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'As I get older, I cry at the drop of a hat' - Anthony Hopkins reflects on films, family and feelings

He made his name with roles that demanded emotional containment or no feelings at all. But at 81, Anthony Hopkins is letting it all out, he tells Mick Brown

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Anthony Hopkins

Anthony Hopkins

Repressed: Hopkins in The Remains of the Day

Repressed: Hopkins in The Remains of the Day

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Anthony Hopkins

At the age of 81, Anthony Hopkins, star of film and theatre, painter and pianist, has found a new and perhaps rather surprising outlet for his talents. It was Mark Wahlberg, with whom he was working on a film called Transformers: The Last Knight three years ago, who alerted Hopkins to the mixed delights of Twitter, and now he is hardly off it. Anyone wishing for an insight into the life and state of mind of Anthony Hopkins need look no further.

There he is, mugging madly for the camera and dancing a gentle jig in front of one of his colourful, neo-expressionist paintings - Hopkins is an accomplished artist; there he is, sitting at his piano with his tabby cat on his lap playing Gershwin - he's an accomplished musician, too; and there he is, singing along at a dinner party to Leonard Cohen's 'Here It Is'.

"Oh yes, Leonard Cohen's my favourite." In the hotel suite in Santa Monica where we are talking, he sinks back into the sofa, and quotes a line from the song. "'May everyone live, May everyone die, Hello, my love, And my love, goodbye.' That sums it all up for me. There's such peace in that. That's it. All it is."

His assistant has prepared for his arrival: a pot of English breakfast tea and biscuits. Old habits die hard. (Hopkins has listed "the pleasures of my life" as "a cat, a piano, a book and a cup of tea".) He is wearing a vivid Hawaiian shirt, baggy trousers, a pair of huaraches, no socks; he is a heavy-set man, almost bullish, with a fine dusting of white hair, mild eyes, a cheerful look on his face.

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Repressed: Hopkins in The Remains of the Day

Repressed: Hopkins in The Remains of the Day

Repressed: Hopkins in The Remains of the Day

Hopkins lives in Los Angeles. He first came here in 1973, escaping from Britain and what he feared would be a future as a Shakespearean actor - as he once put it, standing in the wings at the Old Vic in "wrinkled tights, thinking, 'Oh God, another endless production' for the rest of eternity". His first job on arriving in California was a film with Goldie Hawn. He returned to Britain in the 1980s as a Hollywood star, but California, it seems, had stayed in his blood. Twenty-five years ago he came back, and here he has stayed ever since.

He now lives with his wife, Stella Arroyave, in a house in Malibu, perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific - a house that was once owned by Hawn. He laughs at the circularity.

People have talked in the past of Hopkins' brooding silences, an almost sinister hint around the eyes - a confusion, perhaps, with his most famous character, Hannibal Lecter ("That's followed me around for years," he says, lightly brushing it aside). But that must be a different Anthony Hopkins; it's certainly not this one, who is a picture of serene bonhomie.

Hopkins is starring in a new film, The Two Popes, which tells the story of a series of imagined meetings a decade ago between Pope Benedict XVI, played by Hopkins, and the Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), later to be Pope Francis. Bergoglio, a fierce critic of Benedict's papacy, has come to Rome expecting to tender his resignation, unaware that Benedict is pondering his own decision to retire, and the questions of both his legacy and who might be his successor.

It is Hopkins' best film performance in years, although he admits that he was initially paralysed by a fear of taking on the role. "I said to my wife, 'I just can't do it. I hope it doesn't mean a lawsuit but my brain can't take any more.' I was just exhausted. I'm not given to terrible neurosis, and all that nonsense, because I'm tough and strong - I always have been. But a klaxon horn went off - blah, blah." As it was, he was able to delay his involvement until filming of Bergoglio's early life in Argentina was completed, before joining the production in Rome.

Acting, he says, "is just a luxury I do". But of course, it's not as easy as that. He is legendarily obsessive about preparation, reading and rereading the script "many, many times - there's a rumour that I go over it 250 times, not true" - to commit it to memory. "My wife says I work very hard. It doesn't feel like work to me. I enjoy it. I don't get frazzled by it. I love learning lines. There's now a process where you can have a feed in your earphone - they do it out here." He sighs. "I think it's the fastest way to dementia."

As an only child growing up in Port Talbot in south Wales, Hopkins was generally regarded as a dead loss, more interested in painting and playing the piano than schoolwork. "You have a big head like Dumbo," his grandfather once told him. "Pity there's nothing inside it."

His wife is making a documentary about his life, he says, and they were back in Wales recently, where she interviewed his old teacher. "He said, 'When Anthony was at school he wasn't very good; he couldn't play sports, he didn't join in with the school plays, tried the School Certificate twice'. When my wife told me that I thought, 'that's extraordinary'." He shakes his head. "It was as if it had nothing to do with me."

Acting saved him. A newspaper advertisement led him to the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff, from which he graduated at 19. He later went on to Rada, and a place at the National Theatre.

In 1973 he walked out of the National Theatre mid-run in a production of Macbeth. His first marriage, to the actor Petronella Barker, with whom he had a daughter, Abigail, had ended in divorce, and film work in America beckoned. Hopkins would remain in the US for the next 15 years.

The first years were not easy. His drinking gave him a reputation for being difficult. In 1975 he gave up for good, so the story has it, after waking up in a hotel room in Phoenix, Arizona, with no memory of how he got there.

In the late 1980s, Hopkins, along with his second wife Jennifer Lynton, whom he had met when she was a film production assistant, returned to Britain. In 1992 he won an Academy Award for his role as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, beginning a period in which he made arguably his finest body of film work: Howards End, The Remains of the Day and Shadowlands.

In 2000, he became an American citizen - a British tabloid dubbed him 'Lecter the Defector' - and three years later he married Arroyave, following the dissolution of his marriage to Lynton. Colombia-born Arroyave, who is 18 years younger than Hopkins, was a dealer in art and antiques when they met, after he walked into her shop just down the road in Pacific Palisades.

"This beautiful woman said, 'Hello, how are you? I know you. Give me a hug.' I said, 'I like that' - a piece of furniture. She said, 'You can have it.' I said, 'No, I'll buy it.' And then she phoned me to say that she had another piece of furniture I might like,and we started going out together. And then I left, took off, because I didn't want to be involved."

Why not?

"I'd been married twice. I just wanted to be on my own. Independent. Male." He chuckles. "I wanted to be Clint Eastwood, out in the beyond. But then of course that didn't happen. But everything happens for the best."

It would not be an exaggeration, I suggest, to say that she has had a transformative effect on his life.

"Oh absolutely! Powerful! Huge!"

He can't talk enough about this. His wife is "much speedier", he says. "She's Latin, and she's boom, boom, boom. And I can't keep up with her. And it's wonderful! And all of my friends now are her friends, these Latin women, and I don't have a clue. I say, 'What are you talking about?' 'It's none of your business. Shut up.'" He laughs. "And I think, how extraordinary, these women, because they're so voluble and alive. They're the ocean, and me, I'm just a bit of a stick-in-the-mud. But I love that about my life."

You're a very emotional man, I say.

"Yes."

It strikes me, I continue, that what I think of as your most powerful roles - in Howards End, The Remains of the Day, Shadowlands - are all studies in repressing emotion (or, in the case of Hannibal Lecter, devoid of emotion altogether).

He nods. "Somebody asked me once, how did I play the butler in The Remains of the Day so still? Well, I couldn't go round shouting and screaming could I?" He laughs. "It's a simple formula, but there is that feeling of tremendous loneliness, tremendous loss, tremendous turmoil that has to be pushed down. I think a lot of men do that. Women not so much.

"When I was young, I was told, 'Don't show tears,' and for most of my life I was self-contained. But now as I'm getting older, I cry at the drop of a hat. And I don't know why. Not out of depression. But out of sheer…" He pauses, at a loss for words.

The day before, he says, as part of her documentary, Arroyave was filming him at their home, in the garden painting, walking on the beach. He quotes another stanza from Eliot.

"I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach… I can't even bear to do it without choking up," he says. "Not out of grief. But a kind of…aah, life!"

The truth is, he never usually walks on the beach. "Because my knees hurt a bit."

He laughs. "I should have died years ago."

© Mick Brown / Telegraph Media Group Limited 2019

'The Two Popes' is released on November 29 in cinemas and on December 20 on Netflix

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