Anthony Hopkins famously walked away from stage work decades ago — but he finally returns (sort of) in Starz’s “The Dresser,” which premieres May 30. The TV movie is an adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play set in World War II-era London about an aging actor, Sir (Hopkins), who’s struggling to prepare for his upcoming performance of King Lear. His ever-loyal dresser, Norman, played by Ian McKellen, pushes and prods him, along with a supporting cast of A-list British thesps (Emily Watson, Sarah Lancashire).
It’s ultimately a heartbreaking tale, says Hopkins. “Disappointment, loss, love that’s never fulfilled itself. And drudgery of just going on and on.” In the end, he calls his character “just a lonely, misguided old man.”
Why did you decide to take on this project?
I’d seen Freddie Jones and Tom Courtenay doing it on stage many years ago. Wonderful performances. And then I’d seen the film. Ronald Harwood told he’d wanted me to do it on stage. I hadn’t forgotten. But I didn’t want to do it on stage. By that time I’d packed my bags and left the British theater. So when they asked my agents “is it possible to do it as a film,” I said, let’s ask Colin Callender. A wonderful producer, one of the best, because he keeps everything quiet to himself, and then he comes up with the goods. And then Sir Ian came on board. And I thought, “that’s right. Now I know how to do this.”
Talk about working with Ian McKellen. What was that experience like?
I’d never worked with Ian. I’d seen him, I’d admired him. We were sociable, friendly. I’d gone backstage to see him in Iago. If we were at the National Theater together, we’d say hi. But we didn’t know each other. This was the best time of my life. He was a stunning actor to work with. Generous and kind. He did say to me, “I wasn’t sure how you were going to be. I thought maybe you’d be demanding.” It wasn’t at all gladiatorial (between us). If you admire someone, you have mutual respect for them. You get on with it. You don’t fight. You can’t function (like that). It becomes a real collaboration of respect, love. And that’s what we had on this. A wonderful time. All actors have ego. You have to have that. But Ian’s not that. He’s dedicated. He loves doing it. I love doing it. That’s all it takes.
How did you feel about the prospect of this being made for television?
I loved the idea. I wasn’t sure how it was going to work. Richard (Eyre, the director) said it was going to be for the BBC so we’ve got it on a contained set. We’re not taking it outside on location as they did on the film. We’re just keeping it on the boxed set of the dressing room. And then the theater. I don’t see much difference between TV and film. Television is faster. But this one, I was amazed that Richard had plotted it out so we could film it quickly. When I talked to him he said we have a shooting schedule that’s ridiculously short, maybe 21, 25 days. I thought “that’s impossible” but he did it. He prepared his camera, and he did it.
Does TV appeal to you more than film today?
I’m doing a show for HBO called “Westworld,” and I’m enjoying the HBO work. I’d like to do another one with the BBC. Ian said he hopes they do more of these classic plays. The audiences in London loved it, as did the critics. There’s not much going on, it’s all talk. But audiences like it. And American audiences will like it, too. You watch a film, and you don’t know who’s chasing who in a car scene. I can’t watch it. I try to watch these films and I’m so bored. Who cares? They have sex. Give me a break! I wasn’t born yesterday. And these car chases. God almighty! It’s all too much. It’s so boring. Everyone talks in a whisper now because it sounds so sexy. It doesn’t sound sexy. You can’t hear! I’m just an old grinch. You watch, and you can see the attitude of the actor. They think, “I am hot s–t.”
What can you reveal about “Westworld”?
I’ve enjoyed it. Do you remember “Jurassic Park,” the Richard Attenborough guy? I play that kind of man. He runs Westworld. What’s interesting about doing TV this way is I never know where the story is going. I play Dr. Ford who’s built Westworld and all these robots. He has total control over everything. But I’m not sure which way it’s going. I’m just a man obsessed. I don’t play evil parts.
What roles do you still want to take on?
I’d like to have a go at Lear again one day. I want to do it again one day on film. We’re talking about it right now with Colin Callender. When I was doing “The Dresser,” I thought, “God, I know how to play this part now. I know how to do it now.” I saw in myself, there’s my father and my grandfather. Because they were tough. Stubborn. That’s in me. And I know that’s in me as well. Life has been good to me. I’ve mellowed out a bit but I can appreciate it. And Lear sums up the total life and death experience. Impatience. Arrogance.
“The Dresser” premieres Monday, May 30 at 9 p.m. on Starz.