Interview: John Hurt at JDIFF

There is something inherently powerful about John Hurt. A lot of it may be in the voice. His gravelly tones, somewhere between a rasp and a roar, have depicted power and distrust for decades. Now a little older, those marvellous intonations and informed pronunciations convey a great wisdom. All of this means the prospect of interviewing Hurt is initially terrifying. Be assured, though; behind the curtain there is just a man. Mercifully, he’s a very pleasant and chatty one. On entering the interview room, we are greeted with a vision resplendent in corduroy and a majestic unruly goatee. We acknowledge our nervousness. “You don’t need to be nervous. I’m just a bloke!” The 5’9” frame might suggest so, but that wonderful voice causes us to suspect otherwise.

We meet Hurt in Dublin, where he’s arrived as a guest of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. He’s here to present a preview of Only Lovers Left Alive, the latest lament for lost time from acclaimed director Jim Jarmusch. It tells the story of two married vampires, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), whose disaffection for the modern world and its values threaten their very existence. Hurt plays a vampiric version of Christopher Marlowe, the infamous alleged ghost writer of most of the works of William Shakespeare. It’s an marvellously entertaining and smart film, treating the vampire with the respect that such a dangerous creature deserves. Was Hurt a vampire fan?

Hurt as Marlowe  in ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE

“No, not really.” comes the frank reply. “I never thought of it that way. But I like the device of it, because you can’t… look at somebody over one lifetime. And if you get the chance of looking at them over maybe another lifetime, and maybe looking at them from a different point of view and so on, then you begin to think, ‘Oh, yes, I see the point.’ I’ve never seen the point of drinking blood… to be whoever you are, but I’m not asked to do that. I’m asked to play a part. I mean, if I were making a film I wouldn’t choose to make it about vampires!”

The idea of the vampire as a device is very relevant to Only Lovers Left Alive. Both Adam and Eve are accomplished artists in various mediums down through the centuries, having idolised and even befriended great thinkers and writers through the years. Their melancholy look back to the past is a theme of much of Jarmusch’s work. The elegiac mood and unhurried pace of his films has won Jarmusch many fans, and a varied repertoire of actors with whom he works. Only Lovers… is Hurt’s third film with Jarmusch, about whom he is very complimentary. “I just love Jim. I like the way he thinks. I like the way he talks, and it’s fun working with him. It’s just nice. I mean, if Jim calls me up I say, ‘Where and when?’ I don’t ask what it is, because you never know with Jim. He can’t explain himself, he’s hopeless!”

Hurt continues, “But he’s a good filmmaker, a really good filmmaker, and I’m not ashamed of any of the three films I’ve made with him at all.” This may be a reference to the cool critical reception for their last film together, 2009’s The Limits of Control. Not that it matters much to Hurt. “Not that I’ve had a lot to do in any of them!”, he acknowledges. ”It’s just the way it works out, and I like him, so it’s always nice to make a film with him.” That said, Hurt is keen to dispel any idea that enjoying working with someone doesn’t make it easy. “It’s quite tough when it comes to it. When the juices are going, [Jim]’s quite tough, which is great. It takes you along, it takes you on a journey. It’s not just sort of nice and simple and bla bla bla. You are working properly, which is nice.”

One of the noteworthy trends on Hurt’s CV is the number of real people he has portrayed onscreen. He won much praise early in his career for his performance as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (a role he returned to in 2009 follow-up An Englishman in New York). Hurt earned one of his two Academy Award nominations for his heartbreaking portrayal of John Merrick in The Elephant Man (the other was for Midnight Express). He also played Stephen Ward, the man at the heart of the Profumo affair, in Scandal and was Mel Brooks’ vision of Jesus in History of the World, Part I.

Yet playing Marlowe, or at least this version of him, is different. How does one approach turning one of history’s greatest silent partners into a vampire? “The difference between playing Marlowe and the reason for seeing him spread out over four centuries is the whole Shakesperean myth, which I was never particularly interested in before. Shame on me, because I should have been!” The conspiracy theories never go away, with each one gaining momentum even still. “Jim got me very interested.” explains Hurt “So much so that I actually deviate from him. I think it was De Vere (Edward, 17th Earl of Oxford) who wrote the plays. I think everything points in that direction. But we’ll never know that, unless something is unearthed. But it’s completely fascinating!”

Hurt as Quentin Crisp in 1975's THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT
Hurt as Quentin Crisp in 1975’s THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT

Hurt’s long career (52 years since his first appearance in an episode of Z Cars, and counting) was due in no small part to his portrayals of real people, but with the years and the award season rolling on, the glut of biopics being foisted on award voters and audiences alike seems to grow ever larger. We asked Hurt how he feels about this trend, considering the amount of films he’s made based on true lives. “I suppose I never considered them biopics. Certainly, I never considered The Naked Civil Servant a biopic, and yet it is the most obvious. It just never occurred to me. I was playing Quentin, and I met Quentin, and so on. But the word ‘biopic’ hadn’t come into being then anyway. ‘Biopic’ now has that sort of thing that it makes you feel like you’re.. it’s a ‘sub’-genre.”

The mention of awards in this context causes him to sit up. “Don’t go into that with me.” Have we hit a sore spot? A tense pause follows. “I mean… well, you can, but I’m not in favour of awards anyway.  And I’m not dog in the manger; I’ve got plenty.” Despite awards recognition many times in his career, Hurt is not rushing out to canvass for glory. “I don’t agree with them, and I don’t agree with the idea that you can compare one thing with another and say, “Oh, this is better than that.” I don’t think you can. I mean, we do because the audiences love it. But I can’t think of any good reason other than that. 12 Years A Slave was not made as a big movie, by any means.”

Whether or not he gets awards, Hurt has had an incredibly diverse and interesting career. He works with auteurs like Jarmusch or Lars von Trier, backs up bigger ensemble pieces like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or the Harry Potter series, and he turns out to be Doctor Who. Is this variety what keeps him going? “I have no idea!I couldn’t tell you. I don’t know if you’ll be sitting in that chair in 40 years time. Hopefully not! What do you want to be doing?!”, he asks with wry laughter. We’re caught on the hop there. The wise old man has caught us napping. “I’ve no idea how it works. It’s just a bit here and a bit there, and it’s interesting. That takes over your life at that point, and then something else takes over; I never know from one year to the next what I’m going to be doing.”

Only Lovers Left Alive opens on 21st February. Read Scannain‘s review here.

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