Anthony Hopkins Plays 'The Father' With Dementia: 'We Don't Know What's Coming' At 83, Hopkins says he knew exactly how to play his role in the film The Father. "I just had a sense of it," he says. The film was directed by Florian Zeller, whose grandmother had dementia.

'We Don't Know What's Coming': Anthony Hopkins Plays 'The Father' With Dementia

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Anthony Hopkins, one of the most acclaimed living actors, plays a man on screen who is fading toward death. The film is called "The Father," and it begins in a sunlit apartment where his daughter gives bad news to the title character, Anthony. She says she's moving out of town.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FATHER")

ANTHONY HOPKINS: (As Anthony) So if I understand correctly, you're leaving me. Is that it? You're abandoning me.

OLIVIA COLMAN: (As Anne) Dad.

HOPKINS: (As Anthony) What's going to become of me?

INSKEEP: "The Father" unfolds from the perspective of a man suffering from dementia. He's confused about what's happening and even which person is his daughter. And the viewer can be as disoriented as Anthony is. The writer and director, Florian Zeller, based this movie on a play he'd written, and he based the play, in part, on his personal experience.

FLORIAN ZELLER: I've been raised by my grandmother. And she was like my mother in a way. She was very important in my life. And she started to suffer from dementia when I was 15. So I knew a bit what it was to go through this kind of painful process, you know, and to - suddenly to be impotent. You know, you can love someone, and you discover that love is not enough. And I wanted to share those emotions.

INSKEEP: You decided to tell this largely from the perspective of the man with dementia. And I was thinking about that challenge because my father had dementia at the end of his life and lost his language progressively. He couldn't tell me what was going on from his perspective. Given that reality, how did you know if you got it right?

ZELLER: I didn't, you know? It was just trying to go through my personal experience and my personal emotions and what it could mean, you know, to lose your bearings. You know, there are so many films about dementia. And they could be very moving films. But, you know, you know where you are.

In that film, I wanted that journey to be more uncertain, more complex. For example, the film starts as if it was like a thriller in a way. And we go through that labyrinth, you know, without being absolutely aware of where we are going. I said that the film was like a puzzle. But a piece is always missing in that puzzle, you know. And it was a way for me to play with that feeling of disorientation because I wanted "The Father" to be not only a story but also like an experience of what it could mean to lose everything, including your own identity.

INSKEEP: We spoke with Florian Zeller, along with Anthony Hopkins, who is 83. He's shown on screen as utterly vulnerable, far from his famous role as a killer in "Silence Of The Lambs." His daughter Anne is played by Olivia Colman, except when a different actor appears.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FATHER")

OLIVIA WILLIAMS: (As The Woman) Is something wrong?

HOPKINS: (As Anthony) What is this nonsense?

WILLIAMS: (As The Woman) What are you talking about?

HOPKINS: (As Anthony) Where's Anne?

WILLIAMS: (As The Woman) Sorry?

HOPKINS: (As Anthony) Anne - where is she?

WILLIAMS: (As The Woman) I'm here. I just went down to do some shopping, and I'm back now.

HOPKINS: (As Anthony) Oh, I see.

INSKEEP: Anthony Hopkins, I want to ask you, what did you think at the beginning of the idea of playing a man with dementia who is named Anthony?

HOPKINS: Oh, well, that was a novelty, you know, to play a man with my own name. But my initial reaction when I read the script was an immediate yes, the same reaction I had to "Silence Of The Lambs." It was one of those scripts that I've just thought, I'm so lucky to be offered this - phoned my agent immediately. I said, yes, I would love to do it. And so here we are.

And my reaction to it all from the word go was one of confidence and a sense of I knew how to do it because I'm that old now. I'm 83. And I just had a sense of it. It was easy to play.

INSKEEP: The emotional changes that seem necessary for this part are extraordinary. He's absolutely sure of himself, and then he's not. One moment he's dancing and joyous, and a moment later, he's enraged. He has to change on a dime. You as an actor have to change on a dime to portray that.

HOPKINS: Oh, it's easy, the cunning of this man. It's a cunning. And I think when somebody who is so desperate to hold on - when he says to the doctor, for example - she says, what's your date of birth? I say, Friday, the 31 of December 1937, as if to say, got you. There's nothing wrong with me. I can remember everything clearly. When I come in, I'm in control. Hello. Aren't you gorgeous? Got you there, didn't I? You can't fool me. None of you can fool me. And I don't want anyone. I don't need anyone looking after me. So why don't you all [expletive] off?

(LAUGHTER)

ZELLER: Yeah, I think that's very moving, you know, to see the pride, to try to hide the fact that he is lost. And this is where I really wanted the film to lead to, to these pure and brutal emotions.

INSKEEP: When you begin a story of dementia, we know how it's going to end. We have a pretty good idea. It's how it ends for all of us, ultimately. Did you relate yourself to the character played by Olivia Colman, the daughter who is struggling to find the best way to care for her father?

ZELLER: Yes. What I wanted is the audience to be able to relate - to feel related to her. And I think it's easier with someone like Olivia Colman because, you know, she has something magic. As soon as you see her, you love her, and, you know, you feel empathy with her. And it's a painful situation because there is no absolute answer.

You know, what do you do when the people you love start to lose their bearings, you know? Are you allowed to live your own life, or is it the moment to take painful decisions, such as going into an institution? And there is no clear answers, you know, because I think art, and especially cinema, is not a place for answers. It's just a place for questions.

HOPKINS: Well, this - just to add to what Florian - there's one moment after Olivia leaves the hospital to say - she says goodbye. She gets into the taxi, and she's got to face her life now. And she's going to face the inevitability of her own demise and her own mortality.

And there's something really heartbreaking about that because I remember standing at my father's bedside after he died. And I looked at myself, really, as I was standing there. My mother was with him - with his body. And I stood there and I remember thinking to myself, yeah, you're not so hot either because one day it'll happen to you.

This is life. And (laughter) it is when death presents itself to you in those moments, whomp. We have no control. And we don't know what's coming. We have no means of predicting anything. And there's a great freedom in that, in realizing that we are inadequate, really. And so for me to play this part of it, it was easy and in a way, yes, life changing. It's made me think even deeper.

INSKEEP: Anthony Hopkins and Florian Zeller, thanks to you both.

ZELLER: Thank you so much.

HOPKINS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDOVICO EINAUDI'S "A SENSE OF SYMMETRY")

INSKEEP: Their film is called "The Father."

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