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Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema: John Hurt Interview

10 February 2012
John Hurt at Savoy London for a special lunch in celebration of his Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema Award.BAFTA/ Stephen Butler

Veteran actor John Hurt looks back over a sterling career on the silver screen.

In the course of a 50-year screen career, very little has given John Hurt pause in his search for varied and challenging roles. But as this year’s recipient of the BAFTA for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema, he seems a little perplexed by this unexpected but deserved accolade.

And yet so much of his work has echoed into the national consciousness, from the victimised Timothy Evans in 10 Rillington Place (1971) to the doomed astronaut Kane in Alien (1979), conveying the heartbreaking dignity of John Merrick in The Elephant Man (1980) or the existential angst of Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), Hurt has consistently touched audiences with the raw humanity of characters in extreme, life changing situations.

At the same time he has proved adept in supporting roles that add weight to a larger piece, whether it be wand maker Ollivander in the Harry Potter films or a suitably paranoid Control in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). He made his film debut in romantic drama The Wild And The Willing in 1962, but had he been told then the career that lay ahead of him he admits he would scarcely have believed it.

“I’d already told myself that if I wanted to be an actor I had to be prepared to be in rep all my life,” the 72-year-old recalls. “I never ever expected to get into film in the way that it’s been possible.”

And yet there is clearly something that a huge variety of filmmakers see in John Hurt that compels them to cast him year after year. The actor is savvy enough to understand this but not so self regarding as to wish to define it.

“A long time ago I realised that I am the result of other people’s imagination. Roles just come to me from other people, and I’ve long since given up thinking ‘Oh really? Why me?’ These are people you trust, really fantastic directors, so I go down that line. That has allowed me to be much more varied. I don’t think actors are very good at choosing their own stuff. If we were allowed to do what we thought we were best at it’d be pretty dreary, I think.”

"I never ever expected to get into film in the way that it's been possible."

Never afraid to test himself with challenging roles, including high-profile television work as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (1975) and Caligula in I, Claudius (1976), Hurt has been nominated for seven BAFTAs, winning three times for playing Crisp, Max in Midnight Express (1978) and Merrick in The Elephant Man.

“There was a time when people said ‘you always play victims,’ but it’s not true. I’ve played quite a lot of victims, but they’re all different. In fact Quentin Crisp said,” and here he breaks into a pitch perfect impersonation of Crisp’s distinctive drawl: “‘Well you always play me. You played me in The Naked Civil Servant, and then you played me in a toga, and then you played me with a paper bag over your head in The Elephant Man’.” He laughs at the memory of a good friend.

Had Hurt needed early encouragement in his movie career, he got it from the man he still calls his Screen Godfather, Fred Zinnemann. The Hollywood great was directing A Man For All Seasons (1966) in Britain, and cast Hurt in the key role of Richard Rich alongside luminaries such as Paul Scofield, Wendy Hiller and Orson Welles.

“Fred Zinnemann had huge belief in me,” Hurt adds, “and put his money where his mouth was in the most extraordinary way. After my first scene, he beckoned to me to come see him. These were the days when you called your director ‘sir’; to be summoned to the director was very different than it would be now.

“I thought he was going to sack me, but he said, ‘What I’m going to say to you now, if you repeat it I shall call you a liar, do you understand?’ I said yes. He said ‘I understand you’ve got a contract with Columbia for three pictures, all at the same price as this film?’

“I said yes. He said, ‘I also understand that if Columbia doesn’t take those options up before this film is shown publicly for the first time then they’re null and void?’ which was also true. He told me to tell my agent not to mention these options to anybody, because he suspected the studio wouldn’t do anything about them until the film’s first public screening, and only then would they want to take them up.

The actor adds, recognising the lengths Zinnemann took to prevent him getting tied into a studio contract, “That was quite extraordinary advice to give a young actor.”

"I've played quite a lot of victims."

These days, of course, it is Hurt who is the revered veteran on set, the man who – on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – leading actor Gary Oldman confessed he was the most nervous and thrilled to be working with. The feelings of respect are mutual. So as intriguing roles continue to come his way, and interesting directors seek to work with him, John Hurt is entertaining no thoughts of retirement.

“Good grief,” he harrumphs in mock disgust. “I don’t think I’m going to change my methods of sniffing around for work, or waiting for it to come to me. I don’t have ambitions to play particular things. I just keep looking for something interesting and, if I get the chance, I do it.”