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ANTHONY HOPKINS GETS PHYSICAL, HAPPILY, IN 'THE EDGE'

"Eunuchs," Sir Anthony Hopkins calls critics. You'd think, then, that under the circumstances, a table of film journalists at the Toronto Film Festival -- a few of them critics -- would take offense.

Nah.

He was talking about theater critics, listing them as one of the reasons he doesn't like the theater.

Besides, Sir Anthony doesn't act like Sir Anthony. But then, Brit actors are renowned for their working-class thespian ethic, which, unlike pampered (and airheaded) American types, treats their profession like septic tank maintenance as much as it does one of the greatest of performing arts.

Hopkins acts like a Tony, a cheery but slightly pugnacious guy you'd be having a pint with in a pub. The things he says sound more like the kind of confidences he'd share with some mates while having a game of darts than publicity-ese or fanzine puff and stuff.

To be sure, there is Welsh music in his voice that only silence -- or a Saturn rocket launch -- could drown out. It's an actor's music, born to deliver words trippingly on the tongue. That music is the reason he was, once upon a time, thought of as the next Richard Burton.

Well, he made it -- and then some. He never married a Liz Taylor but he has out-Burtoned Burton to a fare-thee-well.

Burton drank himself into professional purgatory and the oblivion beyond. And then he died, never knighted, never Oscared.

Hopkins has been both. And he isn't even 60 yet.

And now he's an action movie star. His next movie role is Zorro. Yes, Zorro. (He co-stars with Antonio Banderas.)

And Lee Tamahori's exceptional adventure movie "The Edge" -- starring Hopkins and Alec Baldwin in a David Mamet man-vs.-the-wilderness tale -- opened Friday in area theaters.

"The Edge," he says, is only the second of his films that he has seen more than once. The first was "The Silence of the Lambs."

"I think this is one of the best films I've been in in a long time," he says.

Physical stuff was required in "The Edge," painful physical stuff.

"It wasn't a severe pain," he says. "It was just a drag. It would be like a tingling down your back. Then it would grab you and pull. When I was hanging off that log, that was one of the worst things. I was so numb I didn't realize I was hanging over a 90-foot waterfall. . . . Crossing that log was a tough one. That was hell, because it was very slippery."

So, too, was it tough when Bart -- the bear who is (even Sir Tony would admit) the real star of the film -- "was shaking the log" he was standing on.

Yes, of course, he was connected to guy wires in case of trouble. (It's considered bad form to pitch major actors into gorges, never to be seen or heard from again.) But it was still a resolute non-swimmer hanging over a waterfall.

He did some underwater scenes, too -- in a 15-foot tank in Edmonton, Alberta.

Of course, everything is arranged so that thousand-pound bears are not really menacing Oscar-winning actors, but still, he got close enough to the bear "to feel the heat of his mouth and smell the garlic from the pasta he used to eat. As his reward, you see, they'd give him pasta and a chicken -- a whole chicken."

Hopkins is not a fellow of woolly resolve or cloudy character. If, for instance, he ever encountered in life one of David Mamet's imperative territorials, ready to poach on his wife or land or whatever, "I'd want the son of a bitch dead. I'm not a very good Christian. I'm a revenge person. I'm not very benevolent."

But "I've sworn vendettas against people, and life is too short. What's the point? Younger people have hate and resentment, but when you get older you find that it burns the house down and kills you."

Among other reasons he likes talking to the press about "The Edge," he says, is that he likes the director, New Zealander Lee Tamahori, "a wiry little Maori. He's tough and strong and very courageous. That's what makes a good director. Sometimes that craziness works. It worked with Oliver Stone (who directed him in 'Nixon'). It worked to make that film really exciting. Sure, some people are nuts, but you can go along with it and have some fun with a guy like that. Most directors I know are a little wacko. You have to be a little strange to want to do that.

"I wish I'd been in better physical shape for this film. I'd probably have enjoyed it more."

To hear Hopkins talk for a while is to have a crash course in how glamorous movies aren't.

His first film role was in "The Lion in Winter." What he learned about movie acting from Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole, he says, is, "Don't act."

That's it.

"It's a factory. . . . There's no mystery to it. You learn your lines. You come in in the morning, you have a coffee, go into makeup, get a change (of clothes), you go on the set and do your job. That's all it is. That's what I like about doing it. The ordinariness."

The excesses of prima donnas don't sit well with him.

"Sometimes actors are bad people. Sometimes actors are a pain in the a--. There are all sorts of actors. But it's a job. I don't want to make myself sound virtuous. I've been around a long time, though. I'm always a little puzzled when people treat members of the crew like their servants. Maybe they have to do that for a reason, I don't know. Common sense, though, should tell them -- or the director who starts screaming at the crew -- logic should say, 'If the camera crew left you this morning, you wouldn't be able to make a movie.' "

He once even told a nameless actor not to act that way.

The upshot?

"I was told to get lost," he says, with the ring of truth. (A self-mythifier would have had a better story.)

"It was a long time ago. I told him: 'If you do that again, I'll floor you. We're only making a dumb, stupid movie. Two bags of popcorn. Nobody should be treated like that. It's a movie, not brain surgery. We're not rocket scientists.' "

And when a huge serious project like "Nixon" flops so resoundingly at the box office?

"It's the luck of the draw. . . . I don't take much notice of that. It's better than working for a living, I say. Working in the theater, though, is hell. I don't like working in the theater, because when the critics rip you apart," the work goes for naught.

When "Nixon" flopped, Hopkins said, "I gave him those words of comfort that are useless. I said: 'Oliver, it's a great movie. Screw 'em.' He comes on like gangbusters that he's tough, but he's a very sensitive guy. Like all of us, he wants success. I thought 'Nixon' was a great movie and I'd like to work with him again. I don't know if we ever will.

"That happens a lot. Look at David Lean. That film 'Ryan's Daughter.' Critics ripped it to pieces and he stopped working for 20 years. Now, that's crazy. Why give up working because critics catch you up? The thing is, I don't read critics."

Too bad. If he did (and if you were to bet on it, it would be a good bet that he does), he'd be pleased at a lot of what greeted his entry into '90s action filmmaking in "The Edge."

It was worth all the rigorous location work.

Even for a man who learned, years ago, exactly how cosmopolitan he was.

"I went to Tahiti many years ago when I was making 'Mutiny on the Bounty.' It looked wonderful from the airplane when you're flying over these big mountains and beaches. The beaches, though, are black volcanic ash. And it turns out after five days, you're eaten alive by mosquitoes and you find out that you could step on a stone creature and it could be poisonous. You get scabies in your skin. After a week, you think: 'Get me out of here. I'll go back to corrupt America.'

"It's much easier."

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