July 25th – 31st 2005
In a career spanning 40 years, John Hurt has played hundreds of roles, but is still best remembered for parts like John Merrick and Quentin Crisp. Not that he’s complaining. As he tells Leigh Singer, you can’t deny your passport.
John Hurt is discussing obituaries. It’s not related to any recent personal event; nor a reflection on the 64-year old actor’s current condition. On the contrary, he looks remarkably spry, sharply attired in navy-blue, his weathered face sporting a healthy tan. No, he’s explaining his views on how we remember actors – and why it would be “very foolish” to become impatient with those who still bring up twenty-five-year old film The Elephant Man to an actor with one of the longest, most varied and acclaimed careers in contemporary cinema.
“Take someone as great as Laurence Olivier,’ he proffers in that burnished, single-malt-smooth voice, “and they mention, what, three things? Richard III, which he sort of put his stamp on, Wuthering Heights and you may get The Entertainer. And that's if you're highly successful. You can't deny your passport.”
The most prominent stamps in Hurt’s own dramatic passport are from his self-described “golden period”: his indelible portrayal of the flamboyant Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (1975); a delirious Emperor Caligula in I, Claudius (1976); an Oscar-nominated supporting turn in Alan Parker’s harrowing Turkish prison drama Midnight Express (1978); and his heartbreaking, award-winning turn, buried under pounds of prosthetics, as hideously deformed ‘Elephant Man’ John Merrick for David Lynch’s haunting 1980 film of the same name.
Hurt clearly has fond memories of playing Merrick, despite the 12-hour make-up sessions (“when I started, I thought they’d found a way to make me not enjoy acting,” he smiles), but he quickly points out that “it doesn't mean to say that these films are actually better than some of the other things I’ve done.” He cites his reclusive, teen idol-obsessed novelist in 1997’s lovely Love and Death on Long Island or the shady hitman in Stephen Frears’ 1984 thriller The Hit as examples of “what could be considered smaller films but are actually more considerable than some that got all the acclaim. But that happens and there's not much you can do about that.”
Ostensibly we’re here to discuss his new role, in New Orleans-steeped occult mystery The Skeleton Key, opposite Kate Hudson, Peter Sarsgaard and Gena Rowlands. While unlikely to count as one of his own career milestones, Hurt gives another exemplary performance, albeit in an unlikely role. His Bayou-born, wheelchair-bound stroke victim’s few lines of dialogue amount to some wild-eyed coughing and spluttering. “[Director] Iain Softley said to me, ‘Well it's a foursome really, but [your character] doesn't actually say anything,’” Hurt relates. “I said to him, ‘Oh really, I've been looking for that all my life - a character in a movie who doesn't speak a word!’”
Naturally enough for such a labyrinthine thriller, there’s more to Hurt’s character than first meets the eye, though fear of spoilers necessarily curtails much elaboration. “I thought it was such a way out premise that if you could pull that off...” He breaks off, clearly amused at Skeleton Key’s fanciful sting-in-the-tale. “My maxim is, if something stands the chance of succeeding on the level that it's intended to succeed on, then it's worth having a crack at.”
It’s an attitude that has generally served Hurt well, though it appears that it’s not one he was brought up with. Both his parents, especially his clergyman father, actively discouraged his youthful interest in merely going to the movies, let alone any notions of pursuing them as a career. “To go to the Saturday morning pictures was common,” he grins. To make matters worse, temptation lay literally just across the road.
“The vicarage was here,” he maps out on the table, “opposite was The Ritz cinema and down Blundell Avenue was Blundell Park, Grimsby Town’s football ground. I was allowed to go there – football was all right because it was healthy that boys should enjoy sports.” He part-sigh-part chuckles. “We're a funny lot really. Nobody's got a normal life.”
Ironically, after all that, Hurt left home to study art at St. Martin’s College in London – “with painting I could become an art teacher,” he says to explain his parents’ acquiescence – before winning a scholarship to RADA and making an almost immediate impact with his febrile, somewhat androgynous talent. Not to mention that supple voice, provider of perfectly-modulated narration for projects as diverse as the UK’s breakthrough mid-80s AIDS ad campaign, to Lars Von Trier’s recent polemics Dogville and Manderlay.
Hurt’s burgeoning career was buoyed by consistent success and acclaim, though, interestingly, one celebrated role he hasn’t yet mentioned is the hapless chest-burstee in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Presumably it wasn’t quite the acting challenge of other roles? “Science-fiction isn’t really an actor’s medium,” he laughs. “But Alien has a couple of film images that are there for life. I still get a huge amount of fan mail, wanting me to sign these bloody pictures of me with my chest exploded.” He mimes a mock-disgusted look, holding a pen at arm’s length. “You sign them like this…”
A forty-plus-year career inevitably has its ups and downs (he’s on his fourth marriage, with two teenage sons from third wife Jo Dalton, though claims to have stopped the drinking that tabloid hacks covered so diligently) but Hurt’s adamant that he’s more passionate about acting than ever. “In any career you have a bad patch or times where the inspiration isn't there,” he shrugs. “Sportsmen are the same. You can't be on form all the time. But those are the times you’ve got to keep going and get through that barrier. You might get to something that was even better than before.”
For Hurt, it’s certainly not from want of trying. Chuffed to have a “whole heap” of wildly diverse films coming up, he’s been putting in the miles, filming in Australia for gritty western The Proposition (based on a Nick Cave script), in Berlin for anarchic actioner V for Vendetta and in Rwanda for Shooting Dogs, as a priest amid the 1990s massacre. Clearly it’s one thing not to deny your passport; another thing entirely to stop using it altogether.
The Skeleton Key opens on July 29th