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It's difficult to sum up John Hurt's career in a short space, because he's had so many iconic, career-defining roles: as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant; Caligula in I, Claudius; John Merrick in The Elephant Man; Kane (the first victim) in Alien; Winston Smith in 1984; Max in Midnight Express; Giles De'Ath in Love And Death On Long Island—the list goes on and on. Over 45 years in television, film, and the theater, Hurt has been tremendously prolific, ranging from starring roles in his own vehicles to a lively side career as a narrator (for Perfume, The Story Of A Murderer, Lars von Trier's Dogville and Manderlay, and the Jim Henson TV series The Storyteller, among many other projects) and in animated films (as Aragorn in Ralph Bakshi's The Lord Of The Rings, Hazel in Watership Down, and many more). He has another five films currently in production. In his latest, Beyond The Gates, he plays a Catholic priest running a school in Rwanda, where he shelters thousands of tribal Tutsis during the 1991 massacre, and observes, with growing fury, the U.N.'s refusal to intervene. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Hurt about acting methods, the six questions journalists ask, and how actors are born, not made.
The A.V. Club: Your character in Beyond The Gates seemed unusually complicated, like someone with a lot of history and internal conflict. Was that nuance present when you first read the script, or did it develop over time?
John Hurt: That's a very good question, and a hard one to answer in retrospect. I think I always saw the possibility of it. I have a certain amount of experience, in a sense, in my own family, in regard to the kind of character. Whether it was entirely there—the script was not, when I first saw it, in particularly good shape, and it was really due to a great deal of very, very hard and very good work by [director] Michael Caton-Jones that the script became what it finally was. Certainly it was enough to entice me to say, "Yes, I think this is an interesting project. Let's have a crack at it." Not that [Rwanda] is the sort of subject you're waiting for. It's something which you feel, in a strange way—I don't want this to sound like some sort of terrible duty, but you feel kind of obligated if you're asked to do a piece like this, as it doesn't reflect the sweetest side of human nature. I think it was always there, but I don't think it was there as completely as perhaps it is in the finished product.
AVC: When you say you had experience with that kind of character in your family, do you mean because of your father?
JH: Well, my father's a clergyman, and he was in the mission field for a certain amount of time in British Honduras, which is now Belize. My uncle was also—both of them mathematicians, I might say, though that's absolutely apropos of nothing—and he was head of what was called the Bush Brotherhood in Queensland, Australia. So, you know, there is what they call "material to draw on."
AVC: So how do you go about developing characters? Primarily on your own? With the director? With the screenwriter?
JH: All three of those things, really. It's a collective process, on one hand; it's an individual process on the other. The truth is rarely pure and never simple, as dear Oscar [Wilde] would say. A great of it, of course, is, you collect as much information as you can and then you put it into the mulberry of your mind and hope that you come up with a decent wine. Sometimes you do; sometimes you don't.
AVC: What sort of process do you prefer in developing characters with a director?
JH: Very, very broadly speaking, you can put directors into two areas: One for whom you work, and the other with whom you work. And I prefer the latter, for obvious reasons. It's a great relief to feel that you're working with someone rather than for someone. You don't feel that you're being tested, as it were.
AVC: Which directors that you've worked with have fit best into your sensibility?
JH: Well, who's become my very good friend, Richard Kwietniowski—I've enjoyed working with enormously for those reasons. I did Love And Death On Long Island with him, and Owning Mahowny. And indeed, I work very well with Michael Caton-Jones. This is the third film I've done with him, and all three films are quite, quite different. So it's quite a broad experience with him. And somehow we know how each other ticks, you know? Since this is an interview, I'm having to be rather general, insofar as we don't have the time nor each other's presence to make it any more specific. Who else? Stephen Frears is another director that I enormously enjoyed working with, and I feel as though I worked with him more than I have, because I know him so well. Oh gosh, there are so many. I enormously liked working with Jim Sheridan in The Field. That was very exciting. I love working with Jim Jarmusch, though I've only done one film with him, Dead Man. And I'd love to repeat that, I have to say. And I'm massively enjoying the man I'm working with at the minute, Álex de la Iglesia, a Spanish director.
Oh, I've enjoyed working with lots of people, really. And then on the other hand, the older school: Fred Zinnemann, John Huston, Richard Fleischer, in my early, much more formative days. They were fantastic to work with at that time. Though I think one's constantly in formative days.
AVC: Do you think that what made those old-school directors fulfilling to work with is different from what makes directors fulfilling for you to work with today?
JH: That's tricky, because things change, you know? The public changed, for instance, in the 10 years before Beethoven wrote the Ninth Symphony. One could consider that old-fashioned, because he didn't realize what had happened in those 10 years in terms of the public. The public moves on, you know? We have more or less the same weapons. We have a certain talent, and we have a certain taste. But I consider myself very fortunate to have been on the end of that particular period, and to be able to have had a real working relationship with men like that. They were, at that moment in time, enormously exciting, but probably if they were working now, they themselves would not be directing in quite the same way, because things change.
AVC: Do you regret the change in public tastes and in the way movies have changed between then and now?
JH: Oh, good God, no. You can't regret that. I mean, really what one tries to do is not to lose touch.
AVC: How do you go about that?
JH: By hopefully keeping your sensibilities open and your options open, your mind open, and listening rather than talking. If you listen, you learn; if you talk, you don't.
AVC: But do you keep current by following new directors' leads, or watching current films, or through other methods?
JH: I think you get that from life, really. I mean, it all comes from life. It comes from where life is at the minute. And life, as we know from the last century and going into this one, is as turbulent as you could get.
AVC: So how do you use it to prepare for roles?
JH: I would be hard-pressed to tell you how in any sort of scientific, specific way. Acting is an imaginative leap, really, isn't it? And imaginations prosper in different circumstances. And it's being able—I can't tell you how one does, but one tries to read those circumstances correctly.
AVC: Is acting as it's being taught today different from acting as it was taught when you were in school?
JH: Well, that's constantly on the change, too. Yes, I think it probably is. I think it's interesting to see how things come into and go out of fashion. I think probably one saw what's called the Method—I don't like calling it the Method, because I don't think it's really got a great deal to do with Stanislavski, which is where the Method was born. It's more to do with Lee Strasberg, which is not quite the same thing. It's more a therapeutic approach to acting, in which you delve into your own emotions and apply them to the characters you're playing. That's quite unlike the style or the way in which I was brought up, which was to go to the character, to take whatever it is you have, and employ it in understanding the character rather than understanding yourself first. You could call this a lot of intellectual nonsense, really, but you're asking me, so I'm trying to answer.
AVC: When you're working with much younger actors in films like Beyond The Gates or Love And Death On Long Island, are the differences between your methods and your co-stars' methods ever an issue, or a difficulty?
JH: In the end, the game is the same. Football is still football. Now, they may play with different formations, they may have a different idea of training, but the game doesn't alter. I don't mind how any performer—indeed, why should I? How arrogant of me if I did?—manages to get to what they have to get to. It doesn't matter how you get there, as long as it isn't going to destroy other people on the way. And everybody will bow to the zeitgeist of their particular period, and I think you will certainly be in danger of losing touch if you are not aware of that.
AVC: You told The Guardian a few years ago—relatively famously, this has been widely quoted—that there are six questions a journalist asks, and all of them are "How do you act?"
JH: Yes, that's one of my more facetious answers. But it's a question that really intrigues people, for some r eason. It intrigues people that you can be other people. And to us, of course, it seems to be second nature, but if that is not a gift that you have, then it is obviously going to be intriguing. "What a privilege," they think, "to be able to go through life being able to be so many different people!" And it is a privilege.
AVC: You say "to us, it's second nature." Do you think actors are born rather than made?
JH: I'm convinced of it. I'm convinced that it starts that way. I think you can fan the flames, but I think in the same way that a mathematician is a mathematician—He's not taught to be a mathematician. He either has a feeling for equations and an understanding and delight in it, not only in the purity of it, but in its beauty as well. I don't think that's something that you learn at school. I think you can get better in mathematics on a school level, but when you're talking about being a mathematician, I think that's definitely a gift of genes or whatever, you know? Whatever your pool is.
AVC: Do you think that's true for most professions?
JH: I do. At the best level, at least. I mean, I could teach someone to act to get by, not that I would want to see them do that. In fact, it saddens me when I see someone struggling against the tide of their own abilities in order to stay in the profession when really they shouldn't be.
AVC: Do you feel you've seen a lot of that?
JH: Oh yes, you see a great deal of that, as you do in journalism. Do you not? Now come on, be honest.
AVC: Yes, that's true. About the six questions that journalists ask that all amount to "How do you act," though—that may be a boring question to keep answering, but is there a more relevant one to ask a professional actor?
JH: There probably isn't. The only difficulty is that there isn't an answer. As I said, it's not a science, and therefore there is no sort of clinical response. And of course, we're all far too afraid of being so arrogant to say "Either you can or you can't."
AVC: But you do believe that's true, that either you can or you can't?
JH: I think, I'm afraid, there is a great deal to that. Fortunately, there are an enormous number of people, probably far too many, who can.
AVC: It is a very competitive industry.
JH: Hugely competitive. And there's some sizzling performances around at the minute, you know? Wonderful. And of course, film has changed vastly in the time that I've been an actor, and it's, I think, very much for the better. I think there are just magnificent films now, and they're blossoming in the way that the novel did years ago.
AVC: Are you a film fan yourself? Do you see a lot of movies, just for the joy of it?
JH: Oh yes. I love cinema. I love the language of cinema.
AVC: Do you ever watch films and think, "I wish I could have played that role" or "I wish I was in this"?
JH: I find myself sitting in front of some performances and simply marveling. And I find myself sitting in front of some films and thinking, "What are they doing?"
AVC: Can you give an example of one recently that made you marvel?
JH: Well yes, I was just watching a Michael Haneke film, a very, very heavy movie indeed, but brilliant nevertheless, called The Piano Teacher. I was watching Isabelle Huppert, who I worked with in Heaven's Gate, and I was just thinking, "My God, girl, have you come on something brilliantly." I mean, it's such a sensationally good performance, and such a wonderfully directed piece. That was very strongly in my mind in the minute. But then I was watching another, rather less fortunate performer in a much less fortunate film, which you wouldn't have seen and so I won't go into it. I was watching it for a specific reason, and it was just awful. You felt sad, you know?
AVC: Do you ever go back and watch your own films?
JH: Not intentionally.
AVC: How does it come about, if not intentionally?
JH: I say that because I've quite recently walked in and turned the television on, it was quite late, and there was a film of mine just starting, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and I thought I'd watch five minutes of it, just to see how it's weathered. That's another director I enjoyed working with hugely, Michael Radford. I saw it right through to the end, and it's interesting, because after so much time, you see it in a much more objective way, as if it were somebody else. I thought, "My God, it's a wonderful film." And I'm a huge Orwell enthusiast, so I was quite thrilled to do it at the time, but I don't think I saw it as objectively at that time.
AVC: After a film is completed, do you have an interest in seeing how it came out, what the final product looks like?
JH: I do. There are very few films I haven't seen that I've done. But I don't think you see them as other people see them until a great deal later.
AVC: Are you ever surprised, watching your own performances? Do you learn things about your acting from watching yourself perform?
JH: Yes, I think you do. You can see areas where maybe you got a bit lazy, perhaps, or you see when you were really on form. I think an actor is very like a sportsman in that respect. You have periods where you're in terrific form. Everything you touch seems to work, and come right. And other times, when you're working really hard, it's okay, but it isn't scintillating.
AVC: In a number of interviews, you've talked about regret, sometimes in conflicting terms. You talk about how everything has to be regretted, because there's always another, better choice that could have been made—
JH: And yet I say I don't go around regretting anything.
AVC: Yes, exactly.
JH: Life is full of ironies and paradoxes. There are times when I don't think you can regret. But when I said, "I regret everything," I meant it in a quite different sense, in the sense that there is always a better choice that you were unable to quite touch with a single stroke. Even in acting, there comes a point, like a painting, where you have to say, "That's it. I can't go any further with it." And sometimes, you say, "I'm really pleased that that's where it's finished up." Other times, you think, "I don't think I really quite got there, but I haven't got time to go any further." Rather reluctantly, you have to say "That's it." But I think that's common sense, isn't it?
AVC: That question, "How do you act?" Does it only obsess fans and journalists, or does it obsess actors, too? Do actors sit around discussing methodology with each other in private?
JH: Well, they're always trying to justify the way they work, yes.
AVC: Is it only to justify the way they work, or are they curious? Do you ever discuss methodology with your fellow actors?
JH: Yes, I have done. It would be untrue to say I haven't.
AVC: Is there anyone you feel comes particularly close to your way of thinking on acting?
JH: Oh, yes, many. I think probably Judi Dench and myself would agree, basically, on our approach. There's always going to be differences, of course, because everyone is different. But I think generally speaking, and that's the only way you can talk in this, we'd be in agreement. But you also have to remember that even if two people completely agreed on the way in which you worked—say you both decided you were going to play Hamlet, and you both worked on the script at the same time, and you both agreed with each other entirely as to how to play it, and then you both went and joined your respective companies, your performances would still be completely different. That has to be taken into account as well. As I say, the truth is rarely true and never simple.
AVC: Back in 2000, you mentioned that you'd acquired the film rights to a book, and you were interested in actually breaking into direction with it. Whatever became of that?
JH: I ran into considerable difficulties. I was never happy with the way in which it was possible to adapt it, and so I dropped it.
AVC: Do you have any ongoing interest in directing?
JH: Not really, no. I find myself more interested in producing. Not because I'm interested in the financial side of it, but just getting together the right elements to make a film, that side of production. I would not be good on the financial side. It would be a disaster from the beginning.
AVC: You say that actors are born, not made. Was there a specific point where you realized you were born to do this kind of work?
JH: I'm talking retrospectively, but I couldn't talk any other way. But I did a school play when I was 9, and it was to me as if this was where I should be. It was the most wonderful feeling at that age, because it was utterly untainted with anything other than that. It wasn't anything to do with egos, or desires, or competition, or any of those things. It just seemed the right place to be, where I could express myself, and it was 100 percent enjoyment on every level. The audience seemed to be enjoying themselves, and I was enjoying playing to them. So yes, that was the first time I felt it. I've felt it many times since, and still feel it.
AVC: Did you ever have a doubt? Did you ever consider doing anything else?
JH: I went through, I suppose, those teenage years when you don't really know—I don't know about other teenagers, but I think my son's rather similar. He doesn't know quite where he is, who he is, what he wants to do, whether it's available to him or a possibility. I didn't, certainly, and fortunately, events led absolutely where I wanted them to go. It's my feeling that maybe they would have done in a different way, but they always would have got to the same point. I knew I didn't want to pursue an academic career at all, which of course my father would have loved me to have done. I didn't want to go to university. The only other thing I could do was paint, and so I went to art school, because they couldn't conceive of how one would be an actor. They loved the theater, but it was a different species that went on the stage. It wasn't anything to do with us. We didn't do that. That wasn't for us. Do you see what I mean? The world was a much bigger place, then, of course. It was more difficult to understand. It's much easier to understand now, I think.
AVC: At what point in your career were they convinced?
JH: I think when I'd finally got myself up to my local county council, and moved over to get myself a scholarship to the Royal Academy. When I'd done all that off my own bat, I think they stood very firmly behind me.
AVC: Was there a specific point in your career where you realized you'd hit a plateau of success, where you could choose the roles that you wanted?
JH: I'm not sure that one ever gets to that plateau. I'm not that kind of an actor, you see. I never planned anything.
AVC: And yet, the roles that you take often seem to follow a pattern. You take a lot of complicated, meaningful, emotional roles. Do you say that's all just coincidence?
JH: I'm not sure that it's coincidence, but it isn't intentional.
AVC: What kind of roles do you find most satisfying?
JH: I think the ones in which you feel you've found the right sounds and images that people can accept really readily. It varies so much. I don't mind what it is that I do, so long as it stands the chance of working on the level it's intended to work on. So therefore, I like to go from low comedy intellectual pieces as long as it works on its level. The latter may be for a much smaller audience, obviously, but it's still got to work on its level. If you're doing something which is designed to go out and be a blockbuster, then it's got to work on that level, something which I think Hellboy did, or Alien did.
AVC: So you're saying it's not the content of the role, so much as how you perform it that makes it satisfying?
JH: First of all, it's the piece. Secondly it's the role, particularly if it's a role you feel you can give something personal to, all the better. And if you succeed in pulling that off, that's very thrilling on a personal level. The things that will stick in your mind are the things that work for the audience, because it is the audience for whom you do it. The common misconception is that we do it for ourselves. And I really don't do it for myself. I get stopped in the street by people saying, "Do you mind if I say this about your work?" Do I mind? I'm delighted. I do it for you. It's not for me. It's my living, yes, sure.
AVC: In theater you play to a present audience—you can hear and feel their response. But in film, you're playing to an invisible audience. How do you find your satisfaction in doing something for an audience when it isn't present to respond?
JH: I think one of the things that is important, for me, though a lot of people would disagree with me, is that you be founded in theater so that you understand what an audience is, what kind of an animal it is and how to play with it. How to have fun with it, how to sympathize with it, all the things that an audience is. I don't think you're going to find that out unless you do theater. You carry that through and adapt it to a camera lens, but you're quite right, you cannot be sure of what an audience is going to do. You don't know what's going to happen to the piece you're doing anyway. You don't know how it's going to be edited. There are a lot more unknowns in cinema. But that you have to readily accept. That's when, I think, you have to forget about intellect, to a degree. Intuition is very important when you're working with a lens, I believe, for what the lens is doing, too.
AVC: Was there ever any question of just staying in theater, where you could be with your audience?
JH: Only when I was making my decision as to whether I should become a professional actor. I had to have a serious talk with myself and say, "Are you prepared to stick it out in repertory for the rest of your life? If you're prepared to do that, then you should stick with it, become a professional." And I believe I convinced myself that that was the case. But that's not how it worked out. Everything that came to me, in terms of the ritzier side of performing, was a plus.