The downplay is the thing

Thesp says legendary career only gets better the less seriously he takes it

“It’s a nice honor to get that, but I hope they don’t say anything too effusive,” says Anthony Hopkins, who receives the Cecil B. DeMille award for lifetime achievement at this year’s Golden Globes.

If strongly encouraged, Hopkins will reflect on his career, which includes more than 100 film and TV roles as well as striking stage performances, notably in “Equus” and “Pravda.” He’s played an amazing array of real people, such as Richard Nixon, and several maniacs, including Adolph Hitler — a performance that won him one of his two Emmys. He’s received six Golden Globe nominations, including one for the mesmerizing Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs,” a perf that won him the actor Oscar in 1992. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1993.

But nostalgia isn’t his first inclination. “I’m a working stiff, that’s all. I just did my job through the years. … You have memories, of course, but I don’t know, it’s just a job. Things gets exaggerated, but I have been very fortunate. I’ve been in this business 40-odd years, and I’ve been around the mulberry bush a few times, and I’m kind of relaxed about it all. It’s been a good life,” says the Welsh-born actor, now a U.S. citizen, who turned 68 on New Year’s Eve.

Lauded for his ability to play both the manically disturbed and the rigidly repressed — and sometimes a combination of both — Hopkins says he hopes he’s neither. He feels much closer to “this man I played in the bike film.”

He’s referring to “The World’s Fastest Indian,” directed by Roger Donaldson, in which he portrays Burt Munro, a charmingly intrepid New Zealander who, in grand old age, accomplished his long-held dream to ride his motorcycle to a world speed record.

“Just get on with it, enjoy your life. I don’t believe in sitting around contemplating your navel like some of these other guys I’ve played, like Stevens in ‘The Remains of the Day’ or Hannibal Lecter. They were interesting parts, they were fun to play, but I don’t think I’m like that. I hope to God I’m not, anyway!” he laughs.

Hopkins plays down his technical skill with accents, such as the Kiwi he used for Munro. “I have a gift for mimicry, but with accents I’m maybe OK. I don’t think my American accent’s that hot. I’m not being falsely modest. It’s a tricky thing with accents … if you get too accurate it becomes like a false nose. It looks stuck on because it’s not your natural voice. I just let a couple of brush strokes of the accent in to color the part, but not to overdo it.”

Much as he still enjoys acting, “I’ve got a nice degree of benign cynicism about all the Hollywood stuff,” he says. That stems from something he took to heart years ago when he met actor Ben Johnson, who had won the supporting actor Oscar in 1972 for “The Last Picture Show.”

“I was very impressed by him. I met him at a party, and I thought, ‘When I grow up I want to be like Ben Johnson.’ I was a young actor out here then, and I said to Ben, ‘You were terrific.’ He said, ‘I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but they gave me an Oscar. Don’t ask me about acting. I can’t act. I’m a horse wrangler, that’s how I started.’ I remember that conversation. It was over 30 years ago, and I thought, ‘God that must be a great attitude to have.’

“I’ve reached that in my life now. … I sometimes teach students, and I’ll give them the same sort of stuff: ‘If you never act again no one will care, that’s how important acting is.’ That kind of wakes them up to not take it so seriously.”

Hopkins’ acting slate is still crowded. He was recently digitized for a role in Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture adaptation of epic poem “Beowulf.” He’s also part of the ensemble cast as the doorman at the Ambassador Hotel in “Bobby,” Emilio Estevez’s movie about events surrounding the assassination of Robert Kennedy.

But during an early-morning phone chat from his California home, Hopkins was less interested in acting than painting and composing, arts that his third wife, Stella Arroyave, has encouraged him to pursue.

“She discovered my paintings in old scripts — I drew these little landscapes in colored felt marker pens. … Sitting in the trailer or the dressing room, I’d do these weird doodles,” he explains. “I said, ‘Oh I’d forgotten about those,’ and she said, ‘Well you should do some more.’ ”

His acrylics — “landscapes that I dream up” — have been selling well at the Luciane Gallery in San Antonio. He also composes symphony music. “Kind of impressionist stuff — I don’t put myself in the category of Debussy or Ravel, but I’m told it’s pretty good.”

Growing up in Wales, his first interest was music, but he didn’t feel he was a good enough piano player to pursue it professionally, although he still plays most days to “keep the brain agile.”

The career of actor Richard Burton, “a local boy made good,” provided a different inspiration. “I met him and asked him for his autograph, and I thought, ‘God I’d love to be like him and get out of this environment.’ ” He did, although during his first professional stage appearance, “My shoes were turning up at the toes because my feet were so tense.”

Back then, he admits, “I thought to act you had to be tense.” Laurence Olivier, with whom he worked at England’s National Theater, advised him, “If you relax you’d do much better.” He feels now he’s finally achieved that goal.

“I’ve figured out if you can relax and enjoy it, and don’t overdo it, it looks after itself. I wish I knew then what I know now, or what I experience now. I never get nervous, never fearful, and that’s the funny thing. This sounds ‘la, la, la’ and very, very New Agey,” he says with a laugh, “but by letting go, I’m working now when I thought I would be hanging up my hat. I’ve got quite a lot of work coming.”

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