tue 18/06/2024

John Hurt: 'If I’ve been anything I’ve been adventurous' | reviews, news & interviews

John Hurt: 'If I’ve been anything I’ve been adventurous'

John Hurt: 'If I’ve been anything I’ve been adventurous'

Remembering the magical actor who was most comfortable playing enigmatic outsiders

John Hurt as John Merrick in David Lynch's 'The Elephant Man' (1980)

John Hurt, who has died at the age of 77, belonged to that great generation of British thespians who started in the 1960s and eventually, one by one, ended up knighted: Michael Gambon, Albert Finney, Ian McKellen, Anthony Hopkins, Ian Holm, Nigel Hawthorne, Derek Jacobi. Of them all, Hurt was the outsider. It’s impossible to imagine an alien springing from any midriff but his.

There couldn’t be a more iconic signature for a career spent giving birth to weirdos, wackos, outsiders, victims, lunatics and flamboyants. Quentin Crisp, Caligula, Profumo-suicide Stephen Ward, Elephant man John Merrick, the village idiot in The Field, his stately homo in Love and Death on Long Island, Krapp, Tory bad boy Alan Clark, the mute aristo in White Mischief – there aren’t a lot of family values embodied in his CV. Hurt by name, the characters he plays are hurt by nature. Even in his seniority, he was more still Fool than Lear (and indeed he played the Fool to Olivier’s television Lear). When he was cast as someone trying to form a normal relationship, it was in the movie where it’s not allowed: 1984.

John Hurt was the great interpreter of damaged, unknowable enigmas

A younger generation got to know him as Mr Ollivander, the dispenser of wands in the Harry Potter films. When he was cast in the role his son said to him, “How are you going to do the eyes?” It was a good question. Ollivander has full moon eyes. Hurt’s are new-moon peepers, parsimonious, beady, cautious.

Hurt once said that he marked scripts like an examiner and accepted anything that scores more than 50 per cent. The result is that he has had many hits. “If I’ve been anything I’ve been adventurous,” he once told me in an interview. “There have been times when things haven’t been going that great. And I don’t know anybody who has a career that goes swimmingly from beginning to end. Everyone says, ‘Yes but you’re established now, you can choose what you want to do.’ Probably the biggest mistake is trying to make yourself younger. You should allow yourself to be the age you are and enjoy exploring that area.”

His late years included many highlights: the Chorus in The Hollow Crown: Henry V, Doctor Who, Lars Von Trier's Melancholia, and a charming return after 34 years to the world of Quentin Crisp in An Englishman in New York. Only this month he appeared as Jackie Kennedy's priest in Jackie. His final great performance was in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. As chief spook known only as Control, he sat at the head of the table of a group of great screen thespians and bossed the lot of them. If the film’s director, Tomas Alfredson, wanted to Hurt to work on a back story for Control’s past he will have been told a version of what Hurt said to me.

“Certain directors or actors will say, 'Well, what do you think about your childhood?' You say, 'Do you want me to tell you what I think about the character's childhood or do you want the character to tell you what he thinks about his childhood? Because if you're asking the character, I don't think he's going to tell you.'"

John Hurt was the great interpreter of damaged, unknowable enigmas.


Browse a gallery of John Hurt's great roles (click on the thumbnails to enlarge)

When he was cast as someone trying to form a normal relationship, it was in the movie where it’s not allowed: '1984'

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Hurt was great in the otherwise duff 'Rob Roy'. He delivers a line that goes something like "Rumours congregate around your Lordship like flies unto shite" with imperious disdain.

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