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"I DID HAVE a funny hunch about this one," says Anthony Hopkins about the role that is quite likely to become the role of his career thus far, in Jonathan Demme's "The Silence of the Lambs."

"I sensed that it was going to be a good film. I sensed that it was going to be a really powerful film and probably successful. . . . It's the showiest part I've ever played, the most spectacular."

Hopkins is one of the great actors in English-speaking film. The trouble is that his greatest roles are either apt to come in marvelous, little-seen films ("The Good Father," for instance, in which he gave one of the great performances of the '80s, and "84 Charing Cross Road") or in films that are otherwise critically drubbed ("Magic" in 1978, for instance, which was something of a Waterloo for all concerned).

In "The Silence of the Lambs," Hopkins plays Dr. Hannibal Lecter, an evil genius of serial murder and one of the great creations of recent American pulp fiction. He is absolutely equal to a part other actors might kill for. (Hopkins liked the "exaggerated sanity" of the part, the "probing intellectuality of the man. . . . He's so sane that
he's nuts.")

Hopkins speaks, in his early 50s, as a man who has been drubbed a time or two himself and has come to understand a few things.

The unmistakable sounds of lunch were heard from his end of the line while this telephone conversation took place. Anthony Hopkins is nothing if not unpretentious about his profession and almost everything else.

"Years ago I used to take everything very seriously. I used to like subtexts and everything. Everything was so laborious. Finally I decided you just have to learn your lines. Olivier taught me that. He said, 'Learn your lines, and just relax and act.' Ha! So that's what I do."

With Mike Newell, the man who directed "The Good Father" (in which Hopkins is magnificent as a tormented divorced man), "I used to come on the set. He'd say, 'Let's talk.' I'd say, 'What about?' 'How do you feel?' I'd say: 'Feel about what? I'm just going to have a coffee.' 'How do you feel about the part?' 'I don't know, I haven't thought about it.' It was my defensive way of knocking him off balance. I didn't want to be talking about a part. You've got to get up and do it. I come from that school of acting. I turn it on and turn it off and then go get a cup of coffee."

Nevertheless, he regards Newell as a very fine director and says that if he were to push any of his films on his 22-year-old daughter, Abigail (who is currently studying acting in New York), "The Good Father" would be one of them.

He never "takes a part home" with him, he says, because "it's a skill I've developed. Maybe it's just because I'm a cheap actor."

About the singular gallery of villains, melancholics and psychotics in his film list, he says: "I'm not very good at straight parts, for some reason. Whenever I play that 'Father Knows Best' quality, I always feel uncomfortable and lost. I like playing heroic, mean people. I don't like playing compassion and sentimentality. I hate sentimentality. I loathe it.

"When I was playing (the doctor) in 'The Elephant Man,' I could see the pitfalls of sentimentality. So David Lynch and I had an agreement. I said to him: 'I don't want to play this awful, caring, sharing person who's dewy-eyed all the time. I want to play a doctor who's hard and cold and professional and who feels compassion for the Elephant Man but maybe some days can't stand the sight of him.' "

Atypically for such a finely schooled actor, Hopkins says: "I like the theater, but I prefer films. I don't want to do 'classics.' I've done enough classics to last a few years. I know some actors love it, but it always smacks of going back to school for me. Whenever I do Shakespeare and Chekhov and all that stuff, I think, 'Jesus, I've gone back to school.' I was such a rebel in school that I'm not at ease in the theater."

Even though he moved to his native London from California in 1984, he doesn't like "long, languid British films," either.

"I get so bored with them. I don't know what the hell they're about. I lose track after about five minutes. As soon as I see long shots of country fields, I think, 'Oh, God, give me a break.' I'd rather watch 'Lethal Weapon' or 'Die Hard.' I've got very plebeian tastes. I'm afraid 'Room With a View' doesn't hold my attention very long. I turn the channel.

"I have to be diplomatic here. I mean, people say 'David Lean epics' and everything, and I always think, 'They're very nice, but more sand dunes.' (Laughs) I have a very short attention span. I like action films. Or intellectually stretching films; I like Woody Allen. At least he's funny. He makes us laugh at the foibles of human nature, and I like that. I'd love to be in one of his films, because I think he's a genius."

Even for those several years he lived in Hollywood, "I didn't have any grand illusions I was going to knock Robert De Niro off or anything like that. I'm a foreign actor. I was never really knocking at the door. I've always been working. I gave up knocking. I suppose I'm a bit cynical, but you're only as good as your last job, you know."

When one's last job was to play the definitive monster who makes "The Silence of the Lambs" so creepy, that makes one very, very good indeed.

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