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Arts & Life

In 'The Dresser,' Anthony Hopkins Brilliantly Comes Undone


Here's a scene.


EMILY WATSON: (As Her Ladyship) Madge is right. We can't play "King Lear" without the king.

SHAPIRO: Backstage at a provincial theater in England during World War II, the evenings performance of "King Lear" is about to be canceled. The lead actor is ill. He was found wandering the streets and put in a hospital. But his dresser - the man in charge of getting him in makeup and costume - is still begging for the show to go on.


IAN MCKELLEN: (As Norman) Let me go to the hospital. Let me see how he is. You never know.

WATSON: (As Her Ladyship) I do know. I realize now that I've witnessed a slow running down. I've heard the hiss of air escaping.

ANTHONY HOPKINS: (As Sir, yelling, unintelligible).

SHAPIRO: That's Ian McKellen and Emily Watson starring in the BBC production of "The Dresser." The actor having a breakdown, the one you hear yelling in the background there, is Anthony Hopkins. My colleague Robert Siegel takes it from here.

ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: When Anthony Hopkins comes undone, it is a sight both disturbing and brilliant.


HOPKINS: (As Sir) More, more, more - I can't give anymore. I have nothing more to give. I want a tranquil senility. I'm an old man. I don't want to go out painting my face night after night after night, dressing up in clothes that are not my own. I'm not a child dressing up for charades. This is my work. This is my life's work.

SIEGEL: As the aging actor called Sir, Hopkins loses it. He rants. He raves. Confused, he weeps. All the while, his personal assistant soothes, cajoles and shames - whatever it takes - to get Sir back together and on stage for that night's performance. "The Dresser" runs tonight on the cable network "Starz," and Anthony Hopkins joins me to talk about the play-now-turned-TV-movie. Anthony Hopkins, welcome to the program.

HOPKINS: Thank you. Good to be here.

SIEGEL: "The Dresser" - this may be familiar to people. "The Dresser" was originally a play in London in 1980. Then it became a movie in 1983 with Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, so the play's been around for a while. What attracted you to doing it now?

HOPKINS: Well, I thought I'd have a painless or pain-free revisit to my past - the dark nostalgia of my - of 50 years ago when I was a young actor in the acting company of Laurence Olivier at the National Theatre. And I had done - I'd been in a few tours when I was a young kid. In 1957 - 16-week tour of the British provinces. I was a 19-year-old kid as a stage manager. And they were the most depressing times...

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Yes.

HOPKINS: ...Of my life.

SIEGEL: You on the subject of your salad days onstage are completely unsentimental. That's - those weren't the real wonderful times that you had in the theater.

HOPKINS: No, they were grinds. They were - people say, well, you know, you've got to train. That's true. You know, you've got to struggle from the bottom up. But I didn't want to be at the bottom. I didn't want to be struggling for the rest of my life because it's a tough business. To be an actor, you have to be strong and tough. That's the challenge of playing Sir...


HOPKINS: ...This was about.

SIEGEL: I want people to hear a bit of you as Sir playing King Lear for the 227th time...


SIEGEL: ...And giving the best performance of it ever. Let's take a listen.


HOPKINS: (As Sir) You I'll weep. No, I'll not weep. I have full cause of weeping, but this heart shall break into a hundred-thousand flaws, or ere I'll weep.

SIEGEL: Now I should explain there are scenes from "Lear" in "The Dresser." By the way, do you know "Lear?" I mean, can you...


SIEGEL: When you do this, do you have to...

HOPKINS: I know it inside out. I learned it 30 years ago, so I now - I know it very well right now.

SIEGEL: I mean, there's a wonderful thing about Sir. As he's losing it, he's asking his dresser, how does it begin again; what's the play? And he gives almost, you know, an assortment of different lines from...


SIEGEL: ...From Shakespeare.

HOPKINS: From "Richard III" and "Othello" and "Merchant of Venice" and all those.

SIEGEL: I mean, they're all in his head.

HOPKINS: They're all stuck in there. That's his nightmare, and that's why he's beginning to have the complete mental breakdown. He's going mad because the terror of going on stage and not knowing your lines is the terror that most actors fear. I have recurring dreams to this day that I'm in a play and I don't know a single word of the play.

SIEGEL: Really?

HOPKINS: I still have those dreams once or twice a month (laughter).

SIEGEL: When you were on stage, were you always are of what kind of crowd there was?

HOPKINS: Oh, yeah. They're there to remind you all the time that you're either boring them or entertaining them (laughter).

SIEGEL: The unwrapping of the candy you can hear pretty well on stage - yeah.

HOPKINS: Oh, yes, yeah. You can hear the alarm signal going off in a car because it's, you know, (laughter) outside the theater.

SIEGEL: Can can you hear - you know, in New York, I've been impressed with the fact that the lobbies seem to be fairly small, and you really do hear the traffic.

HOPKINS: Oh, yeah. That's - I mean, they're antiquated theaters. They - I find them hell.

SIEGEL: Really (laughter) because...


SIEGEL: ...Speaking of which, you told The New York Times some years ago that hell for you would be, and I quote, "a wet Wednesday afternoon at The Old Vic. Other actors would be onstage reciting verse, and I'd be standing in the wings in wrinkled tights thinking, oh, God, another endless production for the rest of eternity."

HOPKINS: That's right. You ask any actor you know standing around on wet Wednesday afternoons in The Old Vic or wherever the theater is with wrinkled tights, doing Shakespeare. It's - oh, God...

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

HOPKINS: And how to get through the play without laughing because you get to a point, and you start to laugh because you think, what am I doing with my life? (Laughter) So you have to keep those thoughts out of your mind.


SIEGEL: So you've managed, Anthony Hopkins, to tear yourself away from this brilliant craft onstage and become a movie actor, a film actor.

HOPKINS: Yeah, well, I've got a life now. You know, I - but the principle thing I did because I just wanted to live. I didn't want to waste the time weeping, screamed at late at night by some maniacal director. And I walked out. I walked out of the National Theatre because of one director. I said, I don't need this. And they said, you're crazy. You walk away, you'll never work again. I said, I don't care.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Was that 19...

HOPKINS: It was 1973.

SIEGEL: 1973 they declared your career over.

HOPKINS: And I was told, you will never work again. I said, I don't care. I'll drive a bus. I'll do anything. I don't want to be onstage being shouted at by that lunatic. And within five weeks, I was in the desert in Israel doing a film with Leslie Caron.

And then I came over to New York by that same director, in fact, who tyrannized me. And he said, I wanted to come out to New York to do "Equus." And his name is John Dexter. He was a great director, but he was a monster. But he was a sad, lonely guy, you know? He used to take it out on us. And I warned him, if you ever shout at me again, I'll punch you into the orchestra pit.


HOPKINS: But we had a good friendship at the end.

SIEGEL: I think as you're speaking, theater majors across America are changing to psychology, and people are canceling their application for the summer stock company that they're...

HOPKINS: (Laughter) Yeah. Oh, God, summer stock - God, yeah.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Is that even worse?

HOPKINS: Oh, God, yes. But you know, I'm a bit of a rebel, so they mustn't take me as any gospel because I'm a badass, you know? I've - I just enjoy acting. I enjoy what I do, but I could never suffer going through endless days doing "Midsummer Night's Dream" in Regent's Park or anything like that - oh. (Laughter) What's the point of it all?

SIEGEL: (Laughter) People will inevitably associate you with Hannibal Lecter, with playing Hannibal Lecter.

HOPKINS: Oh, yeah.

SIEGEL: If you were to pick the one performance you'd most liked to be remembered for, what would you choose?

HOPKINS: Well, I think this one, "The Dresser," is one of the most enjoyable I've done in many, many years. The other was "Remains Of The Day." I've had a good time. I've had a great life as an actor. It's all been an education with a sugar pill of knowledge.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Anthony Hopkins, thank you very much for talking with us.

HOPKINS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: "The Dresser" runs tonight on Starz, and Anthony Hopkins isn't finish with "King Lear." He'll star in a BBC adaptation of the play later this year, a full three decades since he last performed it on stage. And this time - no Wednesday matinees. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.