Interview: Sir Anthony Hopkins, actor and musician

It might come as surprise that Anthony Hopkins is a keen musician, but he’s been playing piano all his life and next week releases a CD of his compositions, writes Ken Walton

SIR Anthony Hopkins is talking to me from his Malibu home, sitting close to his Bösendorfer piano, on which are piled not only scores of Chopin and Scriabin, which he practises daily, but sheets of manuscript containing his latest compositional sketches. Of course, I only have his word for that. But the Hopkins we know from all the interviews he has given since hitting it big as a film and television actor in the 1970s, is nothing if not straight-talking.

So what’s all this hoo-ha about Anthony Hopkins the composer; the lonely kid from Margam in Wales who harnessed boyhood thoughts of becoming a musician, drifted into acting as a naïve student at the Welsh College of Music and Drama, ultimately made it big in Hollywood, but who, at 74, having already revealed his hand as an exhibited painter in recent years, is about to have a CD of his own music released, performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO)?

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“I couldn’t say I ever dreamt of becoming a composer, a pianist, or anything else for that matter,” he says. “I have the kind of brain where nothing is set in stone. I wasn’t bright at school, which worried my parents. But I did pick up reading music very early and quickly, around the age of five. With this chaotic brain I’ve always been adept at picking up information quickly. But I’ve always tended to think in clouds of thoughts.”

Sure enough, his music reflects a state of mind that is impulsive, intuitive and free and easy. The nine tracks on the CD – ranging from innocent nostalgia (the bluesy 1947 2nd Movement – Bracken Road) to chunky stürm und drang (the no-holds-barred Amerika) by way of unadulterated pastiche (Vienna’s waltz tradition gauchely re-rendered in And the Waltz Goes On) – are works shot from the hip rather than products of considered sophistication or absolute technical mastery.

“I always had a knack for improvisation,” says Hopkins, as if to confirm that view. “I can write down the notes I play, but never really had a proper academic musical background. I suppose I’m blessed and cursed by the fact I have that freedom.”

As a boy learning the piano, Hopkins says he “stumbled ahead”.

“I got easily bored practising that blasted Für Elise [by Beethoven] or Schumann’s Merry Peasant.” Instead he would improvise melodies that appealed to him and scribble them down on paper. “As soon as I’d done that, I found I never forgot them.”

Which is why, 60 years on, he has been able to assemble a lifetime of scribbled musical thoughts and spontaneous bursts of melody into an album – recorded live in Birmingham Symphony Hall last July – that he is genuinely thrilled with.

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Music has always been a private obsession for him. “Back in 1964, when I was appearing at the Liverpool Playhouse, I would go into the theatre very early in the morning. The cleaners would be cleaning backstage, so I’d go into the green room where there was a piano.

“It was there I came up with a little waltz theme, which I remembered many years later and decided to send to André Rieu in Maastricht. I didn’t expect to hear back from him, but he called to say he’d love to play it, and even let me listen to his orchestra rehearsing it over the phone.”

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And the Waltz Goes On is now a regular hit in Rieu’s worldwide tour concerts.

It was Stella, Hopkins’ third wife of eight years, who encouraged him to write things down. “We have a Bösendorfer piano that I play every day. It keeps my brain and my fingers active,” he says. “I practise Chopin studies, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee and I love Scriabin’s music. The problem is, I get obsessed with difficult passages and work away at them, but never complete the whole piece.”

He invariably ends up improvising, which prompted Stella to ask what he was playing. She told him to do something about it. “I now have piles of manuscripts lying on the piano that I’ve accumulated over the past three years.”

These include the soundtrack Hopkins composed for Slipstream, the 2008 experimental film he wrote, directed and appeared in. “It was an expression of my own view of life. The whole thing’s like a dream, a chaotic state of mind, my concept of time and memory,” he explains.

“The wonderful thing was, I had complete control of it, everything including the music. I’m a bit of a control freak.”

Two of the CD tracks are from that score – the tuneful nostalgia of Stella featuring solo cello, and the upbeat Latino romp that is The Plaza. The latter, in its concert version, features as the finale to a trilogy of works that appear under the collective title 1947. Hopkins was ten that year, and recalls his parents taking him to the local Plaza cinema in Wales, where he first heard American jazz.

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The two earlier movements – Circus and Bracken Road – are equally nostalgic, not least the soulful bluesy trumpet and Delius-inspired strings that imbue Bracken Road with a sentimental Romanticism one would hardly associate with its composer.

“Magram was beautiful in these days. Or at least that’s how I like to idealise it. The steel works mucked it up a bit, so it probably wasn’t. But I do recall visiting a farmhouse and hearing a trumpet, Harry James maybe, on the wireless. That has stayed with me.”

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But where does the madness of Amerika come from – a full-on orchestral work interrupted midstream by a Gothic organ cadenza? “I came to New York in 1974, and had a couple of drinks, which I was doing a lot in those days. I thought I was in a lunatic asylum. I asked the hotel manager if there was a riot or revolution going on outside. He said, ‘No, it’s normal. This is America!’”

It’s tempting to analyse Hopkins’ music and allow the occasional awkwardness of its structure, or limited scope of its material, to overshadow what is clearly intended – on the Classic FM label – as music that is easy on the ear.

Many will enjoy it, in some cases simply for its novelty and curiosity value. Hopkins never pushed for it to happen. He’s just genuinely grateful that the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and others (he actually conducted the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in his own Schizoid Salsa in 2008) are happy to play it.

Is he, at all, self-critical? “No, I gave up that game. What’s the point of beating yourself up? I teach young actors at UCLA where I tell them, ‘If you forget your lines, who cares? The world’s not going to stop.’

“If I spent all my time criticising myself, I wouldn’t be able to function. There are actors who theorise till the cows come home. I haven’t the patience for them. It’s maybe shallow, but that’s why I’ll never be part of the acting set.” On that thought, the interview ends, with not even time for a sharp, sinister intake of breath.

• Anthony Hopkins – Composer is released on 16 January through Classic FM. See for more details.

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