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The Result Of Others’ Imaginations: John Hurt At Derby Film Festival 2014

May 12, 2014 by Simon Kinnear in On Tour, Opinion with 0 Comments

Quentin Crisp. Caligula. Kane. John Merrick. Winston Smith. Stephen Ward. Mr Ollivander. Doctor Who.

All of these mighty figures and many more were in attendance at QUAD last Saturday, as the legendary actor John Hurt gave a Q&A as guest of honour at the inaugural Derby Film Festival.

Hurt made quite an impact before he’d even opened his mouth, given the huge, lustrous beard he is currently sporting… although, as he announced with self-deprecating wit, he reckons it only contains about 18 hairs!

As you might have read elsewhere, the reason for this facial foliage was that Hurt is growing it in anticipation of playing Cervantes’ optimistic knight in Terry Gilliam’s much-postponed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.  Interestingly, that was the second scoop in as many years involving ex-Pythons; this time last year in Derby, Terry Jones confirmed he was making Absolutely Anything with Simon Pegg, a project that has just finished shooting – so here’s hoping Gilliam and Hurt get their gig off the ground.

Given Hurt’s 50+ year career and his seemingly inexhaustible supply of classics, interviewer Tony Earnshaw took the unusual tactic of asking more general, open-ended questions rather than the usual film-by-film approach.  This may have disappointed some, especially the large gangs of marauding Whovians who came to hear about Doctor Who and didn’t get even get a mention, but it opened up the guest to some fascinating insights on the acting profession.

Hurt is part of an incredibly humble generation of British character actors (the late Bob Hoskins was another) who have zero preciousness about their careers and can therefore quietly get on with the business of being excellent, free from stardom.  He sees himself as “the result of others’ imaginations” and never tries to second-guess the kind of role he should play.  That explains the sheer versatility he commands as a character actor (but not, he was pains to say, the American notion of a character actor, namely an actor who always plays the same character!).

Hurt recounts getting the script for I, Claudius and being horrified that director Herbert Wise would consider him for the corrupt Caligula.  Hurt passed on the role, until Wise invited the actor to a pre-recording party alongside the show’s soon-to-be-iconic ensemble cast.  Hurt realised belatedly he was been granted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and changed his mind.

The trick, Hurt explained, is never to play the character, but to focus on how his role can support the wider story and its impact upon the audience.  If the idea is to make them laugh, for example, Hurt’s job is to figure out how to make them laugh.  It’s a refreshingly pragmatic and admirably selfless approach to acting.

The result is an actor who – even at the age of 74 – sparkles with obvious relish at new opportunities.  He talked about his love of working with first-time directors, suggesting that, if they’ve been able to get funding for a project, they must have some degree of talent.  (Conversely, beware the director on their second film who has let success go to their head!).  He also advises that he can always learn from other actors: he tells a great story about how Marlon Brando got his way on set by turning up with his hair dyed pink, forcing the director to shoot Brando in silhouette.

At just under an hour and a half, the only downside was that this could easily have gone on for several more hours.  However, given Hurt’s status as Patron of the QUAD, maybe the cinema can persuade him to come back for another event in the near future and talk in detail about some of the extraordinary work he’s done, and continues to do.  Who knows? Maybe the good Doctor himself will be discussed.

Derby Film Festival continues until Sunday 18th May.  The festival includes a short season of John Hurt’s films, including The Hit, Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Field.

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