Though Hopkins shrugs off acting as nothing more than “a bag of tricks,” the effort behind his performances is as intense and obsessive as the characters he portrays. “Before he steps on the set, he’s invariably memorized not only his own entire performance but that of every other character as well,” explains James Ivory, director of Howards End.
To learn his lines, Hopkins read each scene up to 250 times. As he reads the script aloud his voice begins to take on a different rhythm, and the image of his character takes shape. “It’s like a slowly developing photograph,” he says. “Only when I know my part inside and out can I begin to improvise.”
For all Hopkins’s insight into roles that, in this words, “expose the dark underbelly of mankind,” he is not the morose, brooding character many expect — as I discover when I join him for a three-hour walk through the heart of London. Crossing St. James’s Park, he is recognized by scores of fans, mostly female. “I’m always surprised when women find me attractive,” he confides. “I want to look over my shoulder and see if Mick Jaggers is behind me. I think I’m a shortarsed Welshman.”
When three middle-aged American women ask to take his photograph, he puts his arm around two of them as the third captures the scene on a video camera. Looking into the lens he intones. “To be or not to be. That is the question…”
Such “performances” of Shakespeare are a far cry from Hopkins’s upbringing in south Wales. The son of a baker in Taibach just outside the industrial town of Port Talbot, he was an only child, lonely and shy. While the children in his neighbourhood would play at one end of the street, he would play alone at the other. “I was terribly insecure and thought I was living on the wrong planet, “I had no friends.”
At school he was so far from winning laurels of any kind that classmates derided him as dim-witted “Mad Hopkins.” These jibes wounded him deeply and reinforced his belief that he was a failure. The cinema was his only refuge. At the local cinema hall, he lost himself in the world of Hollywood. “I forgot who I was and dreamt of leaving Wales to become rich and successful,” says Hopkins. Walking home, he would ape Marion Brando’s swautt and mimic the classic lines.