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The actor: Since making his big-screen debut in 1962’s The Wild And The Willing, British native John Hurt has proven a versatile and erudite actor in everything from big-budget Hollywood blockbusters to tiny independents to television movies. In addition, he’s worked with some of the most iconic figures in film history—Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Steven Spielberg, and Sam Peckinpah, to name a few. Currently, Hurt can be seen in the 3D epic Immortals and Lars von Trier’s take on the end of the world, Melancholia, and will soon be seen in the John LeCarré adaptation Tinker Tailor Solider Spy.
The A.V. Club: You’ve worked with Lars von Trier twice before, serving as the narrator for Dogville and Manderlay. This time around, you actually appear in the movie. How did that happen?
John Hurt: I said to Lars, “You keep asking me to do narrations, but you never ask me to be in front of the camera.” So he called my bluff and put me in front of the camera. I was thrilled. There are certain people that when they ask you to do a film, you just say, “Where and when?” He’s one of those people.
AVC: Much has been made of von Trier’s controversial comments about Hitler and Nazis during Melancholia’s press conference at Cannes, which resulted in his being banned from the film festival. You were sitting two seats away from him when this happened. What are your thoughts on the matter?
JH: The whole of it was blown out of proportion. There’s no proportion in it. It’s ludicrous, quite honestly.
AVC: But what was going through your mind as he was making the comments?
JH: I was thinking, “I wish you hadn’t been enticed.” Well, that makes it sound as though somebody enticed him—they didn’t. It was a perfectly innocent question [about von Trier’s German heritage and the Nazi aesthetic]. But Lars sort of began to dig a hole—and once you’ve started to dig a hole, you can’t get out of it. I was also thinking, “I wish you hadn’t gotten onto that particular subject.” It is probably the only taboo left in the Western world. And it doesn’t matter how you approach it, it is impossible to talk about, and you just can’t go there. But there was absolutely no malice or meaning behind any of it. You have to remember that he is an enfant terrible. We’re used to him saying things out of order. He can’t help it. He has, sort of, Tourette’s. But I know that he’s deeply upset by the whole situation. He’s now saying that he’s never going to speak in public again, and he may not. The point is that he’s one of our best filmmakers.
JH: The film’s got such a massive fan base. If I’m doing a play, 30 to 40 percent of the people that come to the stage door have pictures of Alien for me to autograph. And usually, the photos are pretty gory ones.
AVC: I heard that your costars didn’t really know how the scene where the alien pops out of your stomach was going to play out.
JH: They knew what was going to happen, because there was a script. But they didn’t know how it was going to happen and that there were several explosive caps being used. So when the blood just shot all over the studio and splattered right across Veronica Cartwright’s face—that was completely unexpected.
A Man For All Seasons (1966)—“Richard Rich”
JH: One day at the beginning of the shoot, [director] Fred Zinnemann said, “John, I want to have a word with you behind the set.” I thought, “Oh, Christ, I’ve blown it completely. I’m going to get the sack here in a minute.” He then said, “I understand that you’ve got a deal with Columbia for exactly the same money as this, for your next three films. And I said, “Yes, I believe that’s true.” My salary was £2,000. So he said, “And I understand if they don’t take up those options by the time this has been shown publicly for the first time [they would lose the right to pick them up].” And I said, “Yes, I believe that is the case.” He said, “Well, if you repeat what I’m going to tell you now, I shall call you a liar. Do you understand that?” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “I would advise you and your agent not to mention the fact that you have options—forget about them.” So I instructed my agent, Julian Belfrage, not to mention it. Needless to say, the day after it had been shown publicly for the first time, Columbia said that they wanted to take up the options, and we were able to say they were too late. Just by keeping quiet, Columbia overlooked that clause. Thanks to Fred Zinnemann. Wonderful, wonderful man.
Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone/Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1/Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2001)/(2010)/(2011)—“Mr. Ollivander”
JH: At first, we had no idea whether the films were going to be big or not. We couldn’t possibly know, because books that are complete successes don’t necessarily translate.
AVC: During the filming of Sorcerer’s Stone, didn’t you surprise your children with a visit to the set?
JH: Yes, they came over from Ireland, where they were living. They were picked up, taken to the airport, and brought to England. At first, they didn’t know where they were going; they thought they were on their way to school. It was a fantastic day, really wonderful.
AVC: Did you develop a younger fan base because of these films?
JH: Well, I suppose so, yes. Everybody, I think, that was in Harry Potter was certainly introduced to an enormous lot of young people.
AVC: Are kids asking for autographs all of a sudden, when, say, 10 years ago, they weren’t?
JH: But they were. [Laughs.] I’ve done all sorts of children’s things before, but none as big as Harry Potter.
The Elephant Man (1980)—“John Merrick”
JH: It took 12 hours to apply the original makeup. I thought to myself, “They have actually found a way of making me not enjoy a film.” Christopher Tucker, who devised the makeup, applied it that first day and when he was done, I hobbled into the studio. I was in terror of anybody laughing, because if anybody had giggled or laughed at all, the whole house of cards would have collapsed. But there was an absolute hushed silence, which was only broken by Anthony Hopkins saying, “Let’s do the test.” So it started, and that spell lasted.
AVC: You were nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor, but lost to Robert De Niro for his performance in Raging Bull. Were you at all frustrated that if it weren’t for him, you probably would have taken home several acting awards that year?
JH: Not at all. I’m not interested in awards. I never have been. I don’t think they are important. Don’t get me wrong, if somebody gives me a prize, I thank them as gratefully as I know how, because it’s very nice to be given a prize. But I don’t think that awards ought to be sought. It encourages our business to be competitive in absolutely the wrong way. We’re not sportsmen; we’re not trying to come in first.
Heaven’s Gate (1980)—“Billy Irvine”
AVC: Didn’t the length of this shoot almost threaten your participation in The Elephant Man?
JH: I had finished everything, so I went to Michael Cimino and said, “Surely, I should be able to go now. There’s no reason for me to be on the call sheet again.” And he said, “Well, I can’t tell you. You’ll have to go see Joann Carelli,” who was the producer. So I went to find Joann Carelli and she said, “Well, you’d better go and ask Michael Cimino.” Anyway, it went on and on like this, and I couldn’t get a yes or a no out of any of them. Meanwhile, I was getting pressure from [Elephant Man producer] Mel Brooks, who asked me, “What are you doing up there, making a movie, or building a children’s hospital?” I told him that we were, unfortunately, making a movie, and that I was doing my very best to get back. [Laughs.]
Eventually, I got a message from Mel saying, “Look, John, if you don’t get back soon, I’m gonna have to recast.” So I told him, “I will be there.” But there wasn’t any way of getting from Kalispell, Montana, to L.A., because the Hughes airline—which was known as “the flying banana” because of their yellow planes—was on strike. So myself and T Bone Burnett, who was also working on Heaven’s Gate and had to get out, went down to the local airport and made inquiries as to whether we could hire a plane to get us to Denver, where we could get a connecting flight to Los Angeles. We were told we could fly in a four-seat prop plane. So we made arrangements to leave at 6 o’clock in the morning. We crept out of the hotel in the dark, with our suitcases, got into a car that we had ordered, and slunk off. When we got to the airport, there wasn’t a sign of anyone. Then, finally, we saw a flashlight coming around the corner of a small hangar. Someone came ambling over to us and said, “Okay, just come this way.” So we got into this four-seater, and with howls and whoops and God knows what, we flew over the Rockies at dawn. It was one of the most incredible journeys I’ve ever had. It was literally like escaping. [Laughs.] I got to L.A, met with Mel, and everything was all right.
King Ralph (1991)—“Lord Percival Graves”
AVC: What were your reasons for doing this film?
JH: Well, the coffers run low every now and then. And my friend Peter O’Toole was doing it, the idea wasn’t so bad, and I was a big admirer of John Goodman. But I have to say, the director [David S. Ward], who I believe is a good writer, is not a good director. He really did make the whole thing turgid and difficult. It looked like it would be a lot of fun, but it turned out to be not a lot of fun at all. It was take after take after take for no possible reason. You couldn’t tell the difference between it and the dirt on the ground.
Indiana Jones And The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)—“Professor Oxley”
AVC: Unlike other cast members, didn’t you insist on seeing a script before accepting the part?
JH: I’m not accustomed to doing films without seeing the script. There are certain people that are auteurs, and you accept them [regardless of whether you see a script or not]. But Spielberg is not an auteur. He works from a script. So yes, I did want to see it. And it was quite a palaver to see it. Someone came over to London with a copy, sort of handcuffed to his wrist. I was allowed to read it for three hours and then I gave it back to him, and he flew back to California the next morning.
Midnight Express (1978)—“Max”
AVC: Was this was the only time you committed to a film without seeing a script?
JH: Yes, at that time. If Alan [Parker, the director] would offer me a script now, I’d say that I’d want to read it. [Laughs]. But at that time, Alan and Ridley Scott were two directors that had really been marked as successes. So if Alan wanted me to be in a film, I knew perfectly well that he wasn’t going to waste his time asking me to do something that wasn’t worth doing, because he certainly wouldn’t be using me for my name. I didn’t have a name at all at that point.
Love And Death On Long Island (1997)—“Giles De’Ath”
AVC: Have you ever had a fan go too far, as your character does in this film?
JH: Not quite like that. [Laughs.] But I’ve had a couple of fairly crazy ones.
AVC: How was it working with Jason Priestley? He had to portray an actor who is not particularly good at what he does for a living, which can’t be easy.
JH: It’s not. It’s a challenge, because it can get really mawkish if you get it wrong. But Jason got it absolutely dead right. It was incredibly funny and awful at the same time. [Laughs.] I thought his performance was really wonderful.
JH: Mel [Brooks] called and said, “Look, John, I’m doing this little movie and there’s a bit in there that has to do with Alien, so come on over.” He made it sound like a bit of a picnic. He also did that to me on History Of The World: Part I [in which Hurt plays Jesus]. He always does that. “Come on, I’ll give you a couple grand, we’ll put you up in a nice hotel, you’ll have a good time, and then you can go back again.” And when you get there, you suddenly realize, it’s a $3 million scene—God knows how much the animatronic singing and dancing alien cost—and they couldn’t possibly have done it if it hadn’t been for you. What I’m saying is, I think he got me rather cheap. [Laughs.]
AVC: What did you think of Brooks’ choice of “Hello! Ma Baby” for the alien to sing and dance to?
JH: Brilliant, wasn’t it?
The Naked Civil Servant/An Englishman In New York (1975)/(2009)—“Quentin Crisp”
JH: The Naked Civil Servant was as important for me as Easy Rider was for Jack Nicholson. No question.
AVC: Weren’t you advised not to take the part?
JH: People said “If you do it, you will probably never work again.” At that time, homosexuality was something you were very careful about. Talk about taboos. This was previous to the activists. You couldn’t disguise it: Quentin was an effeminate homosexual for the entire world to see. And his whole crusade was to say that it wasn’t a disease or an affliction.
AVC: Was there any part of you that thought it might be a bad idea to do the film?
JH: Not at all, because apart from anything else, Philip Mackie had written a wonderful script and Jack Gold was at the height of his powers directing it. I did get the rot of [theatrical director] Peter Wood for turning down Tom Stoppard’s Travesties because I wanted to do Naked Civil Servant. Wood went crazy. He said, “How dare you turn down a firm part on Broadway in order to do a puffy little snub for a little English television company?”
AVC: You weren’t quite as certain about doing the follow-up, an Englishman In New York, correct?
JH: I was initially apprehensive about doing Englishman, because it was actually a matter of letting sleeping dogs lie. It seemed that The Naked Civil Servant had turned out to be a piece of jewelry, and you didn’t want to muck about. But then, I thought that it seemed ridiculous that you would have 20 years of Quentin’s life not dealt with at all. And it’s such a completely different period, with so many different understandings. It remained a very different film, but at the same time, it made a kind of bookend.
AVC: Crisp died in 1999, so was it strange making this film without having him around?
JH: Well, yes, it was odd. One had become him in an odd way because I was exactly the same age when I made Englishman that Quentin was when I did The Naked Civil Servant. So it was like passing the baton in some sort of weird, surreal relay race.
The Osterman Weekend (1983)—“Lawrence Fassett”
JH: The script was pretty difficult. So was Sam [Peckinpah]. It wasn’t until I made him laugh that I thought, “Thank God.” There’s a scene in the film where I have to imitate a weatherman, and that had Sam rolling in the aisles. Before that, he would say things like, “Why do you move so fast?” He wasn’t exactly encouraging of confidence. But afterwards, I couldn’t put a foot wrong. We were terrific, and I saw him until the day that he died.
Frankenstein Unbound (1990)—“Dr. Joe Buchanan”
AVC: It was reported that you received the biggest paycheck of your career for this film. Is that still the case?
JH: It still is, yes. That’s what they had in the kitty for the part, I guess, and whoever was doing it before walked out of it. I had recently gotten married, so it came in as extremely useful. And there was Roger Corman. Everybody’s got to work with Roger Corman. You can’t leave out that experience. I was amazed when I met him, because I was expecting to see this rather freaky character with hair all over the place—a complete crazy man. But he wasn’t. He was dressed in a tie and a suit, with very neat hair. At first, I thought he was a solicitor.
V For Vendetta (2006)—“Chancellor Adam Sutler”
JH: We shot it in Berlin, so it was strange behaving like Hitler in the middle of that city. Some of the locations were exactly where Hitler gave speeches.
AVC: Although you didn’t base your performance on Hitler, did you feel that his spirit was around while you were filming?
JH: [Laughs.] I’m not going anywhere near that one.