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The King and I: Christopher Eccleston on Sir Anthony Hopkins

Christopher Eccleston reveals why he wrote to the head of BBC drama asking for a role alongside his acting hero Anthony Hopkins in King Lear – and how he 'ruthlessly' used his TV fame to play Macbeth at the RSC

“When I heard the BBC were doing King Lear with Sir Anthony Hopkins, I wrote to Piers Wenger, controller of BBC drama, and said I would like to audition for a role. I am never seen for classical roles and I think that is to do with my background – which is ironic, because Tony is the son of a baker and grew up in Port Talbot.

“The casting director didn’t want me. I suggested myself for a number of roles and was finally offered Oswald. When I walked into the rehearsal room, the director Richard Eyre said: ‘Why are you here? Oswald is a small role, and we’ve made him even smaller.’ I just pointed at Tony Hopkins and said: ‘because of him’.

“Tony changed everything for me. When I was at drama school, I got a job as an usher at the National Theatre. One of the shows in 1985 was Pravda, written by David Hare and Howard Brenton, where they combined the figures of Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch and made him a South African newspaper editor. Tony Hopkins walked on stage in a box suit with slick back hair and his performance changed my life.

Anthony Hopkins in Pravda
Hopkins in Pravda
Anthony Hopkins in Pravda at the National Theatre, 1985

“What was amazing was that he always seemed like he might leave the stage at any minute. Or smash the entire place up and lose control. Or jump into the audience. But he was completely in control of what he was doing.

“It was explosive. Animalistic. Electrifying. I learned that theatre can be as exciting to watch as sport. It made me feel like I was watching George Best play football, Alex Hurricane Higgins play snooker, or Nastase and McEnroe play tennis.

“Then I would go backstage and see him eating beans on toast on his own, very reserved, looking considerably physically smaller than he did on stage – because on stage he just looked massive. I knew that was the kind of actor I wanted to be.

“So when King Lear came up, I just wanted to be in the rehearsal room. Especially because also I knew that I was going on to play Macbeth this year.

“I wanted to learn and pay my respects. It was everything I thought it would be and more. There were actors like Emma Thompson, Jim Carter, Andrew Scott and we would see him do something and glance at each other, as if to say, ‘I can’t believe I am here seeing this’. Tony is now 80. He is bringing a lifetime of experience to Shakespeare’s greatest role, a man confronted with his own mortality.

“In our first scene I get in the way of the Hopkins rage. He pushes me to the ground. It becomes a recurring theme. He is after me. The last thing an actor needs is somebody stood there in awe. So I just did the job. But you get a great sense of play with him, he wants to do the scene with you. You are not there to feed him lines.

“It was one of the greatest professional experiences of my life. An ambition achieved. The way the leading actor behaves sets the tone and Tony was impeccable. And he did eat beans on toast, so my memory of him was correct!

“Growing up I didn’t go to the theatre. Television was my theatre, and occasionally I’d see a James Bond film. So I had a huge amount of baggage about Shakespeare not being for me.

“But this state-educated son of a baker who didn’t go to university is the greatest living male classical actor. Tony has a visceral, physical, instinctive working-class approach and seeing that made me feel I had a chance.

I have ruthlessly exploited the fact that I am a television face to get Macbeth and find myself coming up short

“But I have since discovered quite how hard doing Shakespeare the way Tony does it is.

“I made Macbeth, which I am doing at the moment, happen by writing directly to the RSC. I have minimal Shakespeare experience. It must be frustrating for actors who don’t have my level of exposure to see me get the role.

Christopher Eccleston in Macbeth at the RSC
Eccleston in Macbeth (photo: Richard Davenport)

“I have ruthlessly exploited the fact that I am a television face to get that role and find myself coming up short. I am self-critical. You have to be. My performance has improved since press night but it takes a lifetime to get it the way it should be done.

“I have now seen Tony Hopkins do King Lear on stage in 1987 and on camera in this. You can’t take your eyes off the fella. If I am still here, I want to play Lear in 30 years, so that is the other element to my pursuit of this role.

“Shakespeare has been regarded as elitest and a revolution has to happen. I hope the BBC will be really mindful of gender-blind and colour-blind casting. It is happening in theatre and needs to happen with Shakespeare on screen. I do wonder where the next Anthony Hopkins is coming from.

“We need to throw the net wider and get more sons and daughters of bakers playing the leads.”