John Hurt: a legend in the true sense of the word
There are stars, there are superstars . . . and then there are legends. John Hurt falls into the latter category. It is an epithet that is used far too liberally – yet it could hardly be more appropriate for the Derbyshire-born, 74-year-old actor who has been revered throughout his career.
So what constitutes a legend? Some might say it is the impact a person makes in his or her particular field. Others might admire someone for an individual skill or talent. After talking to John Hurt, I would add that a legend is a man or woman who gives off an aura of greatness but who does not take seriously all the plaudits that are readily bandied about.
John has been recognised with two Oscar nominations, a Golden Globe award and four BAFTAs, one of which was for a lifetime of achievement.
His distinctive, rich voice is recognisable in a vast number of roles, from John Merrick in The Elephant Man, Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Caligula in I, Claudius to Kane in Alien, the film whose final scene is often named as one of the most memorable in cinematic history.
Yet he does not brag about his exploits; in fact he described his appearance in The Day of the Doctor, the 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who, as “one of my biggest challenges”. Why was that?
“I was working with both Matt (Smith) and David (Tennant). They’re terrific at it. I learned a lot from them; they were really wonderful. I had a great time.
“There’s not much time to prepare and you have to get out of bed early in the morning all right, and with all your marbles! It was very hard work but I enjoyed it a lot.”
Such is the attitude of one of Britain’s finest actors who admits he never really had a plan for his career.
“I get up in the morning and the day works itself out. I never had particular ambitions. All I knew was that I wanted to act, I wanted to entertain one way or another. Fortunately things panned out for me.”
He also confesses that some of the films he made were “stinkers” – yet he does not blame anyone else for how those movies turned out.
“Sometimes you do make a mistake. Instinct isn’t always quite correct or your intellect isn’t quite up to it or you allow yourself to be persuaded.
“There are all sorts of reasons why you might find yourself in a piece that perhaps you shouldn’t have done. But even then it doesn’t mean to say they weren’t enjoyable to do at the time – most things are.
“You may start something and think ‘I should never have gone into this’. But once you start applying your mind, you get into it and whatever there is to be got out of it you get out of it.”
I say this is the beginning of the beginning. I never say this is the ultimate
John has had parts in more than 100 films and numerous television programmes. So was there a particular point in his career when he thought he had really made it as an actor?
“No, I’ve never felt that. Whenever something nice happens to me, like being in something which is very successful, I say this is the beginning of the beginning. I never say this is the ultimate.”
John Vincent Hurt CBE was born on 22 January 1940 in a nursing home in Chesterfield, within view of the crooked spire. His father was a mathematician who became an Anglican clergyman while his mother was an amateur actress.
Arnould Hurt became vicar of Shirebrook and later moved to St Stephen’s Church in Woodville.
When the family moved to Lincolnshire, John accompanied his mother to Cleethorpes Repertory Theatre where he nurtured ambitions to be an actor. At the age of 20 he won a scholarship to RADA.
Early in his career he became a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. But the stage often had to play a supporting role while the lure of film and television proved irresistible.
Over the past few years he has returned to the stage to perform Samuel Beckett’s one-man tour de force Krapps Last Tape in London, Dublin, the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles and on Broadway.
But he has no preference for a particular genre. “If the quality and the people and the situation are there, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s theatre, radio, television or film. I don’t really mind. If all the circumstances are at their best, it really doesn’t matter at all.”
Why has he had such a long and successful career?
“There are all sorts of things, aren’t there? There’s a bit of this and a bit of that. Certainly a bit of luck. Hopefully a bit of talent. And you were perhaps in some of the right places at the right time.”
It’s rather nice because it’s re-linked me with the county. That’s important to me
Despite living at Cromer in Norfolk with his fourth wife – advertising film producer Anwen Rees Meyers – John retains connections with Derbyshire. He was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Derby in 2002 and since 2009 has been patron of Derby arts centre Quad.
“It’s rather nice because it’s re-linked me with the county. That’s important to me – I was born there and I didn’t leave Derbyshire until I was a teenager.”
John is offered all sorts of parts, but he makes no outrageous demands about having the lead role or committing to a project only if it will enhance his reputation.
“I only turn things down if I feel that the piece doesn’t stand a chance of succeeding on a level it’s intended to succeed on or if I don’t feel there’s anything that I can possibly give to that particular part.”
In the near future John can be seen in a couple of new films, Snowpiercer which he made with Korean director Bong Joon-ho and Hercules which features professional wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He is also hoping film two more movies this year.
Some people may instantly associate John Hurt with The Elephant Man, others with Alien. John would like to be remembered for both of them but for other things too.
“A certain generation would definitely remember me for The Naked Civil Servant which was about Quentin Crisp. It’s a generational thing. Some people will remember me for Doctor Who. Others will remember me for making wands in Harry Potter.
“The things that have a life on television because of repeats, like Elephant Man, like I Claudius, 1984 which has become a cult film now, maybe I’ll be remembered for them.”
John admits that in the latter stages of his career he would like to spend more time painting. He was at art school before going to RADA and describes his style as “kind of expressionist”. But he keeps his work private and does not sell any of it.
However, he cannot see the day when he will retire from acting: “I’m going to keep going – I can’t see any reason why not to. I still enjoy it hugely. I’ll retire when they want to retire me. I’ll soon know if they want to retire me because they won’t offer me any work – it’s very simple.”
I imagine that it will be a long time before John Hurt’s phone stops ringing.
* This article appeared in the June 2014 issue of Country Images magazine