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Film gets under skin for stars Hopkins, Kidman

Sunday, October 26, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

TORONTO -- I've shed a few skins in my own life and moved on," says Anthony Hopkins. And whether he's being playful or sarcastic is open to interpretation.

In his latest film, "The Human Stain," based on Philip Roth's novel and opening Friday, he portrays Coleman Silk, a septuagenarian New England college professor who has been living a lie since he was a young man. He is a black man whose pale coloring allows him to pass for white.

Given the context, Hopkins has to know that the line about shedding a few skins is almost as provocative as the one that gets Silk in trouble with the politically correct college administration.

Irritated with two students who have never come to class, he wonders aloud whether they are "spooks." Unbeknownst to him -- he's never met them -- they are black, and they raise a stink about what they perceive to be a racial slur. Only Silk could appreciate the irony, if not for having his derriere in a wringer.

"It permeates everything now," Hopkins says of political correctness. "It's this kind of hybrid spiritual horse [expletive] that I really can't stand. Nobody smokes, nobody drinks anymore. There's no joy left, there's no humor left. You can't make any jokes about anything anymore."

Maybe that's why Hopkins seems annoyed, or maybe it's just the grind of round-table interviews that follow the screening of "The Human Stain" at last month's Toronto International Film Festival.

It certainly can't be as pleasant as playing love scenes with Nicole Kidman, who is 30 years his junior. She plays Faunia Farley, a janitor at the college who comes on to him, leading to a run on Viagra at the local pharmacy.

"It's a job," Hopkins says. "It was a well-written script [by the veteran Nicholas Meyer] and they told me Nicole Kidman was going to do it. I said, 'That's wonderful. If you think I can do it, I'll give it my best shot.' "

The producers told him about people who are black but can pass for white. They showed him a photograph of Allison Davis, who is light enough to pass but chooses to embrace his African-American heritage. Davis was an adviser to the filmmakers and plays a bit role in the movie. Hopkins couldn't tell his race from looking at him.

"That made me feel good," he says. "If I'd felt uncomfortable, I wouldn't have been able to do it."

He doesn't view Silk as a victim, except perhaps of his own actions.

"He put himself into a corner because he wanted to break out of a mold, because he didn't want to live the way his mother told him he ought to live. And it cost him. [Choosing to pass] is something he has to live with, for better or worse. He's taking responsibility for it, he's accountable for it. Not even his wife knows. That's a pretty big burden, I guess, to carry around.

"Human beings are so complex. We do what we do, I guess. I think secrets kill you in the end -- you have to fess up in the end because they churn around inside you, depending on what the secret is."

Apparently unwilling to divulge any more of his thoughts, Hopkins says, "OK?" and leaves with time still on the clock.

Fortunately, Kidman picks up the slack during a news conference that allows her to dispense with the press in one sitting.

"Philip Roth gave me my character," she says, and not just by creating Faunia in the novel. She met him for dinner, and he offered specific ideas about everything down to her mannerisms and the way she walks.

"Everyone sort of just goes, 'Oh, well she's playing a janitor,' " says Kidman, who claims to have cleaned toilets in her days as an usherette in Sydney.

"She's a woman who comes from a very, very wealthy family who has ... rejected that, chosen then to go and get lost in a different world, to deny her whole background and hide. The film is about secrets, about people not actually revealing their backgrounds, their truths.

"I think that's one of the things that draws Faunia and Coleman together. Their damage, their secrets and, I suppose, Faunia's acceptance of people having the right to their secrets and their histories."

But it's no secret that there's a big age gap between these two characters, who share a sexual relationship.

"Are people going to go and pay money to see Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman together? I find that it doesn't enter into the equation for me when I choose to do a role. What I think is really interesting is that age doesn't matter. The reason people are drawn together, the reason people choose each other -- we never know. That's what I find fascinating about this story, and that beautiful line he has: 'This is not my first love, it's not my great love, but it's my last love.' That resonated with me. What they give each other ... is really profound."

Kidman found herself particularly touched by the way Coleman Silk is so hard on himself.

"We have too high expectations about ourselves as human beings," she says. "When you can say, 'I am flawed or I am damaged or I have all these things that go into making up my personality and who I am,' I think that's healthier in a way than everyone aspiring to be perfect or behave in the best way possible.

"I believe in the goodness of humanity. But I also think that, particularly now, we have to face things about ourselves in an honest way, because there's a lot of dishonesty.

"I think the different people who enter into your lives at different times -- they enter because you allow them to enter, they enter because a tie remains or because of a connection between two people" and not because of the way someone looks.

Of course, that's easy for Kidman to say, being one of the most beautiful women in the world. But she's an actress, which means she allows different characters to enter her being for a brief, intense time before she moves on to the next one.

Like Hopkins, then, she's shed a few skins, too.


Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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