Sunday, February 28, 2021

Sunday Long Read: Dinner With Old Friends

This week's Sunday Long Read is Tananarive Due's Vanity Fair interview with Jodie Foster and Sir Anthony Hopkins on the 30th anniversary of Silence of the Lambs, one of the scariest movies nerdy teenage me could have seen as the 90's were just getting underway.

When Jodie Foster and Sir Anthony Hopkins joined me on a video call to talk about The Silence of the Lambs for the movie’s 30th anniversary, they hadn’t seen each other in more than a decade, so there was more giddy laughter than you would expect from a conversation about murder and mayhem.

The late Jonathan Demme’s movie was, of course, based on the best-selling novel by Thomas Harris. It’s the story of FBI trainee Clarice Starling, who’s sent to the figurative depths of hell to probe the mind of the refined, if cannibalistic, serial killer Hannibal Lecter and secure his advice about capturing another depraved murderer named Buffalo Bill (played by Ted Levine). There has always been criticism of the way Silence represents transgender issues, which Foster speaks to here. But despite that asterisk, the movie swept all five of the top Oscar categories1, a feat not equaled in the decades since. It has spawned sequels, parodies, and the TV shows Hannibal and Clarice, not to mention the oft-repeated lines about a particular kind of wine and the perils of not properly moisturizing one’s skin.

Foster’s and Hopkins’s careers have yielded many marvels in the intervening years, including, most recently, the former’s turn as a dogged lawyer fighting for the freedom of a Muslim prisoner at Guantánamo Bay in The Mauritanian and the latter’s in a tour de force as a man battling dementia in The Father.

Our conversation? You guessed it. It was like having old friends for dinner.

When was the last time you watched Silence?

ANTHONY HOPKINS: I saw it about five years ago.

JODIE FOSTER: I saw it just a couple years ago. They were doing something at, like, the oldest movie theater in Los Angeles, and they had a 35-millimeter print, and the boys had never seen The Silence of the Lambs, so I took them all to see the movie. And I kind of thought like, Oh, you know, it’s an older movie, and it’s not going to be scary to them.

Was it still pretty intense?

FOSTER: I think it was. And what’s surprising about that is that there’s really no blood and gore. There’s only really one scene that is at all gory. The movie is so scary because it seeps into people’s consciousness through fears. It really works on fear more than anything else.

What was seeing it again like for you, Tony?

HOPKINS: I’m thrilled that the movie worked. I’m proud to be in it. I was in the theater, in London, and my agent phoned me—Jeremy Conway, his name was—and he said, “I’m sending a script over to the theater called The Silence of the Lambs.” I said, “Is it a children’s story?” I didn’t know. “No,” he said. “It’s with Jodie Foster.” I said, “Oh.”

I think Jodie just won the Oscar for The Accused, actually. So I came to the dressing room and I started reading it, and I got through about 10 pages. When [the FBI agent] Crawford2 said, “You don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head,” I thought, Ooh, that’s it. I phoned my agent, and I said, “Is this an offer? This is the best part I could ever…” He said, “Well, it’s not a big part.” I said, “I don’t care.”

The way Ted Tally had written it—it was so indelible in my mind. [Laughs.] I don’t know what it is that’s in my brain—I’m fairly normal most of the time—but I know what scares people, and I believe that stillness is the key. You know, we don’t look at anyone too long. We look away, or we laugh to disarm ourselves. But if you stare at someone for more than 10 seconds, it scares them. And you can do it, you can test people. I knew instinctively that I should be absolutely still. All the talk about “He’s a monster…” I thought, Well, go to the opposite. Play him nice.

FOSTER: We met at a reading. I didn’t really get a proper meet with Tony. So we’re sitting across from each other, and he launches in, and we start the reading. And I was just petrified. [Laughs.] I was kind of too scared to talk to him after that.

He did another movie, and I started the film without him. I still kept that kind of hold-your-breath feeling about the character just from that first reading. Jonathan wanted to use this technique that Hitchcock talked about, where you have the actors use the camera as the other person. And I think there was something really interesting about that for the film, but that also meant that Tony and I couldn’t see each other. For a lot of the close-ups, we were looking into a camera lens and the other person was just a voice in the background. And—remember?—they had to lock you into the glass prison cell. So he would do a whole day inside the prison cell, and they wouldn’t let him out. We’d just do his side. And then the next day, we’d do my side.

HOPKINS: Also, they discovered before we started filming that there would be a problem if there were bars on the prison cell for left and right eyelines. So the designer—it was Kristi Zea—came up with a Perspex thing, which makes it even more frightening, because he’s like a tarantula in a bottle. No visual borderline between the two. It was more terrifying, because it’s a dangerous creature in a bottle who can do anything. He could break the glass.

This one is fascinating, folks. This is one of my all-time Top 10 movies, and I'm glad to see both Hopkins and Foster still talk about this film.

Still not eating dinner at his house though. 

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