I had a few hours to kill before meeting my daughter at the fast-food emporium of the Westside Pavilion, and Zuma Beach seemed like a pretty good place to spend it.
The beach was deserted when I pulled up; hardly a car in the huge parking lot and no one in sight. I kicked my Tevas into the rental car and legged it barefooted onto the warm sand, jogging out near the breakers, slowing down now and again to cool my toes in the surf.
A small dot up ahead slowly became a lone man sitting in the sand. He was roundish and pink and smiling unabashedly as if at the open sky. He was shirtless, wearing a bathing suit, his arms wrapped around his knees. Long strands of gray hair danced on his shoulders.
When his face came into view I couldn’t help but notice that he was Anthony Hopkins, the famous actor.
I halted, thunderstruck. I scanned north and south, over by the dunes and out toward the bluffs — for bodyguard, spouse, onlookers, fans. I saw not a single soul.
I was alone on a beach with Anthony Hopkins.
I had been dabbling in a spiritual teaching back home and one of the practices was to try to separate yourself from the barrage of thoughts that assail your mind at every turn. The goal was to find the deeper, truer you beyond the noise. “You are not your thoughts,” the teaching went, but rather, the being who happens to be glomming on to the damnable things, 98 percent of which are stressful, useless warnings about danger, real or imagined, and fears and psychological conditioning, and so on, and then calling the resulting unstable construct “me.”
As I stood eye to eye with one of the world’s mega-celebrities, I was aware of such inner rattlings growing rather intense. Many of them suggested that I paled in importance to Mr. Hopkins in the grand scheme of things. In fact, I was inconsequential by comparison. I felt myself starting to shrink.
But I didn’t. I un-glommed.
My knees didn’t tremble as they had when I ran into Jackson Browne hiking up a river path in Temescal Canyon with a few friends. Back then I didn’t have the mind-detachment mojo, and I dissolved into heap of Jell-O upon seeing a childhood idol first-hand. I recalled how uncannily his angst-filled songs had cataloged the peaks and valleys of my teenage years.
A few gulls landed a few feet from Anthony Hopkins’s toes. He shooed them away. I looked squarely at him.
“Hi!” I said.
“Gorgeous day,” he said, smiling, squinting in the bright sunshine.
“You’d think there’d be more people on the beach,” I offered. “This is amazing.”
I thought about offering a friendly nod and walking on — the easy way out. But no, I wanted to fully feel not being tangled up in the mind, not being awed.
I made some small talk and within a few minutes I was sitting knee to knee with Anthony Hopkins. Two guys staring out to sea, enjoying the day.
“I absolutely love it here,” he said. “I’ve lived so many places. There’s nothing like this. I moved here and it feels like home to me.”
“I never found anyplace in L.A. that feels like home,” I said.
“It’s so transient. You never get comfortable here.”
“Hmm,” he said. “I find it very welcoming.”
I’m sure you do, I thought. We talked. I laid out how I was dealing with the emotional fallout of being away from my daughter and the situation with her mother. Then I wound into general L.A. talk, the way the traffic and intensity of the city sometimes can feel like a bodily assault, and how I wished it didn’t.
He waxed on about the beauty of the ocean, looking like a guy really enjoying himself. I was struck at how vibrant and, I don’t know, clear, he seemed.
We looked out at a dolphin or something jumping out of the water.
Then we were standing up. He reached out his hand.
“Tony,” he said.
“Warren,” I said, feeling his palm on mine.
“Nice to meet you, Warren.”
He turned walked down the beach. I will admit to some pride. No buckling knees, no Jell-O.
I wondered what he thought about me not acknowledging him. Did he notice? How could he not? Was that why he had hung around so long — just out of curiosity? Or had he sussed me out and was simply being cool with it?
After he’d gotten a ways down the beach, I called out, “Hey, Tony!”
He turned, squinting. I noticed he was in very good shape.
“I love your work, man,” I said, grinning.
“Thank you,” he replied politely. “That’s very nice of you to say.”
He walked off. Very nice indeed. Soon he’d shrunk down to a dot and was gone.
I had met celebrities in my years working in Hollywood. I was a minor functionary at a movie production company, with access to a few inner circles. I had shaken hands with Denzel Washington, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brad Pitt, Mel Gibson, Sting, James Woods and Kirk Douglas. Once, Steven Spielberg introduced me to Liam Neeson outside my office at Universal Studios, on a tour of the Shoah Foundation.
But those were perfunctory Hollywood hellos, hovering up at the surface. This was different. I had never been on a level playing field with one of them. Mano a mano.
What has stuck with me through years, the sliver of that experience that still makes me smile, was when my friend Tony spoke out my name — in that voice. You know the voice. “Nice to meet you, Warren.”
Soon I was speeding down Pacific Coast Highway toward Santa Monica. When I arrived at the Westside Pavillion eatery, Meghan was sitting at a table over by the railing. She smiled and ran over, and being a kid, didn’t wonder or ask how my afternoon was or what I might have done.