"It was a daunting prospect, but I think it sort of worked out," veteran British actor Anthony Hopkins says about revisiting Hollywood’s favourite psychopath, Hannibal Lecter, for a third time.
In Red Dragon the 63-year-old Hopkins has to step back over a decade in this prequel to his nightmarishly enchanting depiction of the erudite serial killer in The Silence Of The Lambs.
He has already revisited the mad doctor in Ridley Scott’s disappointing and campy Hannibal, but Red Dragon really goes back to basics. It’s based on the first of Thomas Harris’s series of books about Lecter, and required Hopkins to play a younger version of his sinister 1991 Oscar-winning creation.
This time Lecter is imprisoned in the same brick cell, but it’s before Jody Foster’s FBI agent Clarice Starling appears on the scene. Instead Edward Norton plays FBI agent Will Graham who first captured the mad cannibal genius and tries to use him to understand another twisted maniac Francis Dolarhyde (played by an intense Ralph Fiennes), nicknamed Tooth Fairy.
The title actually derives not from Lecter, but from Dolarhyde’s fascination with the demonic spirit of a William Blake painting. It was made into a film titled Manhunter as recently as 1986 with Brian Cox as Lecter, but that went largely unnoticed.
Hopkins admits he had his doubts about doing Lecter one more time. “I did think ‘why milk a third one?’. Then I met with Brett Ratner (director) and Ted Tally (scriptwriter) and they all seemed so serious about it. I didn’t want to be a party pooper.”
In truth Hopkins has been under a lot of pressure from veteran producer Dino De Laurentiis to keep doing Lecter, named the most popular movie villain in a recent internet poll.
“Tony, we can do many many more, like James Bond,” Hopkins says, mimicking the blustery voice of De Laurentiis.
Everyone knew audiences couldn’t be fooled about the actor suddenly being 10 years younger, so there’s some dramatic licence taken with Red Dragon.
“Anthony just played a younger Hannibal, we didn’t deal with the age thing, he pretty much owns this character,” admits Ratner.
“I got in shape a bit and tried to look a little younger than I was,” says Sir Anthony. “We weren’t that concerned because we weren’t going to pretend that audiences don’t know it’s all back-to-front anyway.”
What he wanted was to take Lecter back to more fundamental basics, particularly after audiences weren’t overly impressed with the tongue-in-cheek humour of Hannibal.
This time Lecter is confronted with the FBI agent who first puts him behind the glass wall - and he’s not pleased to see him, says the actor.
“I said to Brett that I wanted to play Lecter very angry. I didn’t want to parody him with that campy stuff, like in Hannibal where I’d say ‘okey-dokey’,” he explains.
“He’s dealing with the agent who put him in this prison and he’s pretty pissed off with him. I wanted Lecter with a lot of burning rage and viciousness.”
Tally wrote the script for The Silence Of The Lambs and Red Dragon and he marvels at how Hopkins has created such a screen icon.
“People seem to love the bravura combination of this actor and this part,” he says. “Anthony is charming and he’s sexy and he’s smart and you can’t fake that kind of intelligence in a character.”
Hopkins realises that Lecter rejuvenated his screen career a decade ago and given him a wonderful signature character – but says he doesn’t know why this monster appeals to people so much.
“I’m pleased the character connects, but it’s only fictional. You’d have to ask a psychologist. I could come up with some quasi-Jungian stuff about it, like maybe he’s an archetype in all of us. But I don’t want to be fancy about it.”
Even if Red Dragon revives Lecter’s appeal at the box-office, the actor doubts he’ll be back for any more liver and fava beans.
“I think Dino wants to do a fourth helping but I’m Lectered out now. I’ve enjoyed it immensely and it did give a huge booth to my acting career some years ago, so I have no regrets. But I think three is enough, I really do.”
But it could happen anyway, suggests Tally. De Laurentiis half-jokingly told him: “We can open in a plastic surgery in Brazil. When they take thebandages off he looks a lot like Kevin Spacey. Actually I don’t think he was really joking.”
Hopkins, who now bases himself in Southern California and is a US citizen, has no problem with his star status. He’s not an actor who feels any snob value about his roots in British theatre, even if he does decline to discuss some strange choices like the recent critically panned actioner Bad Company.
“It’s just a pose, they all want the fame,” Hopkins grins. “I just enjoy doing what I do, and while I’m giving it my all I don’t get intense about it.”