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