Hannibal the Cannibal is back again

Just recently, Sir Anthony Hopkins slipped unnoticed into a New York cinema to watch the audience react to his latest performance as Hannibal Lecter in «Red Dragon» (showing from today in Greece). «I was astounded by the audience’s response to it,» he says. «They were so involved, so completely lost in the film, which is great…» Quite how the audience would have behaved had they noticed the star himself, the man who has so memorably brought Lecter scarily to life in two previous films – «Silence of the Lambs,» for which he won an Oscar, and «Hannibal» – is another matter. «No, I’m not sure either,» he smiles. «It’s probably best I didn’t find out.» It should be noted here that Hopkins is an actor – a supremely gifted one at that – who does not fret or trouble himself too much with the critical or indeed commercial reaction to the films he has starred in. It’s not that he doesn’t care – indeed he does – it’s just that once a performance has been delivered, he concentrates on the next. And he would be the first to admit that it took some gentle persuasion on the part of friends, producer Dino De Laurentiis and his wife Martha, to convince him that he should reprise his role as one of cinema’s most vivid bad guys (according to a recent poll in the American magazine Entertainment Weekly, Lecter is the most «popular» villain in movie history). «I had a mild reticence about doing a third one,» he admits. «I never actually thought I would do a second one to be honest. But Dino is very persuasive. He said ‘Tony, we do Red Dragon…’ And I said, ‘But it’s been done…’ And Dino said, ‘Yes, but we do it again and make a great movie…’ And I’m certainly glad I did. I enjoyed the experience very much.» A darker take «Red Dragon» is the first of author Thomas Harris’s acclaimed novels to feature Lecter. An earlier version, «Manhunter,» was previously filmed by director Michael Mann and released in 1986 with British actor Brian Cox playing Lecter. «Manhunter» was also produced by De Laurentiis. «Red Dragon» the film is far more faithful to Harris’s book, says Hopkins, and far «darker» that Ridley Scott’s box office hit of 1999, «Hannibal.» «I wanted to play him with total malevolence and for people to see him as the monster he is,» says Hopkins. «Because that’s what he is, a monster.» With a script by Oscar-winning Ted Tally – who won the Academy Award for his work on «Silence of the Lambs» – we see how Lecter had first been caught by a young gifted investigator, FBI Agent Will Graham (played by Edward Norton), who nearly lost his life at the hands of Hannibal the Cannibal. We then switch to the present and another serial killer, nicknamed the Tooth Fairy by the press, is on the loose and preying on families seemingly at random. When his former boss, Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel), persuades Graham to come out of retirement to help snare the Tooth Fairy, the physically and psychologically scarred detective knows that his old nemesis could provide vital clues in the hunt for the killer and, reluctantly, goes to visit him at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane to ask for help. Graham faces a race against time because he knows that the Tooth Fairy will strike again, and soon. Oscar-nominated Ralph Fiennes portrays the tormented killer, Francis Dolarhyde, an emotionally damaged, partially disfigured loner who is obsessed with British artist and poet William Blake and, in particular, his work «The Auguries of Innocence,» and by the concept of «transformation» – in this case transforming himself into a Red Dragon. He even has a part of the work tattooed on his back. When a young, beautiful blind girl, Reba McClane (Emily Watson), becomes attracted to Dolarhyde, the killer wrestles with an internal battle of good and evil and Reba is quite literally dicing with death… Did making «Red Dragon» entice you to recall working on «Silence of the Lambs?» I knew «Silence of the Lambs» was going to be good. It was just such a good script, and Jonathan Demme is a wonderful director and Jodie Foster was superb to work with and all the rest of it, so I had a hunch it would be good. They were very excited by it and a lot of people wanted to do it, and the word of mouth, as they say over here, was strong on it. I don’t get caught up in all this buzz, but apparently it is on this one, too… How did you approach playing Lecter for the third time? I said to [director] Brett [Ratner] I wanted to play Lecter at the beginning, in his house and the scene with Ed Norton, without any sign of Lecter the killer at all. Just play him as the normal man who is cultured and well spoken and that’s all, no weird stuff at all. And he said OK. I said I thought it would make the audience feel… more tense. Working the role Much like in «Silence of the Lambs,» we see that Lecter is completely evil and would kill Graham given half the chance. He would rip Will to pieces. Brett was great with this because when I was working on the script, it was very easy to be seduced back into all those clever, cheap laughs. I’m very objective about it, but it’s difficult to resist that stuff… When Ed Norton’s character says, «You have one disadvantage, you are insane,» it would be very tempting to look insane. I’m glad [Brett stopped me] because in the big gymnasium scene when I’m on a leash, I said I would like to do something now and again to show that I am completely off my trolley. We did the scene that day and we stopped, and for some reason, God knows what, I suddenly came out with something. I said (does Lecter voice), «You know, I think we are really making porgies…» like Andy Griffiths or something. And we did it. Brett said, «Where did that come from?» And I said, «Well, it’s scary that he suddenly goes into another personality because this guy really isn’t playing with a full deck.» Does it feel good to have completed the trilogy? Yes, it does… and I think we have completed it now. Dino wants me to do more, he says (making a good impersonation of De Laurentiis), «We do franchise, like James Bond…» I said, «I think I’ve had enough.» It’s out of sequence, but I’m glad that we’ve rounded it off that way because it’s fun and the audiences have a great time with him. I’ve been asked many times… «Are you worried because the audience like him?» I’m not worried because I don’t think there’s any unhealthy obsession with him… people like being spooked. Why do we love to be scared in that way, do you think? …Because it touches something deep and primitive in us. Going into the cinema the other night I saw a little bit of the end [of «Red Dragon»], and it’s always fascinated me but I am very detached from it all. It is interesting, the psyche. I’ve often wondered about the nature of acting, you know, what it’s for and what is its purpose in society and all that stuff…. It’s amazing how we put ourselves in a box-room housing maybe 800 or 1,000 people and we all go into a state of hypnotic trance for those two hours. It’s like the old stage hypnotist and Ed Norton is attacking Ralph Fiennes and it’s a fight to the death and there’s an orchestra playing next door. It’s really extraordinary; really intelligent people, journalists, doctors, all kinds of people, will go and sit in the cinema and be scared to hell and accept that there is a musical orchestra at the back. It’s got no reality and yet for those moments, it releases something in us… These are extracts from an interview commissioned exclusively for the press by the local distributors of «Red Dragon,» United International Pictures.