Guest Host: Susan Page

John Hurt in "Krapp's Last Tape."

John Hurt in "Krapp's Last Tape."

John Hurt has spent much of his career playing misfits and outsiders. Although he’s known for his well worn face, he’s also known for his very distinctively rich voice. Hurt has appeared in over a hundred films in his five decades long career. He’s received acclaim and awards for such films as “1984,” “The Elephant Man,” and “Midnight Express.” His work on the first and last “Harry Potter” as well as the “Hellboy” movies have brought him to a new audience. Hurt has also received acclaim for his work on the stage. He’s currently starring in a production of Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape.” A conversation with legendary British actor John Hurt

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Program Highlights

Legendary British actor John Hurt is known for a well-worn face and a distinctive rich voice. He’s appeared in more than 100 films, among them “The Elephant Man,” “Hellboy,” “Love and Death on Long Island” and “Harry Potter.” Hurt is also a star of the theater. He made his London stage debut in 1962. He has most recently appeared on stage in a production of Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” presented by the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C., with the production moving to New York shortly.

At Home on Stage

Hurt first took to the stage at age 9, where he felt “absolutely infused” with an understanding that he was in the right place. He hasn’t read all the reviews of his work during his long career, but he does remember a particularly negative one from The Daily Express for his performance during a Michael Codron play called “Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs.” Spurred on by drunk castmates, Hurt wrote a note to the writer that just said, “Whoops, Yours Sincerely, John Hurt.” Weeks later, he received a note back from the writer that simply said, “Thank you for your short, but tedious, letter.” Hurt sent a note back saying, “You Win.”

Memorable Roles

Hurt’s role as Merrick in “The Elephant Man” involved so many hours of makeup before he could even begin shooting that he feared for a while he had come in to a situation that would make him not enjoy acting for the first time. But the film’s cast and crew, he said, were extraordinary, and he ended up having a great experience. In “Alien,” Hurt said there was a myth that began somehow that the other actors didn’t know what was going to happen. He said it was more a matter that they knew the alien was going to burst out of his chest, but they probably didn’t know how bloody and excruciating the whole scene was going to be. In the days before CGI, the props experts came up with a way to have a fake lower half of Hurt’s body, through which they actually pushed the alien.

The Voice

Guest host Susan Page told Hurt she’d recently read an interview Hurt had done with The Guardian in which the writer had described Hurt’s voice as “nicotine sieved through dirty moonlit gravel.” To Hurt, the voice is a major part of any actor’s equipment. “I think you can create atmospheres with it,” he said. “It’s a musical instrument in a sense.”

Favorites

One of Hurt’s own favorite films was “Love and Death on Long Island” made by Richard Kwietniowski. “With the reviews that we got, I thought that it would’ve been much, much more successful than it actually was,” he said. A method actor, Hurt said he almost passed on the recent BBC series “Caligula,” but was persuaded by a friend to change his mind. “It was a stunning time, terrific case,” he said.

You can read the full transcript here.

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Transcript

  • 11:06:54

    MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Legendary British actor John Hurt is known for a well-worn face and a distinctive rich voice. He's appeared in more than 100 films, among them "The Elephant Man," "Hellboy," "Love and Death on Long Island" and "Harry Potter." Hurt is also a star of the theater. He made his London stage debut in 1962.

  • 11:07:19

    MS. SUSAN PAGEHe's currently appearing on stage in a production of Samuel Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape" presented by the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C. The production moves to New York next week. John Hurt joins us in the studio. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:07:35

    MR. JOHN HURTThank you very much. I'm delighted to be here.

  • 11:07:37

    PAGEWe're going to invite our listeners to join our conversation. Later in this hour, you can call our toll-free number 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at drshow@wamu.org or you can find us on Facebook or Twitter. So I had the privilege of seeing your performance on Tuesday night in this Beckett play. The thing that struck me so much was how long you're onstage performing before you ever speak a word. How long is it that that play goes on before you actually say something?

  • 11:08:13

    HURTBefore I say anything at all? I suppose it must be about a quarter of an hour.

  • 11:08:19

    PAGEAnd what's extraordinary is that you're not saying a word. There's no one else onstage. It's the barest of sets, desk and a light and yet you convey so much information, so much emotion. Is that hard to do?

  • 11:08:37

    HURTI don't -- it's difficult for me to say whether it's hard to do. It's, the whole business of acting, I mean, it always intrigues people. They're always saying how do you do it? It's seems to be the essence of most questions about it. The difficulty in answering it is of course I mean if you are an actor you know. I mean that's what we do. So therefore we don't put it into categories of being hard or easy or whatever. That is actually what we do in the same way that a doctor gets on with diagnosing a patient, you know.

  • 11:09:15

    PAGEAnd yet quite a tired thought to the audience, the audience was totally quiet during the 15 minutes where you are...

  • 11:09:23

    HURTThey were wonderful.

  • 11:09:23

    PAGEYes. And I went with a producer from "The Diane Rehm Show," Nancy Robertson. And afterwards she said that it was -- it was kind of -- and this is not meant to be insulting. It's meant to be a compliment. But she said it was kind of like watching a mind perform in that it was so physical what you were doing.

  • 11:09:42

    HURTWell, the beginning of the play is very much so, that's as written by Samuel Beckett. It is his way of setting up the character, the situation and what he wishes to talk about.

  • 11:09:57

    PAGEIs it sort of a relief once you have a role, that line of dialogue to say, though?

  • 11:10:03

    HURTNo, not at all, no. There's acting and reacting, you know, and I say very often the listening and thinking is as instructive, but is interesting to do as it is instructive.

  • 11:10:19

    PAGEYou say this is something actors just know how to do. Did you instantly feel that way the first time you were on a stage?

  • 11:10:28

    HURTThe first time I was on a stage, I was on a stage was when I was nine years old doing a school play. All I can remember from that, apart from the fact that my knees were knocking before it started, but as soon as I started, that all sort of disappeared and I felt absolutely infused with the understanding that I was in the right place.

  • 11:10:54

    PAGEYou know, I've traveled a lot as a reporter, have for many years and I find that when I walk into a newsroom anyplace in the country, whether I know anyone there or not, I sort of feel like, yeah, this is where I belong and I wonder -- that sounds like how you feel as well.

  • 11:11:09

    HURTWell, I think it is. You know you find your niche in a sense. You find it if you're lucky.

  • 11:11:15

    PAGEYes, it's very fortunate, yeah.

  • 11:11:18

    HURTOh boy, I think one should -- that's the first mantra you should have when you get out of bed in the morning is I'm extremely lucky, extremely lucky to be doing what I want to do and have been allowed to do so all through my life.

  • 11:11:29

    PAGENow you must have felt extremely fortunate or happy this morning when you rolled out of bed because you have really an extraordinarily positive review in The Washington Post of this play. It refers to your -- the miracle of superlative acting.

  • 11:11:45

    HURTPlease. I know, my wife read it out to me this morning at breakfast, rather quietly sotto voce so nobody else could hear for fear of -- I don't know. There's a line in the play which is when he says, last fancies and then he says, keep them under so that's what I'm going to have to do with this review, keep it under.

  • 11:12:09

    PAGENow, do you usually read your reviews?

  • 11:12:12

    HURTI sometimes do and sometimes don't. I don't think I've ever read all of them. You know, when you get all of them and particularly in England we've got so many nationals. But I think, generally speaking, I tend to read them, yeah.

  • 11:12:30

    PAGEDo you get -- not that you've gotten many negative reviews, but do you ever get mad at reviews?

  • 11:12:33

    HURTWell, my best story about a review, I think, was many, many years ago I did a play called "Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs," which Michael Codron put on and it was really, somewhat avant garde and it was way, way head of its time in a sense.

  • 11:12:49

    HURTBut it got, generally speaking, terrific reviews, but there was one review from The Daily Express, I remember, which was pretty negative. And by this time, this was the days when you used to go and get the newspapers at 4 o'clock in the morning, you know. They didn't go to bed so early, the newspapers, I mean. And so they printed very late so they'd be out in the morning, the morning newspaper.

  • 11:13:14

    HURTAnd we were having the first-night party on stage, which in those days you could do, you know, there were no fire things or this, that or the other, a good old party. Everybody was fairly drunk and then the papers came in and I read this one and I said, ah, somebody get me a bit of paper. And so I got a piece of paper and I wrote out -- I forget his name now, but a Dear whoever it was, Whoops, W-H-O-O-O-O-O-O-P-S, yours sincerely, John Hurt, and stupidly sent it off.

  • 11:13:43

    HURTAh, never write -- never write to a writer because I heard nothing. But three weeks later, I got a letter back saying thank you for your short, but tedious letter. Yours sincerely, Peter Lewis, it was. Yes, so I had to write a letter back saying, you win, Mr. Lewis.

  • 11:14:00

    PAGEYou know, I sent out a note on Twitter this morning saying that we were going to have you on the air and interviewing you and asking what clips people would like to hear from your long career. And the answer that came back most often was one of your most recent performances which was in "Harry Potter." We have a clip from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2" out just this year in which you're playing Mr. Ollivander, who is the wand-maker of Britain. And here we have a scene with Daniel Radcliffe, the star of "Harry Potter." Let's hear it.

  • 11:16:19

    PAGEWho have studied wand law, not a line an actor often gets to deliver? Was the "Harry Potter" film fun to do?

  • 11:16:26

    HURTWell it was, yes. I mean, I played Ollivander which, as you heard, which has an appearance in the first one and has a very small appearance in the penultimate one and the ultimate one, which is the scene we've just been listening to. So really my connection with "Harry Potter," my connection, physically with the whole business of making it was very, very short.

  • 11:16:53

    HURTI did the first scene in the first one was, I think, probably a five or six minute scene where we set up and sold the wand to him and so on and so forth. I think we did it in two days. And then 11 years later, I did another five days for the penultimate and the last one by which time, of course, they've all grown up. So it was like being in a completely different film, which, of course, it was a completely different film as well.

  • 11:17:25

    PAGEAnd quite a -- this is quite an eccentric character you were playing. So how do you take the words on a page and develop your concept of the character you're going to convey?

  • 11:17:39

    HURTI don't think there's an answer to that, but you're quite right, what one does do is -- I'm a huge believer in the writing and that is the springboard from which you trigger your imagination. How your imagination -- one's imagination works, I'm terribly sorry, but I can't tell you.

  • 11:18:05

    PAGEAnd you've done such a wide range of roles from a play by Samuel Beckett to the "Harry Potter" movies. Are there roles that you just won't do that you've turned down and said no, this is...

  • 11:18:19

    HURTWell, there are rules that -- I try to mark everything like a sort of dreadful old examiner and I don't like to do anything that I mark under 50 percent.

  • 11:18:32

    PAGEWe're going to take just a very short break. And when we come back, we'll continue our conversation with the British actor, John Hurt and we'll take some of your calls. Our phone lines are open 1-800-433-8850, stay with us.

  • 11:20:07

    MR. JOHN HURT AS MERRICKI am not an elephant. I am not an animal. I am a human being.

  • 11:20:37

    PAGEThat was John Hurt performing as Merrick in the movie "The Elephant Man." He's trying to leave a train station, the scene, being pursued by children and men who are frightened by his appearance. What an appearance you had in the movie "The Elephant Man." How was that look achieved?

  • 11:20:56

    HURTWell, therein lies a very long story, but I can try and make it as short as possible. It was originally going to be made by David Lynch, the wonderful director who directed it and for whom I have nothing but the ultimate praise. But at that time, he was allowed to do it because he'd made "Eraserhead" and he'd made a rather terrifying little baby, which worked brilliantly in "Eraserhead."

  • 11:21:26

    HURTBut unfortunately, when he did the makeup for "The Elephant Man," it was -- literally it was a mask and it was unusable. I couldn't move anything. And we all had to think again. And then Chris Tucker came in, a wonderful makeup man, and we devised in his little studio in the old Kent Road in London with John Merrick's cast of his head in front of us, which we got from the museum, the John Merrick Museum. It was very interesting 'cause it had little hairs growing out of the cast. Very strange, but very -- never mind that's (unintelligible) .

  • 11:22:04

    HURTAnd we spent six weeks doing something which normally Chris said it would take six months to do. And we built it up and it was 22 different pieces of prosthetic makeup melting away to nothing. And it took seven hours to apply.

  • 11:22:25

    PAGESeven hours to apply. So how is that even possible to spend seven hours in makeup even before you've done anything...

  • 11:22:33

    HURTWell, it wasn't possible of course. I mean, there's no way that you could do -- I mean, that's a day's work before you start. So we had to devise a new way of doing it so we did the makeups every other day and in the day in between the crew had off, so they loved it. And it was Freddy Francis who was lighting it and David Lynch and myself and the soundman. We just rehearsed in civvies, you know, the next day's work for about two or three hours. And that's how it worked. But -- so I -- 'cause I had -- my day would last from -- I'd get into the studios at 4:00 in the morning, I'd be finished by noon. And then...

  • 11:23:15

    PAGEFinished with the makeup by noon.

  • 11:23:17

    HURTYeah.

  • 11:23:17

    PAGEYes.

  • 11:23:18

    HURTAnd then we'd shoot from noon through 'til 10:30 at night with a running buffet for those who could eat. I couldn't eat of course 'cause I've got the gums and everything else in, you know. So it was a heck of a day. It was a heck of a day. But I did sink in the beginning -- at the beginning 'cause the very first makeup took 12 hours because I thought they'd found a way of making me not enjoy filming.

  • 11:23:42

    HURTBut oddly enough, it was a fantastic crew, terrific director. And, you know, with the film, there is at least light at the end of the tunnel. It's not like signing up for seven years for television. If that had been the case, I think I would've committed suicide.

  • 11:23:58

    PAGEWell, let's go to the phones and let some of our listeners ask their questions or make their comments. We'll go to Andrew. He's calling us from Cleveland. Andrew, you're on the air.

  • 11:24:09

    ANDREWHi. Thanks for taking my call. Mr. Hurt, it's an extreme pleasure to talk to you. My question -- one of my most endearing moments in your career, oddly enough, was when I was surprised to see you pop up in "Spaceballs," the Mel Brooks film aping your iconic scene in the movie "Alien." And I was wondering was that a lengthy courtship process or was that something that you just leapt at the chance to do?

  • 11:24:35

    HURTWhat, to do "Spaceballs," you mean, or to do "Alien" originally?

  • 11:24:38

    ANDREWYes, to do "Spaceballs."

  • 11:24:41

    HURTTo do "Spaceballs." Well, that was an idea from Mel Brooks who has a way of being able to get me to go over to Hollywood to do something for absolutely nothing. And then he brags in front of the crew saying, this guy has made me a lot of money. A lot of money John's made me. And of course -- 'cause he was the executive producer of "The Elephant Man" and a lot of people don't realize that.

  • 11:25:06

    ANDREWOh, wow.

  • 11:25:07

    HURTIt was the first film to be made by Brooks Films. And for obvious reasons, he kept his name off the bills, you know. So --

  • 11:25:15

    PAGEFor obvious reasons because...

  • 11:25:16

    HURTWell, because he's known for comedy which is not exactly what "The Elephant Man" was about. Anyway so he called me over -- the first one he called me over for was "History of the World: Part I" where I played Jesus Christ for him, yes. And then he got me over for that one for absolutely nothing. And then when I got there I realized that it was about a $6 million scene. He had every right to pay me properly but he doesn't like doing that.

  • 11:25:48

    PAGESo that was in "Spaceballs." Now that was really spoofing the role you had in "Alien." Is that -- the role in "Alien" is such an -- the moment in "Alien" has become such an iconic movie moment. Describe it to our listeners. Maybe some of them have not seen "Alien."

  • 11:26:07

    HURTWell, it's very difficult to describe, isn't it really. I mean, it's an extraordinary kind of a birth with where this alien that has incubated itself inside of me. And, of course, this is all made before CGI so it's...

  • 11:26:28

    PAGECGI being computer generated.

  • 11:26:30

    HURTComputer generated, yes. Everybody knows what CGI is. Now it's me -- it's old fishes like me that don't know what CGI means. But, yes -- and so it eventually bursts out of my chest. But of course that had to be done, as it were, for real because we didn't have computer generated doodly doo-doos. So in the cut from one side of me to the other side of the table when I'm rolling on the table in excruciating agony, they put my body in a hole in the table. I’m bent absolutely like a right angle. And they build another body along on the table, but not all hands in the cut so it's completely seamless.

  • 11:27:21

    HURTAnd then you've got one props man underneath it pushing -- I can remember when they're trying it out, they're pushing it through saying, is it coming through yet, Eric? And Eric says, no, can't see it yet, Elf. I said, well, give me another shove. (makes noise) And it went on like this anyway. Eventually they got it worked out. But that's how it was done. It was on the end of a stick.

  • 11:27:42

    PAGEAnd this is while the actors -- you're performing as though you're in anguish and the other actors are looking astonished at this alien being born out of your stomach.

  • 11:27:50

    HURTHow that was. I mean, there was -- there's this kind of myth that the cast didn't know what was going to happen. Well, of course they knew what was going to happen. They've got a script, you know. But they didn't know how it was going to happen. And when it came through there were -- all around the wound where it appeared there were lots of little caps which exploded, so the blood just flew all over the place. That they didn't know but they should've guessed because really had about five cameras on it.

  • 11:28:20

    PAGEWe'll like to maybe try another clip from a movie. You received a lot of acclaim for the 1978 film "Midnight Express." You won a Golden Globe. You were nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. This is a movie in which an American tourist, a young man has been caught by Turkish customs officials trying to smuggle hashish out of the country. He gets a devastating 30-year sentence. And you are someone he meets in prison. Let's listen.

  • 11:28:47

    MR. JOHN HURT AS MAXWell, there's no straight lawyers in Turkey. They're all bent, bent as hairpins. Occupational necessity. They have special classes in corruption at night school. If you got suspected of honesty, then you get disbarred. I knew a lawyer fellow once who had got that Frenchman off. LaRoche, yeah, fool, a big smuggler, 200 kilos. He put enough bread in enough pockets, got bail, vanished.

  • 11:29:43

    MR. NORBERT WEISSER AS ERICHHis name.

  • 11:29:46

    MAXWho?

  • 11:29:48

    ERICHThe lawyer.

  • 11:29:51

    MAXThe lawyer.

  • 11:29:52

    ERICHWho got the Frenchman off.

  • 11:29:57

    MAXOh, Yesil. Yesil was his name. I don't know anything else about Yesil. Best thing to do is to get your ass out of here best way you can.

  • 11:30:20

    ERICHYeah, but how?

  • 11:30:23

    MAXCatch the Midnight Express.

  • 11:30:25

    ERICHWell, what's that?

  • 11:30:30

    MAXIt's not a train. It's a prison word for escape.

  • 11:30:40

    PAGEThat was John Hurt performing in "Midnight Express." You know, these clips really let us focus on the remarkable sound of your voice, which is one of your most distinctive features. I was reading a review in the Guardian -- or an interview you had done with the Guardian last night. I was reading it last night. You didn't do the interview last night. And it described your voice as nicotine sieved through dirty moonlit gravel.

  • 11:31:05

    HURTThank you very much.

  • 11:31:11

    PAGEIs it just your natural voice? Have you cultivated it over the years to become such a distinctive instrument?

  • 11:31:19

    HURTI don't think so. I do believe -- I mean, I think that the voice is a major, major part of an actor's equipment. I think you can create atmospheres with it. You can -- it's hugely important really. But then, you know, there are other things where like you saw the play the other night, you know. You can use a very high register like (makes noise) and so on, you know. So you can -- I mean, it's there to be used. It's there to be played with. It's there -- and it's important. It's a musical instrument in a sense, yeah.

  • 11:31:59

    PAGEYou use your body as an instrument as well. And I noticed in the play that you're performing in now, your physical posture is so different in the play than when you come out to take bows at the end. You seem like a very different character at that point. And there's one point -- even though you are a man of a certain number of years, there's one point in the play where you are slipping on a banana peel and you manage, I believe, to do a full set of splits onstage it looked like.

  • 11:32:26

    HURTI don't know. Is it splits? I have no idea. I know that it's -- I try to hit the banana skin anyway. That's probably the most difficult technical thing in the whole thing. Because I never know whether I can dare to sneak a look down on the ground or whether the audience will see me doing that. Or -- 'cause you imagine that the audience will see you doing that but probably they wouldn't. So -- but you have to sort of gauge it and guess where that banana skin is exactly.

  • 11:32:52

    PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Let's take another caller. We'll go to Brian. He's calling us from New Philadelphia, Ohio. Hi, Brian.

  • 11:33:06

    BRIANHi there. Question is, he played such a small role in the Harry Potter movies but went 11 years between playing that character. You know, he said that most people asked, how do you do it, but how do you do it? How did you go 11 years between playing such a minor character and get yourself back into that character's head and play that character again the same way after 11 years?

  • 11:33:33

    HURTOh, that's interesting, yes. Interesting question. I hadn't thought about it. I must admit, it didn't seem to me to be an issue, you know. I remember him clearly. I remember all around it clearly enough. He was in very different circumstances of course in the later films. He'd been tortured and so on and so forth. But it's strange. The only thing I can tell you really is that it doesn't leave you. Once you've visited somewhere it doesn't leave you. And it's rather like going to a place I imagine. You know, once you've visited Prague, you're not going to forget it.

  • 11:34:13

    PAGEWell, interesting question, Brian. Thank you for your call.

  • 11:34:16

    BRIANThank you.

  • 11:34:17

    PAGELet's go to Gedaje (sp?) calling us from Fort Belvoir, Va. Gedaje, thank you for holding on.

  • 11:34:24

    GEDAJEThank you for taking my call. I saw Mr. Hurt for the very first time in a little known movie, "The Osterman Weekend." And it impressed on me that I was looking at that very same line somewhere between genius and madness. And I wonder if you (unintelligible) on it.

  • 11:34:44

    HURTWell, what am I to say to that? What am I to say to that? All I can say is "The Oteman Weekend," I rather enjoyed that. That was Sam Peckinpah's last film. And he was a difficult old cuss. But once you made him laugh, I couldn't put a foot wrong. So we then rather -- we enjoyed making the film then. But, well, I don't know. Madness, I'll go with that. I'll go with that. Genius, that's up to you.

  • 11:35:16

    PAGEYou know, I wonder, some of your movies have been huge hits. Some of your movies not reached such a wide audience. Do you -- are you sometimes surprised at which movies take off and which ones do not do quite as well?

  • 11:35:30

    HURTWell, you can never be certain, that's all. I mean, you can be fairly sure to a degree whether a film is one that you're going to enjoy. But of course, I mean, film, as we all know and is constantly talked about is that so much can happen to it in the editing room. But you can't be absolutely certain what it's going to turn out like in the end.

  • 11:35:54

    HURTI don't know. Yes, I -- well, I'm sometimes surprised that things didn't do so well. I mean, I did a -- one of my favorite films was "Love and Death on Long Island" made by Richard Kwietniowski. And I -- with the reviews that we got, I thought that it would be -- I thought it would've been much, much more successful than it in fact was. I don't think it was terrifically well sold and I don't think it was terrifically well dealt with when it came to being shown -- distributed.

  • 11:36:29

    HURTSo I think those things went against it, but it got amazing reviews. But the strange thing, of course, because it didn't do well enough, it didn't get a lock in with any of the awards, which is really quite surprising.

  • 11:36:42

    PAGENow has the reverse happened where you've made a movie, you thought, wow this is not that great a movie and yet it's turned out to be a great hit? But perhaps that isn't something you want to identify.

  • 11:36:53

    HURTI can't think of that. That I can't -- something really that sneaky, no. I mean, I've got a film opening here shortly which is one that I did with the wonderful Gary Oldman, who's become a great friend now, called "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," which is the John le Carre' adaptation from his book which has enjoyed a massive success in England. And I hope -- people were very -- you know, people were saying, will it be a success in America or not? My feeling is that even though it's British subject, it will -- the fact that it's such a good film will override it.

  • 11:37:30

    PAGEWe're going to take another short break. John Hurt just mentioned that one of his favorite roles was in "Love and Death on Long Island." And after a short break, we'll play you a clip from that movie. Stay with us.

  • 11:40:04

    PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page sitting with USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And in this hour we're having a conversation with the British actor John Hurt. He's performed in many movies. At the moment he's also performing a production by the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C. of "Krapp's Last Tape." And, you know, before the break we were talking about some of his favorite roles -- a role he mentioned in particular "Love and Death on Long Island." And let's listen just briefly to a clip from that movie.

  • 11:41:51

    PAGEThat was John Hurt in "Love and Death on Long Island." Now, why is that one of your favorite roles?

  • 11:41:56

    HURTWell, it's a very -- it's a brilliantly a brilliantly written script. I think beautifully -- beautifully directed, very simply taken from a Gilbert Adair novella and just an extraordinary, excuse me, extraordinary treatment of a subject. It lists the whole idea of a -- it's about obsession, really, of course.

  • 11:42:31

    HURTIt's not, you know, it's not a gay movie or anything like that, but it happens to be -- the object of this obsession is a boy that he's seeing, but it doesn't mean to say that, by any means, that that's the way his life is going to go in the end. You have no idea, actually, how it goes. But it's a very, very cleverly -- very witty -- very amusing and, also, rather touching too, so that's, yeah.

  • 11:42:56

    PAGEYou've had quite this long, interesting career and I wonder you have not written memoirs, is that right?

  • 11:43:04

    HURTNo, I haven't, no. I'm not old enough.

  • 11:43:06

    PAGEYou're not old enough. At what age do you think you need to be before you write memoirs?

  • 11:43:10

    HURTNinety. Ninety before you're interesting.

  • 11:43:14

    PAGEAnd do you mind when people ask you about your personal life?

  • 11:43:19

    HURTIt depends who and how.

  • 11:43:25

    PAGEWell, let's say...

  • 11:43:26

    HURTWhen, why and what, you know.

  • 11:43:28

    PAGEYes. You were once renowned as part of a kind of hard drinking crowd in the theater? I gather that is no longer the case.

  • 11:43:37

    HURTWell, and I don't drink, but it's -- I wasn't -- no. It's not that I was part of a hard drinking crowd. I think all of us drank a lot. We all drank at that time in the 60's. It was a very different scene. I mean, also, we smoked and drank and so on. You were doing a television interview -- a television interview smoking a cigarette and having a drink, which is almost unthinkable of now. Well, it is unthinkable of now. In fact, if you were spotted now having a glass of wine with lunch, you'd be considered to be an alcoholic.

  • 11:44:09

    HURTIt's nonsense, really. But admittedly, the '60s and, perhaps, the early '70s or late '70s, even, were somewhat more indulgent, you know, as we crawled away from the war and so on. And the pendulum was bound to swing. It always does. And it swung pretty much the other direction and, I don't know, it'll probably swing back again the other direction before we know who we are. So it's all these things are temporary.

  • 11:44:37

    PAGEAnd four marriages.

  • 11:44:40

    HURTYes, well, marriage is a -- such personal things in a sense, I mean, that I can't possibly talk about. I mean, there's a very, very specific reason for each one.

  • 11:44:55

    PAGEAnd your wife...

  • 11:44:56

    HURTI mean they're not -- what I mean is it's just not a series of indulgences. They're very specific and definite reasons for each one.

  • 11:45:03

    PAGEAnd your wife is with you on this tour.

  • 11:45:05

    HURTShe certainly is, yes, yeah.

  • 11:45:08

    PAGEWe've had many comments on...

  • 11:45:11

    HURTI'm very lucky that she is because it was between me and a puppy we've just acquired. So the puppy was shifted off to where he first came from for three weeks. So I'm very fortunate to have her here.

  • 11:45:24

    PAGEWe have gotten a lot of emails and callers who want to talk about your role as Caligula in the BBC series. Here's one from Cameron who writes, "Thank you Mr. Hurt for helping me set the bar by which I have judged almost everything else since." And here's another email from Mark in Dallas who says, "Can you discuss that project from the early years of your career and how playing such a mad man impacted you as a performer?"

  • 11:45:54

    HURTWell, what can one say? One can say -- often I'll say I'm a method actor. I'm not a method actor depending what one means by method actor. I suppose I can appreciate a great deal of what Stanislavski had to say indeed, but I don't think that's quite the same as the Strausbergian idea of method acting and so on and which is quite prevalent at the minute. That you need somehow to be able to identify and have a real empathy for some -- well, it's very difficult to do with somebody like Caligula.

  • 11:46:38

    HURTI think Caligula has to be the product of your imagination. Again, it comes from the script, which was brilliantly written by Mr. Pulman and, as an adaptation, of course, coming from Robert Graves as a book. But it was a very exciting time. Strangely enough I nearly passed on it on the grounds that I thought well, nobody could have been that -- nobody could have run the known world as crazy as that, you know. I don't believe it. It was hard to believe.

  • 11:47:16

    HURTAnd I sort of rather casually passed on it, but it was directed by a very good friend of mine called Herbert Wise and he, because of the nature of the piece, was 12 episodes, were an hour long and they were all -- half the people would never meet each other because it went through the Roman history as it was. He decided to have a pre-picture party so that everybody would meet, which was a brilliant idea. And for some reason he invited me along. And the atmosphere was so electric that I went up to him and said I don't know whether you've recast or if there's still -- is there any way that I could change my mind.

  • 11:47:55

    HURTAnd he said, why do you think I invited you? So there you are. That's a very nice compliment, I must admit, but it was -- I'm very, very glad that he did because it was a stunning time. It was a stunning time, terrific cast. And, I don't know, it's one of those times that all the elements came together and I don't know how you can -- you can't plan for those things. They just -- as we all know, you know, it doesn't matter what area of life you're in. I mean I'm sure you feel the same, Susan, there are times when things all happen perfectly and there are times when you think they should, you're working like a dog, but nothing seems to go quite right, you know, but that was one of the times when everything happened perfectly.

  • 11:48:42

    PAGELet's talk to Chris calling us from Rochester, N.Y., hi, Chris.

  • 11:48:47

    CHRISHi, Ms. Page, thank you for taking my call. Mr. Hurt, it's a real honor to speak with you and I want to say very briefly that my three favorite films that you starred in -- that you acted in no particular order are "Scandal," "Owning Mahowny" and the one you talked about just briefly -- recently was "Love and Death on Long Island." And having said that, Mr. Hurt, I wondered if you wanted to comment briefly on -- or I'll be brief and you comment as long as you want on the state of film in the year 2011.

  • 11:49:15

    CHRISMy opinion is that we've dumbed down films like we've dumbed down television and some of the amazing roles that actors like yourself were getting in the '70s and '80s and even into the mid-'90s seemed to be fewer and far between, but that's my opinion. And I'd like to hear your opinion and I'll take your answer off air. Thank you, Mr. Hurt.

  • 11:49:33

    HURTThat's a very, very interesting thing to talk about. Actually, we could talk about that for a long time, but to do it as quickly as I can in the time that we have, I talked about pendulums before. Well, I think the pendulum is actually -- is on the turn. It's beginning to swing the other way. I think that it's -- the public themselves have actually made it clear, I think -- I think, that they are not appreciating being fed stuff that they're not particularly interested in seeing and is not actually stimulating them in any way whatsoever.

  • 11:50:12

    HURTI say this, also, because as I talked also earlier about "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" opening in this country very shortly, in December. For me, that is a serious indication that the pendulum is swinging. As I say, in the UK it was a huge, huge success. Here it's got a more difficult run insofar as it is, of course, MI6, which is English, and so on. And things English of that sort are notoriously difficult in America, for obvious reasons, I suppose really. But it's my feeling, and I hope that this is right, that the film itself is so good and it is a proper film for grownups that it will transcend the difficulties that may be expected with the difference in nationality and so on.

  • 11:51:14

    HURTSo then to answer your question I hope that things are changing. It has been difficult, I agree with you. It has been really, really difficult to get anything off the ground that is -- that is something that you would want to go and see yourself, you know. But I do think the pendulum is on the turn. I hope.

  • 11:51:31

    PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have a question submitted by an emailer saying "You costarred with Richard Burton in "1984," Burton's final film; how was that experience and was he aware of Burton's illness." But before you address the question maybe we could just hear briefly a clip from "1984". Now in this clip -- in this movie you played Winston Smith whose daily work is rewriting history. He rebels by falling in love and this scene is his public confession after being tortured. Let's hear it.

  • 11:53:03

    PAGEAmazing, a clip from "1984." So our emailer was asking what that movie was like, especially working with Richard Burton on his final film.

  • 11:53:11

    HURTWell, I mean one, it was a huge -- what can I say -- a great excitement for me. I was going to say a thrill, but it's not really a thrill, a great excitement for me to do, play Winston Smith who was a major figure in my life when I was about 16, when I first read the book, the George Orwell book. And then when I heard that Richard Burton was going to play O'Brian I can't -- I mean, it really was very, very exciting. Richard wasn't well at that time, true.

  • 11:53:37

    HURTHe was -- he had big problems with his neck and he was -- his mobility around his shoulders was extremely limited. And his memory was somewhat impaired, too, by that time. And he wasn't remembering words easily, but, you know, fortunately it's film, and when we got it, he was as magnificent as he ever was. And I can remember Michael Radford, the director, going to him and saying, Richard, let me say this right from the beginning. We don't want the great, famous Richard voice, you know.

  • 11:54:12

    HURTAnd so he said, oh, thank God for that. And so he took it down to an absolute minimum -- absolutely. I mean hardly -- you know, hardly just -- but it's still the most magnificent voice. I mean Burton's voice was probably one of the greatest English speaking voices of all time. You're talking about me, God, Burton had a fantastic voice, I mean, a really wonderful, wonderful voice. He could use the longest vowels and the shortest vowels. He could use every consonant there was. He could -- he was really remarkable.

  • 11:54:43

    HURTAnd it was a massive privilege to be able to work with him because not only that because Richard Burton meant a lot to me because he was the first Hamlet I ever saw. I saw him play Hamlet when I was 14 years old and so this was like working a huge, huge hero.

  • 11:54:59

    PAGENow here's an emailer with a question that relates to the voice and the use of the voices. It's from Sangme (sp?) who writes us from Vienna, Va. She says, "My husband and I were able to attend Mr. Hurt's show last night and loved it. I was wondering if he could talk about how he used his voice when he was recording young Krapp's diary. The voice in the recording sounded so much younger and believable that it was -- sounded like a recording from a long time ago. How did you manage that?"

  • 11:55:25

    HURTWell, the truth of the matter is that it's almost -- it's just over a third as old as it ought to be. I first played Krapp in 1999 and recorded the tape for that production. And I've used the same tape all the way through. So that tape is now, what, 12 years old, but on the -- mind you, even then, I was using a register that was -- which was, hopefully, clearer than Krapp and, also, I make a very certain because Krapp is, as Beckett asks, is a rasping sort of noise. So it's a bit of age and it's a bit of device.

  • 11:56:15

    PAGEAnd when you're in a play as you are now and in a one-person play where you're the only person on state, do you have a ritual beforehand to bring you luck or to make you feel comfortable? Do you have a routine that you do before you go on stage?

  • 11:56:30

    HURTYes. I always like to take a bit of the play and go through it. I go through it aloud so that I'm not surprised by its spontaneity when I get on stage, if you see what I mean, yeah.

  • 11:56:46

    PAGEWe've been such a -- such a privilege this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show" to interview the British actor, John Hurt. Sir, thank you very much for joining us.

  • 11:56:53

    HURTOh, thank you, thank you a million.

  • 11:56:56

    PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.

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