Anthony Hopkins: Olivier's heir apparent?

IF there is anything redemptive about the current ``prodigal son'' wrinkle in his career, it is not lost on Anthony Hopkins. Not on this classically trained Welsh actor, the clear contender for the crown of that other Welshman Richard Burton - and, many say, the heir apparent of Laurence Olivier. Like the prodigal, Hopkins has returned from a decade spent in Tinsel Town to resume his rightful career on the London stage. Last night he opened in one of the biggest roles of any actor's life - Shakespeare's Roman playboy, Mark Antony, in ``Antony and Cleopatra'' at the National Theatre.

One of Britain's ablest actors, by all accounts, has come home. And he is working at one of his country's premier theaters with one of his country's leading directors (Sir Peter Hall), starring in roles that few actors even dream of playing (``King Lear'' in addition to ``Antony and Cleopatra.'')

``Sometimes I still question, `Do I really want to do this?''' said Hopkins, quietly, a bit bemusedly, during a recent rehearsal break. ``I suppose I do, really. I'm quite enjoying it now.''

He should be.

After announcing his return to the stage two years ago with an award-winning performance as the reptilian newspaper magnate in ``Pravda,'' Hopkins is currently reigning on London's boards. His portrayal of ``King Lear'' was hailed as the most significant since Paul Scofield's definitive performance 25 years ago. And the ``Antony and Cleopatra'' starring Hopkins is considered the National's most important production of the year. (Both shows will play in repertory through the summer.)

Not that the actor is turning his back on bread-and-butter Hollywood fare. Hopkins can also be seen in two current - and critically acclaimed - films: as Frank Doel, the sedate London bookseller in ``84 Charing Cross Road,'' and Bill Hooper, the smoldering ex-husband in ``The Good Father.''

Through the sound and fury of all this fresh work, however, the promise of inheriting the Olivier mantle still looms, the probability of being anointed (in a country whose cultural legacy begins and ends with the stage) as Britain's best. It's an appellation not wholly tenable to the actor.

``I'm enormously flattered to be told that I'm taking over where Richard Burton left off, or Laurence Olivier,'' Hopkins says. ``But I mean, I can't really take it too seriously, because it would give me such a fright. I don't know if I could ever face that responsibility. I don't know if I have the staying power. But I've been around 23 years now, so I suppose I've got some power to stay. I've certainly toughened up.''

It's an obduracy only partially discernible in the actor. During a recent interview with Hopkins, who was taking temporary refuge from his acting rigors in his closet-size dressing room here, he appeared smaller in stature than one might expect, especially after witnessing his bullying, bellowing performance as Lear. On stage and in person, what one first notices is his voice - that unmistakable actor's instrument, if not quite as resonant as Burton's, still possessing a transforming presence of its own. It is, however, ultimately Hopkins's contemplative mood, the quiet, distancing look in the eye, the long glance out the rain-streaked window, that most characterizes him in person. A commanding quietude, someone once described it.

Indeed, during the interview Hopkins speaks thoughtfully, introspectively, about his career, the changes in his life, and, most of all, the ambiguities he still harbors about a life in the theater. ``It's an odd business. I still don't believe I've made it. I still don't have much confidence,'' he says with a rueful smile. ``I don't think any actors really do have that much confidence. They're scared to make mistakes. They always want to get it better. They get upset when it doesn't go well, which I suppose is vanity.''

For Hopkins, it is a vanity and an accompanying stormy willfulness that have only recently subsided. Fifteen years ago he stormed out of an exceptionally promising role (``Macbeth'' at London's Old Vic) to decamp to California for a checkered decade of film and television movies. The gamut ran from the obsessive ventriloquist in ``Magic'' to the humane Captain Bligh in the remake of ``Mutiny on the Bounty.'' There was also an Emmy Award or two, including one for his portrayal of Hitler in a TV miniseries.

Indeed, the quiet resolve characterizing the actor and his career today was originally rooted in an aggressiveness on stage and off. His rows with directors are well documented. A critic once described the young Hopkins, then a temperamental and rising young stage star, as ``a mystic union between beef and thunder.''

``I was brought up by my own father to believe in willpower and achieving things through brute force,'' says Hopkins, who was born the son of a baker in a Welsh steel town nearly 50 years ago. ``I've had to fight against my own willpower, because I've belligerently gone after things in life. [Eventually] I've had to face that I'm pretty powerless ... that the real power in us is the power of spirit.''

After training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in the '60s, Hopkins ground out his early years acting in regional theaters before eventually landing at the National. His subsequent disagreements with directors there, the self-imposed exile in the US and now his return home, Hopkins finds paralleled in his current role as Lear.

``[The production] is a humanist approach. Lear learns through his own nature. He's a crop-headed, bristly-bearded old tyrant, a warrior and a bully, and he doesn't age with dignity. I mean he probably still arm-wrestles with some of his servants at night,'' says Hopkins, giving a thoughtful tug on his own beard. ``I play him as a man who will not be defeated by age, but of course he is. ... He unleashes a whole tragedy on himself, and it's all his own doing. ... He learns that there is more to the human potential, that temporal power is nothing, that there is more to his spiritual side of life.''

For Hopkins, such lessons were learned in his own life during his years spent in Hollywood. They were turbulent years, distinguished by an uneven career, one or two personal problems, and a dabbling in Oriental religions. They eventually yielded to a new marriage and the resumption of his original stage career.

``In California, I was quite influenced by all that culture of self-development. I started feeling more at ease with myself, and I found a richer confidence in myself. ... But I didn't expect to come back and have such peaches thrown at me. I had a wonderful play, `Pravda,' and then `Lear,' and now `Antony and Cleopatra.' It's all so unexpected.''

Although Hopkins says his usual approach to a role is ``to get acquainted with it very quickly - I learned the whole of Lear before I started rehearsals'' - he now practices a more selective and controlled attitude toward his acting, which he once described as ``a confidence trick.''

``I'm not a prolific reader. I don't know the whole canon of Shakespeare,'' he admits. ``I've overtrained myself to be very quick and a very fast study. Now, I've actually got to have the courage to make a lot of mistakes. ... The one thing I did discover in America is that the greatest virtue is courage. I always thought courage was something forced, go out there like a warrior. Actually there is another form of courage, and that is to be quiet and do less.

``You search for the truth of [the role], which sounds awfully deep but means you make it is as real as you can,'' he adds. For Hopkins that means approaching the stage every night in a state of transcendence. ``I say to myself things like, `It's happening now, I am Lear. I am not Anthony Hopkins. ... [But] finally, it's only a play. Within a few hours it's all going to be over and done with. It's all going to be forgotten. Somehow it forces me to get through it. It forces me to look at a [whole] perspective of life. One thing I've gained is that it's desirable to have peace of mind.''

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