John Vincent Hurt, CBE (born 22 January 1940) is an English actor and voice actor. Among other honours, he has received two Academy Award nominations, a Golden Globe Award, and four BAFTA Awards, with the fourth being a Lifetime Achievement recognition.
Hurt is known for his leading roles as Joseph Merrick (billed as John Merrick) in The Elephant Man, Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Mr. Braddock in The Hit, Stephen Ward in Scandal, and Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant and An Englishman in New York. Recognizable for his distinctive rich voice, he has also enjoyed a successful voice acting career, starring in films such as Watership Down, The Lord of the Rings and Dogville, as well as BBC television series Merlin.
Hurt initially came to prominence for his role as Richard Rich in the 1966 film A Man for All Seasons, and has since appeared in such popular motion pictures as: Alien, Midnight Express, Rob Roy, V for Vendetta, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the first, penultimate, and last Harry Potter films, the Hellboy film series, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Hurt is one of England's best-known, most prolific and sought-after actors, and has had a versatile film career spanning six decades. He is also known for his many Shakespearean roles. His character's final scene in Alien is consistently named as one of the most memorable in cinematic history.
Hurt's first film was The Wild and the Willing (1962), but his first major role was as Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons (1966). His portrayal of Quentin Crisp in the 1975 TV play The Naked Civil Servant gave prominence and earned him the British Academy Television Award for Best Actor. The following year, Hurt played the Roman emperor Caligula in the BBC drama serial, I, Claudius. In 1978, he appeared in Midnight Express, for which he won a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (the latter of which he lost to Christopher Walken for his performance in The Deer Hunter). Hurt played Hazel, the heroic rabbit leader of his warren in the film adaptation of Watership Down and later played the major villain, General Woundwort, in the animated television series version.
His roles at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s included Kane, the memorable first victim of the title creature in the film Alien (a role which he reprised as a parody in Spaceballs); would-be art school radical Scrawdyke in Little Malcolm; and "John" Merrick in the Joseph Merrick biography The Elephant Man, for which he won a BAFTA and was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Actor. In 1978, he featured in Ralph Bakshi's animated film of Lord of the Rings, playing the voice of Aragorn. He also had a starring role in Sam Peckinpah's critically panned but moderately successful final film, The Osterman Weekend . Also in 1983 he starred as the Fool opposite Laurence Olivier's King in King Lear. Hurt also appeared as Raskolnikov in the 1979 BBC TV mini-series adaptation of Crime and Punishment.
Hurt has taken roles in famous political allegories, first playing the hero in an early production and then the tyrannical villain in a later work. For instance, he played Winston Smith in the 1984 adaptation of the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and then assumed the role of Adam Sutler (a Big Brother-esque leader of a fascist Great Britain) in the 2006 film V for Vendetta, a film that drew many parallels to the world of Orwell's 1984.
In 1985, Hurt starred in Disney's The Black Cauldron, voicing the film's main antagonist, the Horned King. In 1986, Hurt provided the voiceover for AIDS: Iceberg / Tombstone, a public information film warning of the dangers of AIDS. In 1988 he played the title role, the on-screen narrator, in Jim Henson's The StoryTeller TV series. He had a memorable supporting role as "Bird" O'Donnell in Jim Sheridan's 1990 film The Field, which garnered him another BAFTA nomination. In 2001, he played Mr. Ollivander, the wand-maker, in the first Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. He returned for the adaptation of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, though his scenes in that film were cut. He also returned for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 and Part 2. In 1999, Hurt provided narration on the British musical group Art of Noise's concept album The Seduction of Claude Debussy. During this time, he narrated a four part series on the Universe which was released on DVD in 1999. In May 2008, he appeared in Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as Harold Oxley.He is also the voice of The Great Dragon Kilgharrah, who aids the young warlock Merlin as he protects the future king Arthur, in the BBC television series Merlin.
In 2008, 33 years after The Naked Civil Servant, Hurt reprised the role of Quentin Crisp in An Englishman in New York. This film depicts Crisp's later years in New York.
In June 2009, Hurt played the on-screen Big Brother for Paper Zoo Theatre Company's production of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. The theatre production premiered at the National Media Museum, in Bradford and will be touring during early 2010. Hurt said, "I think Paper Zoo thought it would be quite ironic to have the person who played Winston having risen in the party. From the Chestnut Tree Cafe, he's managed to get his wits together again, now understanding that 2 and 2 make 5, and becomes Big Brother. So it tickled my fancy, and of course I looked up Paper Zoo, and they seem to me to be the sort of company that’s essential in the country as we know it, and doing a lot of really good stuff."
Hurt is due to appear alongside Ben Kingsley in a film entitled Broken Dream, to be directed by Neil Jordan. At the 65th British Academy Film Awards Hurt won the award for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema.
In 1962, Hurt's father left his parish in Cleethorpes to become headmaster of St Michael's College in the Central American country of Belize. In that same year, John Hurt first performed on the London stage and married actress Annette Robertson. The marriage ended in 1964. In 1967 he began his longest relationship, with French model Marie-Lise Volpeliere-Pierrot, sister of fashion photographer Jean-Claude Volpeliere-Pierrot. The couple had planned to get married after fifteen years, when events took a tragic turn on 26 January 1983: Hurt and Volpeliere-Pierrot went horse riding early in the morning near their house in Ascott-under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire. Volpeliere-Pierrot was thrown off her horse and suffered a tragic fall. She went into a coma and died later that day.
Hurt married Texan actress and old friend Donna Peacock at a local Registrar's office on 6 September 1984. The couple moved to Kenya. They divorced in early January 1990.
On 24 January 1990, Hurt married American production assistant Jo Dalton, whom he had met while filming Scandal. With her he had two sons: Sasha John Vincent Hurt (born 6 February 1990) and Nick Hurt (born 5 February 1993), who are currently residing in County Waterford, Ireland. Nick has gone to acting school in England and wishes to follow in his father's footsteps. This marriage ended in 1996 and was followed with a seven-year relationship with Dublin-born presenter and writer Sarah Owens. The couple moved to County Wicklow, where they settled close to their friends, director John Boorman and Claddagh Records founder and Guinness heir The Hon Garech de Brun. In July 2002 the couple separated. In March 2005, Hurt married his fourth wife, advertising film producer Anwen Rees Meyers.
In 2004, Hurt was made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE).
In January 2002, Hurt received an honorary degree from the University of Derby and in January 2006 received the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Hull.
In 2007, Hurt took part in the BBC genealogical television series Who Do You Think You Are?, which investigated part of his family history. Prior to participating in the programme, Hurt had harboured a love of Ireland and was enamoured of a 'deeply beguiling' family legend that suggested his great-grandmother had been the illegitimate daughter of Irish nobleman, the Marquess of Sligo. The genealogical evidence uncovered seemed to contradict the family legend, rendering the 'suggestion' doubtful. Coincidentally, the search revealed that his great-grandmother had previously lived in Grimsby at a location within a mile of the art college at which Hurt had once enrolled.
Since 2006, John Hurt has been a patron of Project Harar, a UK-based charity working in Ethiopia for children with facial disfigurements.
Since 2009, he has been patron of QUAD. On 25 September 2009, Hurt visited QUAD and took part in a Q&A directly preceding a screening of the film The Night Train as part of the festivities, celebrating the first birthday at QUAD (opened on 26 September 2008). The day after, 26 September, John Hurt was guest of honour at Derby County vs Bristol City and went on the pitch at Pride Park Stadium at half time to oversee a prize draw.
In 2012 he was appointed the first Provost of Norwich University College of the Arts
Hurt on: The early years | Acting | The Naked Civil Servant | The Elephant Man
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 27 April 2000
John Hurt interviewed by Geoff Andrew
GA: To start at the very beginning, when did you first decide you wanted to act?
JH: Well I first decided when I wanted to act very early, I didn't know how to become an actor, as such, nor did I know that it was possible to be a professional actor, but I first decided that I wanted to act when I was nine. And I was at a very bizarre prep school at the time, to say high anglo-Catholic would be a real English understatement. It was so high it was flying. So I already had an enormous sense of theatre, if you see what I mean, from an early age and the first part that I ever played was the girl in Maeterlinck's The Bluebird and I felt an extraordinary feeling that I was in the place that I was meant to be. And as I say, I didn't think of being an actor as such because the world was a much much bigger place and I had no idea how one would go about becoming an actor. That's when I first wanted to act.
GA: And what was the thrill of it for you?
JH: It's very hard to say, I was effused with a feeling of complete and total enjoyment and I felt that that's where I should be... I don't know what psychological terms I could use, but I felt absolutely in the right place. I felt in the centre of myself and I felt that I could express myself in that way.
GA: Was it also the idea of make-believe and pretending you were somebody else?
JH: Well, yes, pretending to be other people is my game and that to me is the essence of the whole business of acting. Dame Edith Evans was once being interviewed by a very zealous young man down from Oxford on television and saying: "Tell me, Dame Edith, how do you go about it? What do you do? Do you research it? How do you get into them?" and finally she just said: "I pretend, dear boy.". It may be a rather simplistic way of putting it! I remember once when I told Lindsay Anderson at a party that acting was just a sophisticated way of playing cowboys and Indians he almost had a fit.
GA: When you decided you wanted to take acting more seriously, was it a stage career or a film career that you had in mind?
JH: I'll put it onto a more sombre note. I was such a serious young man, or older boy, or whatever I was at that time, and it seemed to me such a huge decision what you're going to do with your life, and I'd already seen the headmaster at Lincoln School, Mr Franklin, in that dreaded interview, when he said: "What are you going to do with your life?" And after swallowing whatever lump was in my throat, I said: "Well, I'd really like to be an actor." And he just laughed, and said: "Well, you may be alright in school plays but you wouldn't stand a chance in the profession." Which I always consider to be something of an irresponsible act for a headmaster. However, where was I? I digress...
GA: I was asking whether it was films or the stage that you...
JH: Ah yes, the question that I asked myself was would I be prepared to stick the rest of my life out in repertory. And the answer that I came up with was yes I would. And so I went forward with it eventually, after many other stories which you might get later.
GA: But you'd actually been to St Martin's School of Art first, as a painter.
JH: Yes, I was. Not that that was what I'd decided to do with my life, but my parents felt that acting was far too insecure. Don't ask me what made them think that painting would be more secure. I think it was down to the fact that at that time you could take what was called an ATD, an art teacher's diploma, and therefore I could be a teacher. Not only would that be secure but it would also be respectable. And for the generation that went through the war, respectability was a very considerable thing and something to be sought.
GA: And your father was a clergyman, wasn't he?
JH: He was, yes.
GA: Did he approve when you did become an actor, by profession?
JH: Well, he couldn't really disapprove, could he? It's just the same business but a different department. So, he didn't disapprove. But I finally presented them with the fact that I was going to go to the Royal Academy because I'd got a scholarship. And I didn't tell them that until I knew I'd got a scholarship, because I'd used my grant at St Martin's School of Art and therefore I had to get a scholarship if I was going to have any other secondary education. And having presented them with the idea of having a scholarship then everything was fine. He was certainly not against the theatre, in fact, they were the ones that took me. My mother loved the theatre and they took me to the theatre, Cleethorpes Rep, on a regular basis, on a Tuesday evening (because it was cheaper).
GA: Were you quite interested in the movies as a child? Did you have any heroes and did you think I would love to be like Cary Grant, or somebody?
JH: Well, no. Films were somewhat frowned upon at that time. Theatre was fine. I was never allowed to go to Saturday morning pictures and things, and the cinema was right across the road from the Vicarage and I could see these lines of people going in there. With enormous envy I watched them go. Apart from anything else, which is a bit of a paradox really, it was considered to be common. Which coming from a clergyman, I would've thought was an odd attitude to take. And indeed I said so, at the age of 16, quite forcibly I believe. Never mind... So I didn't really see much cinema, and television was just coming in. I remember previous to being in Grimsby, there was another wonderful parish that my father sought out - he seemed to seek out the best possible parishes - was a place called Woodville in Derbyshire, in mining country, and there was a certain Mrs Fox-Robinson who had a television that was made of Bakelite, which had a tiny screen and to me was totally captivating, and at every possible opportunity I got to go down there I took to watch whatever it was. But it wasn't films, because they didn't show films then, it was just live performances and news. I never quite understand why we watch the news. There doesn't really seem much point watching somebody tell you what the news is when you could quite easily listen to it on the radio... but anyway, I digress again. That was my first introduction to a screen of any sort. And the first film I saw that I remember quite distinctly was Treasure Island - The Robert Newton one.
GA: I remember talking to you a couple of years ago at the time of Love and Death on Long Island and you were saying that you became very, very interested in French and Italian cinema at some point in your life. Was that when you came to London and were studying here?
JH: Well yes, that was in the later period. If you've read, and I'm sure you have, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, it's all sort of planned out there, isn't it? Using long words and things like that. I'm definitely into Antonioni, into Truffaut and all of the directors at that time. I used to go to the Camden Poly to see the French films and the more esoteric English films, and some of the French films, at the Academy in Oxford Street. I made a pilgrimage to see Jules et Jim on seven consecutive Sundays. And thinking at the time, of course, if they're making them in France now by the time I leave RADA they'll be making them here. Disappointment.
GA: But you did actually have your film debut around this time in The Wild and the Willing.
JH: Yes, the alliteration is really embarrassing. The Wild and the Willing. It was made by Jeremy Thomas' father, Ralph Thomas, produced by Betty Box, in black and white and it was for an English market. And that was 1962 and I was incredibly fortunate really. I left drama school and went straight into a 10-week film for which I was paid £75 I might say, which for 1962 was one heck of a lot of money. I also got Ian McShane the job, too. He got £100 a week.
GA: How did that film actually come about for you. Did you just audition?
JH: It came about through the late, great Julian Belfridge, who saw the film coming up. I'd already signed with him while I was at the Academy and he sent me along for an interview and they gave me a test, which I didn't think I'd get because I knew that Brian Bedford had also tested, and I thought he'd get it but he didn't, it went to me. And I think the reason, forgive me, Jeremy, if you're here, is that I was a little cheaper.
GA: You were, of course, working a great deal in theatre at that time, and you still do, you recently had great success with Krapp's Last Tape. Do you find that you have a preference for film acting, or stage acting and which do you prefer?
JH: Well, I think there's kind of two general answers to that. One is that of Helen Mirren, who when asked that says, I always want to be doing the one that I'm not doing at the minute. Or you can be rather more boring and say I like doing the one that I am doing at the minute, and that is really the course that I would go. You don't even think about the other one. If I'm in theatre, cinema doesn't even cross my mind. Similarly when I'm making a film, theatre doesn't cross my mind. Actually I've just done something, a first in my life, having done Krapp's Last Tape on stage here this year we just filmed it at Ardmore Studios in Ireland. And I've never ever had to transpose a stage performance to a film performance and it's really not easy. Not easy to do at all. I'm not sure that I wish to do that again, because your thinking is somewhat blurred.
GA: Do you find the discipline you bring to the two types of acting very different? Because movie acting is very disjointed, you're not shooting in sequence.
JH: I always reckon that a lot of that is common sense, but you do have to plan a performance in a film and you do have to know where you are. A very good difference was put to me by Michael Colgan who is the artistic director of the Gate theatre in Dublin under whose auspices Krapp's Last Tape was done. And he said: "When you've found your theatrical muscle again, then you're really going to begin to enjoy it." And the thing is, it's rather like two different sports, you use two completely different sets of muscles, and it's the best analogy that I've come across.
GA: Without getting into the situation where you turn around and tell me: "I just pretend," do you do a lot of preparation for your roles? I know you're not very keen on 'The method'
JH: Interviews. If you do an interview in 1960 something it's bound to change by the year 2000. And if it doesn't then there's something drastically wrong. For a start morals have changed, ethics have changed. So do opinions. Let me qualify. I've never really been anti the method as Stanislavski put it down, at a time when Russian theatre was in its doldrums and the Arts Theatre in particular, and he was inspired by the fact that he wanted to get a group of actors together that were really going to use their imagination. Constantly through that book it's all to do with stimulation of the imagination. And whatever method you may use, if that is what you are getting to I would find it completely praiseworthy. No two actors that I've come across work in exactly the same way. And often, like myself, don't work the same way on different parts. Each thing is totally individual. So it would be ridiculous of me to decry somebody's method of working if it is going to produce the kind of work that the method has produced from, say, Brando, Dean, to De Niro, Pacino and so on. Brilliant and fantastic performers. If that's their way, that's their way. It's not my way. And perhaps there was a misunderstanding there that I was perhaps saying that my way was right and that I didn't like the method because I thought it wasn't good.
GA: So what is your way?
JH: I saw that was coming.
GA: I'm always interested in how actors do what they do
JH: There are six questions a journalist asks, and all of them are: "How do you act?"
GA: Isabelle Huppert told me that she liked to find the key to a character and for some reason - this sounded quite bizarre to me but then I'm not an actor - she had to get the shoes right.
JH: Well that's the same as Alec Guinness.
GA: Do you have some key to a character that you usually look for?
JH: No, as I say, I'm not aware of working in the same way... My springboard is always the script. Even if the script is taken from a novel, I often haven't read the novel, I didn't read, for instance, Crime and Punishment before I did it. I read it afterwards. And it was quite interesting to see how critics had managed to say how like I was to particular areas. It's amazing - it's in the eye of the beholder isn't it? The only way I can describe it is that I put everything I can into the mulberry of my mind and hope that it is going to ferment and make a decent wine. How that process happens, I'm sorry to tell you I can't describe.
GA: Well we won't take that any further. You said you like to work from the script. When you are presented with a project, what is it usually that you look for? Is it the script itself, is it the part you have to play, is it the director, or does it change?
JH: Well if I've got the luxury - it's a popular misconception that we have hundreds of scripts on our desks: "Well I think I'll do that one. I'll do that one later in the year" - that does not happen. It's an immensely competitive business and I can tell you the older you get the parts are fewer and the people who are proven performers are greater. It doesn't get any less competitive, that's not how it works. But if I have the luxury of saying the rent is paid and so on, what do I look for? First of all I would look to see if the script would stand the chance of succeeding on the level that it was intended. In other words, I don't mind if it be low comedy, I don't mind if it be an intellectual piece, and everything in between. So long as it stands a chance of working on that level. After that I'd look at the part and say: "Is there anything I can do personally with this? Is there anything I can offer this that is going to be individual, unusual and that I can hopefully make my own?" That's the most luxurious way of being able to choose, but generally speaking, I mark a script like an exam, and I try not to do anything under 50 per cent. Similarly with the part. And also film is a peculiar thing, parts don't necessarily read in script form anything like as well as they can do when it comes to materialising. Which is quite unlike the stage in that sense. I have one example of that in my own life, it was White Mischief. I'd just done 1984 with Mike Radford and I said to him: "What are you going to do next?" And he said: "Well, I'm going to do this film White Mischief, but I don't think there's anything for you in it." And I said: "Oh what a shame". And he said: "Well there's a small part if you're really interested." So I had a look at it and the part was Colvile and it wasn't a long part but it was a fantastic part for screen and I really would've been very sorry not to have done it. But you know, that's how things can happen, how they come about. I mean, you can take the same gamble and it doesn't work.
GA: I can't think of any low comedy that you've done
JH: Only in the street.
GA: You are often thought of as a very serious actor who plays quite often very vulnerable people, but actually there is this wonderful comic talent that you have - as we've just seen in the clips from The Naked Civil Servant and Love and Death on Long Island. And yet when you play comedy, it seems to me, that you play it very straight. That's the wrong word to use with Naked Civil Servant. But you don't play for laughs in a very obvious way, you remain true to the emotions of the character. Would you say that's true?
JH: Well yes I hope so, I don't like it when you jump out of the play, out of the story or out or the character. For one, I don't think it's very funny when you do that. If you're making a film that is lifelike, the humour very often isn't something that the character considers to be amusing. And if it's going to be funny then I think you have to stay with it.
GA: You've also played quite a few characters based on real people. If those people have been recently alive or indeed are still alive do you feel an extra responsibility or is that more difficult to play people simply because you don't want to mimic them?
JH: I try not to mimic, for one I'm not a particularly good mimic. Secondly, I don't think that's the exercise. I don't think there's any difference as far as I'm concerned in approach to whether a person be fiction or real. As far as I'm concerned they're fiction. It still requires the same leap of imagination to get from the page to the physical presence. Quentin [Crisp] did come down to the set once or twice in the Naked Civil Servant and I did have him up to my house a couple of Sundays and interesting it was too. I remember offering him a Guinness because I'd heard he liked Guinness and I'd seen the BBC documentary they made. So I offered him a Guinness and he said: "Yes." So I poured it out for him and we were talking and he finished it so I offered him another Guinness and he said: "Yes." So I poured him another and after that I said: "Would you like another Guinness?" and he said: "No thank you, anymore would be a debauch." It's those sort of delights for an actor. It said everything in a sense.
GA: Do you need to feel some sort of sympathy for the character you are playing? Could you play somebody who you felt had no redeeming features or virtues of at all?
JH: I think it would be very difficult to play somebody if they didn't think they had any virtues or redeeming characteristics. You can play an unlovable character because society doesn't find them easy to love, but somewhere deep inside most people, who do not commit suicide, is a love for themselves. And I think it would be very difficult to play somebody if that area was completely missing, because so much of it would be supposition and so much of it would therefore be a worry. There was that serial killer recently who was a doctor [Harold Shipman] and people said that would be a good role for me to play, but I don't think so. I don't think anybody really knows how that mind works and I think it's too irresponsible to try to understand that kind of thing if is it's going to be based entirely on supposition.
GA: Quite often people have written that you're good at playing victims, I'm not sure if that's the right way of looking at it, but certainly people who are quite frail and vulnerable.
JH: Yes, but a victim is basically the ultimate of most of us. There's a huge amount of vulnerability in everyone who sits in this room. And if you put them under the microscope of the drama, you'd soon find that vulnerability. It's one of the things that I think cinema deals with fantastically well because it deals with privacy and private moments that are material as opposed to literary and I think it's a wonderful medium to be able to understand more clearly the depths and secrecies of people's lives, and can lead to a great deal more understanding.
GA: At this point I would like to bring in a specific film, The Elephant Man, which I think is a remarkable performance in a remarkable film. You had to go through seven hours of make-up a day or something like that...
JH: You've hit the nail on the head, seven hours of make-up every day. Well obviously it wasn't every day, you had to evolve a different way of shooting because you couldn't make up for seven hours, then do a full day and be back on call at 6 or 8 in the morning. So I made up from 4 in the morning until noon basically with odd stops to suck a couple of raw eggs mixed with orange juice between those dreaded gums. We shot then with a running buffet for the crew. I couldn't eat then, at the time - I just want your hearts to bleed - and we finished at 10 at night and then it would take two hours to get off [the make-up], so basically you'd taken up a 24-hour day. And the next day we rehearsed for about three hours in civvies, the scenes we would do the next day. And it turned out in the end to be a very productive way of working. The crew loved it, and in one of those days we were getting about two and a half days work done.
GA: Apart from the ordeal of the make-up process...
JH: Oh I can tell you, the first time it was applied by Chris Tucker, it took 12 hours, and the rest of the cast and the crew were waiting around for this aberration to appear, and I finally did. I was terrified that there was going to be a laugh because no one had seen it. We had no idea when we were creating it whether or not it would be a successful image. Chris Tucker had endeavoured to do in six weeks what it would normally take six months to do. As it happens I kept persuading him because I could see that there was so much tension within the scenes with the disguise, that if we used the disguise until a third of the way through the movie, before you actually see the Elephant Man, we'd keep the suspense going a great deal better. And I knew that David Lynch, he'd deny this now, but I can tell you it's true, he wanted to see the elephant man almost in the second scene, in his full glory as it were, or lack of it. And I reckoned that I knew more dramatically than he did. I certainly didn't know more in terms of image on screen because I don't think anybody does, he is the greatest director in the world for image on screen - that's around at the minute - when he's at his best. But in terms of drama he sometimes does lose it, and I felt he did there, so that's how that came about. I was digressing again.
GA: What I was trying to get out is that given you were talking about characters being put under the microscope in cinema, here you were playing a character under all this weight of make-up and yet you give such an expressive performance and it's about a character who hadn't been allowed to express himself prior to the story of the film, as it were. So did you find it very difficult or frustrating to become very expressive under all that make-up?
JH: I have to say on the first day - oh yes, I got back to where I was in the story anyway, I can continue now - fortunately they didn't laugh, you could have heard a pin drop. From then on that gave me and David Lynch (who was a very young director at the time) confidence, and also all the cast and the crew. At that moment we knew we had something. You never know with film but we felt there was a chance of succeeding. After the first time I actually shot with make-up, I thought they had found a way of me not enjoying filming and at the end of that day I thought: "How am I possibly going to get through to the end of this? It's agony, it's so difficult." But oddly enough, like everything else, you grow used to it, you begin to take on the challenges that it offers you and also the wonderful thing about film, you can see light at the end of the tunnel. You did realise that it is going to come to an end at some stage and finally it did become incredibly enjoyable. It became like a very tight family, the whole making of that film.
John Hurt interviewed by Geoff Andrew
John Hurt interview for An Englishman in New York
After 34 years and 120-odd films, John Hurt has arrived back at the role that launched his brilliant career: Quentin Crisp. It’s been a long journey and quite a bumpy ride, he tells Mick Brown.
19 Dec 2009 in The Telegraph
I’d love to claim that what I have done in my life is of my doing; but it’s not of my doing at all,’ John Hurt says. 'I’ve blown around in the wind like a mad thing; influenced by this and that – like a piece of paper, like the boy in that scene in American Beauty watching a piece of paper blowing hither and thither.’ He pauses. 'That’s a wonderful image, isn’t it?’
After a peripatetic, and often inebriated, journey that has seen him make more than 120 films – 'or that’s what I’m told’ – win two Oscar nominations, suffer three divorces, make homes in Kenya and Ireland, get knocked down but, as the song has it, get up again, at the age of 69 John Hurt appears finally to have arrived at a place of contentment.
'Oh, don’t say that,’ he winces. 'I always bridle at the word. It sounds too complacent. I don’t really feel that.’
Hurt lives with his fourth wife, Anwen, in Norfolk, but the couple keep a flat in London, a stone’s throw from Tottenham Court Road, and a short stroll to the hotel where we meet for coffee.
As a boy Hurt was so pretty that he was always offered the female part in school plays. In more recent times, he has become better known for his ravaged countenance – a face not so much lived in as squatted by the innumerable characters he has played, compounded by a dedicated regime of rackety living. As one of his former wives once put it, if Hurt looked as if he hadn’t slept in 25 years, at least one could be assured that 'he’s been up doing interesting things’.
But he has been off the booze for five or six years now – cigarettes took a little longer to quit, but they have gone too – and the odd thing is that he seems to have somehow turned time backwards: the face is still as creased as an old Ordnance Survey map pulled from a rucksack, yet he glows with an almost youthfully rude health.
Hurt has made a life from playing misfits, outsiders, but he is now about to reprise perhaps his most famous part of all. A new television film, An Englishman in New York, sees him returning to the role of Quentin Crisp, the flamboyant exhibitionist, raconteur and self-described 'stately homo of England’, whom Hurt first played in the 1975 television adaptation of Crisp’s autobiography,
The Naked Civil Servant. Hurt had already distinguished himself as a young screen actor in A Man For All Seasons and 10 Rillington Place, but it was his performance as the queenly Crisp that earned him his first Bafta award and made his reputation.
The Naked Civil Servant told the story of how Denis Pratt, the son of a Surrey solicitor, 'dyed’ his name Quentin Crisp, and floated through the grim environs of pre- and post-war London like some exotic bird of paradise, purple-haired and tight-waisted, displaying what the author Paul Bailey would describe as 'absurd courage’ in the face of frequent provocation – 'absurd only in the sense that the prevailing moral climate made it so.’ Crisp negotiated life with a singular mixture of implacable determination to remain true to his own nature at whatever the cost, extreme compliance with whatever was requested of him, and exquisite manners: 'I seem,’ he once remarked to a gang of thugs who had viciously beaten him on the street, 'to have annoyed you gentlemen in some way.’
At the time he was offered the role of Crisp, homosexuality may have been commonplace in the theatrical world – Hurt says that as a young actor he quickly grew accustomed to 'running like mad’ from certain directors: 'They were all fabulous people, and all naughty as hell’ – but it was regarded as a toxic subject for a television play. 'My advisers all said, don’t touch it with a bargepole,’ Hurt remembers.
He had just finished performing in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties in London, and turned down the opportunity to reprise his role on Broadway in order to play Crisp. '[The director] Peter Wood was furious: “How dare you!” He just told me I was absolutely stupid to think of doing a little tinpot English television piece when I could be doing a third lead on Broadway. But I had huge faith it. It’s funny how you sense these things. Just instinct tells you, this is an important piece. Although I had no idea it was going to be as important as it became.’
'A lot of people told John, you’ll never work again,’ Jack Gold, who directed The Naked Civil Servant, remembers. 'But far from never working again, he’s never stopped working since.’
Hurt, Gold continues, 'has that rare ability that really good actors have of creating their own space around themselves; of not saying “look at me, look at me!”, but of totally inhabiting the part. The quality of his acting is very, very delicate. He can suggest a remarkable number of things with just a slight movement of the head, the eyes. And it was perfect for Quentin. There were times when he was exuberant and flamboyant, but there was always this central core of “don’t touch” around him, which John captured so brilliantly.’
The Naked Civil Servant was to prove a watershed in changing public perceptions of homosexuality, and elevated Quentin Crisp to the status of minor folk hero. Hurt once recalled that, after the film was broadcast, '70 per cent’ of the cabbies whose taxi he got into waived the fare, apparently stricken with remorse by the scene in which Crisp is turned away by a taxi driver and left to the hands of a baying mob.
Once a pariah, now celebrated as a paragon of individualism and an icon of style, Crisp took to the stage performing a one-man show of anecdotes and observations – 'the smiling and nodding racket’, as he put it, instructing people in the difficult business of 'how to be happy’. That took him to New York in 1978, where he eventually moved for good in 1981 at the age of 72. It is at this point that An Englishman in New York begins, with Crisp sashaying through Greenwich Village in full camp regalia.
But the welcome was not unconditional. Crisp always refused to become a flag-bearer for 'gay liberation’, arguing that his crusade was for identity and individuality rather than 'the lesser right to sexual freedom’. (Sex, he always maintained, was 'the last refuge of the miserable’.) And he fell foul of the more strident gay advocates who regarded him as an embarrassing throwback to the stereotype of the effeminate homosexual. When he made the mistake of describing Aids, which was then scything through the gay community, as 'a fad’, he became a pariah all over again.
But Crisp, Hurt says, was that rarest of things, a man who truly lived his own philosophy. 'One of his great, great lines was, “Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses – always drag them down to your level. It’s cheaper.” But apart from it being cheaper it is a level from which you can operate. It’s a level where you don’t need to find humility – it is humble per se. That was where Quentin was such a wonderfully contradictory character. Even if he was sitting in the corner doing nothing at all, he was the centre of that scene. He was the sun. But at the same time he was extraordinarily humble.’
Hurt says he was initially apprehensive about returning to the role. 'The Naked Civil Servant had cut such an extraordinary path for itself, and affected a great many people in different ways, that I thought it was better to let sleeping dogs lie rather than disturb it and maybe dissipate it. But then when I got the script [by Brian Fillis], I thought, well, obviously it can’t be like The Naked Civil Servant – it’s not cutting-edge in that sense. But it’s very beautifully observed, by someone who obviously loved and respected him enormously.’
Stepping into Crisp’s shoes after 34 years and visiting his subject’s old haunts in New York was, Hurt admits, a distinctly odd experience. 'Everywhere I went there were people saying, “Quentin! My God, I thought you were dead!” But then, understanding that he was dead and that I was portraying him, they would still come over and talk to me as if I was Quentin, and they’d speak to me for half an hour: “You remember, of course you remember…” And I just listened, like Quentin did. You sit there and you listen.’
If The Naked Civil Servant was characterised by a touching exuberance, An Englishman in New York inevitably strikes a more elegiac note. Hurt perfectly captures Crisp’s quiet and uncomplaining acceptance of an encroaching frailty that no amount of chiffon or mascara can disguise, his fatalistic resignation – I am what I am – to being as much of an outsider in the New York gay community as he was in the stiflingly conventional world of 1940s and 50s London.
It is almost as if Hurt is more Quentin Crisp than Crisp himself. 'You do feel inextricably bound up in all this,’ he says, 'particularly when you come upon a line with Quentin saying, “Oh no, not the film again”, referring to The Naked Civil Servant, and you think, “Wait a minute, that’s the film that I did; I was being you. Which way round is this?” And it was full of extraordinary echoes like that.’
During the making of The Naked Civil Servant, Hurt and Crisp became friends, but Crisp was always cryptic in his opinion of Hurt’s depiction of him. 'I did ask him once, Quentin what did you think of it – in considerable trepidation. And he said’ – Hurt slips easily into a mimicry of Crisp’s drawled, fluting tones – '“Well, it’s a lot better than real life, because it’s so much shorter.” Was that a compliment? I don’t know.
'He was very funny about the things I did. He said, “Mr Hurt always plays me; he played Caligula, which was only me in a sheet. Then he played the Elephant Man, which was only me with a paper bag over his head.” He took to describing me as his representative here on earth, in full papal mode. And that’s what I seem to have become.’
An hour or two spent in Hurt’s company is a diverting experience. He is a thoughtful and amusing man, refreshingly devoid of vanity or self-regard. He says that had he gone to university he would have loved to have read philosophy. And he admits to being something of an autodidact on the subject: 'Bertrand Russell, a bit of Wittgenstein and so on…’ He gives a dismissive shrug. 'But I’m terribly homespun, take no notice.’
He has a tendency towards Eeyore-ish pronouncements on the state of the world, society and the human condition, abruptly changing the course of our conversation at various points to declaim on the war in Afghanistan – 'What are we doing there? When I was a boy we were the knight in shining armour, standing up against the horrors of fascism, and now we seem to be on the other side’ – his fears that we are slipping towards a totalitarian society, and the unknowable forces that shape a man’s character. 'What made Napoleon be Napoleon?’ he exclaims suddenly at one point. 'Does nobody ever ask that? What made it possible for this little prat from Corsica to think that he was capable of rolling an army around Europe murdering as many people as he wished?’
Hurt was born in Shirebrook, a colliery town in Derbyshire, the youngest of three boys. (The middle son later died, and his parents adopted a girl.) He was a solitary child. His father, Arnould, was an Anglican vicar. His parents had an exacting sense of social position, and Hurt was largely forbidden from playing with the village boys or going to the cinema. At the age of eight he was sent away to board at an Anglo-Catholic prep school in Kent, where his father, as a clergyman, got a discount, and which Hurt hated. Its sole compensations were the rituals of daily worship, which he adored – 'it was so High Church it made the papacy look positively puritanical’ – and his participation in school drama. It was his role as the little girl in a school production of Maeterlinck’s The Bluebird that first convinced Hurt that he belonged on a stage.
His enthusiasm for religion began to wane as a teenager. 'My great parting with my father was when I said, I don’t see how you can say that you’re right and everybody else is wrong. I’m sorry, but I just don’t get it.’ Hurt’s brother Michael proved even more contrary, abandoning Anglicanism and becoming a Catholic monk. He is now Brother Anselm, the kitchener at Glenstal Abbey in Ireland. 'Catholicism!’ Hurt feigns his father’s outrage. 'To the anti-Christ! I mean, come on! But it did mean that I could get away with my agnosticism.’ He laughs. 'I could nip out without being shot at!’
His parents discouraged him from applying to drama school, considering acting too insecure. Instead, he attended art school, first in Grimsby and then at St Martins in London, where he arrived in 1959. It was an Australian girlfriend, feeding the impoverished Hurt from her job in a Wimpy bar, who pushed him into applying for Rada. He won a scholarship for £3 a week, and burnt all his paintings 'in one of those Faustian deals you make with yourself at that age’.
Hurt’s best roles have been characters who are outside society, 'outside of love’, as he puts it – the vulnerable, the flawed, the tormented: Quentin Crisp, Winston Smith in 1984, John Merrick in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (a performance that moved Lynch to describe Hurt as 'the greatest actor I have ever worked with’). It is hard to imagine him playing light comedy or a romantic leading man, although his emotional range as an actor is extraordinary. There could be no greater contrast, for example, to the epicene, gentle-hearted Crisp than the role of 'old man Peanut’, which he plays in a new film to be released next month: 44 Inch Chest is a harrowing study in male violence, with Hurt as a vicious and malevolent old lag, spitting out expletives as he bullies and cajoles a friend (played by Ray Winstone) into exacting retribution on a waiter who has slept with his wife. 'It’s an enormously poetic piece,’ Hurt says with evident enthusiasm. 'Tough, hard poetry, if you like.’ (Aggression seems to have always been a weapon in Hurt’s acting armoury. He recalls somebody once asking the English teacher at school why he had cast Hurt as Lady Bracknell. 'And he said, “Oh, he’s so aggressive.” I got very aggressive at that…’ He thinks for a moment. 'It’s one of those remarks that you collect through life. I remember thinking, that’s interesting, that’s something I would never see myself as. But he was right.’)
Hurt’s two Oscar nominations came relatively early in his career: Best Supporting Actor in 1979 for Midnight Express, and Best Actor for The Elephant Man in 1981. But he was never really taken up by Hollywood. The first role he was offered following the The Elephant Man was Quasimodo in a remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He wisely sidestepped that (Anthony Hopkins who had played the doctor in The Elephant Man, took the role), but was persuaded into other major studio films against his better judgment. He made Partners with Ryan O’Neal, which was written by Francis Veber, who wrote La cage aux folles – 'but unfortunately not directed by him’ – and a film entitled Night Crossing, which he succinctly describes as being 'about a balloon’, and leaves it at that.
I can’t call it to mind, I say.
Hurt sighs. 'You wouldn’t.’
Since then, what he regards as his best work has been in independent films: playing the ill-starred society osteopath Stephen Ward in Scandal, 'which if I was giving myself awards I would put above most’; and Love and Death in Long Island, Gilbert Adair’s homage to Death in Venice in which Hurt played an ageing novelist who jettisons his dignity when he falls obsessively in love with a younger man. 'A wonderful film,’ he says, 'but it was completely ignored when it came to awards.’
He has always been a prolific – one might almost say incontinent – actor: an average of three films a year, plus plays and television. 'I’m not complaining. I’ve enjoyed every bit of it. Well, I say every bit of it – there are bits I haven’t.’
There have, I say, been some real stinkers.
'Oh yes,’ he says. 'But there are certain things you just can’t resist.’
Perhaps his oddest role was playing la Dame aux Chats in an operatic version of Romeo and Juliet in 1990. Hurt was the only human in a cast made up entirely of cats, although, in his defence, it should be said that Vanessa Redgrave, Ben Kingsley and Maggie Smith were all persuaded to lend their voices to the project. The film was conceived, produced and directed by an American named Armando Acosta, who subsequently changed his name to Swami Ganapati and became a self-styled spiritual guru. 'He had this cult around him,’ Hurt remembers, 'and all the money had come from them; they didn’t drink and didn’t smoke, and it was very peculiar. Completely surreal, but I couldn’t resist it. I said to Armando, why is it necessary to have me playing a cat woman? And he said, it’s to do with your spirituality. I said, I see, right… He’d show me the rushes at the end of the day and say, “She’s stunning, the cat playing Juliet.” I’d go, “Mmmm…”’
It wasn’t even a particularly good pay day. He has never, he says, been particularly well paid, never made a million dollars for a film, 'never anywhere near’. Ironically, his largest ever fee was the $750,000 he earned in 1990 for Frankenstein Unbound, directed and produced by Roger Corman, famously the most parsimonious producer in Hollywood. 'Paid me more than anyone else,’ Hurt says with a laugh. 'It’s as perverse as my life.’
The waiter arrives offering more coffee. Hurt declines and asks whether they might find him a herbal tea. These days, he takes good care of himself, but this wasn’t always the case. Hurt was once almost as well known for his fondness for a drink as he was for his acting, a toping partner of such habitually thirsty friends as Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed, and a habitué of the Colony Room club, where he would knock it back with the likes of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. The writer John Doran provides a vivid account of his first visit to the club, ascending the narrow stairs and being 'nearly knocked back down again by John Hurt, who was being helped on his way by alcohol, gravity and a gentle push from some burly chaps, who shouted after him, “F*** off!”.’ 'One of the most interesting places in London, without a doubt,’ Hurt says warmly.
Hurt once boasted that in order to get into the character of the dissolute Max in Midnight Express he was drinking seven bottles of wine a day – a number he later amended to three. At one Bafta awards ceremony he took a swing at a photographer, missed and ended up on the floor, and he was once ejected from Spearmint Rhino, a lap-dancing club, for 'disrespectful behaviour’ towards staff.
When in 2004 Hurt played the part of the Conservative MP Alan Clark in a television adaptation of Clark’s diaries, the comedy programme Dead Ringers produced a cuttingly funny spoof of Hurt fretting over how he was ever going to get into the role of 'some irresponsible drunken rogue’, concluding, 'I suppose I’ll just have to wing it.’
Hurt manages to raise a laugh when I mention this. But it’s a sore point. He swore off the booze some years ago, 'and I really don’t want to talk about it’. He admits, however, that his reputation as a drunk had begun to weigh on him. 'Although I didn’t admit it at the time. I used to go huge lengths of time completely dry, and then I’d have a bit of a bash, you know? And I always seemed to get caught when I’d done something wrong.’
When the gossip columnists and photographers just happened to be around? 'Absolutely,’ he says. 'And again, it’s not being in control of your own destiny, being blown around like a piece of tissue paper, and allowing yourself to go there. It’s a fascinating way to live, but it’s a bit… public.’
If there is a note of regret here, one suspects it is less for the roistering than the fact that personal circumstance and the age we live in makes it impossible now.
'I think Peter O’Toole put his finger on it, and I haven’t heard it better described: he said, we did drink, but we drank to feed something else, not for alcohol in its own right. It created a fire of all sorts of everything – interest, desire and so on. And even if that’s not really the case, it was perceived as being the case. When it started to go wrong, of course, is when that kind of perception became out of fashion almost. And you suddenly look and think, wait a minute, I’m wildly out of step here, and is that a good thing?’
We live in a more puritanical, more boring, age?
'Oh, much more. Just the other day I was in a restaurant looking at a table which in the 1960s would have had endless bottles of wine on it, and which had two glasses. It’s just not used in the same way at all. I don’t know what creates the fire now.’
Drink also took its toll on Hurt’s personal life. Two of his former wives blamed the break-up of their marriages on his drinking, although one senses that, beyond that, Hurt has always been an incorrigible romantic, a man whose perpetual optimism in matters of the heart has tended to somewhat get the better of him.
His first marriage, when he was 22, to an actress, Annette Robinson, lasted only two years. His Who’s Who entry does not so much as mention it. A 16-year relationship with the French model Marie-Lise Volpeliere-Pierrot ended tragically in 1983 when she was killed in a riding accident. The following year he married a waitress, Donna Peacock, and decamped to Kenya, where he had been filming White Mischief, and where he invested a small fortune building a mansion near Nairobi. That marriage came to an end in 1988 when Hurt was making Scandal and fell in love with the director’s assistant, Jo Dalton. They married in 1990, moved to a Georgian farmhouse in Ireland, and had two sons, Nicholas and Alexander, but divorced in 1996. Hurt returned to Donna Peacock, but that reunion was to prove short-lived. He is now married to Anwen Rees-Meyers, a former actress and classical pianist who directs advertisements, and who is 25 years his junior. They met at the bar of the Groucho club seven years ago and married in 2005. His sons are now 16 and 19 and live mostly with their mother in Ireland.
When I ask Hurt what advice he would give them on the matter of love, a look of pained caution flickers across his face.
'It’s an interesting word, love.’ He pauses. 'What does somebody mean when they say, I love you?’
I want you? I need you?
'Or, I understand you. Or, I wish you understood me. I think love can be really tough. Because it involves ultimately an honesty to the nth degree that you are capable of. Once said, you’ve lost your deposit. It’s best if you don’t say it.’
Isn’t it the supreme act of optimism? Nobody embarks on love believing their heart will be broken…
'No, but you can be awfully aware that it’s possible.’
But still one does it.
'Well, I do, and have done, and fabulously in many ways.’ He pauses – mindful perhaps of how his candour has got him into trouble in the past. 'One always has to be careful with this, because if it gets put into print and doesn’t quite suit the other person then they say, oh you said that, did you? So you don’t really…’
He and Anwen spend most of their time nowadays at their home near Cromer. In recent years, Hurt has returned more seriously to painting; he has a studio in the barn. He seems almost reticent in talking about it, as if afraid that he will be mocked. 'Well, we live in an age of specialists, don’t we? You’re almost frowned on if you step outside what you do as a living. Or if you do, it’s called a hobby if you’re English.’ His voice drips with comic disdain. '“Oh, you’ve got a hobby, have you?” “Oh I do a bit of painting.”
'But it’s a matter of still trying to discover things, trying to discover the human condition in one sense or another. Really, I’m only alive out of curiosity. I’m very curious about where we’re all marching.’ He thinks for a moment, and reaches for his tea. 'Hither and thither.’