From the Magazine
“Dr. Lecter, My Name Is Clarice Starling”
Thirty years ago, a lionhearted FBI trainee went to a cannibalistic killer for advice. Together, they changed pop culture. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins talk with V.F. about the legacy of The Silence of the Lambs.
When Jodie Foster and Sir Anthony Hopkins joined me on a video call to talk about The Silence of the Lambs for the movie’s 30th anniversary, they hadn’t seen each other in more than a decade, so there was more giddy laughter than you would expect from a conversation about murder and mayhem.
The late Jonathan Demme’s movie was, of course, based on the best-selling novel by Thomas Harris. It’s the story of FBI trainee Clarice Starling, who’s sent to the figurative depths of hell to probe the mind of the refined, if cannibalistic, serial killer Hannibal Lecter and secure his advice about capturing another depraved murderer named Buffalo Bill (played by Ted Levine). There has always been criticism of the way Silence represents transgender issues, which Foster speaks to here. But despite that asterisk, the movie swept all five of the top Oscar categories1, a feat not equaled in the decades since. It has spawned sequels, parodies, and the TV shows Hannibal and Clarice, not to mention the oft-repeated lines about a particular kind of wine and the perils of not properly moisturizing one’s skin.
Foster’s and Hopkins’s careers have yielded many marvels in the intervening years, including, most recently, the former’s turn as a dogged lawyer fighting for the freedom of a Muslim prisoner at Guantánamo Bay in The Mauritanian and the latter’s in a tour de force as a man battling dementia in The Father.
Our conversation? You guessed it. It was like having old friends for dinner.
When was the last time you watched Silence?
ANTHONY HOPKINS: I saw it about five years ago.
JODIE FOSTER: I saw it just a couple years ago. They were doing something at, like, the oldest movie theater in Los Angeles, and they had a 35-millimeter print, and the boys had never seen The Silence of the Lambs, so I took them all to see the movie. And I kind of thought like, Oh, you know, it’s an older movie, and it’s not going to be scary to them.
Was it still pretty intense?
FOSTER: I think it was. And what’s surprising about that is that there’s really no blood and gore. There’s only really one scene that is at all gory. The movie is so scary because it seeps into people’s consciousness through fears. It really works on fear more than anything else.
What was seeing it again like for you, Tony?
HOPKINS: I’m thrilled that the movie worked. I’m proud to be in it. I was in the theater, in London, and my agent phoned me—Jeremy Conway, his name was—and he said, “I’m sending a script over to the theater called The Silence of the Lambs.” I said, “Is it a children’s story?” I didn’t know. “No,” he said. “It’s with Jodie Foster.” I said, “Oh.”
I think Jodie just won the Oscar for The Accused, actually. So I came to the dressing room and I started reading it, and I got through about 10 pages. When [the FBI agent] Crawford2 said, “You don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head,” I thought, Ooh, that’s it. I phoned my agent, and I said, “Is this an offer? This is the best part I could ever…” He said, “Well, it’s not a big part.” I said, “I don’t care.”
The way Ted Tally had written it—it was so indelible in my mind. [Laughs.] I don’t know what it is that’s in my brain—I’m fairly normal most of the time—but I know what scares people, and I believe that stillness is the key. You know, we don’t look at anyone too long. We look away, or we laugh to disarm ourselves. But if you stare at someone for more than 10 seconds, it scares them. And you can do it, you can test people. I knew instinctively that I should be absolutely still. All the talk about “He’s a monster…” I thought, Well, go to the opposite. Play him nice.
FOSTER: We met at a reading. I didn’t really get a proper meet with Tony. So we’re sitting across from each other, and he launches in, and we start the reading. And I was just petrified. [Laughs.] I was kind of too scared to talk to him after that.
He did another movie, and I started the film without him. I still kept that kind of hold-your-breath feeling about the character just from that first reading. Jonathan wanted to use this technique that Hitchcock talked about, where you have the actors use the camera as the other person. And I think there was something really interesting about that for the film, but that also meant that Tony and I couldn’t see each other. For a lot of the close-ups, we were looking into a camera lens and the other person was just a voice in the background. And—remember?—they had to lock you into the glass prison cell. So he would do a whole day inside the prison cell, and they wouldn’t let him out. We’d just do his side. And then the next day, we’d do my side.
HOPKINS: Also, they discovered before we started filming that there would be a problem if there were bars on the prison cell for left and right eyelines. So the designer—it was Kristi Zea—came up with a Perspex thing, which makes it even more frightening, because he’s like a tarantula in a bottle. No visual borderline between the two. It was more terrifying, because it’s a dangerous creature in a bottle who can do anything. He could break the glass.
Jodie, you tried to option the novel even before Demme came on board.
FOSTER: Yeah, and then found out that Orion was involved. Ted Tally was already writing, but he was writing for Gene Hackman. Gene Hackman was going to act and direct—his directorial debut. So I was waiting patiently for that to happen, and I guess Gene Hackman read the first draft and decided there was no way that he wanted to be involved in something like this. He dropped out after I had made it known I wanted to be involved in this film. And Orion immediately sent it to Jonathan Demme. I was just furious. I was like, “Oh, not Jonathan Demme! He won’t want me. He’ll want someone else.” Which was true. Jonathan got the movie, and he really wanted Michelle Pfeiffer for it3, so I knew that was going to happen because they’d had such a good experience working together [on Married to the Mob]. I knew that he was getting ready to start prep. And so I flew to New York, and I said, “I’d like to be your second choice.” [Laughs.] I’d won the Oscar and everything. It wasn’t like I was a nobody, but it really was something that I ran after. In my life, I’ve found that when I have that feeling about something, it means that it’s really going to be an important movie for me—intellectually, spiritually, and psychologically.
Tony, I don’t have to tell you that Hannibal Lecter became the prototype for serial killers onscreen. What did you want to bring to the character?
HOPKINS: Well, I met Jonathan on a Saturday night in London. He came to the play, and I asked him out of curiosity, “Why would you cast me? I’m not even an American actor.” He said, “Well, I saw you in The Elephant Man, playing Dr. Treves.” Which puzzled me. I said, “Why would that resonate with you?” He said, “Well, because Treves is a really good man.” And I said, “Okay. Well, what about Hannibal Lecter?” He said, “I think he’s a good man, he’s a very bright man. He’s trapped in an insane brain.” I thought, Oh. And I think he was right, because what Lecter is really—it’s an old-fashioned word to use—but he’s a gentleman. He has finesse. He’s not Buffalo Bill. When he kills, it’s fast and deadly.
And the fact is that Clarice, when he sees her and they get deeper into the conversations, he knows he would never harm her. A male, he would. He’ll take on any male. But he promises, “I’ll never come after you.” Because he respects her too much, loves her in a way. Even though he needles her about her cheap shoes and her good handbag, he knows the feminine nature. I think there’s a lot of female in him. We’re all ambidextrous. We all have that, the anima and the animus.
I remember the day when Jonathan asked me [how I wanted to be revealed in the prison cell for the first time]. It was Monday, January the 9th, 1990, and he said, “The camera’s going to be Jodie coming down the corridor. How’d you want to be seen? Do you want to be standing, or reading, or asleep, or something?” I said, “No. I’d like to be standing.” “Where?” I said, “In the center of the cell.” “Why?” I said, “I can smell her.” He said, “You are crazy.”
You talk about the relationship between Lecter and Clarice as a kind of courtship4. One of the elements is revelation and honesty: “Okay, tell me your worst childhood story, and I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
HOPKINS: I’ve never admitted this publicly, but when I was in the Royal Academy, there was a teacher we had, a Stanislavsky method teacher, and he was lethal. He was very charismatic, and he was deadly. He would rip you apart. He would just take you apart intellectually. He’d just smirk, and he’d say, “No. Do it again.” His name is Christopher Fettes. He’s retired now. You’d do a piece, and he’d say, “Do it again. No.” I based it on him: “No, Clarice.”
This teacher had stayed in my conscience all my life. I got a phone call afterwards: “Tony, it’s a wonderful performance. Did you base that on me, by any chance?”
FOSTER: Lecter needs, wants, to be seen as human. And if you don’t see him as human, you’re going to get eaten. So I think there’s something really beautiful about the fact that they relate to each other’s humanity. When Lecter takes in Clarice’s pain, when he breathes it in, or he hears her story about the lambs, it’s not because it’s a story that’s filled with blood and gore. It’s a tiny story of pain. And to him, that’s what connection is.
HOPKINS: The only physical connection that Clarice and Lecter have is when she takes the case file and they touch fingers. That’s a talisman of some kind—of relationship, of love, romance, whatever, had it been a different world.
Let’s talk about Jonathan Demme. I’m so sorry that we have lost him as a director5. I teach his film Beloved in my Black Horror class at UCLA. I’ve considered him an ally in marginalized storytelling. I’ve heard that he had a highly democratic, inclusive process on the set and a very keen eye for detail, down to what the napkin holders should look like.
FOSTER: I think people forget how goofy Jonathan was. And it was so important for Silence of the Lambs, because it could’ve been a very tough shoot, very earnest, very difficult, tragic. But, you know, he brings all of his family in, and everybody he knows is in the scenes, and there’s an Aloha Shirt Friday. We’d have an amazing band that came up from New Orleans, just for the afternoon. And he loved these little cough drops. He was always eating these little cough drops. And if you did something right, you got a cough drop. I think he loved movies with this really childlike, open feeling. But also, he was a great fighter for justice. For him, that was more important than anything.
HOPKINS: I met him last in Toronto, at the film festival. I didn’t know he was ill, but he didn’t look well. None of us knew that he was dying, actually. He died just afterward. But he was the most wonderful man. A true democrat. We laughed all the time.
FOSTER: I think people who knew him were surprised that he was going to do Silence of the Lambs, because they might’ve seen it as a horror genre film6. But I think what was so smart about Jonathan making the film was that they knew that he would find the heart in it, and ally with Clarice’s point of view.
Are there lines of dialogue from Silence of the Lambs you never want to hear again?
FOSTER: I’m sure Tony’s got an answer for this.
HOPKINS: [Laughs.] No, I never get tired of it. I mean, it’s worn a bit thin now when people say, “Do the slurping sound.” I say, “Okay.” You know, fava beans and all that. But I’m amused by it. It’s a funny thing, because I remember a reaction I had when I was in New York, and I’d done the sequel Hannibal, you know, with Ridley Scott. I saw the poster somewhere, and I thought, Why did I do that? And I remembered that it paid my mother’s hospital bills. [Laughs.] I thought, Quit complaining, for God’s sake.
FOSTER: I do love it when people will say, “Can I get you a nice Chianti?” I still love it. And there’s no part of me that’ll ever be tired of it. Mostly because it’s just such a damn good movie.
HOPKINS: It is.
FOSTER: I don’t know if you remember, but the book opens very differently. And the first screenplay opened very differently, so that you’re in, like, an FBI situation where a bunch of FBI people hit down a door. Clarice turns around, and somebody taps her on the shoulder and says, “You’re dead.” And the lights go up, and you realize that it’s a fake FBI sting—that she’s in the Quantico and her teacher is saying to her, “You didn’t look in the corners.”
And it always bothered me. I called up Jonathan and I said, “I just think it’s fake. I think that if you open the movie that way, what you’re saying is, this is really a fake movie and we’re going to pretend that it’s real, and then we’re going to tell you five minutes later that it wasn’t real.” As you get closer to shooting, you identify what your film is. And I think that’s why that opening is so powerful, really, is that it’s very simple: A woman is running, and the camera is almost like, “Is somebody watching her? Is she being watched?”
That Quantico scene you’re talking about was used very well later in the film, not as the opening, but after she’s already into the investigation. It was sort of a reminder: She’s still a trainee.
FOSTER: The pitch that I brought to Jonathan—I was a few years out of college and still thinking in terms of classic mythology—was about the hero myth, which has always been reserved for men. There’s the young boy, a princely boy, and there’s a terrible illness in his village or in his country, and he has to go to the forest of experience. In that forest he meets gnomes and demons and he sees reflections of the worst sides of himself, and he leaves there changed but with the panacea to cure his people. And when he gets back to his people and cures them, he realizes that he will never belong again—that he had to give up his belonging in order to save the people he loved. Except now you have a woman character, and for a woman to take over that hero mythological journey deepens it so much.
I got to be the woman who saves the women, you know? And not the one who’s being saved in the pit. But I do love the irony of [her being a trainee]. There I am quaking in my boots with my gun. All five feet three of me, saying, “You’re safe!” And out of the pit, you hear like, “Fuck you, bitch. Get me the fuck out of here right now.” That the woman in the pit is so much stronger, is such a force to be reckoned with.
Buffalo Bill thinks he’s transsexual, which we would now call transgender, but he actually isn’t. I feel like Demme was trying to be careful with this. Clarice literally says, “There’s no correlation in literature between transsexualism and violence.” But the film has always been controversial in some circles because it sometimes seems to suggest that there is a connection.
FOSTER: He’s very careful in the book to really talk about transsexualism and how it has nothing to do with Buffalo Bill. Not only does [Jonathan] have Clarice say that, but there was a scene that we shot with a psychiatrist that ended up getting cut, sadly.
I think I can say this now because Jonathan’s gone: I feel like he was really heartbroken that he didn’t make that clear in the film. If there is ever a gnawing part of him, I think he really did understand where the controversy came from and felt like he didn’t do as good a job at making his intentions clear. If there was something to revise, I think that he would have gone back and revised that just to make it very clear.
But, don’t forget that at that time, there were no transgender characters onscreen. Hopefully now that there are more, there is room to have a transgender character that has a deviant personality or that might be a killer—or might be a lawyer or might be a doctor or might be any number of things. But at the time, unfortunately, that was the only representation7.
So the one thing that I can say is that movies allow for commentary. They allow for people to talk about it and vociferously say, “This is wrong.” And I was very happy that that conversation opened up. I was really happy that that conversation happened.
I want to talk about your new films. Anthony, I’ll start with The Father. It was terrifying to me.
HOPKINS: Oh, thank you.
I’ve had dementia in my family, so it felt heartbreaking on a personal level. But I really wasn’t expecting a film from the actual point of view of someone losing his memory. As a society, we have so much fear of aging that it really stands in the way of meaningful conversations about it.
HOPKINS: I read the script by Christopher Hampton, and it was like Silence of the Lambs—it was perfect. You have an instinct about it. And I thought, Whoa, yeah. This is it. This is another one. And I had no fears of it. My parents didn’t suffer dementia, but I had witnessed dementia in some other people. I was so excited about it. And it wasn’t daunting at all, because I’m now 83. [Laughs.] I didn’t have to act, because I’m an old guy now. I did ask for one change in the script. I said, “Can I say tea instead of coffee?” “Yeah, okay.” I said, “I don’t like coffee.” [Laughs.] And I think that was the only word we changed.
Without giving anything away, the last scene is just extraordinary.
HOPKINS: I knew that something wasn’t quite right with it. Maybe I pushed it too much. [Director Florian Zeller] said, “Could we do another one?” And I said, “Uh, okay. Can I just have a break?” So I went to the hospital room, where they were filming, and I went to the bedside table. There was a photograph of [the character] with his two daughters in early days, looking younger, looking alive, and his book and his pen and his glasses. And it took me back to the day I went to collect my father’s belongings after he died. I remember thinking, That’s it, we better enjoy it while we got it because that’s it. We don’t take anything with us, and when it’s over, it’s gone forever. That’s the great, tragic beauty of life and death, finally.
And so that scene worked, because I felt it. It’s such a dream, life. I really believe it’s all an illusion. At this age, I look around thinking, What does any of this mean? What is this journey we’re on? And it’s a wonderful feeling of freedom. My life, I think, I didn’t do anything really. Can’t take credit for anything. My parents are dead and gone. I wondered if they ever existed because when you look at a photograph—I’m getting into metaphysics—but if you look at a photograph, it’s only a flat piece of paper. Look at a recording, it’s only gone. Frank Sinatra is gone. And you think, Did any of it exist?
FOSTER: My mom had dementia, and I had 15 years of caring for her and being there from the beginning to the end. Can you say there’s a positive side? It’s not really positive, but they are forced to live in the present. Once they cross over and accept that they can’t control what they’re seeing—“Is that my handbag? Is that not my handbag? Is Obama in the room?”—they’re content. They stop fighting and hitting and kicking. And you know, and they go, like, “I have no idea what the fuck is going on.” [Laughs.] And it’s beautiful.
Jodie, your new movie, The Mauritanian, is terrifying in a different way, because it’s just one real-life example of grave injustices not only in Guantánamo Bay, but elsewhere. My father is a civil rights lawyer, so I love stories about heroic lawyers fighting for change. Were you already familiar with Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s story or with the lawyer you play, Nancy Hollander?
FOSTER: I knew nothing about it, and I consider myself somebody who’s a bit of a news junkie and certainly interested in social justice. And I was so taken by his story, which is extraordinary. He was basically kidnapped from his home for no reason—picked up and detained for 14 years without anyone telling him why.
It’s like Kafka.
FOSTER: He was tortured, made to confess to whatever it is that they asked him to confess to. But what is so extraordinary about the story isn’t even any of that. The man that emerged is somebody who is funny, and vulnerable, and fragile, and willing, and open and faithful, and just hilarious and joyful. Like, how is it possible that they could not crush who he is?… I love Nancy Hollander. She’s an awesome, amazing lady. I am way meaner in the movie than she is in life, but everything that I did or chose was really just about serving Mohamedou’s story, because it’s a story that needed to be told. And I felt that way about [lead actor Tahar Rahim] as well. I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, Tony, where you’re in the room with a young actor, and they get to have a moment and they transform and bring something into the room where you’re just like gasping for breath. And you’re like, “That’s why I’m here. I’m here to serve you, so that you get to have this moment.”
HOPKINS: Yeah, yeah.
I am curious about what films and television you two enjoy now. Or are you just readers?
FOSTER: I’m not watching. I have only been reading. The last thing that I really, really, really loved was The Two Popes. Man, Tony, that was amazing. It might be one of my favorite performances of yours. Extraordinary. Honestly, I expected it to be silly because the trailer was kind of silly. I was so moved by that film. It stuck with me for so long. Also from this last year or two, Chernobyl. I love Chernobyl.
Isn’t that ironic? We were all watching Chernobyl going, “What’s wrong with them over there?” And now we’ve had the same brand of denial over COVID. How about you, Tony? Are you also primarily reading?
HOPKINS: I’ve been going through some Charles Dickens, just a great writer. I read and I watch bits and pieces of documentaries. I have an attention span like a hummingbird. I play the piano a lot. And I paint. I think the computers and the iPads are deadly, because you become addicted and then you’re so distracted. You think, Well, I’d better look that up on Wikipedia. You’re so bombarded with information now and it’s a real addiction. I mean, why do we need all this knowledge? [Laughs.]
In terms of Hollywood, there have been a lot of positive things happening in terms of representation and roles. When you look at the industry today, what gives you the most hope?
FOSTER: It’s wonderful to see a diverse landscape that looks more like the real world, whatever that is. Those stories that have been kept from us—that to me has been just so extraordinary about this time. Even as an actor now, my real goals are to serve that. I just really want to make that happen. And I can act, so tell me where you want me to be.
The move away from features, from the theatrical experience, is painful, of course, for all of us who grew up with watching movies and having that experience of being in the movie theater. But you know what? As an artist, I just do it wherever I do it. If it’s on an iPhone—we have to be relevant and go with the times. And this is a new time where people don’t have the same attention span and they don’t have the same habits. So, I’m okay with it. I’m just going with it.
HOPKINS: Yeah, I do the same. I’m most fortunate to be here and to have done what’s been given me. And I’m game for anything.
The Silence of the Lambs was only the third film in the history of the Academy to win all five major Oscars: best picture, best directing, best actor, best actress, and best writing (adapted screenplay). The previous two were One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and It Happened One Night (1934).During Clarice Starling’s initial meeting with her superior, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), at Quantico, he recalls an encounter when she was in college: “I remember you from my seminar at UVA. You grilled me pretty hard, as I recall, on the bureau’s civil rights record in the Hoover years.” This is likely a reference to the FBI surveillance of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists in the 1960s.In 1992, Barbara Walters asked Michelle Pfeiffer why she had passed on The Silence of the Lambs. “That was really a difficult decision,” said the actor, “but I got nervous about the subject matter.” Jonathan Demme also approached Meg Ryan, who had just made When Harry Met Sally; she reportedly had the same qualms. As for the iconic part that made Anthony Hopkins a legend, Sean Connery apparently said no to Hannibal Lecter before the role was offered to Hopkins.“Hello, Clarice” is one of the most famous quoted lines of dialogue from The Silence of the Lambs: except that Lecter never said it. Like “Play it again, Sam” in Casablanca, it’s a misquote. What Lecter actually says: “Good evening, Clarice.”Demme died on April 26, 2017, of complications related to esophageal cancer at the age of 73. His last directorial work was not in film but in television: He directed an episode of Seven Seconds, a Netflix limited series about racial divisions after a white police officer kills a Black teenager with his car and the attempted cover-up that ensues. Demme’s episode, “Brenton’s Breath,” aired in February 2018.The moth covering Jodie Foster’s mouth on the Silence of the Lambs poster actually referenced a photograph of seven nude women from In Voluptate Mors (1951), Salvador Dalí’s collaboration with photographer Philippe Halsman.Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill) befriended Brooke Smith (Catherine Martin) during the shoot and reportedly struggled to stay in character while she begged to be released. Demme kept a shot where Levine was genuinely fighting tears.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
— Our 27th Annual Hollywood Issue: A Fantasia in 10 Acts— On With the Show! See Zendaya, Michael B. Jordan, Charlize Theron, and More in V.F.’s 2021 Hollywood Portfolio— Amanda Seyfried’s Golden Age— Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Revealed: The Heartbreaking True Story of #TheSnyderCut— Did Warner Bros. Kill Moviegoing as We Know It?— For the latest awards-season news, sign up here or text (917) 809-7096 to receive text message updates from the Little Gold Men podcast hosts— From the Archive: Mia Farrow’s Story — Not a subscriber? Join Vanity Fair now for full access to VF.com. Subscribe by March 8 to get the Hollywood issue, guaranteed.