So it's no surprise to hear that Hopkins found it a breeze to play his latest role, a psychopathic psychiatrist who devours his patients in the new Jonathan Demme thriller, "Silence of the Lambs."

In the film, Hopkins plays the evil Dr. Lecter opposite Jodie Foster, a fledgling FBI agent who must enlist his help in tracking down a serial killer. Lecter is behind bars for most of the movie, but he managed to terrify Foster (and most of a preview audience) with his eerie, chilling portrayal of a soft-spoken madman.

"It was easy to get into the character," said Hopkins, 53, a British actor of Welsh descent who has had a long career in the movies and on the stage in England and the United States.

"I saw the external of the man, I saw he would be economical in his movements. And I saw he would have no sense of uncertainty, which of course is a true symptom of madness."

Hopkins has portrayed many of what he calls "people who aren't very tightly wrapped." He has played Adolf Hitler, the Lindbergh baby kidnapper Bruno Hauptmann and the disturbed ventriloquist in the cult favorite "Magic." He's less proud of his work in fluffier films like 1977's "International Velvet" with Tatum O'Neal.

Hopkins admitted that playing hard cases hasn't always been a stretch for him. For years, he said, he had a reputation for being rough to work with. He traces his temper back to childhood.

"I was an oddball when I was a kid," he said. "I hated school. In the postwar period, we didn't have good teachers. Our education was hideous, a lot of corporal punishment. I was terrible in everything."

Hopkins' teachers told him he was a failure, he said, and he took those feelings of inadequacy with him when he became an actor.

"I used to feel like a closed fist on the stage," he recalled. "I'd be angry at the audience and angry at the other actors. That anger has stayed with me all my life."

Hopkins said he'd had verbal blow-ups on the set and walked off three films. Some of his trouble stemmed from being intimidated at the start of a new project, he said.

"This friend of mine once told me years ago that I used to come on like Winnie the Pooh," he said. "I got in the trap of being Mr. Nice Guy. Then I'd turn and lash out, and nobody could understand it."

Hopkins said he learned to show his true personality more from the start.

"I'm very hard-nosed, very tough about things," he said.

But Hopkins said he also had mellowed in recent years. A turning point came in 1979 when he realized he had just completed a film and hadn't had one fight with anyone.

"Then I realized what that said about how I led my life," he said. "I gradually got easier to live with. Now I think I've made up for it.'

After a lengthy stint in the United States, Hopkins returned to England permanently with his wife a few years ago. "One day I was watching an American movie and I thought, `I probably won't get to do many more of them but that's OK.' I figured I'd be happy enough doing work in Britain."

Two days later, he was asked to do "Silence of the Lambs." It's a performance he's proud of. When he saw the film in its entirety, his "pulse quickened" even though he knew the story, he said.

These days, Hopkins is at peace. He's still no pushover, he said, but "I start talking to myself now when I feel myself getting impatient and it seems to work.

"I'm happier than I've ever been. I really feel at peace," he said. "There are so many unhappy actors out there, but I think every day, `Do they pay me for this?' "