Playing a veteran exorcist in The Rite is hardly a stretch for Anthony Hopkins. “It’s all just a matter of believing,” he tells Paul Byrne.

There was a time when all that Anthony Hopkins cared about was his work.

The early years, being spotted by Laurence Olivier and brought to the Royal National Theatre, were full of fire and brimstone. And ambition. Frustrated ambition in the end, Hopkins packing up his bags and heading to America. Where, as much to his surprise as everybody else’s, he became a major star, thanks largely to his turn as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence Of The Lambs.

It was a role that won Hopkins the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1991, and brought him fame and fortune. And the sort of career the Welshman had never even dreamed of.

And that’s when Anthony Hopkins stopped caring about his work.

How else to explain such really bad movie choices as Meet Joe Black, Bad Company, Hearts In Atlantis, and The Human Stain? Is it any wonder that, by the time Hopkins came to the troubled shoot of 1999’s Shakespeare adaptation Titus, he took time out to rant against his chosen profession, and announce that he was retiring. For good.

He didn’t, of course, and these days he’s in Hollywood’s Grand Old Duke With Gravitas Club, alongside the likes of Morgan Freeman and, eh, Rob Schneider.

Thankfully, with Hopkins’ frustrations possibly tempered by sunny Malibu living, the choices haven’t been quite so bad in recent years. Well, The World’s Fastest Indian (2005) was good. And, mercifully, so is this week’s The Rite, a surprisingly sedate exorcism movie that hit the number one spot in the US last weekend, with a vengeance.

PAUL BYRNE: I read that, initially, you turned The Rite down. How come?

ANTHONY HOPKINS: Well, I’d just done The Wolfman, and didn’t really feel the need to go into the horror genre again. Then I met with the director, Mikael Hafstrom, and his ideas intrigued me. He wasn’t interested in making a big, splashy horror movie – he was more interested in capturing something of the restrained terror of Rosemary’s Baby. And I think he did.

Given that The Silence Of The Lambs proved to be your international breakthrough, do you have any great love for the horror genre?

Not particularly, no. I love William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, and Kubrick’s The Shining is wonderful too, but horror as a genre is not something I would go out of my way to watch. There has to be something else going on – as was the case with The Silence Of The Lambs, and now with The Rite. It’s not just about frightening people with the same old cinematic tricks. It’s about the story and the characters, and creating an atmosphere that terrifies you. You rarely need to actually see the monster, and, in fact, it’s often better – and scarier – when you don’t.

So, how does one prepare when it comes to playing a veteran exorcist? Being in Hollywood must help…

Well, they could certainly do with a few exorcisms there, but the preparation was largely reading up on the subject, and just putting my faith – no pun intended – in Mikael. I felt he knew what his story was all about, and that’s what you always look for in a director. There’s got to be a strong vision all the way through, and Mikael certainly had that here. It took me a few minutes to sign up, but once I did, I committed fully to the role. After that, it’s all just a matter of believing.

Maybe you can help me then – does the devil exist?

The good thing about this film is that it’s highly skeptical about the whole notion of the devil existing, but there’s also that creeping suspicion that, were the devil to truly exist, he would want people to believe otherwise. As I said, this isn’t one of those schlock horror movies, and the issue is debated throughout. The idea is to leave the audience doubting what they thought they knew when they walked in.

That move to Hollywood, and the high life that came with Hannibal Lecter – were you keen to walk away ten years ago because you had begun to doubt what you thought you knew?

I think I just felt there was far too much nonsense involved in this business, and, at that point, I really couldn’t see the logic in continuing. Especially if I felt that way. It was a moment though, a low moment – on a difficult shoot – and I think we all get those feelings every now and then, no matter what we’re doing in life. A bad day at the office happens to everyone.

Your attitude now seems to be somewhat removed from the Hollywood game – making quirkier movies, such as The World’s Fastest Indian...

Well, if I could have the sort of experience I had on Indian with every movie, you wouldn’t be able to keep me off the sets. That film was a joy to make, and Burt Munro was a marvellous character to play. I related to his attitude to life, and I liked the guy very, very much, so, playing him was a pure joy.

I’m happy to mix it up – making a big movie there, a small movie here – but Indian is my personal favourite kind of movie to make. There’s no big budget, no big expectation, just this wonderful true story, with this wonderful man in the middle of it all.

Your own story has been pretty wonderful too, of course, from spotting, as a teenager, fellow Port Talbot boy Richard Burton whizz past in a shapely car with a fast woman in the passenger seat. You dreamt then, as a 15-year old, what life as a movie star might be like. Were you right?

I was pretty much right, yeah [laughs]. There was a lot more work involved that I had imagined, and a lot more politics, but the joys that I dreamt of are all present and correct. I lead a charmed life, and I probably wouldn’t have had such a life had I stayed in Port Talbot. Who knows though, right? I might have been happier…

Always keen to have a screen legend or two on our books, so, I think we Irish might just be able to claim you as our own, given that your mum, Muriel, was a Yeats…

Yes, I’ve always liked to believe that she’s related to the great W.B. and Jack, and that I had some of their wild artistry flowing through my veins. I certainly want to believe that, and I see no reason why I shouldn’t. It’s my Dumbo feather – keeps me believing in this magical life that I’ve found myself living…

Words – Paul Byrne 

The Rite hits Irish cinemas Feb 25th