When French playwright Florian Zeller began adapting his critically acclaimed stage play, Le Père (The Father), for the screen, his vision was crystal clear that it was Anthony Hopkins who should play the titular role.
André, or ‘The Father’, is a charming elderly man determined to remain living in his own apartment, even as his sense of reality slips away and his despairing daughter struggles to care for him. It’s an emotional rollercoaster of a narrative that immerses the audience in what it’s like to live with dementia, rather than observe the sinister condition and its effects from the outside. Set within the one confined location that’s constantly evolving, with characters played by different actors at different times, it’s a fascinatingly bewildering piece of art – and that’s the point.
The story is a deeply personal one. Raised by his grandmother, who began to suffer from dementia when he was 15, Zeller said he was “surprised and profoundly moved” to find people could relate so strongly to his Molière award-winning work.
“I realised there was something cathartic about it,” Zeller said. “Everyone has a grandmother, or everyone has a father, and everyone will have to deal with this dilemma, which is what do you do with people when they are losing their bearings?”
Zeller hoped the universality of his experience would help with translating The Father from French to English and assist him in securing his leading man.
“When I started dreaming about the film – because everything starts with a dream – the one and only face that came to my mind was Anthony Hopkins,” Zeller shared.
So adamant the part was for Hopkins, Zeller changed the name of the character from André to Anthony so the Oscar-winner could “just be in front of the camera, no acting required.”
If it seems like a lofty aspiration for a first-time film director, the implausibility wasn’t lost on Zeller. But he wasn’t about to let self-doubt or a gentle ribbing deter him from getting Hopkins on board.
“When I shared the idea with friends, they were kindly laughing at me,” he said. “I was aware it was not an easy dream to fulfil, because I’m not crazy! But I thought, until someone comes and proves to you that it is not possible, it means that potentially it is.
“Most of the time, we are the ones who close the door of what is possible, and this time I wanted to not close that door. I wanted to follow my desire, my intuition and my conviction. So I wrote it and sent it to Anthony’s agent – and I waited.”
Reaching for the stars — or one in particular — paid off and it wasn’t long before Zeller was hopping a flight to Los Angeles to meet with the iconic Hopkins.
“It was the most expensive breakfast ever… because of the plane,” Zeller laughed. “But I have to say, after two minutes I knew he would be easy to work with. Because not only is he very intelligent – I knew that – he’s also humble, meaning that as an actor he’s not here to serve himself. He is here to serve the story and the vision of the director. At the end of that meeting, he took me in his arms and he said, ‘OK, let’s do it, let’s make that film.’”
Zeller says the whole experience was “intense and joyful”.
“I didn’t come to [Anthony] to ask him to do what he’s known for,” he said. “It was to explore new emotional territory, and to go to that very fragile and vulnerable place. And it was a challenge… to be overwhelmed by his own emotions, his own fears and his own feeling of mortality. It was a demanding process.”
But it’s one the Oscar-winner embraced, turning in a performance being hailed as a masterclass in acting. “I’m grateful to Anthony because he did such amazing and beautiful and powerful work. It was really brave,” Zeller said.
Working with the incomparable Hopkins has become career-defining for the Frenchman, too, with The Father nominated for six Academy Awards this year, including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for Hopkins and Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for Olivia Colman as Anthony’s daughter Anne.
But as much as Hopkins signing on for The Father fulfilled Zeller’s wish, a chance discovery during production offered an opportunity to return the favour. Zeller recounts a shared appreciation of the music used throughout The Father’s soundtrack.
“We discovered we were both in love with the same aria taken from the Georges Bizet opera The Pearl Fishers,” he recalled. “Anthony told me that 50 years ago he discovered that music when he was touring a play in the UK, and he ran back to his hotel and went to the piano, just to find the melody before it disappeared in his mind. Everyone became crazy in the hotel because he did it for three days, because he’s very obsessive. And he said, ‘I would love to make a film one day with that music in it.’”
Zeller smiled, “This music comes three times in the film, so I fulfilled his dream three times because he fulfilled mine – which was to make that film, with him.”
Leigh Livingstone is a freelance entertainment journalist and film critic who co-hosts Popcorn Podcast with Leigh and Tim on all major podcast platforms.