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FILM / A short take on acting: In which Simon Garfield meets Sir Anthony Hokpins at a drop-in centre for actors with too little to do, and is advised, briefly, that the secret of acting lies in the maxim that less is more. More or less

I've never felt part of this profession, ever. Always an outcast. I've loathed some people in it.' Up on the podium, a barrel of grey flannel, Sir Anthony Hopkins is clearly the ideal man to open the new Actors Centre in Covent Garden. Last Saturday, just back from LA, Hopkins drew the doll's-house curtain and the plaque reflected a cheering room: pounds 700,000, this place cost - a new drop-in for 2,000 of Equity's finest, a place to masterclass, to brush up on a little spear-carrying, to rest in peace. The classes are called things like 'I was brilliant in the bedroom]' and 'Poetry? Yes, please]' and 'Learn the basic skills of playwriting in two days'. There's even a bar (another O J, Sir Anthony?) and a gym, where 'out of work no longer means out of shape'.

The old Actors Centre used to be above the Reject Shop in Tottenham Court Road, and all who went there cracked the one about damaged goods. So this is a proud day. The lunchtime opening is held in the Tristan Bates theatre, dedicated to the memory of the son of Alan Bates who died of an asthma attack at 19. There is also the John Curry room, named after the skater who died with Aids. Upstairs, there is a cubby- hole-sized room, where soon we will again encounter Mr Hopkins.

While we wait, we may glance at a blackboard in the room, the remains of an earlier class. Covered with arrows, loops and slashes, it reads: 'dissatisfaction, external / internal, routine, protagonist arrow wants inciting, incident arrow weakness, NEMESIS, prot arrow weakness, mid-show peak, protagonist perceives / lowest point caused by reinforcement, CLIMAX, new routine, prot is changed.' Prot arrow weakness? More spear-carrying, presumably; if another Zulu film is ever made, these actors will be laughing. But what of 'NEMESIS' and 'lowest point caused by reinforcement'? This, surely, is the new place to ask some of those constant acting impenetrables, such as what acting is for, and how best to achieve fine acting.

Downstairs, amid the tang of faux champagne, the talk is mostly of Casualty and The Bill. One guest tells another that it was his idea to turn The Bill from a conventional drama into a soap. Someone tells me that all the action is still in Versailles. 'Still?' I ask.

The room is crowded, air-kisses drift like snowflakes. I ask for some explanation of the blackboard, some trade secrets, some short cuts to the Oscar. The most frequent words are the corny ones - hard graft, dedication, honing. One person mentions the need for a terrible ruthlessness and menace.

Sir Anthony Hopkins, 56, does not like a crowded room - all these people with tales of rep and 'juve' roles, pressing his hands, tales from Wales, and how kind of him to do this now, putting so much back. But he does want to help, so he's loaned this project some money, interest- free, for a year, and lends his name, and will talk to me and GMTV ('Good morning, Sir Anthony]' the pastel GMTV woman says, as her wristwatch crawls to 2pm). Before he flees the crush I have 15 minutes, which soon become 10.

This may be insufficient time for an intimate exchange. Hopkins has already logged the post-alcoholic mid-Eighties transformation many times, the devoted wife, the puking rudeness and arrogance, the re-establishment of a great name through Lambert LeRoux in the National Theatre's Pravda, through the garlanded Hannibal, through Howards End and The Remains of the Day and Shadowlands (he even shone in Chaplin and The Innocent, though do check out his role with Mick Jagger in Freejack if you're feeling blue, a bizarre blip in the judgement curve).

But it turns out 10 minutes is ample time to ask these bigger, late-night, French-style questions. Often on screen, Hopkins's art relies on a form of spun, seething repression, but on parade he plays it rather dumb and very, very kind; self-deprecation to a transparent degree.

So: how to define the art of fine acting? I hoped you may have some answers that others would not. 'I've no idea. It's a miracle I've got anywhere. Most actors I know are damaged goods. They become actors to fill a hole in themselves. I've never thought about what it's for. I'm not so bright. I don't have much of a brain. I'm not a very bright man. I'm not so good with those sorts of questions.'

Hopkins has said often how lucky he's been, how he can't define the talent, as if once defined it will be lost forever. Ralph Richardson once defined the art of acting as keeping people from coughing, and today Hopkins would tend towards this. (He might be less attracted to Jackie Gleason's observation that 'modesty is the artifice of actors, similar to passion in call-girls'.) But, indirectly, some of the early desperation, some of his toil and some of his present disillusion, shows in his advice to others.

'I get a lot of letters from young people,' Hopkins says. 'They want to know how to get started. I tell them to find a really good drama school, and then get as much work as you can. And then I get lots of letters from people who get into drama schools but can't get grants, because of the appalling mess and indifference of local authorities to actors.'

All these letters say the same things: 'They are totally dedicated and consumed by desire. And you need that, because it's such a tough and lonely profession. Coping with the sense of rejection and failure is bloody hard, that very public rejection . . . I know people without real work for years - desperate.'

Hopkins hopes to hold film-acting classes at the centre. He has just finished August, Julian Mitchell's Welsh take on Uncle Vanya for Granada, but this time as actor-director, a first. He says he loved it, a whole new career if he wants it. 'I'd be quite happy just directing from now on.' It's clear he loves imparting his knowledge, after all.

'With actors who haven't done much film, you have to take all their theatrical training away from them, strip it all away, make them naked again. I don't mean in a callous, brutal way like Ken Russell, and I don't like directors who shout and bully. I do it gently. I was working with a young actress in Wales who'd had very little film experience, and she wanted to play her part in a certain way, very sentimental. I tried to help her out: 'this woman is not sentimental, she's a survivor. Come at it this way . . .' ' Hopkins uses his hands here; an aeroplane takes off from his fist. 'She said 'Aaaah, I see.' That's what film technique is, just do less and less and less. Do nothing. Well, you have to do something, you can't do absolutely nothing, but just less.' No NEMESIS then? 'Less,' Hopkins said. 'Elimination.'

(Photograph omitted)