P . G. WODEHOUSE once described a character as looking like a Welsh rarebit about to come to the height of its fever, and it is this very cheese dish at an acute stage of meltdown that Anthony Hopkins's face now resembles.
Every two minutes for the last half-hour, the soft air of his Malibu beach house has been rent with the brrrring! of a telephone. Every two minutes Mr. Hopkins has dutifully picked up the receiver and said, ''Hello.'' And every two minutes the receiver cocked to his ear has emitted a shrill, metallic crrrrr! Someone is trying to send him him a fax.
Alas, Mr. Hopkins does not own a fax machine. Hence, the Welsh rarebit.
A master of simmering restraint, this 64-year-old Welsh actor stands at attention, a frosty twinkle in his dead blue eyes. He doesn't blink. ''I've worked hard at distilling my work to a more economic form,'' he says with a kind of pinched elegance. ''Over the years, I've become fairly adept at performing little still parts.''
Clocking in at 21 minutes, the littlest of his still parts was undoubtedly that of Hannibal Lecter, the voracious mass murderer he essayed in the 1991 thriller ''Silence of the Lambs.'' The M.O. of that brilliant shrink was eating patients when they ceased to interest him. Of one victim, he famously sighed, ''His therapy was going nowhere.''
Mr. Hopkins achieved a certain perverse poignancy (and won an Oscar) by informing Hannibal the Cannibal with demonic charm, a sense of wounded innocence and an insinuating drawl that crossed Truman Capote with Katharine Hepburn. ''There's love in Hannibal, but no pity,'' says Mr. Hopkins. ''His tragedy is that he'll never escape the colossal horror of his inner world.''
Now Sir Anthony -- he was knighted in 1993 -- reprises the role for the second time in ''Red Dragon,'' a ''Silence of the Lambs'' prequel that its director, Brett Ratner, calls ''a heartfelt story about a serial killer.'' Unlike the rococo campiness of last year's ''Hannibal'' -- Mr. Hopkins gave new meaning to ''brain food'' by performing neurosurgery with sizzling skillet and rare white Burgundy at hand -- the prevailing mood of the new release is studied gloom.
''Red Dragon,'' which opens on Friday, is actually the second film to be based on the Thomas Harris novel of the same name. In the original, Michael Mann's ''Manhunter'' (1986), Lecter was played by another actor trained in the British theater, Brian Cox.
Mr. Hopkins's take is eerily serene, sinister and hypnotic. Even straitjacketed, his face imprisoned in a grotesque hockey mask, he seems perfectly capable of talking you into swallowing your tongue.
''Tony brought a coiled intensity to his scenes in 'Red Dragon,' '' Mr. Ratner says. ''Lecter is now a vicious, violent man full of blazing rage. In one scene, Tony is so angry and tortured that you can see tears in his eyes.''
It's unclear whether Mr. Hopkins regards doing this interview as torture, though he conspicuously consults his watch every 53 seconds or so. In spite of the endless fax interruptions, he's as attentive and unfailingly polite as the repressed butler he played in ''Remains of the Day'' (1993).
So commanding is Mr. Hopkins's quietude that at times he seems to be following the advice an actor-friend gave him on what makes a good manservant: when he's in the room, the room is emptier.
The twice-divorced Mr. Hopkins -- his second marriage, to Jennifer Lynton, ended in April after 29 years -- shares his beach house with two grand pianos. ''The ocean is my backyard,'' he says, pounding out a Chopin prelude on a Bosendorfer in his living room.
Portraits of malevolent gamecocks stare down from the kitchen walls, but the kitchen counters are somewhat disappointingly bare. There's not a fava bean or a bottle of chianti in sight.
''I seriously considered turning 'Red Dragon' down,'' Mr. Hopkins says. ''I'd done the cutesy stuff twice, and the jokes had worn thin. I wanted to move on. I had no desire to be Fava Bean Man again.''
That changed when the producer Dino de Laurentiis leaned on him. In his expressively mangled English, Mr. de Laurentiis recalls: ''I told Tony that Brett Ratner is very enthusiasm and wants to do this film with you desperate. I told him, 'It's go if you say yes.' ''
Mr. Hopkins said: ''And if I don't?''
''Well then, I don't know what we going to do,'' Mr. de Laurentiis says he replied. ''Please, listen to Brett.''
Mr. Hopkins listened.
Mr. Ratner says: ''I won Tony over by explaining what I love about the character. I said: 'I love that I'm afraid of you. I love being terrified of you.' ''
In a recent Internet poll, Mr. Hopkins's Lecter was voted the scariest psychopath in screen history -- not too surprising if you consider that the monstrously beguiling creation was stitched together from parts of filmdom's greatest fiends.
''Like Dracula, Hannibal Lecter has a pronounced taste for human blood,'' David Skal wrote in ''The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror.'' ''Like Frankenstein, he is a brilliant but mad scientist; he has two personalities, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, both civilized and savage; and like some sideshow super-geek, he is held and exhibited in a succession of zoolike enclosures.''
As a boy in Port Talbot, a grim South Wales steel town, Mr. Hopkins wasn't much of a horror fan. ''Boris and Bela were fun to watch, but they were more entertaining than frightening,'' he says. ''I remember seeing 'King Kong' and laughing at it.''
The only film he found remotely creepy was ''Moss Rose,'' a 1947 Edwardian Gothic about a chorus girl who blackmails her way into an English country estate. As the mad matriarch, Ethel Barrymore was no unobtrusive loony: she made a meal of it. ''Now that was scary,'' Mr. Hopkins says.
His ''useless and thoroughly confusing childhood'' was as unremarkable as your average triple-ax murderer's. Born Philip Anthony Hopkins, the only child of a baker, he was, by his own account, a clumsy, chunky lad, rotten at school and everything else.
''I was a poor learner, which left me open to ridicule and gave me an inferiority complex,'' he has said. ''I grew up absolutely convinced I was stupid.'' His only real talent was for drinking India ink, which impressed his school chums but not his teachers.
In desperation, his parents sent him off to a posh boarding school, where the headmaster told him he was ''hopeless'' and he developed a ''sheer contempt for authority.'' He stumbled into acting at 17 with a Y.M.C.A. group (his one line: ''Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth''), studied in London at the Royal Academy and, in 1965, joined Laurence Olivier's National Theater.
His big break came while understudying Olivier in Strindberg's ''Dance of Death.'' When Olivier was hospitalized with appendicitis, he later wrote, Mr. Hopkins ''walked away with the part of Edgar like a cat with a mouse between its teeth.''
A self-described ''antisocial moron,'' Mr. Hopkins was prone to churlishness and boozing. In 1969, he walked out on his first wife, Petronella Barker, and their 14-month-old daughter, Abigail, now 35 and a film actress. Four years later, he walked out on a production of ''Macbeth'' at the National.
''I'd begun to loathe acting in the classical theater,'' Mr. Hopkins says. He resurfaced to acclaim in the 1974 Broadway production of ''Equus.'' Hollywood came calling, and he settled there the next year. But his disposition didn't improve until he stopped drinking, cold, on Dec. 29, 1975, after waking up in a Phoenix hotel room with no memory of having driven from Los Angeles. It was two days before his 38th birthday.
STILL, he continued to spiral downward, at times sitting at home for hours without saying a word. He'd climb in his car and cruise aimlessly for days: once he went on a drive and didn't return for two months. ''If there is someone fighting within you, it makes your life unbearable,'' he says. ''Anger has to be converted into something else or it destroys you.''
During a 10-year stint in L.A., Mr. Hopkins made lots of money and so many dodgy movies -- least notably ''International Velvet,'' ''Audrey Rose'' and ''Change of Seasons,'' in which he shared a hot tub with Bo Derek -- that it's hard to imagine what roles he turned down. There were triumphs, too, in film (''The Elephant Man,'' ''The Bounty'') and in television, where he excelled at playing madmen and grotesques. He won Emmys for his turns as Hitler and Bruno Hauptmann, the kidnapper of the Lindbergh baby. But somehow, the promise didn't quite ignite into stardom.
After embracing Alcoholics Anonymous, Mr. Hopkins returned to England in the mid-1980's with his second wife, Ms. Lynton. He rebuilt his career with stunning stage work: in David Henry Hwang's ''M. Butterfly,'' he played a French diplomat seduced and traduced by the talents of a Chinese performer; he did the lead in ''King Lear''; he won the London Theater Association's award for best actor with his portrayal of a scabrous newspaper tycoon in David Hare and Howard Brenton's ''Pravda.''
Then came Hannibal, and everything changed. Merchant and Ivory tapped Mr. Hopkins for ''Howards End'' and ''Remains of the Day,'' for which he received his second best-actor nomination. For the 1995 film biography ''Nixon,'' Oliver Stone cast him in the lead. ''Nixon was the greatest challenge of my career,'' Mr. Hopkins says. The hunted, haunted portrayal earned him his third Oscar nomination. (His most recent was a nomination for best supporting actor, for playing John Quincy Adams in Steven Spielberg's ''Amistad.'')
Two years ago, in an L.A. courthouse, Mr. Hopkins pledged allegiance to the American flag. Though Sir Anthony retains his British citizenship and title, Fleet Street tabloids branded him ''Hannibal Traitor'' and ''Hannibal Defector'' and quoted a scandalized Port Talbot postmaster: ''Sir Anthony is always harping on about his Welshness, but when the chips are down he decides to go away. To be honest, I think he is a hypocrite.''
Upon hearing this, Mr. Hopkins throws up his hands. ''I am a simple man from a meat-and-potatoes background,'' he says. ''I moved to La-La Land because, at heart, I am a beach bum.'' Bumming around, he reckons, has helped him conquer ''a psychological state of self-destructive mayhem.''
So what becalms a legend most? ''Lear learned compassion,'' he says. ''It melted him and thawed him out.''
Not long ago Mr. Hopkins watched a documentary on the pianist Vladimir Horowitz. ''At one point Horowitz takes off his jacket and plays this very complex, discordant piece -- Scriabin, I believe,'' he says. ''When it was over, he got up, crossed to the sofa and asked his wife what she thought.
'' 'Well,' she said, 'you're the devil.' And he said, 'Yeah.' At the age of 81, he was the devil.
''At that moment, I thought, 'There's a devil side to Horowitz, a dark side, a big shadow side, because of his prodigious genius.' He had gone through a patch of depression so severe that for many years he didn't play. I thought, 'That must not be too easy to live with.' ''
Now crustily cruising into a triumphant old age, this once dark and stormy knight claims work no longer engulfs him. ''It's a job -- nothing more,'' Mr. Hopkins says. ''I don't take it home. People are slightly astonished or may be offended by my rather mundane approach to it all, or what seems to be mundane. I try to explain it's what I do and that I'm not any of these people I play. I just interpret, and I really don't know how it works. Maybe that makes me a very shallow actor.''
So what is Mr. Hopkins's idea of hell?
The icy blue eyes suddenly look sharp enough to pierce glass. ''Hell, for me, would be a wet Wednesday afternoon at the Old Vic,'' he says. ''Other actors would be onstage reciting verse, and I'd be standing in the wings in wrinkled tights, thinking, 'Oh, God, another endless production' for the rest of eternity.''
'Hamlet' to Lecter
Since 1960, Anthony Hopkins has appeared in (or narrated) nearly 100 movies, including many made for television. Here is a selected list of feature films and his roles.
THE HUMAN STAIN (2003) Classics professor with a lifelong secret.
THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (2002) Writer who sells his soul to the devil.
RED DRAGON (2002) Hannibal Lecter.
BAD COMPANY (2002) C.I.A. agent.
HEARTS IN ATLANTIS (2001) Man with extraordinary powers.
HANNIBAL (2001) Hannibal Lecter.
HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (2000) Narrator.
TITUS (1999) Titus Andronicus.
SIEGFRIED AND ROY: THE MAGIC BOX (1999) Narrator.
INSTINCT (1999) Renegade anthropologist.
MEET JOE BLACK (1998) Tycoon.
THE MASK OF ZORRO (1998) Don Diego de la Vega/Zorro.
AMISTAD (1997) John Quincy Adams.
THE EDGE (1997) Stranded billionaire.
SURVIVING PICASSO (1996) Pablo Picasso.
NIXON (1995) Richard M. Nixon.
LEGENDS OF THE FALL (1994) Retired Army colonel and patriarch.
THE ROAD TO WELLVILLE (1994) Eccentric nutritionist.
SHADOWLANDS (1993) The writer C. S. Lewis.
THE REMAINS OF THE DAY (1993) Butler.
HOWARDS END (1992) Patriarch and British tycoon.
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) Hannibal Lecter.
84 CHARING CROSS ROAD (1986) Frank Doel, British book seller.
THE BOUNTY (1984) Captain Bligh.
THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) Dr. Frederick Treves.
ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL (1974) Veterinarian.