In May 2008, writer Jeffrey Renaud visited the set of “The Wolfman” at the legendary Pinewood Studios in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire (approx. 20 miles west of Central London).
“The Wolfman,” set for release by Universal Pictures this Friday (February 12), stars Benicio del Toro as Lawrence Talbot and The Wolfman, Emily Blunt as Gwen Conliffe, Talbot’s love interest, Sir Anthony Hopkins as Sir John Talbot, Lawrence’s father and Hugo Weaving as Francis Aberline, the Scotland Yard inspector who investigates the Wolfman murders.
Inspired by the 1941 classic, “The Wolf Man,” the Joe Johnston-directed “The Wolfman” tells the story of Lawrence who left his family home in the Victorian hamlet of Blackmoor after his mother dies and spends decades trying to forget what happened. But when his brother’s fiance, Gwen, tracks him down to help find her missing love, he returns home to join the search. Lawrence learns that something with brute strength and insatiable bloodlust has been killing the residents of Blackmoor and the suspicious Inspector Aberline has come to investigate. As Lawrence pieces together the gory puzzle, he hears of an ancient curse that turns the afflicted into werewolves when the moon is full. Now, if he has any chance at ending the slaughter and protecting the woman he has grown to love, he must destroy the vicious creature in the woods surrounding Blackmoor.
During the day-long visit, the attending media was shown many of the sets used in the feature film including several present in the trailer like the expansive, if not decaying, front foyer and staircase of the Talbot’s estate house and the dunking tank and the court chambers from the “lunatic asylum.”
Today, CBR News presents a transcript of a lengthy sit-down conversation from the set of “The Wolfman” with Anthony Hopkins.
No stranger to scaring the dickens out of filmgoers thanks to iconic roles like Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs” and cult classic roles like Corky Withers in “Magic,” a warm and gentle Anthony welcomed the visiting journalists into his dressing room and spun stories for nearly half-an-hour about his character in “The Wolfman,” how he transformed Sir John Talbot into his own monster and living with a beard.
Despite his unkempt look and noticeably long-ish finger nails, Tony – as the media was asked to call him – also fended off a question about the possibility of him receiving the Baker “Wolfman” treatment in the feature film with a simple: “Ah, that’s a secret.”
While you’re waiting for your fresh cup of tea, can you tell us what actually drew you to this project in the first place?
Anthony Hopkins: This one? My agent mentioned it, I think, some time back, maybe 18 months to two years ago. It was on the casting list, you know, they were working on the script. They hadn’t had a director yet at that time, and I read the script and I said, “Ah, I’m playing another strange guy.” But, I said, “OK. Let me know what you hear.” And again, this was maybe two years ago. Like all productions, this is a big production, they gradually put it together, I guess. And then I heard that Mark Romanek, who was originally going to do it, got it – a very talented guy. And then I met Mark in London, last year when I was here to do some publicity for “Beowulf,” for breakfast. He was a nice guy, but he left. I hope it wasn’t me [laughs]. And we had a positive start down here, but for whatever reason, it didn’t work out I guess.
But I wanted to get on with it. I had committed myself to do it, and then I stayed around for a few weeks and Joe Johnston came in. I think they tried a couple of directors, but this guy has turned out to be the best director. He works with such a simple and direct approach. And what’s so good about him is, he asks for ideas and lets you make suggestions. He’s very open to everything. And working with Emily Blunt and Benicio has been easy.
I must say that the filming has been long. It’s been over four-and-a-half months now, and because of the schedule, I’m not working that often. I have a little piece finally today and then I have a whole bunch of things coming up until June – all bunched together.
While I was waiting in Los Angeles for the go-ahead on this, before the other director left, I had an email correspondence with him and I dreamt up this part. The script is written in such a way that Sir John Talbot is this stiff guy – an English gentlemen – and I didn’t want to make him like that. I wanted him to be completely off the mark and considerably more eccentric. An aristocrat who has let himself go. A very, very strange man. And that’s the way I wanted to play it. I based him on a photograph of Samuel Beckett, and Joe seems to go along with it.
An extension of that idea seems to have crept into the production design, as wel. We’ve seen the house and it’s a bit decrepit. It’s sort of falling in disrepair. And I can see that from your costume, I’m assuming that’s your costume, as well.
Well, we have a designer and I said, “I just want to look like a man who is really so isolated in his life. In this place called, Blackmoor. And everything in his life is just falling apart.” I’ve just let myself go. And there’s a history in this script, where I haven’t seen my son since he was a little child, and strange things begin to happen.
He’s a man who’s really removed from everything. He has a very provocative way of meeting people and setting them off balance, smiling the whole time. It’s a rather dark character.
Are you a fan of the original Universal horror movies like “The Wolf Man?”
Who was the director who did “Isle of the Dead?” Val Lewton. I was scared of those films when I saw them, because I hadn’t seen that many horror movies. He made these strange, frightening nightmare films and he used these strange lighting methods. This is what Joe is doing, using strange lighting methods for contrast. There is a sense of unease everywhere.
Have you seen the original 1941 “Wolf Man” with Lon Chaney?
Actually, I saw it just recently, and it was Lon Chaney Jr. Yeah, it was kind of over the top, wasn’t it? They all were, but they were entertaining, like “Frankenstein.” Val Lewton used to work with Boris Karloff too.
That’s why I wanted to make this man so peculiar and kind of revolting, as well. He plays the piano, at night, in the dark. So I get to play the piano.
We heard that you were quite proficient on the piano.
I enjoy it. I’m not at a concert standard, but I love playing the piano. There’s a beautiful Bechstein down in the studio from the 1850 or 60s. We just had it tuned today.
Have you always played?
I’ve got one at the hotel I play every day. I try to take complex pieces, which I’m not very good at, just to try to keep the technique up – complicated stuff, which is a labor to play. But this idea of the piano came up with the other director several months ago, someone brought up the idea of the piano to him. I can play some Chopin and other stuff, but Joe heard me play something of my own that I was improvising with a slightly Spanish motif to it that he liked, because Benicio doesn’t look like my son [laughs]. There’s a portrait of his mother, who looks Spanish, so that makes sense, because we don’t come from the same country. He’s a lot of fun to work with. He’s a great actor.
Have you been working mostly in the studio, or have you been out on location, too?
We went up to a place called Chatsworth up in Derbyshire for filming at huge house. A big, haunted looking place – massive – out in this beautiful location with vast grounds and magnificent walks. It’s quite a famous tourist attraction with its towers and everything. But it establishes the character.
So that’s how I created this prize. I think it caused a few eyebrows to be raised. Because, sometimes you get a formulaic idea from the script and it’s OK and fine, but I think the American perception is that Sir John Talbot would be kind of like Tuck, and I don’t want to play that kind of part. I’d prefer to play a strange man, who, on the surface, is not at all attractive. He’s just a very strange man, who walks around the house and talks to himself, but like all slightly crazy people, he’s very clever.
You mentioned a couple of times that you had some very strong ideas about how you wanted to play the character. When you read the script for the first time, what were some of the things that jumped out at you about the part?
There were a few little details in the script that jarred. Americans have a tendency to overwrite British stuff. They tend to make it too formal. If I was writing a Western film, I would probably make the same mistakes. So I said to the director, “Do you think we could get around this?” And then the writers’ strike came and I didn’t want to mess [with the script], which was unfortunate, so when we started filming, we just re-adjusted a few things to it and it loosened up. And it was so completely cold and undercutting, so that’s the way we did it. I just had to find something to latch onto for performance, and then ideas come from that.
Do you find hooks that help to center you in the character?
Yes, when I found the photograph of Samuel Beckett, actually several photographs. And some paintings. I’m not obsessed with them, but I send them off to the director and he responds, “Yes. I think it’s a good idea.”
I found another photograph of a lord with a beard, and he said, “Can you grow a beard?” And I said, “OK.” And I found another photograph taken in the 1860s of some Polish baron – a standard photograph – with a beard like this and a jacket like this, a very stern man, and he has a scarf and is kind of scruffy.
How do you like living with a beard?
Now, that’s an interesting question. But yes, it helps. They wanted me to shave it off, because the policy is to not allow facial hair, which seems a bit crazy to me to do a film set in 19th Century England about the Wolfman and the studio wants to do it with no hair [laughs]. So I said, “It stays or I go.” It got to that point, and I said, “Come on.” And it worked out.
They had all kinds of fancy boots for me, so I said, “I want more common boots.” So I got these. It makes me feel right, and it gives some weight to the character. He wanders around in this big home but he looks like a farmer. He probably is a farmer. There’s some sheep and cows around, and he goes hunting. You’ve been on set, right? Well you’ve seen all of the trophies on the wall. He’s a bit like a Jack London character. He’s an adventurer.
Where do you stand on the subject of makeup, because you’ve managed to avoid an awful lot of it for most of your career. Doing “The Wolfman,” do you have to go through any significant changes, or is what we see now what we get?
What you see now is what you get [laughs]. Now, makeup depends on what sort of actor you are. It’s not to say actors who do are not very good at what they do, I’ve just been cursed or blessed with not having to, on some level, go through a certain kind of transformation.
I guess what I was alluding to was that, somewhere back in the early days [of this production], you had a fair number of makeup tests. So does that suggest that there may be something more in store for you?
Ah, that’s a secret.
How would you describe the general tone for this movie? Is it a horrifying movie, or is it more an atmospheric piece?
It’s a bit of both. It’s an R-rating. There is some brutal stuff that happens when Benicio is on screen, but it’s atmospheric, too. Joe Johnston is a remarkable director. He’s very quiet. He’s such a decent man. But he won an Oscar for “Jurassic Park III” for art direction, so he knows his stuff. He doesn’t make a fuss. Two takes, that’s all. Very easy to work with. Best director I’ve worked with in a long time – like Spielberg.
And while he is from that same Spielbergian school of thought, “The Wolfman” isn’t a typical summer blockbuster.
But he did “Hidalgo.” Did you see that? It’s almost like a comic book like, “Raiders of the Last Ark.”
And “The Rocketeer.”
He did that? Yeah, that was fantastic. He sets up the shots in a way that make it look interesting – there’s a lot of smoke.
Can you tell us a bit of your character’s relationship with his son? Because in the original film, it’s kind of the prodigal son returning.
Well, that’s mentioned in the script. He comes back. There’s a secret there too that I’m not supposed to tell you.
But there is a history between them in the past?
Yes. I committed my son to an asylum because of something that he’d seen years ago. It’s a pretty desolate relationship. In the beginning, when he comes back to his home, it’s not his home. And in the first meeting, I say, “Lo and behold, the prodigal son returns.” And he just nods and I go right up to his face. And he says, “What?” And I say, “I’ve often wondered what you look like.” And he starts to walk away but he turns back and says, “I was going to call you to come down to London to see the plays.” And I say,” “That’s a fine idea. Oh, you’ve come about your brother? Unfortunately, your brother’s body was found in the ditch on the priory road. Do you have something to wear to the funeral?” [My character] has no feelings at all.
And later, there is a scene where [Benicio] says, “Why did mother die? Is it something you did to her?” And I say, “What do you think of me?” And he says, “You haven’t answered my question.” So I say, “She was a beautiful, regal mum. I loved her, dearly. She never once gave me cause to raise my voice to her, let alone my hand. But she struggled with life, as we all do. And she lost. Does that answer your question?” Like there is no emotion there at all. He’s just dead. So that is kind of chilling.
Editor’s Note: Hopkins was cast as Odin in Kenneth Branagh’s forthcoming “Thor” after the set visit so the role is not discussed in this conversation.