ARTS / An Odd One: Depravity, guilt, suffering, excess: there's a lot written in John Hurt's face. Now, after nine years in film and television, he is returning to the stage. Robert Butler meets an actor of substance

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The Independent Culture
WHEN Mel Brooks needed to cast someone as Jesus in History of the World Part 1, he chose John Hurt. It's not a name that slips your mind when you're looking for someone to play one of the great sufferers. Hurt has taken on some of the most marginalised figures in screen history: Caligula, Raskolnikov, Timothy Evans, Quentin Crisp and John Merrick, the Elephant Man. 'I've played some odd ones, yeah,' says John Hurt, sitting on a sofa in Kensington. 'But then drama is about . . . odd ones, isn't it?'

What Hurt means by an odd one isn't quite what most people mean. He thinks an odd person is an ordinary one who gets scrutinised in sufficient detail. 'I don't know any ordinary people, do you? If our private moments are examined . . .' He leaves the remark hanging in the air. As you watch him - hooded eyelids, lank face, Barry Norman bags and gravelly laugh - screen characters flicker in and out of view: the tinker, aristocrat and sinner.

It's the eyelids and the laugh that linger most from the films. One thinks of him in close-up, gazing over the rim of his glasses or through a haze of cigarette smoke, thinking some discernible thought, and then chuckling. 'I'm certainly on the observer side rather than the action-man side,' he says, laughing at the understatement.

He's in London to rehearse another observer, this time for the stage. He plays Rakitin in Turgenev's A Month in the Country, with Helen Mirren as Natalya Petrovna, the married woman with whom he is helplessly in love. It's established on page two that Rakitin is someone who likes to sit around analysing, dissecting and going deeply into people. A character who's charming, pathetic, rejected, analytical and scornful: classic Hurt.

'COME IN]' he says, greeting me in the hallway with mock outrage, 'Look what the photographer's brought] Jesus Christ]' Bags are strewn around the hallway. 'God, I don't know.' The effort at cheery badinage soon evaporates. He's preoccupied. There are cups and saucers and tea on a tray in the drawing-room, and discussion about what's happening first: the photo or the interview? 'Well, we can start talking,' he says, 'Get to know each other a bit.' Each other. The tape-recorder goes on the table. Would he like the quotes read back to him, later? 'No, no, no,' he says, 'I operate on trust.'

He perches on the sofa, looking as if he operates on Valium. He pauses, sighs, and allows sentences to trail off like wisps of smoke. It wasn't his idea to do the part. He's a letter-box actor: waiting to see what the mail will bring. 'I've never been very good at choosing parts for myself.' The director Bill Bryden suggested Rakitin when they were filming Six Characters in Search of an Author for the BBC. Hurt trusted his judgement. 'People obviously think I'm right for it.' He accepted a part in Heaven's Gate without looking at the script. He just liked Michael Cimino.

He's never done anything like setting up a production company or outlining the parts he wants to do. 'I should have played Hamlet at some stage,' he says, after a pause, 'but it just didn't work out that way. You can't do it all. You go one way or another, and I went into the selective medium.' Selective? 'Television and film,' he says, as if explaining the alphabet, 'You have to select the image.'

When some friends warned him that playing Quentin Crisp might damage his career, he replied, 'What career?' Things just happen. He plays characters to whom things happen, too, usually nasty things, sometimes self-inflicted. When The Elephant Man opened, Pauline Kael in the New Yorker described Hurt and Anthony Hopkins as 'both specialists in masochism'.

His no-nonsense approach means that he claims not to take his work home. What he does, it appears, is take his work to rented accommodation. We're in a mansion flat in Kensington. He has a residence in Ireland, and because of the tax advantages, they get 'quite shirty' if you have a place elsewhere too. He moved there after filming The Field (1990). He and his wife, Jo, whom he met while filming Scandal (1989), fell in love with the place: 'She's half-Irish and half-Russian, as only an American can be.' At 54, he has a third marriage, another home, and for the first time, children (two boys, aged nearly four and

one). 'I've had to get used to a lot of different things.'

This stage performance is a rarity: in 30 years he's done nearly 50 films and only 17 plays. He has acted twice with the RSC, but never at the National or the Royal Court. Like Edward Fox, say, or Robert Hardy, he has followed a brilliant, if erratic, path, outside the subsidised theatre (though not outside subsidised television). In the past 10 years he's only been on the London stage once - playing Trigorin in Charles Sturridge's production of The Seagull (1985). Trigorin, in some ways, is a self-portrait of Chekhov. Rakitin, in more ways, is a self-portrait of Turgenev. 'Absolutely. There's no question it's based on him.'

It's late afternoon, and he's been rehearsing Act Three all day ('very hard too'). Rakitin buzzes round his head as we talk. It's difficult coming up with a subject that he doesn't thread back to the character. I am reminded of a story Joss Ackland tells about filming White Mischief in Kenya. Hurt missed a connecting flight and turned up on the set at Nairobi racecourse only just in time. He walked through the crowds towards the set, changing with the assistance of two Masai tribesmen, went straight on and delivered his lines. He'd done his homework.

But he doesn't overdo the research. He believes, simply, in reading the script. 'I do think it's an imaginative exercise. It doesn't mean I don't think around the script. But research doesn't equal anything, you know. It just equals good articles for the press.' He breaks into earnest American. 'My Gard, he takes it seriously. There was a point when it was taken so seriously that it became almost risible in the end.' Hurt helped make it risible. At a press conference for Alien (1979), he was questioned about the monster that emerges from his stomach. Hurt pulled up his shirt to show his appendix scar, and said, 'If De Niro can put on a few pounds . . .'

OF THE many things that might have gone into the psychological mix that makes up John Hurt, one is having a father who was a vicar. Both jobs, Hurt has said, are about making people believe. But there's a line in Scandal about Stephen Ward that might apply to Hurt, too. 'Dr Ward is the son of a vicar. He's a connoisseur of sin.'

He was always an entertainer. Born in Derbyshire in 1940, Hurt was the youngest child. It's something he agrees 'must affect you like crazy. I've never thought about it.' Perhaps his sympathy for outsiders came from the trauma of post-war boarding school. Hurt went to two very different ones. The first, a prep school in the south, was High Catholic: 'Lace and incense, and benedictions and Latin. The lot. Wild camp.' The second was Lincoln School. 'Everyone was fockin' this and fockin' that. I had to change my accent immediately.'

It's unlikely that Lincoln will be naming the school hall after him. 'Lincoln arrested my development. I really did loathe it. I lost a lot of confidence.' At 17, he went to Grimsby Art College, and two years later to St Martin's, where Quentin Crisp was a model. Art schools then were 'very, very buzzy'. Hurt was less so. 'I was very timid. I was in a traumatic period.' There he was, studying to be a painter, and wanting to be an actor.

He had wanted to act since he appeared, aged nine, in the school play The Blue Bird. He'd felt 'a kind of euphoria'. But he had never thought acting was a possibility. 'The world was a bigger place in those days. Certainly, in my parents' circles, it didn't occur to them that anyone

to do with themselves would be actively part of the

profession.' This was 'quite a dark period', and he went through 'quite a bit in my head'. Then, aged nearly 21, he won a scholarship to Rada, and things changed.

What was the difference? 'There was a very different reality. It struck me incredibly forcefully when I first got there. At St Martin's, in the common-room, if you got up to dance, you got up to dance. At Rada, it seemed everyone got up to pretend to dance. It was very strange.'

Straight after Rada, he got work in a film called The Wild and the Willing. He didn't go unnoticed. Kenneth Williams wrote in his diary for October 1962, '. . . a real old hotpotch, but there was one actor, John Hurt, who was just superb . . . An actor who lets you see thoughts'. Since then, although Hurt has made a couple of films a year, he has been rediscovered every four or five years: as the grimly thrusting Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons (1966); as the dimly trusting Timothy Evans, an innocent man, hanged for the murder of his wife in 10 Rillington Place (1971); as the flamboyant homosexual wit Quentin Crisp, in The Naked Civil Servant (1975); and then, a critical high point, in 1978, three awards and an Oscar nomination for Max, the skinny English drug addict in Alan Parker's Midnight Express.

Oliver Stone's script stated baldly: 'Max is an international junkie who has fallen to bits.' Hurt reassembled the bits and gave a powerfully frail, understated performance. Pauline Kael said he was 'an almost burned-out lightbulb, with just a few dim flashes of the filament left'. In the prison cells of Midnight Express, as in the court-room scenes in Scandal, Hurt catches the life that's draining out of a character, while losing none of his impact on screen.

There were two awards and a further Oscar nomination for The Elephant Man, where his gift for conveying emotion through voice and posture reached, beneath all the prosthetics, new heights. There was a further award in 1984 for (jointly) Winston Smith in 1984, the jockey who beat cancer in Champions, and the hitman in The Hit. But since then (The Field excepted), the gaps between rediscoveries have widened. He is, though, in Gus van Sant's new film, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, as the Countess, a part that should test him: the Countess is a misogynist homosexual feminine-deodorant magnate.

He had 11 months out of work in the early Sixties. He never tried to get another job and only once collected the dole. 'All that happened in those days was that you collected the dole and then you went round to a pub and spent it all with everybody else. It was awful.' Did it knock his confidence? 'That's not what knocks confidence. Confidence is created earlier than that. Confidence really begins from early, early childhood.' The loss of it, evidently, lasts a long time. 'I still don't think I'm as confident as I could be.' It's something that's untouched by success. 'It's an internal thing. It comes from inside you.'

The former art student has been conspicuously successful at turning the internal thing into an external one. Stills from his performances are always telling: the poised tilt of Quentin Crisp's head, the guilty, downcast eyes of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment or the crinkled blonde hair and loopy faraway gaze of Caligula in I, Claudius. Not that Hurt looks at them. 'I don't actually want to see myself, because as I imagine I am, probably isn't what I look like.' He's the one person he doesn't wish to observe.

He still paints. 'Female nudes, which is probably very politically incorrect.' He gives the air of being too old to worry unduly about PC. For a start, he thinks Shakespeare is the wrong writer to pick on. 'Read the sonnets.' He laughs. 'It's just so dumb. It's gone miles too far. To the point of tedium. What fun she must be at dinner. Huh.' This is a new criticism to level at a head teacher: what fun they are at dinner. He laughs wearily. 'Oh God.' He falls into silence. He sighs. 'I don't think there'll be a huge audience from Hackney at this play somehow. I don't think they'll find it very relevant.'

'A Month in the Country': Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford (0483 60191), Wed to 5 Mar; Richmond Theatre, (081-940 0088), 8 to 19 Mar; Albery, WC2 (071-867 1115), previews

22 Mar, opens 29 Mar, closes 28 May.

(Photograph omitted)