May 2008: After our tour of the Wolfman sets we were ushered into the dressing room of Anthony Hopkins. Polite and welcoming, the actor spoke in hushed tones, possibly still immersed in his role as Sir John Talbot, father of the Wolfman.
So how did the character of Sir John come together?
[At one point] the script was written in a way that Sir John Talbot is a sort of stiff guy in the shadows and I didn’t want to make him like that. I wanted to make him a completely off-the-wall eccentric aristocrat who lives in this place.
I said I just wanted to look like a man really so isolated in his life in this place, Blackmoor, that everything’s beginning to fall apart. There’s a history in the script where I haven’t seen my son since he was a child, and strange things begin to happen. Not that’s he’s a madman, he’s a man who’s removed. He’s got a kind of kind of wicked, provocative way of needling people and setting them off balance with a smile.
I wanted to have these fingers [he manipulates his digits]. I wanted to make this man [Talbot] so peculiar, kind of mesmeric, but revolting as well. He plays the piano in the dark and all that.
You’re very proficient on the piano…
No… I play every day, and I try to take complex pieces, which I’m not really good at, but just to get the technique. I labor at them so I can keep my brain cells from slipping up and all that.
So that’s how I’ve created this part. I think it caused a few eyebrows to be raised in rehearsal because sometimes I think the formula here for the script is okay and fine, but the American perception is that Sir John Talbot would be kind of ‘toff-y’.
I don’t want to play that kid of part so I said, “Well, can I just re-adjust it a bit?” and make him a man who on the surface is not at all threatening, but people in the village say, “He’s a very strange man, he walks around the house and he talks to himself”. But, like all crazy people, he’s very clever.
There were a few little details in the script that jarred. There is an American tendency to overwrite British stuff; they’ll make it too formal. If I was writing a Western film, I’d make all the same mistakes. I said to the writers, “Do you think we could get around this?” and they said, “The writers strike is on so we don’t want to mess with them”. So when that was over I said, “Can we just readjust a few things here and there?” Then it loosened up.
I was learning the script one day and I thought, “Ah, this is the way to play [it], very cold, and undercutting, very cold and very quiet. And it works, I think,.
That’s the way I approach it; something to hold onto during the performance, a hook of some kind. I work hard, learning stuff, and then ideas come to me that way.
So what are your hooks this time?
I’d been working on the script one night and went to bed. Suddenly a photograph of Samuel Beckett, the writer, came into my mind, and I thought, ‘Yeah’, cold, hard, steel-like…’ So I went on the Internet to find some photographs of Samuel Beckett and sent them off to the original director, and his response was, ‘Sounds a good idea’, and Joe [Johnston] seemed to go along with it.
I found another photograph taken in the Sixties of a polish baron; a man with a beard in a jacket like this. He’s a very stern looking man, and he looks really scruffy.
They wanted me to shave the beard off because the policy is not to have facial hair, which is a bit crazy to me. Doing a film in 19th Century England, the Wolf Man, no hair! Come on! So I said, “Well it stays, or I go. Come on, it’s just right for the part”.
It’s like the old Stanislavski thing of finding things that make you feel right. They had all kinds of fancy boots for me and I said I want some farmer’s boots. It makes me feel right with it and gives a sort of weight to the character and he wanders around this big home of his. He looks a bit like a farmer, which he probably is, probably has some sheep and cows. He’s a bit like a Jack London character.
I had a line where I said about my manservant, I knocked him out cold. I used to be a bare-knuckle fighter back in the good old days. I said to the director, ‘Could I add a couple of locations, San Francisco, New York, Boston?” A touch of Conrad and Jack London about him; they lived all over the world and had such adventures, and they really lived life deeply, they had a passion for life.