough time.
On how “The Dresser” brought back memories
It was my way of visiting that past through a film. Because Ian and I could talk endlessly about our experiences. Because we remember all those days with Laurence, Albert, Maggie and Joan Plowright. They were tough old days.
I remember being onstage with Sir Laurence and Maggie. They didn’t like each other. She respected him, but he was very impatient with her because she was a rebel, and she did her own thing. I remember one night I was onstage with Michael Gambon playing extras (in “Othello”). He (Laurence) slapped her (Maggie) across the face for real. We all went, whoa! There was a moment of silence, then she started crying. She got through it.
Apparently, Laurence went to her dressing room and said, “Maggie, I am so sorry to hit you like that. I didn’t mean to, and you must have seen stars.” She said, “More stars than I have ever seen in this place, dear.”
On dealing with his ego
You have to deal with ego very carefully. You have to have an ego; you have to have a degree of narcissism. That is the thing that keeps us moving on.
I will tell you something that happened to me many years ago. I was born in Port Talbot, South Wales, the same town of Richard Burton. I went and asked him for his autograph. He was home staying with his sister (Cecilia) and his first wife, Sybil (Williams). Richard’s sister used to come to my mother’s baker’s shop. This was in the 1950s.
I remember knocking on the door, and this lady came to the door. I said, “Hello, can I have Richard Burton’s autograph?” She said, “You are Dick Hopkins’ son, aren’t you?” I said, “Yes, the baker.” I went down the passageway of this little house. I heard this buzz, and Richard was shaving with an electric razor. He had a T-shirt on, I remember, and those blazing blue eyes.
Sybil was sitting at the kitchen table having breakfast. Cecilia said, “Richard, this is Anthony, and he wants your autograph.” Richard said, “Do you speak Welsh?” I said, no. He said, “You are not a true Welshman then.” He looked at me with these eyes as he said that.
As I was walking back to my father’s shop down the hill, called the incline, a gray Jaguar passed. To see a Jaguar in 1955, going down the hill … Sybil waved to me. I remember thinking at that moment that I have got to get out of this place, not out of Wales—I loved it, but out of my own inadequacy, instead of putting myself down.
I just wanted my revenge on all the school kids who bullied me. My grandfather said in front of my mother, his daughter-in-law, “Anthony has a big head, and particularly there is nothing much in it.”
My mother wanted to kill him. I remember that moment, and my mother never forgot it.
So life has a strange way. I had to prove to myself that I wanted to do something with my life—not to be rich and famous, but to do something like this, the excitement of experimenting with one’s own psyche. That’s ego, but it’s a good, healthy ego.
On why insecurities can serve an actor and his performance
To go onstage to give a performance, you have to be nervous. As long as you can control the nerves and don’t let it take over you, especially on the first night, and after a few sessions going onstage, the nervousness leaves you.
Insecurity or self-doubt is a very good thing to have, because it drives you.
But I think that drive makes you and, again, I quote Sir Laurence. He said, “You have to have some kind of killer instinct in you.” It doesn’t mean you have to be a monster, but you have to have that thing and do it.
That is what I tell young guys who want to be actors. You have got to go through the fear.
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