One of the most accomplished (and most steadily-employed) English actors of his generation, John Hurt is known for his droll Quentin Crisp, I, Claudius’s godhead Caligula, and for vivid victim-in-pain performances including pleasure seeker-turned-courtroom-sacrifice Stephen Ward in 1989’s tabloid-trial thriller Scandal. Like Ward, Hurt was a vicar’s son, but left his native Midlands to pursue the muse. After studying painting at St. Martin’s College (when asked of his style, Hurt responds: “Do you know Edvard Munch’s work?”), Hurt transferred to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and shortly found employment in the lively world of UK teleplays and on stage.
It was 1966’s A Man For All Seasons that launched his prolific film career—2011 alone has brought credits in Melancholia, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and another Harry Potter—which BAMcinématek celebrates with its four-feature retrospective of Hurt’s film work, including his indelible performance in The Elephant Man. This highly selective mini-series, also featuring Scandal and his lovelorn gay novelist of Love and Death in Long Island, arrives in conjunction with Hurt’s performance in Samuel Beckett’s one-actor one-act Krapp’s Last Tape. It’s a role that Hurt, now 71, first played for Dublin’s Gate Theatre in 1999, of a 69-year old listening to tape recordings of his 39-year old self. On the phone from Washington, D.C., where he was preparing to perform his U.S. stage debut in Krapp’s, Hurt put himself on tape for us.
To what degree have you curated your career? To what degree has it been a matter of just keeping shoulder to grindstone and seeing what happens?
To a degree, the latter, tawdry description that you suggest probably has quite a lot to do with the truth. I always say I would rather be working than not working. There are times in my life, without any question, when you take the best of whatever bunch is there. It has not been a matter of waiting from one jewel to the next jewel.
And yet there are certain patterns that emerge in the work—one that’s most commented on is the fact that you are so often victimized. Is it accurate to say that you have a particularly deep well of pain to draw from, or is it more a matter of craft.
I don’t think that that’s a matter of craft, because it’s not. On the other hand, without craft, you wouldn’t get it across. I can’t tell you how deep my well is. But I can tell you I wouldn’t be able to draw it out of the well if it were not for craft.
With The Elephant Man, how did you get a performance across through all of the prosthesis?
The old word “craft” comes out again, doesn’t it? There are many things you need to know. You need to know what angles to use, how to use the light. You need to know something about mime. I worked very closely with Chris Tucker who did the makeup as well… I did have my eyes, but they weren’t always usable. What I did have was a voice. I think it’s really why I chose a voice that is certainly not a voice that he would have had, but a voice that he would have wished to have had, a voice to which he would aspire to.
Having played Krapp’s Last Tape over a dozen years, in what ways has your understanding of the play changed?
It’s very interesting when you come back to doing something after you’ve left it alone for about three or four years. You come back to it thinking “I need to really re-examine this all together,” you start examining it, and there aren’t in fact many stones that you left unturned. But being nearer to the right age, there are certain changes…. I think I play him with not quite so much anger, but that doesn’t necessarily mean softer at the edges. It’s quite subtle the changes, those that there are. The reason for this is that Beckett is one of those writers that is, essentially, like Wilde, incredibly musical. And once you’ve found the theme of it, that musicality, it’s almost silly to try to change it.
Are the tapes that you’re listening to on stage the same tapes you recorded in Dublin in 1999?
They are the same tapes, yeah. It does add an extra element… Memory’s a weird thing—sometimes you can’t remember anything of a particular area of your life. On the other hand, I can remember almost second-to-second the whole of that recording session. I can remember exactly why we went down the lines of almost every reading of every phrase.
You were opposite Olivier in his grand-old-man King Lear, obviously a career capper for him. Is there any role you’re desperate to do?
I have never really known what I wanted to do next. I never had ambition; I never was the sort of person who was dying to play Hamlet or whatever. I try not to make those decisions myself. I am, if you like, the addition of other people’s imagination. I find that the most interesting way to work in a sense, because it keeps one able to make life more varied and also I find myself doing things that I myself probably would never have thought of. I think that’s the way it’s done.