"Richard Nixon" seemed to be on his way to another embarrassing, early exit from the spotlight.
Not the 37th president of the United States, but the man who plays him in Oliver Stone's biographical saga Nixon, which opens today in selected theaters nationwide.
Early in rehearsals for the film, Academy Award winning actor Anthony Hopkins couldn't get comfortable with the role he now considers his favorite. Submerging his Welsh accent for Nixon's singular voice wasn't working, as some braver co-stars like Paul Sorvino informed him. A half-dozen screen tests with prosthetic makeup to aid the resemblance failed ("I looked like Pinocchio," he recalled).
Hopkins felt so frustrated that he informed Oliver Stone that he was leaving the production.
"I was just concerned for Oliver Stone, that I wouldn't mess up his film," Hopkins said during a recent interview in Manhattan. "There were days when I thought this is terrible, I can't do it. Everyone seemed to be giving me support; the only person who didn't have faith in me was me."
Stone wouldn't allow that.
"He said: "C'mon, you're doing fine,' " Hopkins recalled. " "You can do this role standing on your head.' Oliver told me he knows I've got courage because he had seen it in me before. Plug right into the courage, and fear will get you to do your best."
Hopkins was convinced. The result is one of the most magnificent performances of the year, one that should nab Hopkins' third Oscar nomination in the last five years. He reaches beyond mere impersonation of Nixon's familiar physical tics to create a complex and surprisingly moving psychological profile of a powerful man at odds with himself. The depths of the role harken back to Hopkins' roots in Shakespearean theater _ mostly Nixon as King Lear. But the 58-year-old actor said the Bard's method didn't occur to him during filming.
"You can't play a part, thinking of things like that," he said. "The part is written in a big style, anyway; a lot of fury and energy. All I had to do was act what the dialogue was telling me to act. The rage, the viciousness, the frustrations, the sadness.
"But Oliver's a big, gutsy director who makes big movies. All I had to do was go along for the ride. I love Oliver because he's mad, insane, excessive in every way. He's the bogeyman of the business. This film is too long, yet it works. And there's nothing subtle about it. It was the best collaboration I've ever been involved with."
Stone urged Hopkins to forget the mannerisms he used in such films as The Remains of the Day and The Silence of the Lambs and instead focus on the internal motivations of Richard Nixon.
"At one point, Tony told me that I took away his normal props," Stone commented. "In a sense, when you hit your late 50s, you do get into a bag of tricks; patterns and habits that get atrophied a bit. Not Tony. He's amazing, because he's still seeking ways to express himself. He actually becomes Nixon in the true tradition of the character actor. Some osmosis happens where he breathes Nixon into himself."
Hopkins welcomed Stone's suggestions, since he's getting a bit tired of playing those repressed roles that cemented his reputation as an actor's actor.
"Everyone has written that I'm some kind of minimalist," he said. "My whole career has been based on hardly moving a muscle. It's boring, but I've had a good career doing it. But I want to move on, do stuff that's bigger."
Hopkins' head was partly shaved, and his body 30 pounds lighter, for his next role as yet another historical figure, artist Pablo Picasso. The project is being filmed in Paris, co-starring newcomer Natasha MacElhoy.
"She's 23 and gorgeous, like Audrey Hepburn," Hopkins said. "It's her first movie, and I'm trying to be a corrupting influence on her.
"I keep saying to her, don't go back to the theater. Stay in movies. Become a big star. And don't forget the fear."
Oliver Stone's political biography Nixon opens today at Old Hyde Park 7 and Northdale Court in Tampa, Regency 20 in Brandon, Crossroads 8 in St. Petersburg and Movies at Clearwater. A wider release is planned on Jan. 5. Times film critic Steve Persall gives Nixon a grade of "A" and calls it one of the best films of 1995. Read that review, an interview with Stone and comments from cast members on the characters they play in Friday's Weekend section.