A little over 30 years ago, Anthony Hopkins received a script that he thought was a children’s story. But when he cracked it open, there was no turning back — it was the best screenplay he’d ever read. The rest, of course, is movie history. “The Silence of the Lambs,” which opened on Feb. 14, 1991, swept the Oscars the following year, winning five statuettes, including best actor for Hopkins’ serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter and best actress for Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, the FBI trainee who pries into Lecter’s head in order to catch another killer.
Reunited for an hour over video chat, Hopkins and Foster fell into a familiar rhythm old war buddies might share — including referring to one another by their characters’ names. The good times may roll on for cinema’s most famous cannibal and the one interrogator he couldn’t crack: They might be reunited at this year’s Oscars. In Florian Zeller’s “The Father” (Sony Pictures Classics), Hopkins plays Anthony, a man struggling with dementia. In Kevin Macdonald’s “The Mauritanian” (STX Entertainment), Foster, who has lately focused on directing, plays a defense attorney who fights to free her innocent client from his jail cell in Guantanamo Bay. Three decades after becoming the movie world’s archetypal good cop, Foster’s quest for justice continues.
Jodie Foster: I’m really excited to talk to you. I haven’t spoken to you since I saw “The Father,” which is an extraordinary movie. And it must’ve taken a lot out of you. I have a little personal relationship with dementia. My mom had dementia, and we cared for her for many years. And she taught us all so much about the human brain, about the human spirit. She fought it initially, and then there was a shift when she finally accepted that she wasn’t quite sure what was happening. I wonder if you want to talk a little bit — being in that space of not knowing what’s real and what isn’t real.
Anthony Hopkins: My parents hadn’t suffered dementia, so I’ve had no experience. Florian Zeller offered me the part and I met with [screenwriter] Christopher Hampton. I always attempt, especially as I’m getting older, to simplify the process. I don’t analyze too much, and to have a great script is like a road map. I just followed the road map. I didn’t have to act old because I am old. I’m 83 now. My back ached and my knees ached.
Foster: What kind of research did you do?
Hopkins: Two scripts had an immediate impact on me. One was “Silence of the Lambs” — and “The Father.” It was so clearly written. I didn’t have to do any research. I was able to easily fall into it. Sounds so cheesy, but it’s made me very aware now how precious life is, and how we contain ourselves within something so mysterious. To me, life is just sort of a dream. It’s an illusion. It’s got me conscious of something else. That life is much more powerful than we even begin to comprehend. There’s something so deep inside us that we don’t even begin to understand.
Foster: What I love so much about the movie, it’s really the most human character you could ever play.
Hopkins: I remember the first day with Olivia Colman, the first scene we were in together was the first day of filming. What struck me was my own father was in me. I’m always on to her, nagging at her. My father was like that as he was dying, because he was frightened. He was afraid. Not mean, just irascible, scared. And it’s painful to see that. I knew how to play it because I’d seen my own father going through it 40 years before. And you think of the hopelessness, the emptiness, the sadness of it all, and knowing none of us get out of this alive.
Foster: I don’t know if it’s possible that your work gets better as you get older, but it seems to me like you just keep getting better and better. Do you feel like you’re accessing something now that you’re older that you escaped when you were younger?
Hopkins: Yes, I do. It’s become easier, because I’m older and I’ve got a lot of experience of it. I try not to make a big deal of it. But what I do know is I’m assiduous at learning lines. I learn the text. And then I can improvise. For me, the thing is the text. And once they’re in there, it’s like eating fava beans. Once you’ve devoured them, then you can move around and improvise within it, to make it sound real.
Tell me about the “The Mauritanian.” When did you do that?
Foster: We did it last year. We finished the beginning of February, just as we received the news about the impact of the pandemic. We shot in Cape Town. And then, lo and behold, eight months went by, and I’m not sure what happened in those eight months. It feels like yesterday.
Hopkins: You were all extraordinary. And painful to watch as well. The treatment in Guantanamo was just —
Foster: Mohamedou [Ould Slahi]’s story is amazing. You do movies for different reasons, and sometimes you do it just for the character — because there’s something about it, and you need to learn about yourself. And in this case, we were all there for him. To have someone that went through what he went through — 15 years detained in prison without being told what his charge was, after being abducted from his home by a foreign country for no reason. The fact that he emerged as a better human being, somebody who instead of being angry after years of psychological torture and isolation, he became someone, through his faith, that is joyful and isn’t resentful.
Hopkins: Like Nelson Mandela, who had nothing but forgiveness after his release.
Foster: When he was in prison, he saw “The Big Lebowski” something like 80 times. He learned English in Guantanamo from the 20-year-old guards. He kind of talks like a dude. The woman that I play, Nancy Hollander, is quite an extraordinary character too, one of our amazing civil rights attorneys who mostly has defended people who are guilty. She believes in the rule of law and the Constitution.
Hopkins: That’s wonderful.
Foster: I’ve never played a real person. Oh, once I played a real person [in “Anna and the King”], but she’d already been dead for 200 years, so it made it easier.
Hopkins: Have you worked with Benedict Cumberbatch before?
Foster: No. He couldn’t be more different than the character he plays. He’s got a big mane of hair, and he’s just a happy, energetic Englishman. And he does this magnificent transformation in this movie to this military, Southern jarhead.
Hopkins: And having a beer in the canteen of the prison in Guantanamo Bay. That moment when you’re at the table …
Foster: All that’s really true, you know? In Guantanamo they have a gift shop, and in the gift shop they have little Guantanamo snow globes.
Hopkins: What a strange world.
Foster: It’s been nearly 30 years since we did “Silence of the Lambs.” Hard to believe. I have a lot of fond memories of that movie, of the shoot, of being in Pittsburgh. And Jonathan Demme, of course, who passed away — somebody that I know we both loved.
Hopkins: Yeah. I remember, I was in London in 1989, doing a play called “M. Butterfly.” My agent sent a script. He said, “Why don’t you read this? It’s called ‘Silence of the Lambs.’” I said, “Is it a children’s story?” It was a hot summer afternoon, and the script came over and I started reading it. After 10 pages, I phoned my agent. I said, “Is this a real offer? I want to know. This is the best part I’ve ever read.” I read the rest of the script, and Jonathan came over on a Saturday afternoon and we had dinner. And I said, “Is this for real?” And he said, “Yeah.” I said, “OK.” He was such a wonderful guy to work with. I couldn’t believe my luck, and I was scared to speak to you. I thought, “She just won an Oscar.”
Foster: We didn’t get to speak too much before the actual read-through. We just sort of kind of waved from across the room and then sat down at the table. And as you launched into Hannibal Lecter, I felt a chill come over the room. In a way, it was like we were almost too scared to talk to each other after that.
Hopkins: They did some wardrobe test, and I didn’t know what authority I had. But the wardrobe designer put me in this orange [prison suit]. I said, “No, I wanted a tailored suit.” I knew what the character looked like. The voice had come to me on the first reading. Jonathan asked me, and I said, “He’s like a machine. He’s like HAL, the computer in ‘2001’: ‘Good evening, Dave.’” He just comes in like a silent shark.
Hopkins: Was the first day when you’d come down the corridor? Lots of weird people [the other prisoners, as Clarice goes to meet Lecter]. And Jonathan said, “How do you want to be seen? Do you want to be reading or painting or lying down?” I said, “I’d like to be standing there. I can smell her coming down the corridor.”
Foster: It was such an eerie set. All of the different inmates, all very dark and moody, and then suddenly we come to Lecter’s: It’s very bright and kind of fluorescent lighting and two-dimensional.
Hopkins: I was naturally nervous, an Englishman — a limey like me, a Welshman — playing an American serial killer. And I remember Jonathan, when the camera picked me up, he said, “Oh, my God. That’s it. Hopkins. You’re so weird!” And I said, “Why, thank you.” And they wanted the lighting girl to come into my cell, and I said, “What are you doing in my cell?” And [Jonathan] said, “Oh, my God.” So I knew I had pressed the right button. Once you got that button, hold on to it — and go with it.
Foster: I remember that specific voice you had, the metallic tinge to your voice. Chris Newman was the sound mixer, and he also enhanced that. He was able to bring that up a little bit. I feel like we were all inspired by the book.
Hopkins: It was a wonderful time. I remember there was a teacher at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and his name was Christopher Fettes. He was a movement teacher. He had a cutting voice, and he would slice you to pieces. His analysis of what you were doing was so precise; it’s a method that stayed with me for all my life. When I was doing it, I thought, “This is Chris Fettes. This is the voice. This man is merciless.”
Hopkins: I remember the cage scene, when I said, “No!” Wrong, try it again. That, to anyone, to the observer, the recipient of that, is lethal and charismatic.
Foster: All those little details. I’m really proud of the movie.
Hopkins: Tell me about Clarice, because my first impression when I saw you, before I even started, I went to see the dailies. And there were several scenes in the garage, with Ed Saxon’s head in the bottle.
Foster: In the jar.
Hopkins: Yes. Jonathan showed me some clips for my benefit. And I remember the one when you get into the elevator with all those big FBI guys, and you’re there. I’m like, “This is brilliant, because you are a smaller person in this big, macho male world, coming in as the hero.”
Foster: There are certain images that get seared into your imagination and you say, “That’s the character.” For me, with Clarice, it was also about her voice, mostly because she was somebody that had been scarred by the bleeding of the lambs, the sound and how there was nothing she could do to help them. My mom said to me, “Why do you want to play this character who’s kind of quiet and mousy?” She had this quietness. There was almost a shame that she wasn’t bigger, that she wasn’t stronger, this person trying to overcome the failure of the body they were born in. I understood that was her strength. In some ways, she was just like the victims — another girl in another town. The fact that she could relate to those victims made her the hero. I’m sure you still get people who come up to you and say, “Would you like a nice Chianti?”
Hopkins: Oh yeah, they do. Do you know what I always remember about that? We do the scene in the cell. Then we go and have lunch in that big warehouse.
Hopkins: And I thought, “How extraordinary. We’re all sitting here,” and we’d just been chomping on each other and making life hell for each other — and here we are having lunch. It didn’t make any sense at all. And that’s why it’s such an amusing game. We get up in the morning, go to a place, we’d put on somebody else’s clothes and speak lines that had nothing to do with us. And you think, “What on Earth is it all about?” And that’s the wonderful, magical game of it all.
Foster: It’s a life-changing adventure, that movie, for both of us.
Hopkins: It was. How did the directing start? Because I saw “Little Man Tate” [at the premiere]. I was standing in line, and I think I said briefly to you hello.
Foster: I always wanted to direct. When I was a little girl, I was on a television show. One day one of the actors was the director of my episode. And I just couldn’t figure it out. I was mesmerized. I thought, “They let actors become directors? That’s what I want to do.” I really kept that with me my whole life. I just didn’t know any female directors, so I didn’t know if it would be possible. And then, probably at 12 or 13, I saw Lina Wertmüller’s movie “Swept Away.” And I thought, here’s a woman director. You’ve directed as well?
Hopkins: I’ve directed. I don’t think I have the skills you have. I just enjoy acting. I enjoy being directed more than directing.
Foster: I felt like I never had an actor’s personality. Much to my chagrin, it does not come naturally to me, or easily. I’m much more of a reader or a thinker. I’m a chess mover. Acting was just something that was my family’s job, my family’s profession, that I fell into. I have to say, at least once a week, I say, “Oh, I’m never going act again.” But it draws you back in. I think it’s good for somebody like me, who does live in their head a lot — to get out of my head and have to live in my body. And I think that’s benefited me as a person.
Hopkins: That’s wonderful. Bye, Clarice.
Foster: Bye, Tony. Bye, Dr. Lecter! See you later.