John Hurt appears to be the quintessential English actor, complete with regal use of the Queen’s English and a moustache that would be the envy of Kitchener. It was all a bit intimidating to a student reporter, challenged with finding something interesting to ask this stalwart of the industry at the very end of weeks of non-stop promotion interviews. I feared that the radio interviewer before me might have pushed Hurt to the outer reaches of his tether by asking him to record some soundbites for the morning breakfast show: not a bit of it; he was instantly welcoming, offering me a drink and ushering me over to a small table to sit down with him and chat one-on-one.
Hurt was clearly enthusiastic about The Oxford Murders, his new film co-starring Elijah Wood about a series of murders committed in Oxford that are linked by a mathematical theme. He was adamant that the film re-wrote the conventional murder mystery template by unveiling the action, not like a Miss Marple mystery where the pieces fit together like a puzzle, but by unfolding events before your eyes, revealing twists that you could never possibly have seen coming. Hurt denied that the plot was woven over stereotypical Oxford scenery of tweed-wearing dons and pampered public school kids, instead saying that the film was about developing the idiosyncrasies of each character in a way that did not conform to any preconceived perceptions, although he added that if you considered his natural accent as being traditional Oxford then there’s not a lot he could do about it.
Hurt plays the character of Arthur Seldom, a brilliant maths professor, but did little research for the role, saying only that he spoke to a few people at New College and nothing more, demonstrating the confidence he has in his ability to portray the character on his own terms and in the ‘brilliant writing’.
Although an actor held in great regard, Hurt profusely denied my suggestion that he might now be at the stage in his career where he could pick and choose roles. He made it clear that this is a common myth held about actors of his ilk, saying that there are not many roles about for someone of his age, and that of these, very few are worth pursuing.
In the same vein he bemoaned the state of the British film industry, his view being that ‘this government is doing nothing to help us’, and that although British films were always a challenge to make, it is ‘almost impossible’ to get the funding now. With this depressing indictment of the UK, I asked for his view on Hollywood to which he replied that the big film studios are now doing market research before they make films to ensure they maximise profit, rather than producing movies because they have a director’s passion and an original idea.
‘Surely that’s the wrong way round to do things’ he said; I’m inclined to agree with him.