An actor damned by his creation

Theatre can be a great restorer, the baptismal river where your sins are washed off
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ANTHONY HOPKINS, who last week covered the tabloids with statements that acting was driving him to a nervous breakdown and that he was giving it up to preserve his sanity, is a highly gifted film and stage actor, particularly in film where he famously demonstrates a rare talent for analysis of character. He peels back the skin of his roles, not unlike Hannibal Lecter, and pours himself inside them. He cannot, as many players do, stand outside and kick their character around and be unaffected. No matter how successful Silence of the Lambs was, how clever his creation, it is possible that he may feel sullied and even damned by it.

If in my modest career I have been frequently singled out for a particular performance in some old Hollywood caper, how much more must Hopkins's ears be assaulted by fans who have now relegated the man's entire career to a sicko-movie freak. Eventually you become who the public think you are, unless you are bolstered by a vital and supportive social structure, or have alternative means of re-identifying yourself, by taking up the reins of production and selecting your own material. By his own admission Hopkins is a loner, preferring his own company, which is the prerogative of many hyper-creative and raw artists, but then he has no wedge of human flesh as a protective wall between him and the world.

Acting per se does not make you mad, necessarily, unless you feel that you have vitiated your power or corrupted your talents. Hopkins certainly hasn't done this to anything like the extent of his saner inferiors who wallow from junk to junk seemingly unaffected. However, these actors are not burdened with Hopkins's finer perceptions. Madness is directly linked to forcing a highly developed ego to swallow garbage. The more delicate the system, the more aggressive the sickness.

Monroe started to lose herself, as did Montgomery Clift, and a dozen more who were force-fed with the mulch that their talents had grown out of and were not strong enough to withstand. The actor is unique in a sense that the material used is his own body and soul. This makes him extraordinarily vulnerable. However, vulnerability can illuminate a character that the actor believes in and feels pride in serving. Conversely, humiliation can send an actor into a wobbly, where the shame can only be anaesthetised by alcohol injection.

Madness for actors is par for the course. However, most great actors are extremely sane. They may suffer from hyper-awareness, having stretched their radar systems, since after a while, the scanner cannot be easily switched off. Obsessions, compulsions and perfectionism become a few of the many psychic disturbances that we are prone to. Some of us have managed to balance an acting life with writing or directing, thus the child becomes a parent, able to create for others.

While theatre can be stress-making, a great and demanding role can be liberating and purging - an opportunity to vent all shades of emotion, including those of madness in the service of the character. This has a purgative effect. Since theatre usually deals with language in a heightened form, the roles you are playing are likely to enhance rather than deflate or humiliate.

You cannot feel shame playing Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth or Chekov. You might feel pride, be heartened, even ennobled and believe yourself to be an emissary of literature, a communicator or a teacher. An intelligent audience confirms you as their guide - their Prometheus carrying the fire of inspiration. A bunch of spotty popcorn eaters slurping Pepsi and watching Silence of the Lambs is not likely to do that, but [Hopkins's role in] Remains of the Day was a perfect performance any actor would have been proud of for years.

Nevertheless, without wishing to bang the luvvie drum, theatre for an actor can be a great restorer, the baptismal river where your sins are washed off. That's why many a movie actor who was stage-trained likes to return to the font as a means of recovering their ego. There an actor's skill, sensitivity and power is tested to the limit and thus the personality re-identifies itself. Madness is a form of alienation from the soul.

And if I'm not mistaken, it was the theatre that helped restore Hopkins's career when he returned after years of Hollywood drift. At 60, Sir Anthony appears to be an actor in peak condition - maybe the answer is to have an occasional theatrical restorative. Olivier was still playing Othello at 60 and then Edgar in Dance of Death - a very suitable role for Hopkins. One of the good things about theatre is that it gives you a little time to dwell on your madness, but a great opportunity to use it.