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The Silence Of The Lambs star Sir Anthony Hopkins is that rarest of beasts - an actor that also composes music. “My whole life I have felt like an outsider,” he says, and it’s true to say that Hopkins – actor, writer, director, composer – is, in almost every sense, exceptional.
The select group of film actors who have also been able to turn their hand successfully to directing is very small (they include Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen and Orson Welles). But it’s even less common for an actor/director to also compose the musical soundtrack – that requires a degree of creative versatility that eludes all but a handful of filmmakers.
Charlie Chaplin is probably the most famous member of this rarefied group, but some doubt remains over how much he truly contributed to the finished scores that were credited to him. Hopkins, on the other hand, is a composer to his core and that makes him a unique figure in Hollywood. The CBSO’s enterprising Soundtrack To Your Summer festival features five concerts of film music, including works by Hopkins. Tommy Pearson, whose brainchild the festival is, is evangelical about the importance of film music in our lives.
“People love to come and hear film music in concert. It’s enjoying a fascinating renaissance. I always try to present something new in film music concerts. The funny thing is that if you try to present a musical premiere in a normal classical concert a lot of people are likely to be put off, but with film music it isn’t like that at all. The audience wants to hear music from movies that are still current.”
It still comes as a surprise to most people that Hopkins’s first passion wasn’t acting at all, but music.
“My interest in music started when I was four years old. My parents bought me a piano and I had a piano instructor. By the time I was 10 I was playing Beethoven and Chopin. I used to play Beethoven over and over to the point that my father asked me to stop. Once he asked me, ‘What are you playing?’ And when I responded ‘Beethoven’ my father said, ‘No wonder he went bloody deaf!’”
A straight-talker with an irreverent sense of humour, Hopkins inherited much from his father. And now he can pick and choose his film projects and contribute creatively in whatever way he wishes, whether it be as an actor, director, writer or composer. For his film Slipstream (2007) he did everything.
But I’m interested to find out what he has made of the experience of composing a new orchestral piece for these concerts. It is one thing to write music to accompany a film, but it is quite another to compose an abstract piece of music that is a world of its own. How does he approach this creative freedom?
“I experiment with different instruments and it all seems to have its own rhythm and outcomes.”
So how does the music come to him?
“Well, I conceive every piece of music in my head away from the piano. I hear the music in my head and slowly it starts developing and taking shape. Most of the music that I am now composing has been inside me for almost 45 years.”
Assisting Hopkins with details of orchestration is composer Stephen Barton (who wrote the music for the video game Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare) but the compositions are truly all his own work.
Hopkins has always been respectfully dismissive of any attempts to try to analyse what he does as an actor because he left acting theory behind shortly after leaving RADA (Katherine Hepburn advised him, “Don’t act. Read the lines. Just be”) and so what he does now is largely instinctive.
He is a man of immense creative and artistic urges – as evidenced by the relish with which he attacked his piano as a boy – but no particular interest in discussing the reasons for these urges. This isn’t uncommon among composers. When you are a composer you are often asked to explain your music and it frequently takes quite a feat of will to refrain from simply blurting out, “It’s all there in the music – just listen!” The urge to compose is, to a very great degree, inexplicable.
But, nonetheless, here we are. With a concert of his music by the CBSO fast approaching (a marvellous opportunity for a composer of any age) people are naturally interested in a little-known passion of this exceptionally well-known man.
So what sort of music can the audience expect to hear when the first notes blossom in Symphony Hall? What music does he love?
“I enjoy classical music. The great Russian composers (Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov), as well as British and American composers.”
And does he listen to pop music?
“As far as pop music is concerned, there is so much young talent in the mainstream music world that it’s difficult to say what I like most. I enjoy going to American Idol and seeing a 16-year-old-perform and be given an opportunity for success. Someone like Lady Gaga is an inspiration to these kids, not Beethoven.”
Hopkins now lives by the sea in Southern California, a very different climate from that of Port Talbot, where he grew up. Does life in California feed into his musical style or is his heart still in Wales?
“Wales is a recurring theme of mine for everything I do; painting, music, my dreams...” It will be fascinating to hear if there is a tangible Welsh influence on his musical style.
I wonder how he hopes his music will be received? He responds, inscrutably, “I don’t have any expectations”.
OK, but is he pleased with his music?
“It’s difficult for me to judge my own music. But I am extremely pleased with the process.”
He may be reluctant to talk about his music but there’s no denying that this is a deeply significant moment for Hopkins. It’s a concert that will bring his life full circle, back to his childhood bashing away at Beethoven on his piano, an outsider lost in a world of his own musical imagination. And we will be lucky enough to witness it.
HITS AND MISSES OF CINEMA’S GREATEST POLYMATHS
HIT: MODERN TIMES
Charlie Chaplin (actor/writer/director/composer)
Chaplin was still making ‘silent’ films as late as 1936 – this is one of his masterpieces.
HIT: CITIZEN KANE
Orson Welles (actor/writer/director)
Often topping "best film" lists and Welles was just 25!
HIT: MILLION DOLLAR BABY
Clint Eastwood (actor/director/composer)
Eastwood’s boxing drama scooped four Oscars in 2005.
MISS: HOLLYWOOD ENDING
Woody Allen (actor/writer/director)
Allen is one of cinema’s great auteurs but this isn’t his finest film - try Annie Hall.