'King Lear' EP Talks Anthony Hopkins' Return to Theatrical Roots, Play's Resonance in Trump Era

Ed Miller/Amazon
Anthony Hopkins has won two Emmys, for his leading performances in 'The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case' (1976) and 'The Bunker' (1981).

The BBC and Amazon Studios co-production of Shakespeare's cautionary tale of greed and power brought the actor back to the Bard after decades apart.

It had been more than three decades since Sir Anthony Hopkins last trod the stage in the kind of Shakespeare role that defined his fiery early theater career, and 20 years since tackling the Bard's Titus onscreen. But all it took was a brief scene shot onstage for another project entirely to stoke the actor's appetite again — and in turn launch Amazon Studios' sleek, propulsive, modernized take on the play, now Emmy-nominated as outstanding television movie.

Colin Callender was serving as executive producer of the 2015 film adaptation of The Dresser — starring Hopkins and directed by Richard Eyre — when Hopkins, in character as a Shakespearean actor, performed sequences from Lear onstage in a London theater as cameras rolled. "This was the first time that Anthony Hopkins walked onto a stage in a theater in something like 30 years," says Callender, who was seated in the audience next to the actor's wife — who'd not experienced his Shakespeare era — as Hopkins performed Lear's final, tragic scene in the play. "She turned to me and said, 'Oh, my goodness — he's in his element. I now understand. I understand what acting really is to him.' "

It wasn't long before Callender, Eyre and Hopkins cooked up a new collaboration: bringing a singular, stylized film version of King Lear to the screen in concert with Amazon and the BBC, with an eye toward streamlining the legendary colossus of a production. "Richard has directed the play onstage several times, and it's his favorite play," says Callender. "He had a very clear vision of how he wanted to bring it to a two-hour running time. In the process of doing that, I think what he did was excavate the emotional core of the play."

Eyre also provided a striking 21st-century visual template to Lear straight from the opening imagery, where the gleaming high-tech steel and glass spires and skyscrapers of contemporary after-dark London are juxtaposed against still-standing structures from antiquity like the Tower of London.

"You could be forgiven for thinking that the Tower of London was actually CGI'd into the big panning shot," chuckles Callender. "It embodies the very essence of what Richard Eyre was trying to explore, which was the counterpoint and the connection between the past and the present. Placing the Shakespearean language within these old buildings, albeit old buildings with a modern city, created a great environment in which to explore the story."

Having Hopkins at the center was a rich enticement when it came to casting, one that was only enhanced when his Howards End and Remains of the Day co-star Emma Thompson agreed to join the cast as Lear's daughter Goneril. "Once Emma said yes, I have to say, we had to fight off actors for the other roles," says Callender. "I mean, everybody wanted to be involved." The final lineup for the show (which debuted May 28, 2018, in the U.K. and four months later on Amazon Prime) was a murderer's row of U.K. acting talent, including Emily Watson, Florence Pugh, Jim Broadbent, Jim Carter and Tobias Menzies. "The read-through of the play, with all the actors in the room, was as exciting a moment as any I've experienced at a read-through."

As ever, when stripped to their most primal form, Shakespeare's themes continue to ring true centuries after he wrote them, and Lear has a particular resonance in today's Trump era. "One aspect of the play is the sudden, dizzying aphrodisiac of power and how that impacts people — the men who have power and how they behave. And I think that is as relevant today as ever," says Callender.

Deepening the political allegories are its depictions of tortured relationships between parents and their children and sibling rivalry. "It's a profoundly human piece," the producer says, "and it's interesting to look at families who have power and how they fight over that. That's what I think makes it so resonant."

Callender too finds the film "deeply, deeply moving," he says. "Anthony Hopkins is now 80 years old, which is the same age as the character in the play. His portrait of a father coming to terms with the end of his life and his family and his daughters, his relationships … [is] as moving and as powerful a portrait of this iconic role that one would ever see. For a man of his age, he embraced the role with extraordinary stamina and vigor."

Indeed, Hopkins may have been the only special effect the project needed. "He insisted that in the storm scene, which is of course one of the big, famous scenes in the play, he would actually play the storm scene at night in actual rain," says Callender. "For three nights, in the middle of nowhere in this derelict wasteland in the south of England, he was soaked through the skin playing out that big scene. It's not looped, it's not ADR — it's his dialogue. He was as engaged and excited and as invigorated, as an actor playing it in that way, as a man half his age. And it was inspiration for all the other actors around him."

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'THE TIME WAS RIGHT NOW'

The Hollywood Reporter Reveals how the clock and the calendar were crucial to the creation of these diverse telepics.

By Rebecca Ford

Bandersnatch: Two years in production

Netflix’s first foray into a choose-your-own-adventure narrative was two years in the making, and only made possible because of an in-house storytelling tool, called Branch Manager, that allowed Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker to bring his interactive story map to life. As a result, there are thousands of variations on the story. “We had to learn a new way of filmmaking, editorially and productionwise,” producer Annabel Jones told THR of the branching narrative. Brooker and Jones can’t even agree about how many endings the series has. “I don’t know how many endings there actually are — I think I’ve forgotten,” said Brooker. When Jones suggested to THR that there are five “definitive” ends, Brooker interrupted: “No. There are more than that.”

Brexit: Three years since the U.K. Brexit vote

The drama around Brexit continues to this day. So HBO’s TV movie chronicling the anarchic and controversial 2016 political campaign that saw Britain vote to the leave the European Union faced additional challenges and intense scrutiny because it was being made — and released — as the saga was still unfolding. “Coming from a playwright’s point of view, you always aspire to write something that will be relevant in 10, 20, 30 years,” said screenwriter James Graham. “But none of us could have predicted how chaotic the aftermath would be.” The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings, the Leave campaign’s largely unknown director. Added Graham: “Brexit will never be over … and we have to start [exploring its story] at some point.”

Deadwood: The Movie: 13 years since the series finale

Deadwood ran for three seasons on HBO, earning eight Emmy wins and a devoted audience. It ended on a disappointing note, however, canceled in 2006. Rumors about a wrap-up film have been circulating ever since. Nearly 13 years after the last episode of HBO’s series aired, Deadwood: The Movie made it to air. The feature, set 10 years after the end of the series, saw much of the cast (including Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane and John Hawkes) and creator David Milch returning. “For everybody involved in the show, it was a bit of an unfinished symphony,” EP Carolynn Strauss told THR. “I think the time was right now in a way that it hadn’t been right before. Just in terms of having the material to do it and being able to schedule everybody.”

My Dinner with Hervé: 26 years after Villechaize's death

French actor Hervé Villechaize spent his final days participating in a series of unusual interviews with then-journalist Sacha Gervasi for Britain’s Mail on Sunday magazine. In September 1993, the actor known for playing Nick Nack in the 1974 James Bond film The Man With the Golden Gun, and Tattoo on the TV series Fantasy Island, committed suicide. His story, and time with Gervasi, made it to HBO 26 years later. “I’d made this promise to Hervé to tell the story, so the first script I ever wrote was a short script, a 34-page screenplay. That script ultimately got me into UCLA film school in 1995,” said Gervasi. Even with Peter Dinklage attached, it took years to get the feature greenlit — when HBO came along to support it.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.