Anthony Hopkins will perhaps always be best known for having eaten someone’s liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. But frightening audiences Hannibal Lecter-style is so 1991: In “The Rite,” Hopkins’ latest film, the devil literally makes him do it. Hopkins plays Father Lucas Trevant, an exorcism specialist in Rome who’s tasked with teaching a young new priest (Colin O’Donoghue) the ins and outs of expelling demons from regular folk. His student doesn’t really believe — at least until some creepy things start happening to him, including Father Lucas suddenly acting more sinner than saint.
Tricia Olszewski: Talk about your character. Did you hesitate to do another horror film?
Anthony Hopkins: I play a man who is seemingly good, a man of God, and the next moment I’m Hannibal Lecter or something like that. There was some [hesitation] at the beginning. My agent sent me this script. I didn’t know much about it, but I didn’t know if I wanted to play another spooky guy. I was in the middle of doing “Thor” when this came up, about a year ago. I read the script and thought, “Well, this is very interesting.” Then I met [director] Mikael Hafstrom and was pretty impressed by him.
Olszewski: How did you prepare to play an exorcist?
Hopkins: I think with any role, it’s quite a smart move to gather as much information that you can. I had a couple of ideas and would e-mail these ideas to [Hafstrom] that helped me understand this man a little more. And that was it. I also had to learn Italian and Latin, which took a bit of time. But I knew I was doing something right whenever Mikael would say, “You’re crazy!”
Olszewski: Do you believe in possession?
Hopkins: I don’t know what my beliefs about any of it are, really. There’s a scene in the courtyard after the first exorcism when I talk to the young priest, Father Michael, about whether his character has grave doubts about anything. He thinks it’s all a bag of tricks, you know, he thinks it’s all mumbo jumbo, which is the [film’s] debate. Is there such a thing as anthropomorphic presence of the devil, or is it mental disturbance?
And I say to Michael, “The problem with skeptics and atheists is that we never know the truth. We’re always trying to find the truth. But what would we do if we actually found it?” I asked Mikael if I could write that line to sort of describe my character as a skeptic, which makes the young priest turn and say, “You?” And I say, “Oh yeah, every day I struggle with my belief. On some days, I don’t know whether to believe in God or Santa Claus or Tinkerbell.” I wanted to make the priest a real human being, irascible and impatient. Because nobody knows [the truth], it gives a semblance of humanity to someone who says they don’t know.
The young priest says, “I believe in the truth.” The truth! Oh yes, look at the trouble that got us into over the last thousand years. Hitler knew the truth. So did Stalin. So did Mao Tse-Tung. So did Torquemada of the Inquisition. Anyone who’s extremely fundamentalist and “knows” the truth is dangerous. Certainty is the enemy. We know nothing. All I know is that I’m uncertain. And I would hate to live in a world of certainty, of a closed circuit, of a windowless room.
Olszewski: So, do you consider yourself agnostic?
Hopkins: Someone once asked me, “Well, are you an atheist?” I don’t know what I believe, but who am I to refute someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who sacrificed his life for his church and ended up being executed by the Nazis? The great martyrs who died at the stake or were destroyed for their personal beliefs? Plato said, “Be kind, because everyone is fighting a great battle.” And whatever the devil is or is not, when we turn our backs on our own frailty and our own humanity and say we know the truth, then we are in trouble.
Olszewski: What is it about you, do you think, that makes you frightening?
Hopkins: I don’t know. I’ve asked myself that question many times. When I was a kid, my father took me to see “Dracula,” the Bela Lugosi version. We all flirt with chaos. We all go to a darkened movie theater together to give ourselves a good scare. It’s like if you’re an alcoholic or a drug addict –- we flirt with death. We pull ourselves toward the brink of destruction, and if we’re lucky, we pull ourselves back. We all have that within us. Jung said, “If we don’t face our shadow, it will rip us to pieces.”
But that’s all I know. I just know how to scare people. It’s only a look. You deaden the eyes. It’s a trick. I guess I have a knack for it, but that’s not to say I’m a scary person. My wife’s not scared of me. I’m scared of her.