The Rite - Sir Anthony Hopkins
Father Lucas (Sir Anthony Hopkins) © 2011 New Line

Anthony Hopkins’ new movie The Rite is inspired by true events. The film follows seminary student Michel Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), who is sent to study exorcism at the Vatican in spite of his own doubts about the controversial practice, challenging his superiors to look at psychiatry rather than demons.

Only when he’s sent to apprentice with the unorthodox Father Lucas (Hopkins), a legendary priest who has performed thousands of exorcisms, does Michael’s armor begin to fall, as he witnesses an evil so violent and terrifying that it forces him to question everything he believes.

Sir Anthony Hopkins spoke of his new role and the phenomenon of exorcism at the press day for the movie.

Were you immediately attracted to the role of Father Lucas?

The Rite - Sir Anthony Hopkins
Father Lucas (Sir Anthony Hopkins) © 2011 New Line

I was a little doubtful when I first got the script. I thought, ‘I don’t want to play another spooky man,’ but I didn’t know what it was about. My wife said, ‘Well, I think you aught to read it.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’ll read it.’ I thought it was very interesting, no spinning heads or pea soup in it. (he laughs) I thought The Exorcist was a great movie.

I met (director) Mikael Hafstrom the next day and off we went. I wanted to make this priest a real human being instead of a ‘bless you, my son’ (character). Although he’s written in a hefty way, I made him irascible and impatient. I didn’t want to play him as a one-dimensional character, so there’s a little scene in the courtyard where I say, ‘The problem with being skeptical is that we’re all searching for the truth.

The question is what would we do if we knew it?’ Because I think when you meet somebody who you think has got knowledge, and you realize they doubt it’s so heartening.

How much research did you do for the character?

I think with any subject, being an actor, it’s quite a smart move to gather as much information as you can. So I read quite a bit, I can’t remember the books I read, and I’m still reading in preparation for the publicity for this, because I’m going to be asked questions about exorcism, God and the devil. So I put a lot of information in my head so that I have a point-of-reference, basically to tell you that I know nothing!

Has your research changed the way you feel about God?

The Rite - Sir Anthony Hopkins
Father Lucas (Sir Anthony Hopkins) © 2011 New Line

I still go on reading to give myself the information, and I must say it’s quite enriching, it’s deepening my own belief, whatever that is. All I know is, I don’t know anything and I’m not certain. I’d hate to live in certainty, because we live in climates today where everyone is certain about things, and you think, ‘How do you know?’ Anything that is extreme and fundamental, which (purports to) know the truth is something to be wary of, that’s where the devil resides, I believe.

Did you go to real exorcisms?

No, Colin went to see one. I didn’t. I missed the opportunity. I didn’t really want to see one. Maybe it’s a mental aberration, maybe there is a presence of the devil, I have no idea.

How did you prepare emotionally for your climatic scene where you are possessed?

Oh, I just learned the lines. That’s really all I did, and all these ideas starting coming to me, the vocal sounds of the man, and the peculiar rhythms of the demon. Then presenting it on the set I knew that it was working, because Mikael said, ‘You’re crazy.’

When you work with young actors like Colin, is there a time when you have to remind them that you’re an actor too, because they are in awe of you?

The Rite - Sir Anthony Hopkins and Colin O'Donoghue
Father Lucas (Sir Anthony Hopkins) and Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue) © 2011 New Line

They’re not in awe of me. Colin was a little nervous the very first day on the set. He’d never been in a movie before. I said, ‘Don’t be nervous.’ I would just sometimes say, ‘Don’t do too much.’ But that’s all. And I think humor gets you through all that, you just have a joke. I say, ‘Is that the way you’re going to play the part? It’s your career.’ And that calms everything down!

Your first movie was The Lion in Winter with Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, that must have been intimidating for you?

Well, yeah, I was a brash young actor, I was 29 years old then. I was very pleased to be working with them, but I didn’t have that terrible nervousness. After having a couple of drinks with Peter O’Toole, you can’t really be nervous.

But Hepburn was interesting. The very first day on set I had a big scene with her and she said to me after the rehearsal, ‘Why did you play the whole scene with the back of your head to the camera?’ I said, ‘Did I?’ She said, ‘I’ll steal the whole scene from you if you do that, I’ll probably do that anyway!’ She said, ‘I’ll give you a tip, you don’t need to act.

Watch Spencer Tracy, watch Humphrey Bogart, they didn’t act.’ She admired all those people. I think the great brand of American actors is that they don’t act, they just are.

What challenges you and keeps you going now?

What keeps me going is that I’m so pleased that people still ask me to act. I don’t want to retire, but I’m realistic, I’m not going to be playing Brad Pitt parts. I know time is running and I’m getting older. I’m 73. I’m just glad I’m not young anymore. Now it’s not important.

When my wife and I walk the red carpets sometimes we watch the young actors, and how excited they are, and she says, ‘Don’t get cynical.’ And I said, ‘I’m just glad I’m not that way anymore, saying, ‘It’s so wonderful to be here!’ Who cares? It’s a lot of fun but don’t take it too seriously.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.