HAVING a quiet talk with Anthony Hopkins a few weeks before the opening of ``Shadowlands,'' his newest film, I had the same thought that occured to me during our first interview several years ago: This is a gentle, thoughtful man who approaches his life and work with calm, clear-headed sincerity.
True, some aspects of his career have pointed in different directions. In his younger years he was known for a quick temper, a demanding attitude, and excessive habits. And then there's the astounding sense of conviction he gave to the cannibalistic criminal named Hannibal Lector in ``The Silence of the Lambs,'' the most eagerly discussed and professionally lauded horror movie of the past decade.
Yet for all the notoriety of that icily ingenious performance, Mr. Hopkins is still regarded as a richly civilized actor with a gift for dignified portrayals in literate stories. This image comes from his personal manner and also from his superlative recent work in ``Howards End'' and ``The Remains of the Day,'' both from Merchant Ivory Productions, the most civilized film company in the business.
More evidence is found in ``Shadowlands,'' featuring Hopkins as British author C.S. Lewis and Debra Winger as Joy Gresham, the American poet who sought him out, became his wife, and changed his life forever.
``People ask me why I've played all these repressed characters,'' says Hopkins with a smile, acknowledging the irony of two notably fastidious characterizations - first the ``Remains of the Day'' butler and now the ``Shadowlands'' author and scholar - arriving on screen within a few weeks of each other.
``I'm a bit like that myself,'' he continues, ``although I've played a wide range of parts.... I like order. I like safety. I like comfort. I don't like too many big challenges, or being disturbed too much. I'm a bit selfish in that way. But as I'm getting older, I'm getting more abandoned about that, and I'm getting less fearful. I also think I have spiritual values in my life, as Lewis certainly did - although I sometimes wish mine were a little more developed!''
Lewis is best known as author of ``The Chronicles of Narnia,'' a series of seven highly imaginative novels intended for children but equally enjoyed by many a grownup. Lewis was also a classicist and theologian, however, whose books and lectures range from brightly fanciful to seriously learned and earnestly spiritual in their goals.
Hopkins is not a big believer in researching the parts he plays, but he did do some investigating into Lewis's life when preparing for ``Shadowlands,'' and he was fascinated by what he found. ``I haven't really played a role like this - a troubled, romantic man who goes through an emotional catharsis - in a very long time,'' he says. ``I have played men who go through an intellectual development, like Pierre in `War and Peace,' but that's from a different age. In this part I felt there was a great opportunity to go back and tap into my own emotional and spiritual life.''
In his writing and thinking, Lewis was concerned with the challenge of turning personal hardship into opportunities for growth and enrichment. Hopkins finds this a subject of great personal interest and agrees with Lewis's conviction that such growth must take place on a deeper level than the merely psychological.
``I've been through some personal crises,'' he says. ``Not particularly catastrophic, but they shaped me up and shook me around a bit. They make you flexible. You realize you're heading down the wrong road, through some kind of self-destructive motive or behavior, and you reach the dead end.... If you have any sense of reverence, you turn back from that, and I think in those moments you find some power within you that helps you.''
When such a moment came for him, Hopkins continues, ``I had to give up my psychological reinforcements, my psychological fortress, my intellectual know-how, and what I thought was my first-class thinking, because it wasn't getting me anywhere. I suddenly found this spiritual resource within me that said to abandon the intellect for a while, put it on hold, get rid of it, because it's serving you no purpose. And it was at that moment of abandonment that something came into me and told me, `You're just fine, don't be so hard on yourself.' I realized that intellect gets you through certain scrapes ... but it's not the final answer.''
Hopkins feels that a capacity for good lies within just about everyone, including even Hannibal Lector in ``The Silence of the Lambs,'' demented monster though that character is.
``In a strange way,'' the actor says, ``there is love in him. But he's trapped in this monstrous brain.... He cares about [the film's heroine] and admires her because she's brave. His tragedy is that he'll never get out of the colossal horror of his own inner world. I don't think `The Silence of the Lambs' is a spook-horror movie. I think it's a parable. For me it was, anyway. Hannibal Lector is as tragic as any other character.''
HOPKINS'S next movie is ``Legends of the Fall,'' his first western. Then will come ``The Road to Wellville,'' directed by Alan Parker, with Hopkins as cereal magnate John Harvey Kellogg in a satire on the modern obsession with health foods.
``I suppose my purpose in life is to communicate to people, through a cinema screen or from a stage,'' the actor says, musing on his career as a whole. ``I'm not equipped any other way, since I'm not a speaker, a writer, a painter, a musician, or a businessman.
``My task or objective is to communicate the human condition. That sounds terribly grand, but my parts from Hannibal Lector onwards seem involved with conveying some form of love, even if it's repressed or hidden. Love exists, but it's locked up. And then it's revealed, and then in the next role, maybe it's locked up again. But we always know that it is there.''