A Knight in Color – Sir Anthony Hopkins

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SEATED ON A FADED COUCH in the Royal Hawaiian’s Monarch Room-opposite screen legend Anthony Hopkins-it is impossible to not expect the wave of intimidation that is coursing through my veins. Mistake not-I’ve interviewed more than a fair share of A-listers. Yet I’ve made no secret of my stance, that is, the majority of actors I’ve interviewed are blessed with little more than three things: impeccable DNA, great luck and a few instances of nepotism. Let the records show: The gentleman seated across from me (it isn’t helping the nerves that we’re actually seated on a stage, for heaven’s sake) has never rested his laurels on any of those attributes.

As I avert my eyes to the colorful paintings that span the horizon just over his shoulders, hoping that he-and his piercing blue eyes (which are chiseling away at any semblance of orderly questions I have)-doesn’t scoff at their simplicity before I have a chance to blurt them out.

Or, worse yet, he eats my brain as I’m talking (which, at least, would give me something to talk with Ray Liotta about).

Alas, none of this is warranted (although it felt good to get the obligatory Hannibal reference aired early in this article). Sir Anthony Hopkins is not only a gentleman (he insisted on introducing himself to our entire creative team prior to this photo shoot and interview) and a scholar (Academy Award-winner, Fellow of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, so on), but he’s a pleasure to converse with. He is genuine and straight-shooting, yet available to digress into story. However, it is his impeccable knack for always returning full circle to a point or line of questioning that stunned me. After all, he’s an actor. And without a script, well, for many, sticking to what’s being asked can be a tall order. Where most flap incessantly on self-serving (and brand-building) statements, Sir Philip Anthony Hopkins is eager to delve into the root of everything I ask.

Today, we’re here entirely to talk about Hopkins’ foray most of which has taken place in the last decade-into his painting. In short summary: Having excelled at drawing and painting during grade school in his native Wales, it wasn’t long before Hopkins realized that the rigid nature of schooling in Britain in the 1940s wasn’t his cup of tea. After a chance encounter at age 15 with Welsh compatriot Richard Burton, Hopkins enrolled in the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama followed by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. As his stage-then television, followed by film career exploded, painting took a back seat.

Cut to the current century. Shortly after meeting his current wife-an elegant, Colombian-born antiquities dealer named Stella Arroyave-she began noticing drawings in the blank pages of his scripts (which he reads upward of 200 times prior to executing a role).

“She said, ‘You know, this is really something.’ When we got married, she wanted me to dig into this,” Hopkins shares.

Glenn Harte, co-owner of the Hawai’i-based Higgins Harte International Galleries, which retains exclusive rights to show and sell Hopkins’ work, enjoys re-telling the manner in which he was introduced to it. Not unfamiliar with already-famous clients, Harte counts Red Skelton, Tony Curtis, Burt Young and the wildly prolific Anthony Quinn among the stable of artists whose work he represents.

“I could tell that he was insecure about his art. He didn’t know if it was good enough,” Harte says, referring to their initial meeting on Maui, which preceded a visit to Hopkins’ Malibu home and studio. “It was great. Not like anything I’d seen before.

“An extremely high percentage of artists do work that imitates either what they’ve seen before or have been taught to do. Not a lot of it, unfortunately, is blazing new paths. He was clearly taking a new road, and most importantly, was so casual about it,” Harte continued.

This seems like a fortuitous time to answer the question that invariably has crept into most of your heads: Why does he need to paint? Is he trying to rub our noses in his highly accomplished (and proverbially gilded) dirt?

Far from it-and he will be the first to share it.

“He was sensitive to the fact that most people’s impression is that these actors are full of themselves,” says Harte, who adds that museums have offered to house his collection-something Hopkins turned down, as he didn’t deem it “appropriate.”

Throughout our conversation, the reasons for his twodimensional expression became a clear, trifold approach. First, there’s the notion that any actor plays a small part in an otherwise huge production. No matter the film, there are dozens upon dozens of writers, producers, directors and so on, each of whom contributes their vision to what the rest of us see onscreen. This leaves very little wiggle room for actors-regardless of stature-to express their creativity. Conversely, when faced with a blank canvas in a quiet room all by one’s lonesome, the artist has complete control over every aspect of what ends up on said canvas.

Second, the act of painting (or drawing) allows Hopkins to release years-often decades-of bottled-up memories and emotions that were either overlooked, misguided or stowed away. He’s made no secret of his penchant for excess in his early years. Yet one subject we covered-the hauntingly intense eyes in his “Steelworkers” painting-reveals this processes.

“That’s my grandfather. He used to work in steel. He always wore a cap. He had a work mate called Smiley. And I always remember it, they were happy times,” Hopkins pauses, reflects. “But one day he came back very upset. Smiley had died of a heart attack at work and my grandfather was there. It stuck with me. Long time ago… almost 70 years.”

Third, Hopkins draws parallels to a few events in his life-arriving in America (California, particularly), a road trip he took across the U.S. and the meeting of his wifeas-muse, Stella-all as origins for his gravitational pull to vibrant, almost alarming use of color.

“I came from a very gray country, Wales. And yet I was drawn to color. So when I spent some time in New Mexico [20 years ago], I fell in love with the colors. With peoples’ clothes. And I had been to Hawai’i. So this is where all this color-” he gracefully gestures to the works that surround us on stage “-comes from. I just sorta jumped into it.”

Beginning with inks on photographic paper followed by acrylics, he indeed “jumped into it.” He began (around 2003) painting every chance he got. At the same time, he invigorated another boyhood passion-playing the piano.

“I learned to read music as a boy, but I gave that up when I became an actor. I was always improvising whenever I sat down at the piano, picking up things. It’s all come to fruition in the last few years,” he says.

A slight understatement, indeed. His self-proclaimed “fiddling around” led to the composition of a Viennese waltz with multiple movements, that is now performed across the globe by symphonies that include Britain’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra as well as the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

When asked whether the waltz, too, harkens back to his past, the 73-year-old lights up.

“Yes, the waltz is very reminiscent of my childhood. In fact… I’ve been listening to a lot of [composer and performance artist] Philip Glass, as well as John Adams and Charles Ives, who wrote in the ’20s. He [Ives] writes two pieces of music in two different keys and then he merges them together-a cacophony of sound. So…” he continues, smiling. “My grandfather took me to Bethany Square when I was 5. There was a brass band coming up the street, with the drums and everything-I was actually scared. Then, just behind Bethany Chapel, another band was playing, so you could hear the sounds crossing over one another-a jumble of noise. And I remember that sound. And now the music has started coming out.”

Succinctly, memories began leaping onto canvas as well.

“I just go in and see what happens. Two weeks ago, I painted an elephant. It’s here. Someone bought it,” Hopkins turns to look for the painting. “It is also from childhood, from the first circus my grandfather took me to. I was in awe [of the elephants]. But I felt sorry for them, with the hats and the woman sitting on their heads. This is that elephant.”

With hesitation I decide to inquire about some comments I had seen him make in videos from past interviews. In particular, I was curious about his statements that key on a fixture with chaos and finality, of which he had spoken with a shocking amount of levity.

“I was on Maui the other night and I thought, in color and in nature, there is beauty all over the world-yet it all passes. Life is beautiful, but it is fast.

“I’m not a religious person,” Hopkins quips, noting the weightiness of his previous statement. “I don’t think I believe in anything. I don’t know what I believe. There are quantum levels of experience, but I don’t know what I believe… But we all live in chaos. And madness. Dreams are chaos. Our minds are chaos. People don’t understand it-we don’t need to understand it.

“A great friend of mine, Stan Winston, who used to work with Spielberg-Jurassic Park-had a great eye for art. He said that if you practice too much, focus too hard on technique, you lose something. So I figured the same was true with my painting. And piano playing too. I try not to examine everything. What’s the worst that could happen? Someone is going to put me in jail?”

Navigating the ballroom where the majority of wall space is tiled with Hopkins’ works, this new perspective sheds a warmer light on his array of styles that leap off the canvases. Prior to speaking with him, the works were almost dizzying. There are various examples that feature characters whose eyes intimidate. Haunting yet serene images like “Nirvana” are a study in a single hue, yet elicit the need for a second, more thorough stare. “Aloha Nui Loa” is a graceful dance of contrasting colors that captures the movement of his subject. And, there are his fluid landscape paintings that evoke a minimalist feel while delicately drawing the viewer closer in.

Insightful prose, printed on little cards, accompanies many of the paintings. The words, I learn in a follow-up conversation with Hopkins, are collaborative efforts with a young painter Hopkins mentors, named Aaron Tucker. Unlike most artists, who silently ask the viewer to attach their own “meaning” to the image, Hopkins (and Tucker) has chosen precise words, tenses and manners of phrasing to pull you across the landscape of the canvas. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; Hopkins is distantly related to the Nobel-awarded poet William Butler Yeats.

As an orchestral quintet pulls notes from their stringed instruments, and attendees (each of whom has already purchased one of Hopkins prints or originals, which range from $1,100 to $150,000) seem more eager to meet the affection of their evening, we press further into his musical foray.

A three-part piece he wrote recently, titled 1946, will be performed at select venues around the world.

“The first movement is the circus. The one I was telling you about, with my grandfather,” he shares. “The second movement is called Bracken Road, which is a very modern piece of jazz, named after a street in Margam [the Welsh town where he grew up]. Whenever I hear this certain piece of music, I always think of that corner, on that road. The last movement is called The Plaza. It brings to mind the old MGM musical with Carmen Miranda, Harry James.”

When I ask if he will perform it, his answer is concise, and delivered with a smirk.

“I won’t perform it, as I’m not a concert pianist. I can write ’em,” cue dramatic pause, for the last time today. “Remember, my technique is not that good.”

At this, I cannot help but disagree, Sir.

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