Legendary actor John Hurt talks to Paul Fennessy about his career in movies, adapting to David Lynch’s ‘idiosyncratic’ filmmaking style and his love of eccentric characters.
JOHN HURT NEEDS no introduction. In a career spanning over 70 films, as well as numerous theatrical performances, the Academy-Award nominated actor could easily retire at any moment, safe in the knowledge that his vast legacy will forever prevail.
Speaking in the type of demure accent which practically every ageing British actor with a background in theatre seems to possess, it is impossible not to be charmed by his affable nature. Moreover, owing to his expressionistic and outgoing nature, he is even reluctant to end the interview, encouraging Otwo to ignore the considerable time pressure which he is under.
Hurt’s undoubted humility in person extends to his acting philosophy, as he often seeks out the role of the quirky, eccentric-type character. This approach of playing what he regards as the most intriguing part often comes at the expense of performing as a lead.
“If somebody offers you something that’s as interesting as Merrick or Caligula or Quentin Crisp, I am going to say ‘yes’, because I find them interesting. In many ways those characters that occasionally become leading characters are the most fascinating, but they’re not very often the lead, because very few pieces will support something of that eccentricity.”
Indeed, Hurt reveals himself to be somewhat of an outsider as well. After performing poorly in school, the Englishman turned to acting more by chance, as opposed to possessing a long-held passion towards thespian endeavours.
“I was hopeless at school. Nobody could get me interested in academic work,” he laughs. “I spent most of my college time in the bar next door. I was not happy with my situation, but I wasn’t going through any trauma at the time.”
“I met two Australian girls and they invited me to a party. I got a bit drunk. Then they said the magic words – ‘You should be an actor’. They got the applications forms for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and they made me fill them in. For my audition, I was so nervous it was unbelievable,” he confesses.
Thereafter, despite this auspicious introduction to acting, Hurt proceeded to enjoy an illustrious career in show business. He has featured prominently in an abundance of notable films including Alien (where he was the victim in one of the most memorable movie death sequences ever), I Claudius, Heaven’s Gate and more recently, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
In addition, Hurt has also garnered two Academy Award nominations thus far. In 1978, he was nominated for his supporting role in Midnight Express, while in 1980 he was rightly recognised for his astonishing performance as John Merrick in The Elephant Man.
His role as Merrick has roundly been regarded as the actor’s definitive moment. Unsurprisingly, he admits that an enormous amount of energy was expended for the creation of this character. “The makeup wasn’t heavy, but it was intricate – it took seven hours. Then the shoot was from midday to 10.30 with a running buffet.”
Regardless of the stunning authenticity inherent in this performance, Hurt rejects the idea of method acting, exhibiting an antithetical stance towards the concept.
“I think there’s a lot of rubbish talked from the media about how we ‘get into something’,” he states dismissively.
“I always consider that you play a part rather than working a part and I don’t find it difficult to drop a character.” Yet for all his bravura acting and preparation, Hurt prefers to highlight the work of director David Lynch in enabling the film to become a success.“ He is idiosyncratic. If you consider that the language of film is image on screen, which is your phrases and sentences and so on – it is David Lynch’s major concern that the image is absolutely correct.”
Hurt proceeds to elaborate on Lynch’s intensely particular working methods. “[It’s like] if somebody said, ‘Look John, you’re going to do an interview with this splendid fellow from the university magazine, but during it, I want you to be able to get up and have a look at that notice while you’re answering one of the questions. Then saunter around with your hands in your pockets and come very quickly back to here and finish up what you’re saying’ – I can easily do that. Why shouldn’t I?”
“Anthony Hopkins didn’t like it. Anthony Hopkins likes to rehearse the scene and the director, he feels, should take what he has performed and get his images from that.”
Despite experiencing unbridled success in pictures such as The Elephant Man, Hurt insists that the theatre will always remain his first love. This passion seems to be in conjunction with his love of Ireland (he lived in County Wicklow for a number of years) and especially, his love of a certain Irish playwright.
“I was Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape. It was the wonderful Michael Colgan (Artistic Director of the Gate Theatre) that got me into Beckett. At first, I wasn’t impressed, but I said: ‘go on, let’s have a crack at it’. Then, when I began rehearsing it, it all seemed to fall into place.”
As the Beckett experience attests, his self-belief is exemplary. And over the course of the interview, Hurt utilises the phrase – “anything is possible” on more than one occasion. When you consider what he has achieved, along with the fact that he is currently working on numerous projects at the age of 69 – even hardened showbiz cynics would find it difficult not to be moved by such unrelenting effervescence.