The Father might be billed as a mental illness drama, but to Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins, it is much more than that. It is about life itself, he says.
Speaking at an online press event last November, he recounts a scene that sums up the film for him. His character, a man who is losing his memory, is looking at a family photograph and touching personal objects such as a book and glasses.
Hopkins says that in that moment, memories came flooding back: “I remembered how I picked up my father’s glasses and his book. I broke down. It’s the stupendous glory of being alive, really.
“At 83, I look over my life now and I’m astonished that I’m still here. It’s been a great privilege being an actor. I’ve had a wonderful life. I’ve reached an age where you think, ‘yes, it was worth it all the way’.”
These days, the actor, who played the Oscar-nominated role of butler Stevens in the Merchant Ivory drama The Remains Of The Day (1993), enjoys “being alive, playing with my cat, eating breakfast”.
His indelibly creepy performance as serial killer Hannibal Lecter in the pyschological thriller The Silence Of The Lambs (1991) clinched him an Oscar for Best Actor.
For his role in The Father, he has become the oldest actor to receive a Best Actor nod at the Academy Awards, bringing his Oscar nominations tally to six. His only win so far is for the Lecter role.
The Father, which opens in cinemas here on Thursday (April 15), has earned five other Oscar nods, including for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.
French director and co-writer Florian Zeller says in a separate interview that he made the production moved quickly, without rehearsals. That rapid-fire process sits well with Hopkins, who won Best Actor at the Baftas, Britain’s equivalent of the Oscars, on Sunday (April 11).
It is possible to over-prepare, as has happened to him in the past.
“You sit in a hotel banquet room and rehearse the thing to death. It turns into a piece of wood. You can overdo it. As an actor, you need to clear the brain of any other thinking and have a sense of ease and a sense of fun. Otherwise, it becomes deadly,” he says.
The film, Zeller’s first, is adapted from his play La Pere (The Father in French), which debuted in Paris in 2012.
On why he wanted the film to be in English and why the main character is named Anthony, the 41-year-old explains: “I told my friends that I dreamt of making the movie with Sir Anthony and they laughed at me. It’s my first feature film, I’m French, and he is Sir Anthony Hopkins.”
Hopkins says he joined the project because of Zeller’s strong screenplay and that it was co-written by Christopher Hampton. He and Hopkins share a professional relationship dating back to when Hampton wrote two Hopkins projects, the dramas A Doll’s House (1973) and The Good Father (1985).
Hampton’s English translation of La Pere has been staged in numerous countries, including in Singapore, where it was produced by Pangdemonium Theatre Company in 2018 with Lim Kay Siu in the title role.
Both the film and play reflect Zeller’s experience with dementia in his family. His grandmother, who had raised him, began to show signs of the disease when he was 15, he recalls.
While the film takes the point of view of the elderly person, there is also a focus on the caregiver.
English actress Olivia Colman, 47, plays Hopkins’ daughter Anne. Caught between a father she loves and her lover, she resents her father’s demands on her time and energy.
Zeller says: “It’s such a difficult decision and it’s not our place to judge her. There is no moral judgement that can be placed on her. She’s trying to save what can be saved.”
Colman has also been nominated at the Oscars, for Best Supporting Actress. When asked at the same online conference what it is like to be in a film that deals with dementia, she says she is of the age when such matters become relevant.
“I have children to look after, and I have parents who are now more likely to be looked after. It speaks to all generations,” says Colman, who has a Best Actress Oscar win for her role as the wilful and sickly Queen Anne in the black comedy The Favourite (2018).
Unless you are one of a lucky few, “you or your family will have to deal with dementia”, she adds.
“If my parents have to go through what the character Anthony plays goes through, it’s going to be pretty horrendous. It makes you feel for everyone who has had to deal with this through the centuries.”
The Father opens in cinemas on Thursday (April 15).