''I'd been having nightmares about you, Anthony,'' confesses a blond, broad-shouldered female reporter with a heavy Danish accent. Holding court in the coffee shop of London's Hotel Intercontinental, Anthony Hopkins responds with a pleasant chuckle, a polite but ever-so-slightly creepy exhalation that draws nervous titters from the five Scandinavian journalists surrounding him at the table. Hopkins an overnight sensation for his portrayal of a serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs, after 30 years of stage and movie work is fielding their questions with a good-natured, professorial air. And yet and yet there is still a hint of the unnerving calm that has made his character, Dr. Hannibal ''the Cannibal'' Lecter, so hard to shake.
As the interview draws to a close, Hopkins absently announces that he's lost a lens from his half-moon reading spectacles. Immediately, three of the women plunge to the floor and begin searching for the errant lens under the table while Hopkins and the rest shake out the napkins that have been tossed between empty glasses and dirty plates. Seemingly unaware of the commotion at his feet, he pats his black leather jacket, navy wool sweater, and open-necked white shirt, and finds his glasses case with the lens inside.
''I'm sorry,'' he says, sheepishly. ''It's been here all the time.''
The three women emerge from beneath the tablecloth, not in the least put out. In fact, the one who admitted dreaming about him shyly apologizes for giving the 53-year-old actor a starring role in her nightmares.
''Now that I've met you,'' she says almost girlishly, ''I shan't.''
Anthony Hopkins, the soft-spoken British actor who can charm a group of journalists to their knees, is just the other side of the coin Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde from the psychopathic psychiatrist he plays in The Silence of the Lambs. While Jodie Foster's brave and intelligent performance as FBI trainee Clarice Starling gives Silence its moral and dramatic center, it is Hopkins who gives the movie its lasting chill. More than 15 million Americans have seen the film, which last week remained the number one draw in the country five weeks after its release. But the movie's impact stretches well beyond its power at the box office. Based on the 1988 novel by Thomas Harris, Silence features one of the most compelling villains in movie history.
Not since Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) or Alex in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) has a movie and its star so crystallized the complex fears of moviegoers. Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter is highly civilized, articulate, and rigidly self-controlled. Though capable of unspeakable horrors, he's oddly appealing, charming even a perfect embodiment of the seductiveness of evil. Imprisoned for dispatching and often consuming his patients, Lecter is approached by the FBI for help in solving another series of gruesome killings. His psychological pas de deux with agent-in- training Starling, who hopes to tap his insights into the minds of killers, forms the hypnotic core of the movie.
While homicidal psychos are as common as car chases in today's movies, Lecter has an impact like no other recent character. ''I haven't heard anything but silence when people walk out of the movie,'' says Cameron Garcia, manager of the AMC Century 14 Theater in Century City, Calif. ''They come out emotionally drained.'' Students at the University of Michigan have a new campus ritual: renting Manhunter, the 1986 movie based on Harris' novel Red Dragon and also featuring Lecter (portrayed by Brian Cox). Multiple viewings of Silence are routine at Boston University. ''People apply Silence to real life,'' says senior Crista Martin. ''It's not just a movie.'' Big-time lawyers discuss Lecter over lunch. ''These are people who work on deals worth millions of dollars and it doesn't strike fear into their hearts,'' says Gary Ginsberg of the New York law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, ''but for some reason Hannibal Lecter did.''
Psychologists say that their patients are unnerved by both the film and their fascination with such an amoral figure. ''I have men come in and say they've lost three or four nights' sleep after that movie,'' says Dr. Georgia Witkin, a New York psychologist who reports that about a third of her patients have wanted to discuss Lecter. ''That's not so unusual for women. But it is very unusual for men to come into a therapy session and spend their time and money mentioning a movie.''
The country's obsession with Silence and Lecter has taken even the film's director, Jonathan Demme, by surprise. ''I loved the book, I thought it was a good picture, but it's been No. 1 for five weeks in a row now, for heaven's sake,'' he says, talking by phone from his Manhattan apartment while his 8-month-old son chortles in his arms. ''I was hoping it would make its money back. This is ridiculous.''
And, back in London, the person responsible for so much fear and trembling is enjoying his notoriety enormously. ''I constantly have to think humble thoughts,'' Hopkins says with a chuckle after the Scandinavian contingent has departed. Though a prominent and respected actor, he had almost given up on real stardom until Silence catapulted him into its front ranks. Sipping coffee, he now seems decidedly un-Lecter-like. ''For this to come up and be such a hit leaves me with no choice but to laugh,'' he says. ''It tickles me.''
Rewind: In an interview several months before the movie's release, the line between actor and role seems much less distinct. ''I've played some wackos,'' Hopkins cheerfully admits, greeting a slightly jittery reporter in a spacious, eerily quiet suite at New York's Hampshire House hotel. ''But I'm not a psychopath myself.'' Still, Hopkins seems to remain partly in the grip of Lecter. ''I hope you're not scared,'' he says, slipping into his low, wicked Lecter laugh. He looks the same but somehow different, as if he has lowered a veil of evil over his face. ''Don't worry,'' he says, laughing that laugh again. ''I'm tied to the chair.''
Seeing that this has had its desired, unsettling effect, Hopkins whisks away the veil and is again a thoughtful actor who has a lot to say about the role that will rewrite his career.
''Lecter was very simple to play,'' he says. ''When I read the script, the part came very quickly into my head. I knew the voice.'' He also knew the demeanor: ''I wanted a tight-waisted, tailored prison uniform which suggested total control. There wouldn't be anything slovenly or baggy about him. The same with the hair, greased back and neat. I took off some weight with a fish and salad diet.
''I knew I had to play him ultra sane, very still. There was even something about the name... Lecter'' Hopkins stops and repeats it slowly, drawing out each sound ''Le-c-ter, that reminded me of a black box. Le-c-ter. He's a killing machine, like a clock that ticks. He has such terrifying physical power, and he doesn't waste an ounce of energy. He's so contained. He's all brain.'' Hopkins leans back in the flowered armchair, smiles and in a flash, he is Lecter again, the man he affectionately refers to as the ''ultimate pratical joker.''
''I'm raving mad,'' he says, laughing that laugh. ''There's a man in a white coat waiting outside for me.''
Unsettling roles are nothing new for Hopkins. On Broadway in 1974, he played the neurotic psychiatrist in Equus. In the movie Magic (1978), he was a ventriloquist obsessed with his diabolical dummy. He may be best remembered in this country for his eerily accurate portrayal of Adolf Hitler in CBS' 1981 movie The Bunker, for which he won his second Emmy; his first was for his portrait of kidnapper Bruno Hauptmann in NBC's The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case in 1976. He has had some sympathetic roles as well. In 1984's The Bounty, he created a relatively humane Captain Bligh. In 1987 he played a bitter divorced parent in The Good Father and a sentimental bookseller in 84 Charing Cross Road with Anne Bancroft. Yet Hopkins has never been the kind of British actor that American audiences claimed as their own. In the last few years, he has worked mostly on the London stage. ''I'd abandoned all hope of doing anything in American movies,'' he says. ''I'd accepted the reality that I was back in England, a British actor, and thought I'd better just get on with it.''
The failure meant giving up on a lifelong dream. Growing up in the grimy South Wales seaside town of Port Talbot, Hopkins idolized Richard Burton, a local boy who became an international star. ''I got his autograph when I was about 15,'' Hopkins says. ''I went up to his house when he was just about to leave for a rugby match. I remember he was in a T-shirt, shaving with an electric razor, which seemed very sophisticated then. I remember that stare with his green eyes. He signed the autograph. And on my way back, he and his first wife, Sybil, passed me in their Jaguar. I thought, how wonderful.''
Like Burton, Hopkins grew up to perform at London's Old Vic Theatre and then moved to Hollywood to make his fortune. But his personal life was rocky. ''I made a decision to give up drinking one night 15 years ago,'' Hopkins says. ''I was at a party and had no idea how I'd got there. It occurred to me I had been driving, and I could have killed someone or been killed myself. I was very unhealthy and sick. So I got some help with the problem, and it changed everything.'' Today, Hopkins is married to his second wife, Jenny, a former production assistant he met on a movie set. After 10 years of living in L.A., the couple returned to London in 1984. From his first marriage, which broke up in 1972, Hopkins has a 22-year-old daughter, Abigail, an aspiring actress in New York.
Though Hopkins never quite became a household name, his work was well known and admired in Hollywood. When director Jonathan Demme went to cast Lecter, , Hopkins was his first and only choice. ''Tony gives the impression of being smarter than everybody else in the room,'' Demme says. ''I feel he's also one of those people who, just by the look in his eye, projects tremendous humanity and great compassion. And he has this broad-faced handsomeness that I knew would ultimately lend itself to the great Dr. Lecter. I had a strong feeling this was going to be his first commercial part. For me, you see, Dr. Lecter is not going to be anything more than a brilliant sociopath unless you inject a sense of humanity gone awry. When he listens to Clarice's accounts of what her life was like as a girl, I feel this tremendous compassion, and it complicates the moments for me in a wonderful way.''
''Most of us feel like we have a touch of what we see in others,'' says psychologist Witkin. ''But it's as if Lecter is from a different psychological world. My patients are impressed with his intelligence. They want to know if I've ever encountered anyone like this and how someone gets that way.'' Some people have even asked where they can find a therapist as brilliant as Lecter. ''People want to know if there really are any doctors who can read them as quickly as Lecter read Clarice,'' says New York behavioral psychologist Dr. Rob Reiner (no relation to the director).
Hopkins finds it a bit amusing that his Lecter has such an impact. Settling back with his coffee, he recalls that he learned early how to provoke nightmares in others. As a child, he loved the horror movies that played in Port Talbot's fleapit theater. ''There was one very old film called The Old Dark House, with Boris Karloff, and it was very scary,'' he says. ''There were two little girls who lived in our street, and I used to delight in telling them about The Old Dark House. And they got terrified. They literally used to wet themselves, and they'd run away screaming up the street. Then they'd come back and say, 'Tell us some more.' ''
Like Demme, Hopkins is certain that Lecter's brand of evil, though carried to an almost unimaginable extreme, is grounded in universal instincts. ''I tapped into the despot in myself,'' he says. ''We all flirt with this part of ourselves. If we accept it, we render it harmless. By denying it, we drive it underground and it wreaks havoc on our lives.''
With the stunning success of Silence, Hopkins faces a paradoxical dilemma: His Lecter is so vivid, it may now be difficult for audiences to believe him as anyone else. Anthony Perkins has never quite lived down Psycho's Norman Bates (appearing in three sequels hasn't helped). Hopkins seems unconcerned. ''It doesn't worry me if they remember me for this one alone,'' he says. ''But I must be careful not to do too many of these parts. I have cornered the market on weirdos.''
There are a number of projects suddenly crowding Hopkins' plate. James Ivory plans to direct him in Howards End, based on the E.M. Forster novel. In a few days he'll be heading back to the U.S. for Freejack, a futuristic action movie in which he'll star with Mick Jagger and Emilio Estevez. And he does not act coy about the likely sequel to Silence. ''I'll do it just for the sheer fun of it,'' he says.
Being identified with a psychopathic killer who craves his victims' internal organs might not be most people's idea of fun. But for an actor whose career had stalled just below stardom, the fascination with Lecter is a dream fulfilled. In fact Hopkins, who admits he used to feel resentful ''seeing everyone else's name up in lights,'' is trying to keep things in perspective.
''A few weeks ago, I was in L.A., driving down Sunset Boulevard and there it was, the billboard for The Silence of the Lambs,'' he says. ''I just pulled over and looked at it. And it made me laugh. Did I feel any different? No, I feel exactly the same. I realize now it's all a game and next month there'll be someone else up there.''