Legendary actor John Hurt spoke to INSIDEFILM's Brendan Swift about acting, directing and why Avatar is so trivial, ahead of the release of his new Aussie drama Lou. He plays a grandfather afflicted with Alzheimer's disease in the tender story which tracks his relationship with 11-year-old Lou (Lily Bell-Tindley).
IF: How did you become involved in Lou? It’s quite a small independent Australian film.
Hurt: Don’t forget most of the films I do are independent so that’s not unusual for me. It arrived for my attention; I read it, I thought this is a very nice story indeed, it’s beautifully written. So I immediately got a message to them saying ‘if you manage to get this made I would be very interested indeed, love to’.
And with a great deal of tenacity they did get it made because it’s not easy to get something like that made these days. So I was thrilled.
IF: What attracted you to it – was it your character?
Hurt: No it’s a good story. It was the script itself which attracted me. Then, after that, you look at what you can offer it. And it was a very interesting role to play.
When I first read it I had thought it was going to be a much more sociological kind of a piece about society. I saw it as being rather poorer and harder and so on. But the fact that it turned out in the end to be kind of softer in a sense I think made it into a more important film because I think it is talking about quite important things. I think it is talking about love in extremis and I think that is very important.
Personally I thought [director] Belinda [Chayko] made it into a very moving film. So I rather think it is better than if it was a social document if you see what I mean.
IF: I was speaking to Belinda and she was saying she was partly inspired by her own grandfather and his battle with Alzheimer's. How did you find the character?
Hurt: It has all sorts of different manifestations… it’s an imaginative exercise based on what you understand of the disease and what you might have seen of the disease. But like everything in the acting side of performing, it’s an imaginative leap.
John Hurt as Doyle in Lou
IF: Was it difficult to get the balancing act right between the sadness of the situation and this character having his personality destroyed, and this world he creates – having this sense of wonder and this connection with the young girl.
Hurt: It did need a lot of concentration obviously. I don’t know what you mean by difficult – it’s not difficult like mathematics, it just needs a lot of concentration of your thought in a particular direction.
IF: Belinda also said, when you signed on, she was scared witless because you’re one of her acting heroes. What was it like being directed by someone in that situation?
Hurt: All I can say is she disguised it very well. She seemed to be very well in control of herself and the film. She’s got her time cut out with the girls who didn’t have any experience so she sort of left me to get on with it in a sense. Lily was quite outstanding in a filmic way – not in a reduced theatrical way. Just letting it happen in her head.
IF: You’ve worked with many directors – as one of the great actors, what makes a great director?
Hurt: That’s a very tricky one to answer. Because as with Alzheimer’s, it’s not the same for any two people. There are no two directors the same in my experience. I suppose like there are no two people the same in a sense. But it’s particularly pointed out when you’re in the position of directing because it’s the same as being a conductor … you just have to treat people in an individual way.
IF: It sounds like with this shoot you didn’t need a lot from Belinda, after your initial discussions, to get your portrayal.
Hurt: That’s how I work basically. If you need an enormous amount from a director in that sort of way then I don’t think you’re bringing much of your ability to the part. You shouldn’t need that much really.
When it comes to performance you often read a director ‘got’ a terrific performance from a particular actor. I guess that does happen but generally speaking that’s not what their job is.
A director’s job, more than anything, is being able to juxtapose the right images on screen. And in my experience most directors will leave you to the performance unless you start skidding off it in a completely bizarre way, you get the wrong end of the stick. Or if there’s an alternative – you’re playing something very seriously and the director says ‘have you thought about trying it with a smile?’. But they don’t create the performance for you.
But you do find young actors particularly who say the director didn’t help me and you have to say to them what did you expect them to do? Didn’t you have an idea yourself as to what you wanted to do with it? And sometimes they don’t. Which is peculiar to me – a strange approach to being a performer. Why would you want to be a performer if you don’t have anything to offer? [laughs]
John Hurt and Lily Bell-Tindley
IF: It is so difficult to get these smaller independent films up at the moment, And you seem to jump between them – you’re in the next Harry Potter …
Hurt: Yeah, the next two in fact. It’s never been as difficult in my lifetime for independent films and taking a close look at a piece of life. It’s never been so difficult as it is now. In fact most companies are really shy of anything which might be called drama. You’ve got comedy – they’ll take a look at it – but it’s really, really difficult now and it’s really difficult to get an audience too.
IF: Is it the funding difficulties or is that audiences don’t want to see these particular films in a cinema? When a story is right, really right, people are there …
Hurt: They will go – I agree. If it works, if it does what it sets out to do, it will find an audience. But many films don’t quite do that – they nearly get there and there’s no room for something which nearly gets there.
IF: When you’re working on a huge film like a Harry Potter, compared to say Lou, do you have more scope with your work – what’s more enjoyable?
Hurt: If I were to have to choose I would choose small films personally. Because generally speaking they’re scripts which interest me more. But I had a lot of fun on the Harry Potter – it’s a fantastic platform for watching a lot of eccentric English actors. Which is hugely funny and good fun at the same time.
But if you want something which I find more satisfying, I like things that have that marvellous cross – as life does – between that which is comedy and that which is tragic.
I like the two theatrical masks to be well mixed in the one thing. Which you don’t very often find especially in American films because they tend to be more Germanic in their approach to subjects [laughs]. They’re either funny [falls into American accent] or not funny.
A scene from Lou
IF: Ten years ago we never would have thought there would be this many comic book movies coming out.
Hurt: That’s suddenly the fashion isn’t it. Some of them interesting, some of them not. Obviously doing something like Hell Boy is interesting because you’re doing it with Guillermo del Toro, a wonderful director and a terrific character to.
That turns a comic book into something quite, quite different. Then you have V for Vendetta that I did with the Wachowski brothers and that in itself was quite fascinating.
IF: It’s quite an accomplishment for those directors to pull that together and twist the genre. But also then to put such effects in – great performances – putting the whole package together is quite a feat.
Hurt: So often it doesn’t work that way. You get something like Avatar which is absolutely blinding in terms of its technical achievements and appalling in terms of its performance and it’s whole dramatic side it seems to me. It staggers me that they could spend so much money on something so trivial.
Lou is released in cinemas on June 17. Check out the June issue of INSIDEFILM for a cover story on the film. The trailer can be viewed here.