theartsdesk Q&A: Actor William Hurt | Film reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: Actor William Hurt
The Hollywood contrarian who would never button his lip explains all
No actor had a classier time of it in the Eighties than William Hurt (b. 1950). Ramrod tall, blue-eyed and aquiline, with a high forehead swept clear of thin fair hair, he was a brash decade's intelligent male lead. Those years in the sun began promptly in 1980 with Altered States, continued with the steamy noir thriller Body Heat (1981), then steered him into ensemble comedy in The Big Chill and Soviet sleuthing in Gorky Park (both 1983). Hurt won an Oscar for the prison drama Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985). Broadcast News (1987) and The Accidental Tourist (1988) completed a remarkable run. But that, in terms of lead roles in films that people wanted to see, was that.
At 38, Hurt had somehow contrived to match the career longevity of a pretty young actress. He did plough on. The Nineties had him in sci-fi, slapstick, romantic comedy, none of them genres that agreed with the cool intensity of his Nordic demeanour. It may also be that the industry as a whole stopped making the kind of films that suited his performing style. There was a touch of the Cary Grant about Hurt, a besuited civility. The all-new buttock-baring leads went to the more animal Michael Douglas.
Even so, pedigree will out. Since 2005 Hurt has been eye-catchingly cast by David Cronenberg in A History of Violence, by Robert De Niro in The Good Shepherd and Sean Penn in Into The Wild - note that two of those directors are actors. Endgame, a compelling British television drama, found Hurt playing Willie Esterhuyse, apartheid’s intellectual figleaf (pictured right), in an account of the secret negotiations which preceded the freeing of Nelson Mandela. As Captain Ahab, he has lately been shooting a $25 million TV miniseries version of Moby Dick with a starry cast. He's even popped up in Damages.
And now Hurt is part of the heartbeat of Hollywood again. He played an evil master controller-type baddie in The Incredible Hulk, and he’s next in Ridley Scott's Robin Hood. There’s less hair and more midriff these days. But the hallmarks of his finest performances are there: the moral intelligence, that almost physical air of watchfulness, the careful delineation of speech and gesture. Even if he insists he’s never been away - and he would, being a world-class contrarian - it’s been good to have him back. He talks to theartsdesk.
JASPER REES: You have always had an unusual quality among leading actors. Does the sense of separateness go back to childhood?
WILLIAM HURT: I lived with my father in Lahore for a year and a half in the late Fifties so that was only ten years after partition. I lived in Khartoum with him in the early Sixties, I lived in Mogadishu with him not too long after the Italians were out of there, before the militants were getting the tribal stuff organised and Ethiopia was not too hot then. I’ve seen a lot of Eastern Africa, when I was a kid when your balls haven’t dropped and you don’t have a passport. They treat you as human. You see an immense amount when you’re young that you can’t see when you’re past puberty because by then you represent something. But before then you don’t. Before then you’re everybody’s kid. Hopefully. Unless things are really bad, which they can be.
So also I grew up in the South Pacific for the first six years of my life. I spoke sentences of Guamanian before I spoke English because we lived there too. I was best friend with guys on dirt floors. And then we were living in Spanish Harlem. I don’t have a problem with poor people. I don’t have a problem with black people. I was living in, on and around them from the time I was a baby. So I didn’t see any difference. I just didn’t see my best friends as black or white. So all those people can go screw themselves. They don’t get it. I’m not a very exciting interview, I’ll tell you that.
Did that homelessness or nomadism in your childhood shape the choice you made to do what you do?
I don’t know how to say in terms of a cause and effect summation. I do know that people completely fascinate me. I really do revel in individuals. Even if you were to offend me tonight, I don’t care. It won’t matter. I will have been studying you the whole time. My bumper sticker was, "I like people, just not in groups."
Does that remain the case?
It’s pretty close. It’s one of my bumper stickers. The other one is "I feel so much better since I gave up hope." People are like "Oh but you’re so despairing!" I’m not despairing at all. I don’t believe in hope. I don’t believe in something I don’t have. I believe in something I can. I believe in fate and I believe in work. I don’t believe in the second car I don’t have yet or the picket fence I don’t have yet or the lottery. It’s all trash. It’s disgusting.
How long have these beliefs need to formulate?
I think they formulated early. The problem was confirming them. Good sense is probably almost everybody’s property. It’s when they get convinced that something else is true that clashes with their good sense. And confirming their own good sense is really the issue in most of our lives. That’s the hard part. But you can get there.
Was becoming an actor good sense?
Yeah yeah. For me it’s been a great choice. But I don’t look at it like a lot of people do. I don’t look at it like being the centre of attention. I really don’t. I had to turn that corner early. For me the first great issue was between acting and acting out and that took about 10 years of careful study. Because if you’re not going to act out you’re standing up against your entire culture. Thinking that you’re the guy.
Did you have to learn that before you made it?
Well, no. Yes of course I did. Because you’re always dealing with that "Am I doing it for them or am I doing it for some better reason? Am I doing it to get attention or am I doing it to pay attention?" That issue starts early. It’s the monumental issue.
All the good actors are doing it for the latter reason?
Any person who is doing anything well is doing it for the latter reason. Anybody who is doing anything halfway decent has enough confidence to pay attention. Which means they talk about something that they’ve been studying and that they would like to share commentary about.
Does this mean that you were a bad actor to start with?
I may still be one! I don’t know.
You’re manifestly not.
I don’t know that. You go ahead. I just do it. I do what I can. And if I’m lucky enough to get an opportunity I do that. I’m glad to have the privilege.
It took a while for you to land that great role in Altered States (pictured left).
I didn’t land that role. I fought that role. I tried to not make that movie. I tried to get out of it.
Presumably because of Ken Russell?
No no no. Arthur Penn was the original director. I tried to get out of it because I didn’t want to make movies. I didn’t want to be famous. It’s not good for some people. It hasn’t been good for me. Fame is not a happy condition for me. I’m not looking a gift horse in the mouth. I’m just saying I’m very happy to be allowed to do what I do but there are aspects of fame that are not pleasant.
Having people generalise about you with any information about you whatsoever. Contempt prior to investigation. It’s a remarkable prejudice. "Aren’t you who I think you are?" "No, ma’am. I don’t know anything for sure in life except one thing. I’m sure I’m not who you think I am. I’m positive of that. Now can I go my wandering way?" I know that.
How did you get to a point where you were being offered a film that you couldn’t get out of?
What happened with Altered States was I was in an elevator in a building in New York to go to a theatre audition. I was happy. I was doing ensemble repertory work. I was happy.
In New York?
And you were, what, 30?
No no I was 28, 27, 28. I had been to Juilliard when I was 25. Then I had gone working in the regions. That was my home. That’s where they did good work and that’s all I wanted to do. I was an actor happy to live with the truth of acting which is that as you do it it’s gone. The only perfect thing I ever found in acting was it was done and gone. There was a moment and in that moment that was all you were ever going to get. It took me years of real searching to get to the simple fact, that’s what it is. That you pay as much authentic attention to whatever you’re trying to do as you think whoever made you did in creating you, or better. Just try. Of course it’s a futile effort but it’s an idea of an attempt. That’s all it is. So it’s not so portentous and people have to work through their neuroses by thinking things are more important than they are. So that’s why theatre is a very very therapeutic and healthy thing to do if it’s done with that kind of approach. "I’m real, you’re real, we’re here, this is happening. This is what you think and feel. Whatever you think and feel is yours, I’m not going to tell you to think and feel, but I’m going to offer you a dialogue, I’m going to offer you a dialectic. And if you don’t like it, walk out. Really, walk. Fine, good, good. Do it." Everything is the Nike commercial. Do it.
I can’t make movies, because I’m too thin-skinned. I’ll wither under the assault of generalised fame
You did get sucked in to doing a film though?
No no. Not sucked in. What happened was there was a man in the elevator with me and his name was Howard Godfrey and he said, "You’re an actor." I’m going, "Yeah, what do you know about it?" He says, "No no, I heard about you." I said, "So?" He goes, "You’re a good actor, right?" I was, "I don’t know!" He said, "We want to see you for a movie." This guy’s like, you know, he’s probably from the garment district. "He says, ‘I work with Paddy Chayefsky.’" I only knew one person who dealt with film at all in the film world that I respected and that was Paddy Chayefsky.
Paddy Chayefsky owned his own work. No writer owns his own work. They disenfranchised all artists. They started it in the Twenties and Thirties by buying the writers’ work. The first thing they did to de-ball all of us was buy the writer’s work. They can change any word they want to, they can still slap his name up there and they can still say it’s his idea, that he agreed what they did to those words, but he probably didn’t, or she didn’t. So that was the beginning of the disenfranchising of the collaborative effort of theatre. Then they took the director and instead of allowing him to be the facilitator and communicator of ideas, appreciator of talents, they turned him in the hirer or firer and administrator, which is exactly the opposite to his function, and they take the actor and instead of allowing him to transcend through character they turn him into a narcissist personality who has to sell himself out of the box. End of story. Goodbye. Goodbye, theatre. Goodbye, usefulness. Goodbye to work. Goodbye.
So then he says, "I work with Paddy Chayefsky. We’ve been looking for a long time for someone to do this film." I said, "Well, you know I don’t make movies." Because I didn’t. I didn’t audition for movies. Every time I got a call from my agent to audition for a movie I just said no. Because I really knew it was not for me. I do believe that women need nine months and I need six weeks. That’s what I believe.
Did you like going to see films?
Sometimes. Sometimes. I was like, "OK, it’s a movie." Sometimes it was wonderful. Sometimes you saw something great. You saw Man for All Seasons or you saw Mad about Jersey. You saw The Big Knife. I liked them but it wasn’t my thing, it wasn’t what I did. So I said, "Can I read it?" He said, "Yeah you can read it." So I got a copy of this thing and I had been thinking about the beginnings of our current situation, intellectual property in bio-engineering, I had been thinking about computers and all that. And then I read this script and I was in a Cuban coffee shop and I couldn’t stop weeping for about half an hour and I couldn’t stand up for 45 minutes because it was every idea that I had been thinking about. Everything was in this thing.
I knew about Ken Russell. I’d seen his movies. But I didn’t like him personally
You decided to override your own rule then?
No no no, I read the script and went back and said, "I don’t want to make, I can’t make movies, because I’m too thin-skinned. I’ll wither under the assault of generalised fame.’" I mean it didn’t take a rocket scientist of psychological understanding to get that. I knew that I would not have fun with that. I had fun digging. And he said, "We’ve decided not to make the movie because we can’t find anybody who can play the role, who understands it." I said, "No no no no no, you have to make it. I can’t play it." They’d seen 500 people. And so I said, "Ok ok ok." Paddy had to make it because he’d made Network, he’d made The Hospital, he’d made Marty, he’d made all this stuff. This had to be made because this was the best idea that anybody had had for a long time. This was not a movie, this was great ideas, and those ideas had to get out.
So I had to confirm that they needed to pursue that so that I could give them a little bit of where I came from and then I could go home. So I said to him, "How long will you give me to prove to you that you can make the movie?" He said, "One hour." I said, "Give me two weeks." I took the script away for two weeks, I memorised every word, I worked on the entire structure of the entire thing, every scene. I went in after two weeks. Fifty-nine minutes and 30 seconds later I stood up and said, "That’s why I think you have to make it. And I’m going." Arthur was there and Paddy was there and Howard was there behind a table. They said, "Wait a second." They went in a corner and started talking, I’m waiting and then they’re "We’ll make it if you’ll do it." I said, "I don’t make movies and I really don’t want to." And I was not joking. I’m still not joking. I could be happy without this. I’m not an ungrateful wretch. I’m very grateful for what has been given to me.
So why did you make it?
Because I spent two weeks having dinner three times a week with Arthur Penn figuring out a way for me to get out of film after making one movie. I had no obligations to do PR. I had a guarantee that I was personally in control of the character. I had director approval until 48 hours before we started filming. I had no obligation to market at all. And I had those protections in my contract for many many many years. You couldn’t make me market a film that I didn’t like, that I didn’t approve of. You couldn’t make me sell something where I thought I’d been lied to or cheated or where the promise of something had been deliberately deceitfully lied about. You couldn’t make me smile on something I didn’t want to smile on.
It was on that basis you agreed to do it?
Yes, and I was with Arthur. And on the basis of at least three weeks of full rehearsal. Which Paddy was of course all in favour of because he was an artist.
How did Ken Russell get involved?
What happened, and this is a great mystery that nobody knows about, is that only Paddy knew that Paddy was dying. He had cancer. And what happened was Paddy became afraid that with Arthur’s technique of directing he wouldn’t finish the film in time for Paddy to see it. So he fired Arthur and he got somebody who he thought would finish it faster who in fact finished it slower and with whom he disagreed categorically about his interpretation, thus taking his name off the film. They had a fist fight in the closet on the third day of filming. A full-out full fight in the Italian restaurant. That was my birth into film.
I was working a minimum of 14- to 18- to 20-hour days for seven months. I knew about Ken Russell. A little bit. I’d seen his movies. But I didn’t like him personally. So we were in this little room and there was this radiator and a little desk and a chair and we didn’t sit for a half an hour, neither one of us. Finally he sat on a radiator and I sat on the floor. When he sat on the radiator his pants pulled up and I saw he had Betty Boop socks on. It was then I thought, I’ll do it.
So why did you do another film if that was going to be your one film? What seduced you back in?
When I was offered the second film Sigourney Weaver (pictured right) was in it, Chris Plummer was in it, Irene Worth was in it, Jimmy Wood was in it, Morgan Freeman was in it, and it was a lovely little script and they offered me $70,000. And I said, "Oh my God, that’s way too much money." No, they offered me 140. I said, "That’s insane. You take half of that, and this conversation never happened. You take the money and you give it to Off Off Broadway theatre, so that you, Hollywood, are giving something to the garden where you get your flowers, the ones that make your reputation for you, that give you everything you have." Because I knew that that connection didn’t exist. They never fertilised our garden. They refused. They said exactly what Sam Cohn told me in private that they would do. They came back with the following statement: "We would have to redesign our entire accounting system to accommodate your desire." Because it is against their philosophy. Peter Yates was directing it. I gave a lot of that back to theatre. I didn’t need that kind of money. But then you’re getting sucked in. You’re the guy on the white horse now. Why shouldn’t they be subsidising the people who are most important to artistic expression, the ones upon they are basing their success and making their reputation?
So you did that film and you were hooked?
A person doesn’t like to admit that, but maybe.
What came next?
After States came Eyewitness. Then came Body Heat. See, what happened was Larry [Kasdan] and I talked about the structure of an idea for an ensemble working in film on Body Heat. While we were making Body Heat. You think I’m like some film addict? I really don’t think I am. If you haven’t changed the world into what you wanted to change it into, does that mean it was a bad idea? Does it mean you haven’t tried? I’m not responsible for your cynicism about this. You’re trying to get me to admit that I was seduced into something. They were all good films.
For 10 years you made without exception fantastic films. You were in most of the great films of the 1980s.
Body Heat (Hurt with Kathleen Turner, pictured left) was the best structured film I ever read. It was a better structure than States. But I spent the first six hours of my life with Larry Kasdan telling him why he couldn’t direct it. He didn’t know what he had. It was a gem, pure and simple.
Did he take kindly to that?
Yes he did. He listened. Because I was the only person that was honest with him. He had not directed before. I was simply saying that his odds of pulling off were remote. Which was true. It’s much nicer to be treated with honesty than it is to be treated fatuously.
Has your honesty ever got you into trouble?
Yeah, sure. Sure. Thank God. I hope it gets me in trouble with people who don’t want it.
Did it ultimately have an impact on the kind of films you were able to make?
It’s like when someone says to you, "Go make these big films, then you’ll be given the chance to make the ones you want." I can promise you that if you do that you may make some big ones but by the time you’ve done it you won’t remember how to make the ones you wanted.
What combination of luck and desert was it that ensured that you had a remarkable series of scripts landing in your lap?
They didn’t land in my lap. You read and you found the ones you saw goodness and lightness and structure in. First of all structure.
Was it good taste?
Knowledge. Because I had read Shakespeare, I had read Chekhov, I had read Ibsen, I had acted in Chekhov, I had acted in Ibsen, I had acted in Stoppard, I had acted in Pinter. I had acted. I had acted these things. They were part of my life. It’s not like throwing dice. If someone says "good luck" to you before you go to work, just tell them you’re not going to Atlantic City, tell them you’re going to work. Don’t ratify luck with saying "thank you". I’ve never been sorry about anything I chose to do and I’ve never been sorry to lose one. You know the joke about actors? How many actors does it take to screw in a light bulb? One to screw in a light bulb, and 24 to say, "I could have done that better." Well, I’m not one of those 24. Sometimes I get to be the one. I’m sure there are people who say they could have done and maybe they’re right.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
theartsdesk recommends the half-dozen top films out now
They are undoubtedly seven, but are they magnificent?
Two film noirs showcase the impeccable coolness of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake
Poignancy of friendship explored in sensitive new film from Ira Sachs
Bestselling book reborn as underpowered movie
Five films from the great German director offer insights into his inconsistency
Inept, patronising Highland romcom from debut writer/director Talulah Riley
Unforgiving dissection of the consequences of Argentina's dictatorship chills
A frustratingly timid return to the found-footage woods
Intimate portrait of a Hollywood diva fills in the darkest shadows
Renée Zellweger and Colin Firth star in a sparkling return to form for the franchise
Inhuman employment's human cost is weighed in a French prize-winner