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How Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins built real tension on the set of 'Silence of the Lambs'

1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, is one of the most iconic and influential psychological thrillers of all time. Directed by Jonathan Demme, it saw Anthony Hopkins give his first performance as the psychiatrist-cum-cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, which would become one of Hopkins’ definitive roles. Opposite Hopkins, starred Jodie Foster as FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling who is hot on the heels of serial killer ‘Buffalo Bill’.

Dark and thought-provoking, The Silence of the Lambs paved the way for nearly every serial killer thriller to follow, and in terms of the exploration of innate human darkness, it went one step forward than Michael Mann‘s 1986 Lecter adaptation, Manhunter. Forgoing the striking use of green and blues, and the atmospheric 1980s soundtrack that marked Mann’s effort out, Demme’s 1991 work repackaged Lecter for the ’90s, in a much darker, Generation X-friendly way.

Having celebrated its 30th birthday back in February, the discussion of The Silence of the Lambs has ramped up again. As fans were trawling through the internet digging up nuggets of information, a Jodie Foster interview from 2016 on BBC’s Graham Norton Show reminded fans of one key thing: Hopkins’ performance was so realistic and so terrifying that Foster refused to speak to him on set. 

Asked the question by host Graham Norton of whether the age-old rumour is true, Foster confirmed it all. She said: “No. Never spoke to him. He was scary”. She revealed that it was after only the first read-through with the rest of the cast that she was scared of Hopkins, that’s how good his performance was. 

Recalling the time of filming, Foster explained that another key factor behind her not talking to Hopkins was that he was always behind the glass partitions or in the cell that he inhabits for the majority of the plot. Due to the lengthy scenes, the two never really got a chance to have a friendship. By the time filming had wrapped, they’d never had a full conversation.

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It wasn’t just Foster who was petrified; Hopkins was frightened of her as well. On Graham Norton, she revealed that on the last day of filming Hopkins approached her and admitted that fear. She also discussed Demme’s thought-provoking camerawork. Foster explained: “A lot of scenes in The Silence of the Lambs are done to the camera which is this sort of odd technique that Jonathan Demme came up with a sort of Hitchcockian technique and most of the time that when he is delivering his lines, he is not looking at me he is looking directly at the camera, and I am somewhere behind there where he can’t see me.”

An incredible watch even 30 years later, there’s no surprise that it is widely regarded as one of the best films of all time. Next time you’re watching the chilling scene where Starling first meets Lecter, remember that it is real fear you’re seeing on Foster’s face. It is this kind of tangible horror that has made the film so enduring, and via Demme’s almost perverted camera angles, the script’s themes are brought to life and stare you directly in the face.

Watch the scene below.