On a thunderously rainy Los Angeles afternoon, one can do worse than spend an hour on the phone with actor William Hurt. In conversation, the Oscar winner reveals himself to be much like the screen characters who first made him famous: brainy, passionate and a damn good talker.
Hurt, 59, lives in eastern Oregon, not far from where his mother was "born and buried." Though he generally steers clear of Hollywood, Hurt did pop up recently at the Golden Globes, where he was nominated for his work on last season's Damages (reuniting him with Big Chill co-star Glenn Close). On this day, he seems eager to bang the drum for The Yellow Handkerchief, the quietly moving film from director Udayan Prasad (My Son the Fanatic) that offers Hurt his fullest film role in years (it opens on February 26).
Hurt is clearly proud of the film, written by Erin Dignam, and photographed in a post-Katrina Louisiana by the great Chris Menges (The Mission). Hurt plays Brett Hanson, an oil rigger who's just been released from Louisiana's notoriously harsh Angola Prison. Anxious to get to the coast, where he hopes to find his wife (Maria Bello) waiting for him, Hanson hitches a ride with two wayward young people (Kristen Stewart and Eddie Redmayne), themselves strangers to each other, who are in need of a guiding hand. All three have too much on their minds, but as they get lost, get cranky, and generally become a traveling unit, they begin talking to each other — in a series of mini monologues — about where they've been and where they might still go.
"We wanted to make a revolutionary film," Hurt declares, "in that it's not about violence. But the main distributors all said the film needed violence to be sellable." The actor sighs. "It's sad that you can't earn the right to tell a story that's authentic and hopeful. I'll always stand by a peace-lovin' film."
It's hard not to compare an actor who says "peace-lovin' " and "revolutionary" with such ease and conviction to the idealistic, hallucinogen-lovin' psych professor he played in his debut film, Altered States, directed by Ken Russell (Women in Love) and written by the legendary Paddy Chayefsky (Network).
"You were such an exhilarating mix of intelligence, sensuality and kinetic energy in that movie," I tell Hurt. "You were almost jumping out of your skin."
"I was jumping out of my skin!" Hurt exclaims with a laugh, and then pauses, as if conjuring up the film. "I was jumping out of my skin because Paddy Chayefsky was articulating ideas that were so far ahead of their time. Molecular biology and quantum physics, the sources of altruism, the notion of love over truth — I couldn't stop shaking when I read that script."
How the then–29-year-old actor, who was happily working in New York theater at the time, came to land that life-altering role is a mini movie unto itself. "I was in an elevator, on my way to audition for some theater thing," Hurt recalls, "when this guy asks, 'Aren't you an actor? We heard about you. We might want to see you for our film.' " Hurt's response? "I don't make movies and I don't want to make movies."
The man in the elevator was film producer Howard Gottfried (The Hospital, Network), and when he told Hurt that the script was by Chayefsky, Hurt couldn't wait to read it — though he swore that he still wouldn't want to be in the movie.
"I sat down in a Cuban coffee shop up on 78th and Amsterdam," Hurt says, "and I couldn't stop reading it and I couldn't stop weeping, and for a long time, I couldn't stand up." Meetings followed, at which Hurt worked to convince Gottfried, Chayefsky, and Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde), who was then planning to direct, that they had to make the movie but with another actor. "I knew myself," Hurt says. "I was too thin-skinned for the personal exposure actors get from doing a film." Finally, Gottfried (or maybe it was Chayefsky?) said, "We'll do it if you will."
And so they did, and soon Hurt was riding a decadelong streak of films — Body Heat, The Big Chill, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Children of a Lesser God, Broadcast News and The Accidental Tourist — that were not only successful, but also really, really good. At first, Hurt tended to play men who were full to bursting with feeling and theory — he always seemed to be bending his long, lanky frame a bit forward, as if to be heard more clearly. By decade's end, portraying the adverse of those eager youths, Hurt held himself more rigidly, as if his characters had learned that it's best to keep their distance from the world.
For Hurt, each of those films worked because he never forgot the lessons of Chayefsky and Penn: Trust the words on the page, and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. "I don't know why people don't understand the formula," Hurt laments, "but that's the formula. We had two weeks of rehearsal on The Yellow Handkerchief and I think the power of the film lies in what we learned in those two weeks."
When I wonder aloud about Hurt's slow and occasionally bumpy transition from leading-man roles to what are euphemistically called "character roles" (such as that part in Damages), Hurt makes it clear that he's stopped worrying about such things, if he ever did.
"I don't see any point in setting out to be a movie star. It's a subsidiary condition, a sideline. Stardom is not a fact of my existence as an actor. What enthralls me is where the character is coming from, not what they look like when they get there. What they look like is taken care of as you go back upriver and locate their origins. Taking that journey is the joy of it for me. When I'm working like that, I'm really happy." (Chuck Wilson)