NEW YORK (AP) — A movie’s “heart and soul” is an often-overused term, but it’s virtually unavoidable when it comes to Anthony Hopkins in James Gray’s “Armageddon Time.”
Gray’s autobiographical film, drawn in exquisite detail from his childhood in 1980s Queens, New York, follows an 11-year-old boy named Paul (Banks Repeta) who dreams of becoming an artist. Made with both nostalgia and soul-searching, “Armageddon Time” touches on larger social currents – a black classmate (Jaylin Webb) faces markedly different opportunities at school; the Trump family makes an appearance — while painting a vivid portrait of Gray’s Jewish-American family.
The parents (Jeremy Strong, Anne Hathaway) have a strained and disciplinary relationship with their son, but Paul’s (Hopkins) kind grandfather is a deep reservoir of support. In warm and intimate scenes, Hopkins’ grandfather, Aaron Rabinowitz, mentors Paul even as his health deteriorates. For Hopkins, 84, who won Best Actor at the Oscars last year for his patriarch sliding into dementia in ‘The Father’, it’s another radiant twilight performance and a sweet, masterful cornerstone of one of the most distinguished acting careers.
Just as the film’s specific little moments resonate with larger meaning, Gray’s film — about a young artist’s coming of age and the people who shaped him — has deep connections for Hopkins. It is a role deeply felt by the actor, which resonates with echoes of his own grandfather. Growing up in the Welsh working-class town of Port Talbot, Hopkins says he was closer to his grandfather than his parents.
“We spent a lot of time walking together. He was the one who gave me the freedom to be free from myself,” says Hopkins. “I tended to be a bit slow in school. My father was still worried, of course. So was my mother. My grandfather said, ‘Don’t worry about that. Everything will be alright. He had an old country philosophy about it. He called me George because it sounded very country, very English. He was born in Wilshire. “Don’t worry, George. Everything will be alright. And I still use it.
Hopkins rarely does interviews at this point in his life. But he recently spoke by phone during a short stay in the Hamptons on his way from Wales to Los Angeles. Gray, who joined the conversation from New York, was thrilled to learn where Hopkins was. “You’re such a chic pants,” he said.
“Armageddon Time,” which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and which Focus Features releases in select theaters Friday, is an unearthing of a personal past that Gray adapted for actors. Robert De Niro was originally slated to play the character before the pandemic changed production plans for the film and Gray’s design of the character. Rabinowitz, who has not completely lost Hopkins’ Welsh accent, is the son of Ukrainian Jews who emigrated to London.
“I needed someone of great stature to play my grandfather because he was the person who loved me and made me feel wanted,” Gray says. “Truly, there is a very short list of screen legends and great people in the world today. Tony Hopkins is number one.
Hopkins immediately responded to the script. “What I like is: less is more,” says Hopkins. “If a script is too full of gibberish or direction and all that, I tend to switch off. When a script is clear and concise, it’s like a roadmap.
Hopkins immediately began sending long emails to Gray with thoughts about his own grandfather as the two exchanged memories. Hopkins’ own memories, in many ways, mirrored those of Gray.
“My sad memory is that one day in 1961 we had drinks at the hotel on the road in Port Albert,” Hopkins says of his grandfather. “He wanted me to have lunch at his house. I was too busy, too young. I said, ‘I have to go now, see you soon.’ He turned around and waved and he was dead in two months. I always remember it. It’s a bit of a sword in my chest, this memory.
“I have a similar memory,” adds Gray. “I remember saying goodbye to my grandfather in a very unsentimental way. I didn’t consider his mortality at all. I remember waving my hand and saying ‘Goodbye, grand- father”, then I never saw him again.
“That’s it,” Hopkins said. “It stays with you for the rest of your life.”
Countless details in “Armageddon Time” are derived directly from Gray’s childhood. The interior of his house has been meticulously recreated. Hopkins wore his grandfather’s clothes and hat. But the director also insisted, the first time he met Hopkins, that he didn’t want a copycat. “I said, ‘You’ll always win any creative dispute with me,'” Gray explains.
Hopkins, himself, has no personal experience as a grandparent. Long ago, he separated from his only daughter, Abigail, from his first marriage to Petronella Barker.
“I never think of myself as a grandfather,” Hopkins says. “I am 84 years old but I am physically very strong. Some aches and pains. But I feel like a 50-year-old man, full of energy and life. I try not to think too much about the future or the past.
In “Armageddon Time”, the grandfather gives some memorable words of wisdom, including his advice to Paul to “be a mensch” for his unjustly treated friend. The line came straight from Gray’s own childhood.
“I was very unpleasant as a kid. The older I got, the more unruly I was,” Gray says. “My grandfather used to say, ‘Come on. Be a man. I don’t quite understand that, but he had more authority over me than my father, even though my father, in his inept way, tried to enforce discipline. My grandfather, he ruled with a velvet glove.
Hopkins, too, weaved crystallized moments into his memory. Just as his grandfather called him George, Hopkins calls Paul “Jellybean” in the film. Another off-the-cuff line – “Never give in” – came from something his grandmother said to Hopkins, a self-described loner as a child, when he was bullied at school.
“Most of my life came from my grandmother, ‘Never give up. Never give up,’ she said,” Hopkins recalled. “What I got out of it was to have courage in yourself and stop feeling sorry for yourself. That’s what I’ve been practicing all my life.”
The most poignant moment in “Armageddon Time” comes in a scene where the grandfather meets Paul to blow up model rockets near the old Flushing World’s Fair. It’s a beautiful unsentimental scene in soft gray autumn light, with Hopkins sitting on a park bench. He knows he’s going to die soon, even though Paul is naively unaware of it.
For Hopkins and Gray, the scene stands out as a rare fusion of fiction and reality – of real and imagined memory.
“I used to go there with my grandfather to fly model rockets like in the movie,” Gray says. “It’s almost like a modern ruin, this old World’s Fair building that’s now run down and falling apart. Just putting Tony on that bench and boy, it was like a weird flashback in my own life. It’s very unusual in film to be able to do something that feels like it’s pulled from your own memory. It felt like a huge gift.
“I’m not American, I’m from Wales. But this park, this area, was so much America to me,” Hopkins says. “It was like the twilight years of the world. This open space and the boy playing on the grass. It just brought back the memory of my own childhood. I can’t say exactly what. All dreams and memories are imperfect, anyway. But it reminded me of my grandfather. That eternal light. That light and the certainty that I’m going to die.”
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