Woody Allen’s latest film You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger focuses on the lies we tell ourselves and let other people tell us in order to make living our lives bearable in the face of our inevitable demises, and yes, it is a comedy. It features Sir Anthony Hopkins in the kind of role we rarely see him in – that of a clueless dope.
Hopkins plays Alfie, a London man in a late-life crisis who divorces his wife of many years Helena (Gemma Jones) because she won’t keep up with the new lifestyle of intense exercise and different social circles that he’s so desperately trying to chase to avoid the thought of death. His pursuit of illusory happiness eventually finds him married to a pleasant young hooker named Charmaine (Lucy Punch), who begins to bleed his bank accounts dry.
“It’s funny because he’s so pathetic,” Hopkins says of Alfie’s travails. “That is very sad when you see that – you see men with a comb-over with a young girl. Sap. That’s so pathetic. The only midlife crisis – well, I went through all of mine, and it’s all done. Mine was post-midlife crisis, if there’s such a thing, but a few years ago, maybe about three years ago, my wife suggested we trade a car in and lease a car, and she said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice for you to buy a Porsche?’ ‘Porsche? They’re lethal weapons.’ We got a Porsche. I couldn’t even get into it. I’m too old to get into it. So she drove it. I don’t know if we kept it. I’m glad I’m not younger. I don’t have any illusions.”
“Woody Allen is very funny about mortality, he’s so bleak about it,” Hopkins noted about Allen’s approach to the subject matter – and he even launched into a pretty good impression of the neurotic director. “We had a press conference in Toronto, and they asked him, and he said, ‘You know, we just get older, nothing improves, it just gets worse. You just fall apart, you crumble away and you shrivel up and you’re gumming your porridge in your apartment. You’re looking at the television which is not on, there’s not even a box office return, and then you die.’”
Does Hopkins share that bleak outlook? “All I know is that one day this is it,” he explains. “But I think he’s talking from an atheist’s point of view. I don’t have hope, but I have very few illusions. A kind of peace has descended on me, I think, over the last few years. You know, when you’re young, you want to do everything, you want to achieve everything, and now it’s just ‘easy does it.’ Sit back, I don’t want anything. If work comes in, which it does, if they still want me, I’ll do it, but I’ve got no great panic or rush to do anything at all really. I play the piano, I read a lot.”
“It’s pointless being bleak about it,” he says about his current age of 72. “Somebody I knew used to always complain and say, ‘I’m getting older,’ and I’d say, ‘Join the human race.’ It’s a terminal experience – living – and we’re not going to get off the planet alive. ‘Yeah, it’s horrible.’ Well, it’s either horrible if you want to make it horrible or have some fun with it, but I don’t want to go sky diving or anything like that. I might slow down, but I work out every day, and I have a good life. I enjoy myself and have a great time, in fact.”
That’s not to take anything away from Allen’s bleakness, of course. “I think he’s a genius, I really do,” Hopkins insists. “It’s extraordinary about him though. As soon as he walks into a room, everyone’s onto him. He’s a great star, charismatic, because he’s this funny little guy who has this powerful mind and philosophies. A philosopher, poet, writer and pessimist. He’s deeply pessimistic. I don’t have that pessimism because – I don’t know what I am, atheist, agnostic, or believer – things in my life have been so extraordinary in a dreamlike way with synchronicity and all this peculiar phenomenon that I’ve experienced in my life that I sometimes think, well there’s something beyond this.”
It’s a mighty big subject, and when Sir Anthony Hopkins is giving a monologue about the meaning of life, you just sit back and listen to what the man has to say.
“But maybe I’ve had some illusions,” he admits, “and the atheists will say, ‘You’re deluding yourself with hope.’ The only thing I know – and I’m not going into philosophy – but I think being a total atheist, I’m not that. I respect that, if that’s what people believe, but to me, that’s like being in a windowless room. I was that years ago. I’m playing this priest in this film called The Rite with Colin O’Donoghue, who is a wonderful young Irish actor, and I play this disillusioned priest. No, it’s not that. He, this young priest, comes to me, and he’s the one who thinks that what I’m doing is rubbish because I’m doing exorcism or something. And he says to me at one point, ‘Are you happy letting people believe in these delusions?’ And I say, ‘Why not? What do you believe in?’ He says, ‘I believe in telling people the truth,’ and I say, ‘Oh yeah, the truth. So much for the truth. Everyone’s got it. Karl Marx had the truth. Hitler had the truth.’”
“I think uncertainty is the area that keeps one’s life alive,” Hopkins opines. “The uncertainty – not certainty. There’s a wonderful book by Graham Greene, a short novel called Monsignor Quixote about a Marxist mayor of a town in Spain, and his friend is a Catholic priest, and they’re always having these debates like Tuesdays with Morrie, but they’re always having these talks. And they’re great friends and love each other, but one is an atheist and one is a believer. And the priest says to his friend, ‘I had a terrible dream, a nightmare.’ And the Marxist says, ‘What was it?’ And he says, ‘I dreamt that I woke up and there’s Jesus standing in the room. Christ, looking at me with love. And he was there, but he didn’t say anything, and I woke up in a terror.’ The mayor says, ‘What was a nightmare?’ ‘Yes, because his presence was certainty.’ And that’s terrifying, but he said, ‘But you, Marx is your certainty, the millennium is your certainty. You took it as your certainty. That to me would be a nightmare.’ You look at the whole history of Europe and the Marxist Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, it turned into a living nightmare at the end, and Stalin became an even greater tyrant than the previous czars. Mussolini and Hitler, they built a utopia that was built on certainty. I think it was the most horrifying nightmare in the history of human beings. So, I don’t know. I’m wondering about that. I’d rather have the uncertainty of not knowing.”
Well, after hearing the man’s philosophy on life, how does that inform his career choices? “Having gone through life and reaching this stage in my life, I just think – whatever comes up,” he explains. “When I was younger, I would think, ‘I wanted to do that. Why is he doing that?’ Now the pleasure for me is working with young actors. I like that. That makes me think, ‘I’m glad I’m not young anymore’ because of their insecurities. And I always joke along with them. I say things like, ‘Is that the way you’re going to play it?’ Chris [Hemsworth, who plays the son to Hopkins’ Odin in Thor] and I got to know each other. He’s a little nervous, and I said, ‘Is that the way you’re going to play it?’ And he said, ‘Yes, is that okay?’ And I said, ‘It’s your career.’ They know that I’m joking. You have to have that relaxation to work with actors because if people are nervous around you, it’s pointless. So I go for that edge and say things.”
Speaking of that Marvel Studios movie about gods and superheroes, directed by Kenneth Branagh, Hopkins notes “That was good, but it was hard work. I was carrying 25 pounds of armor on my back. But these young actors – Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth – they were just wonderful. And Branagh, I call him The General. He’s so self assured and so present, and he knows exactly what he wants. I’ve never worked with him before, and I wouldn’t say I know him well, but it was such a pleasant revelation working with him. I don’t know what it is about him. He’s very self assured and a great actor. He brings all his experience to the set. I think he’s terrific.”