John Hurt is an actor who needs little introduction. Over the course of his fifty-year career he has distinguished himself in countless screen roles, from playing unconventional leading men in The Naked Civil Servant and The Elephant Man through a formidable array of memorable character parts in movies as diverse as Alien (where he quite literally burst onto the screen in the film’s most notorious scene), The Proposition and this month’s arthouse gangster flick, 44 Inch Chest. In our exclusive interview he casts an eye back over his life in film:
From what I’ve seen you seem to be drawn to playing characters living on the margins of society?
– Well, they don’t fit in quite as readily as some people, that’s true. I don’t think it was a conscious decision though. I didn’t go out saying ‘This is the way I’m going to do things. This is how I’m going to live my life’…because I’ve never really planned anything. That seems to be how people see me, and presumably that is how I’d prefer to be seen because that is what I tend to do. It’s not intended, particularly, but it’s not denied.
When you say you’ve never planned anything, do you mean then that you fell into the acting profession?
– No, I didn’t. I far from fell into it, really. But I didn’t plan to be in it. I worked to get into it, but I didn’t set out with any ambitions, saying ‘Right, well I’m going to satisfy these first, and these second.’ It’s always seemed to me that people who make plans are people who make God laugh.
You seem to have trends in the films you pick; recently you appear to have switched from making more mainstream movies to stuff that would be considered arthouse?
– Again, that’s not planned, that’s just how it happened. I mean, I can’t really help it if Steven Spielberg rings up and says ‘Do you want to make a film with me?’ [referring to his role in Indiana Jones IV] And I don’t think I can be blamed for saying ‘Yeah, sure!’ So that’s how that sort of happened. In fact I thought it was a hoax! ‘Oh yeah, pull the other one’. But I’m glad I didn’t treat it like that. That would have been rather embarrassing.
How was it working with David Lynch on The Elephant Man [for which he was nominated for an Academy award for Best Actor]?
David Lynch and I worked very closely together. I mean as far as you can. There’s an area of David Lynch that is absolutely specific to himself and nobody is going to work closely with that, you know? He’s seriously auteur. And nobody is going to know exactly what’s in the centre of his thought or exactly what it is he’s after. If you think of yourself there’s surely an area of yourself that you can’t describe to anyone? Well that, when you’re working with an auteur filmmaker, is quite a powerful area – a large area.
Do you get a sense sometimes when you’re making a film like The Elephant Man that it’s going to be special?
Well, yes, I think that sometimes you can feel it. But I think you have to be very careful that you’re not talking about retrospect. I think you know that you’re making something quite special or at least you think it’s quite special. But you can’t necessarily know that it’s going to be something that is commercial – If people are really going to want to go and see it. You can have an inkling that’s going to be the case.
Is there a role of yours of which you’re most proud ?
Generally speaking I don’t really like to compare because the nice thing about them is that they’re different. But I suppose if I was going to choose one out of everything I’ve done, I would choose something that made a difference in terms of the way the audience thought about me, and that would probably be The Naked Civil Servant [in which he played gay icon Quentin Crisp]. But Elephant Man‘s up there, you know.
Is portraying characters who are based closely on real-life figures something that interests you?
– It actually doesn’t, particularly. I mean it does so happen that a lot of the people I’ve played have existed or were even alive when I played them, but I don’t think that actually makes any difference dramatically to the character that one plays. You know, poetic truth is not necessarily the same as fact. Indeed, because it happened to exist does not make it the only purveyor of truth, by any means. If that were the case, where would the poets be? They are a benchmark in terms of truth, in a sense.
Is that how you feel when you play these roles then – you don’t worry so much about imitating the real-life person, you just try and capture the sense of them?
-That’s exactly right. You’ve hit the nail on the head there.
Do you feel as an actor that you’ve accomplished everything that you wanted to?
– Oh, Jesus, no. Not at all, no. I wish I did -that’d be a nice thought. But then that’s not really for me to think, that’s for somebody else to think. I feel that there’s lots more I’d like to say yet.
Do you feel close to the work you’ve done in the past, or once you’re finished with a character do you think you leave it behind?
– Well, that’s a part of it: saying ‘Well, that’s the end of that’ and then moving onto the next thing, but anything that you do hopefully becomes part of you anyway. You might like to think that you’ve got rid of it, but you haven’t actually because it’s hanging about there somewhere.
Is that why you chose to revisit the character of Quentin Crisp in An Englishman in New York?
Well, no, I got the opportunity to do that. I mean, that was extraordinary – that doesn’t happen much in anybody’s lifetime. To be able to go back to a character 33 years later and at the same time be completely justified about it because by that time I was the same age as Quentin was when I first played him from the age of 18 to 68. This time I was 68 and he was long gone.
Did they approach you with the role?
Yes, they came to me. I was the obvious person to come to, I guess, when they had the idea. I was a little bit reluctant to begin with. I didn’t really want to devalue the currency of The Naked Civil Servant. But then when I saw the script and I had had a long conversation with the screenwriter Brian Frillis and Richard Laxton who directed it, it seemed to me that they all understood what the pitfalls were and they had very proper ideas as to how we should make it. And how it would stand, as it were, because you couldn’t possibly expect to do what the first one did because it was a different time in history altogether and this was a different era, and a different area and era in somebody’s life as well. It would have to be of a different nature and a different texture. And I felt that what we all were after was possible.
Is it true that you pick projects based on whether you think they’ll succeed on their own terms?
Yes, that’s almost exactly right. Anything that I do should stand a chance of succeeding on the level that it is intended to succeed on.
Can I ask you about your involvement in the last Harry Potter films?
Oh, that was a lot of fun. But very strange for me, because my involvement was as Ollivander in the first one, and then I didn’t do anything right through the middle until these last two. And of course by that time all those children had grown up. It was really strange.
It must be quite fun filming the Harry Potter movies as well because they’ve got a pretty impressive array of British actors?
Oh yes, well they’ve got pretty much everybody you can think of now. When we started nobody really had any idea whether it would be a successful enterprise or not. Back then there was much more pussy-footing around and being careful, because although the books were hugely successful that didn’t necessarily mean that the films were going to follow suit, but they did – and the rest is history now.