John Hurt has been one of Britain’s finest acting talents since his career began in the 60s, but it’s his roles in films like Alien, Midnight Express and The Elephant Man — to name a few — which put him on the international map and for which he’s best remembered. Twice Oscar nominated (for the latter two performances) and the winner of two BAFTA film awards, Hurt has recently been finding a younger audiences for his roles in franchise movies like Harry Potter, Indiana Jones and Hellboy.
At the Dinard Festival of British Film last month to screen An Englishman in New York, a biopic of gay writer Quentin Crisp’s time in the Big Apple, Hurt sat down with RT for an extended chat about the film and his wider career, including his upcoming turn in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
John Hurt: It’s really much the same, it really looks the same. It was perhaps a little more naive and less sure of itself then, but it’s got the same feeling. Some things are beautifully organised and some things aren’t. It’s all a bit chaotic and it’s good fun. It is a festival, in a quite muted sort of a way. I think a bit of business gets done here, which is good. It would be good if we had a few more films but we have up years and down years in British cinema!
JH: It was made for television with very much an eye on to it being shown in the cinema. It has to be shown on television first because ITV backed it, so they have to show it, and then after that it’s really up to Leopardrama what they want to do with it, and that’s anybody’s guess.
JH: There is a responsibility, but it’s not one that your common sense wouldn’t take on board. You’re bound to try and find out as much as you can about what there is in his demeanour, as it were, that is going to be helpful in terms of the drama, and also what is not particularly useful. Because it’s not a documentary you’re making or a mockumentary at all, it is a drama. So I saw Quentin a couple of times before I did The Naked Civil Servant [in which Hurt also played Crisp], and we had a great time. He came up to my house in Hampstead; I heard that he liked Guinness, so I asked him if he wanted one and he said, “Yessss.” I gave him a Guinness, which he finished, so I asked, “Would you like another?” He said, “Yessss.” So he finished that one, and I asked, “Would you like another Guinness, Quentin?” And he said, “Noooo. Any more would be a debauch.” [Laughs]
Hurt as Quentin Crisp in 1975’s The Naked Civil Servant. Left, as he appears in this year’s An Englishman in New York.
JH: Oh yes, of course. That’s a huge dramatic help to anybody. His walk, his movement, his manner, his acceptance, yes all that’s helpful.
JH: I never know whether that’s the reason. I mean, I hadn’t worked in Hollywood at all when I did The Naked Civil Servant; I had done, of course, when I came back to the role 30 years later. But, quite honestly I think it was the connection to Quentin that was the most important thing; I don’t think it was the connection to Hollywood at all.
JH: I’ve filmed one, which actually is the last one, and now I’ve got the penultimate one to do which is in November, and that wraps it all up. It’s a big loss for Britain in terms of having a big studio movie here, but it’s not representative of our culture in terms of the films that we make. I am convinced that though Pinewood and Shepperton — the big studios — playing host to big movies is very important, our film business is in the independent world. Of that I’m convinced.
I only wish that our government would take a bit more notice, because that’s where we need the help. We need the help because we need to get it going on a basis that has a bit more continuity for everyone concerned, from technicians to directors to performers and so on. And, indeed, to audiences, because you can’t have an audience engage with culture if it’s not educated in it. It’s important that we educate people.
As Ollivander, his character in the Harry Potter films.
JH: No, they’re not British films. Even Harry Potter isn’t a British [franchise]. We gave it to Warners, we just sit and collect. That always infuriates me. I do think huge areas of the industry are being neglected and we’ve lost the ability for middle-budget films. When we did have a stronger industry — and not just a business — we did have room for middle-budget films. They’ve gone out of the window, as they’ve done in America as well, but a $20m picture would be wonderful to make every now and then. We could do a lot for that.
But it’s like any country, if you don’t have a lot of money to spend. And it’s interesting seeing how much money gets spent on Harry Potter. It’s quite absurd, really. I watch it and think it’s just the same as Hollywood. I look around and you’ve got three costumes there, none of which are likely to be worn, and they’re all replicas of each other. It’s a vacuous waste of money and it drives me insane.
JH: Well the answer is, really, that you have to learn to cut your cloth accordingly. But it seems to be a human weakness. Once you start making a lot of money, you just join in with everyone else. It’s like the banks, and we’ve seen what happens there.
Continue on to page two as Hurt talks about his time in Indiana Jones, shares memories of shooting Alien and dispels rumours about his appearance in Tron.
John Hurt: I know! What can I do? It’s the only way I can keep going too. And I enjoy the experiences — you can have fun — but I don’t enjoy seeing that waste. I don’t like that at all.
When it comes to Indiana Jones, I’d never done one before so I wanted to see what it’d be like. I’ve never worked with Spielberg before. But that is a huge movie. It’s a bit like a circus and you’re a part of it; you just have to accept it really.
Ultimately the film industry has always pushed out its biggies, and I don’t have a problem with that. I just wish that we’d spend more time nurturing the smaller ones.
JH: I think you’ve got to get used to that kind of thing. The most difficult is doing complicated scenes in public areas, which can be tricky on any film. If it’s under a controlled situation, even when there are a lot of people there you get used to that sort of thing. You’re used to that in the theatre, having a lot of people around. You can’t very well say, “I wish there weren’t so many people out there!” [Laughs]
At the Cannes photocall for Indiana Jones, May 2008.
The first thing you have to get used to in any kind of acting is the ability to make a fool of yourself. If you haven’t learnt how to make a fool of yourself, you shouldn’t be on the boards. That’s absolutely what it’s all about.
JH: Well, not a lot more to do. It’s different. He’s kidnapped and tortured and he gives away information. They haven’t made it into a huge production number, so it’s not too far removed from the dialogue scene in the first film.
JH: No, I’m not in the new Tron film. That crept onto the internet at some point and I don’t know how it got there. Not unless I did something in my sleep, so who knows!
JH: I’m much too old! I don’t know what the idea is behind it, so I don’t know whether it’s a good idea or not. I don’t know what Ridley’s got up his sleeve.
With chest pains in Ridley Scott’s Alien.
JH: I do have fond memories, but I also have a lot of not so fond memories. There’s an awful lot of hanging around when you’re doing science fiction. Going down and waiting for them to set up, being told to go back to your dressing room while they change the track and the lighting and so on. And you come back four hours later and you’re told the same thing. That big stage at Shepperton was just thick with created smoke. It makes me cough just to think about it. I was thrilled to be involved with it, particularly given its legacy. It just wasn’t an awful lot of fun to do!
Hurt will next hit the big screen, in the UK at least, in Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control on 11th December. 44 Inch Chest, co-starring Ray Winstone and Ian McShane, will follow worldwide early next year.