BAFTA, Golden Globe and Oscar Nominated Actor John Hurt has graced screens across the world for nearly 50 years. His resume covers every genre, and he has brought one memorable role after another to life for such directors as Ridley Scott, David Lynch, Mel Brooks, Stephen Frears, Gus Van Sant, Jim Jarmusch, Robert Zemeckis, Guillermo del Toro, and Steven Spielberg. 2011 saw an incredible output of top notch performances, with appearances in high profile releases such as “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2”, “Immortals,” “Melancholia,” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
Film Slate Magazine’s West Coast Editor Jason Chase Tyrrell had the opportunity to chat with Hurt about this amazing slate of releases, as well as his starring role in the short film “Sailcloth,” a silent film by first time director Elfar Adalsteins that has since found inclusion on the Oscar Shortlist for Best Live Action Short Film.
Film Slate Magazine: So how did you come to find out about the “Sailcloth” project?
John Hurt: The director came to me through my agent and I had a read of the script. I thought immediately this is someone who is writing for the cinema. Not having to go through the tedious business of taking something from literature and making that awful leap that is so difficult to make anyway, from literature to cinema. It’s refreshing to be able to deal with a subject like that, to be written where the driving force is the image on screen and you don’t need any words. The more that we can do that [in film], the better.
FSM: Were you apprehensive about attempting a dialogue-free film?
JH: In a feature film you’d be hard pressed without any dialogue at all, but it reminds us what cinema is about. The image onscreen takes you forward, it’s the driving force of the piece and it’s also the information that you’re given. The big problem with literature is people tend to take the dialogue from the book, forgetting that everything that surrounds it is literate, therefore not knowing quite how to put that on screen. You come across it all the time in the business. You get something and you think, ‘this must have been a book,’ and without the literature it doesn’t make sense.
FSM: How was the production environment on ‘Sailcloth?’
JH: We shot five days down in Cornwall, and you couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful place. It was a couple of tough days at sea, but when I say tough it was still enjoyable. I thought it was a terrific script. Elfar Adalsteins, the director, is bound to be a director we’ll hear from, and the whole thing was really enjoyable.
FSM: I understand he was a first time director. Do you ever have concerns working with a first time director?
JH: I’ve done lots of films with first directors, so it’s not unusual for me. I’d say the film to avoid is a director’s second film, particularly if his first film was a big success. The second film is where you’ve really needed to have learned something. The first film is everything you want to say and how you want to say it. Lots of directors will do that and do it really well, but the second film is not so easy.
FSM: What would you say a first time director should focus on, when crafting his project, that would make it attractive to a quality cast?
JH: That’s a really difficult question. Be true to what you want to say, or whatever style it is that you’ve chosen or genre you’ve chosen. Do it well! (Laughs) My criteria always has been that the piece must stand the chance of succeeding on the level it’s intended to succeed on. If it’s a low-brow bawdy comedy, it’s got to stand the chance of succeeding as such. If it’s an intellectual piece, a drama, and so forth. And of course, once you’ve determined the level of the piece, do it the best you know how. And then don’t make concessions. To audiences, or to pursestrings, or whatever. The only concession you can make is to what you believe is right.
FSM: You’ve been involved with an incredible range of projects this year. I’d like to talk about, perhaps the largest of them all, the final ‘Harry Potter’ Film.
JH: Yes I topped and tailed it! (laughs).
FSM: A truly interesting perspective to have, being a part of the first film and then the last two. What was your experience watching the young leads, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson grow and mature during the process?
JH: Well, from 11 to 20 [years old] they were. Nobody knew whether they were talented really to start with. They were all meant to be okay in the roles as child actors but you had no idea how they were going to develop. I think you can’t take away from these kids’ parents, but the company as well has to take a lot of credit in how they developed. All three of them, in their own ways, did get better and better. You can’t tell at eleven, you can’t be sure. And I think particularly Daniel [Radcliffe], he knows what he’s doing. I’m sure he’ll finish up a producer. He really realized what it was, knew the size of it. And it was gigantic, the biggest franchise in history.
FSM: Yes, how does it feel, being a part of something of that scale and cultural impact?
JH: If I hadn’t been a part of it I would have been deeply upset. (Laughs) Nearly everybody I know is in it, I would have wanted to know why I wasn’t! It’s quite interesting, looking back at the first one, nobody knew whether or not it was going to be successful as a film. The books were of course already very successful, but that’s happened before, where the books were successful and the films weren’t at all. But it turned out that they were. So by the time I came to do the final ones, I was working on something that was massively successful. There was a huge difference in indulgence and all sorts of stuff. A very big difference in peoples’ attitudes. They were very pleased with themselves. In human terms, it was quite interesting to see the difference.
FSM: You also worked as part of the fantastic ensemble in Lars Von Trier’s ‘Melancholia.’ People have a certain perception of Von Trier, from the controversies that have been discussed. But how is he to work with as a director?
JH: I think he’s a fantastic filmmaker. No question. You’ve got to be ready for him. He’s sharp and he’s got a sharp tongue and I love that. He doesn’t mind it back. I loved working with him, but I’ve done two films before, so I was quite used to him. He’s a man of incredible moods of course, but he’s also a hugely perceptive man, and there’s no getting away from that. And he’s able to put that perception into something like film, so we’re very lucky. I got used to him doing the narration for ‘Dogville’ and ‘Manderley.’ And I said to him I do these narrations for you but you never put me in a film! So he called my bluff and put me in ‘Melancholia’ and I was thrilled about that.
FSM: Your scenes with Kirsten Dunst were truly memorable. The way you two connected, in that complex ‘father/daughter’ relationship felt fully realized. Had you worked together before?
JH: No, but I’m besotted by her now. I think she’s just wonderful. I can’t think for a second that however much she’d worked in America, she would never have had the chance to play [a role] like that. You have to get outside of the States to do something like that. Because in the States it’s more and more difficult to get an independent film off the ground, and you certainly wont get the opportunity to play something like that in a studio movie. And she was terrific in it. A wonderful performance.
FSM: Also coming up is your role in the highly anticipated adaptation of ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.’
JH: A very, very impressive director, Tomas Alfredson. It’s only his second film, but he’s a real find. Everybody was thrilled to do it. It was a huge enjoyment. I hope it does well in the States. It’s always difficult for things English, with the exception of ‘The King’s Speech.’ (Laughs).
FSM: And going in the completely opposite direction, you appeared in ‘Immortals.’ How was it working with Tarsem [the film’s director]?
JH: Well that’s why I did it of course. You might gather that I’m very director oriented.
FSM: Did you find the extensive green screen work challenging?
JH: I think I’d rather do it in the real place. It requires different things, working with green screen, but its an imaginative exercise anyway, the whole business of acting, so it just gives you a bit more to feed the imagination. Unless it’s really silly, just two of you stuck in a space with nothing but green screen that’s got to be pretty difficult. But this wasn’t like that.
FSM: I’m struck by the incredible variety of roles and genres you work in. Do you have a favorite type of film or role?
JH: I’ve never known what I’ve wanted to do. I’ve never planned anything in my life. I’m really the addition of other peoples’ imagination, quite honestly. It’s what they see me as, and I’m very happy to comply. I find things are more varied that way. I’d be hard-pressed to say which one of them I enjoy most. I find it difficult to say, like “which child do you prefer the most”, and its a sort of surface choice. I’ve never known how to quite answer that one adequately.
But in anything really, it’s finding the reality. You can’t be ‘real,’ but you can create a reality. And that created reality is what the audience believes in. And that’s essential. Because if the audience doesn’t believe that, they’re never going to trust you. And if they don’t trust you, you can’t lead them up the mountain. Now something like ‘Alien,’ that was not so easy. If there’s any genre I wouldn’t mind not having to do anymore, it would be science fiction. It’s just all to do with the toys, and there’s so much hanging around. Now that could be science fiction, or that could be Ridley [Scott], I don’t know. (Laughs) Some directors involve waiting, and if you want to work with that particular director you’re going to have to hang around.
FSM: You’ve appeared in no less than eight films this year. Which begs the question, when do you sleep?
JH: (Laughs) Films don’t take as long as people think. ‘Harry Potter,’ people always used to say, ‘Well, my God, do you ever get any time to yourself?’ I think I did, in ‘Harry Potter,’ over a 12 year period I did five days. So it’s not exactly exhausting. On the other hand, you get other films that are spread over a much longer period of time and it’s entirely exhausting. But there’s always light at the end of the tunnel with a film. I often say, with something like ‘The Elephant Man,’ had it been an American series for television, where you have to sign your life away for seven years…well, maybe I would never have made ‘Sailcloth.’
If you’ve got a great crew it’s intense, but its quite short. ‘The Elephant Man’ was longer than most, for an independent film. That was a 14 week film. But it was because of the intrinsic difficulties. We had to invent a different way of filming, because the makeup was so long. A working day for me with a full makeup on was nineteen hours. So obviously you couldn’t do that twice running. So we had to do those every other day, and on the day in between we’d just rehearse. That almost lengthened our time by another third. But it was hugely enjoyable to do, even then. I thought the one stage, when Chris Tucker did the first makeup and it took 12 hours, I thought they’d actually found a way for me not to enjoy filming. But again, it’s amazing how quickly human beings adapt, isn’t it? It was such a great crew, and David [Lynch] was wonderful to work with. It was a very thrilling time, actually.
FSM: You’re approaching fifty years in this business. Any idea what the secret is, to such longevity?
JH: I couldn’t tell you that. I wish I could. People say you never retire in this business and I say, well, not until they retire you. (Laughs) There may be arrangements to have me retired but I don’t know. Things happen that I enjoy doing, and as long as I enjoy doing them I’ll go about doing them, I guess.