NEW YORK –An awed hush descends as Sir Anthony Hopkins enters the room, quickly darting to his seat like a man eager to get a job finished as quickly as possible. He sits down agitatedly and fiddles with the microphone before him. When he speaks, that unmistakable baritone stops the gathered crowd and holds everyone transfixed. And all he’s asked for is a glass of water.

Sir Anthony Hopkins broods before the cameras at a recent Tokyo press conference.

Hopkins’ presence is so huge it could stop a train, and at this press conference, held after “Hannibal’s” New York release last year, it is matched with a brooding, almost angry disposition that emanates from his broad yet squat frame. It’s obvious he’s not comfortable, and for a man who is here to talk about his resurrection of the role of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Hollywood’s most infamous serial killer, he is giving off some very, very malevolent vibes.

How does he approach the part? “I didn’t have to do much, just read the lines, just act. It isn’t difficult,” is his withering response.

But when he is asked what frightens him, his answer is razor-sharp and expected to hurt. “Mediocrity,” he says with a sly grin.

It’s a stellar demonstration of how to play a twisted old man from an actor who has spent much of his career playing twisted old men.

sk Hopkins can rightly be called an actor’s actor. The Welsh-born classically trained thespian carries with him the baton passed through the ages by the likes of Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielguid and his fellow countryman, Richard Burton. But don’t expect him to elevate his profession to anything more than “a job.”

“I come from a very meat-and-potatoes background,” he said, clashing his native Welsh vowels with the slight American twang he has picked up since living in Los Angeles. “I couldn’t stand actors with all their airy graces, you know. So I got out of all that. I am a beach bum by heart.

“We are paid to do a job,” he adds, then smirks, “It’s only a movie. It’s not brain surgery.”

The irony of the statement is deliberate. Director Ridley Scott has included in “Hannibal” one particularly bloodthirsty scene that leaves audiences in no doubt about what the inside of a head looks like.

“Hannibal” finds Lecter 10 years after escaping from a mental asylum, living a graceful, gentlemanly life among the cultural riches of Florence. We become intimately acquainted with him, and at one point Scott mines our sympathy for the monster.

Under Scott’s guidance, Hopkins layers the suspense scene by scene over 130 minutes, playing the part as flat as a pancake, giving his character a greater unpredictability. Hopkins was as responsible for crafting Lecter as the novel’s writer, Thomas Harris. He provided the ticks and idiosyncrasies that made Lecter an Oscar-spawning role. And it was Hopkins who added the latest twisted weapon to Lecter’s arsenal of scare tactics: baby talk.

“Okey-dokey and goody-goody . . . just something I put in on the spur of the moment,” he says. “I know the audiences like that kind of childlike talk because it makes him seem more scary.”

In 10 years, much has changed in Lecter, and for Hopkins that meant rediscovering a character he loved playing first time around. “It’s comical because he is a strange character, he is a funny man,” Hopkins says, brightening. “He is also terrifying. Somebody said he is the deliverer of justice, but I’m not sure if that’s true. He only kills the bad guys, however.”

He is reluctant to dissect the character of Lecter beyond a simplistic explanation of why the audience likes him. He is, however, happy to concede that Lecter is a study in evil and that it is the devil in the doctor that audiences truly respond to.

“The most interesting part in Shakespeare is Iago because of the way he just takes everyone apart in three hours on stage, because he is the devil. And we admire him in a secret perverse way because, perhaps, we would like to be as daredevil as that.”

Hopkins believes that true horror lies in the minds of men and women and that the most frightening thing about Lecter is that we can all relate, in some way, to him.

“It’s like watching the film ‘Psycho,’ or watching ‘Jaws,’ or going on a roller coaster, or watching Evel Knievel going over the Grand Canyon on a motorbike. I mean, why do we watch it? Because we want to see him fall. We want to see Houdini not get out of the box. That doesn’t mean that we are disturbed, sick people. It just means that we are human.”

“We are human beings. We are all flawed, deeply damaged, imperfect human beings. And we can sit here squeezing each others knees, pretending we are purists, and that we are free and innocent. Bulls**t. None of us are free of that. We are corruptible, shabby, grubby, great, magnificent and all the rest of it.

“We are a mixture, that’s why we go to see these films. That’s why we like to be entertained. That’s why we like to see the bad guy get his desserts. We like to see dirty Harry say, ‘Make my day.’ That’s why we pay our 10 bucks to go to the movies. Because we want to see them get justice. It’s in us, it’s in us. It doesn’t mean to say we’re bad, it’s just that we’re human. And when we start getting holier than thou about all this then we have to really look at ourselves, because he who throws the first stone . . .”

His only real moment of animation gone, Hopkins stands and leaves without warning, stopping to shake hands with the multitude of people hovering nearby.

Again, the room almost freezes in reverence at his presence. At one point on his way from the room he stops and looks over his shoulder toward his questioners. For a moment we expect a malevolent gaze or a knowing, evil grin.

Instead, he throws a look of bored, tired resignation and exits the room.

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