John Hurt Talks Harry Potter, Quentin Crisp and Alien - The RT Interview

The legendary thesp on the state of British film.

by | November 4, 2009 | Comments

RT Interview: John Hurt on An Englishman in New York

John Hurt has been one of Britain’s finest acting talents since his career began in the 60s, but it’s his roles in films like Alien, Midnight Express and The Elephant Man — to name a few — which put him on the international map and for which he’s best remembered. Twice Oscar nominated (for the latter two performances) and the winner of two BAFTA film awards, Hurt has recently been finding a younger audiences for his roles in franchise movies like Harry Potter, Indiana Jones and Hellboy.

At the Dinard Festival of British Film last month to screen An Englishman in New York, a biopic of gay writer Quentin Crisp’s time in the Big Apple, Hurt sat down with RT for an extended chat about the film and his wider career, including his upcoming turn in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

An Englishman in New York


You were at the very first Dinard Film Festival, how does it feel to be back after 20 years?

John Hurt: It’s really much the same, it really looks the same. It was perhaps a little more naive and less sure of itself then, but it’s got the same feeling. Some things are beautifully organised and some things aren’t. It’s all a bit chaotic and it’s good fun. It is a festival, in a quite muted sort of a way. I think a bit of business gets done here, which is good. It would be good if we had a few more films but we have up years and down years in British cinema!

An Englishman in New York was made for television; it must be nice to have it shown on the big screen.

JH: It was made for television with very much an eye on to it being shown in the cinema. It has to be shown on television first because ITV backed it, so they have to show it, and then after that it’s really up to Leopardrama what they want to do with it, and that’s anybody’s guess.

You play Questin Crisp in the film; do you feel an added weight of responsibility playing someone real?

JH: There is a responsibility, but it’s not one that your common sense wouldn’t take on board. You’re bound to try and find out as much as you can about what there is in his demeanour, as it were, that is going to be helpful in terms of the drama, and also what is not particularly useful. Because it’s not a documentary you’re making or a mockumentary at all, it is a drama. So I saw Quentin a couple of times before I did The Naked Civil Servant [in which Hurt also played Crisp], and we had a great time. He came up to my house in Hampstead; I heard that he liked Guinness, so I asked him if he wanted one and he said, “Yessss.” I gave him a Guinness, which he finished, so I asked, “Would you like another?” He said, “Yessss.” So he finished that one, and I asked, “Would you like another Guinness, Quentin?” And he said, “Noooo. Any more would be a debauch.” [Laughs]

The Naked Civil Servant

Hurt as Quentin Crisp in 1975’s The Naked Civil Servant. Left, as he appears in this year’s An Englishman in New York.

It’s quite a transformation you go through to recreate his look, does this help get into his character?

JH: Oh yes, of course. That’s a huge dramatic help to anybody. His walk, his movement, his manner, his acceptance, yes all that’s helpful.

The Naked Civil Servant came before the success you saw with films like Alien and The Elephant Man — does your profile now, particularly given your recent work in Hollywood, help provide a platform for a smaller project like this one?

JH: I never know whether that’s the reason. I mean, I hadn’t worked in Hollywood at all when I did The Naked Civil Servant; I had done, of course, when I came back to the role 30 years later. But, quite honestly I think it was the connection to Quentin that was the most important thing; I don’t think it was the connection to Hollywood at all.

You’re returning to Harry Potter for the final films having appeared in the very first one, how has it been to come back?

JH: I’ve filmed one, which actually is the last one, and now I’ve got the penultimate one to do which is in November, and that wraps it all up. It’s a big loss for Britain in terms of having a big studio movie here, but it’s not representative of our culture in terms of the films that we make. I am convinced that though Pinewood and Shepperton — the big studios — playing host to big movies is very important, our film business is in the independent world. Of that I’m convinced.

I only wish that our government would take a bit more notice, because that’s where we need the help. We need the help because we need to get it going on a basis that has a bit more continuity for everyone concerned, from technicians to directors to performers and so on. And, indeed, to audiences, because you can’t have an audience engage with culture if it’s not educated in it. It’s important that we educate people.

The Naked Civil Servant

As Ollivander, his character in the Harry Potter films.

Do you think the big franchise movies shooting in the UK give a false impression of the health of our industry? All these productions move in and hire local talent, but they aren’t British films.

JH: No, they’re not British films. Even Harry Potter isn’t a British [franchise]. We gave it to Warners, we just sit and collect. That always infuriates me. I do think huge areas of the industry are being neglected and we’ve lost the ability for middle-budget films. When we did have a stronger industry — and not just a business — we did have room for middle-budget films. They’ve gone out of the window, as they’ve done in America as well, but a $20m picture would be wonderful to make every now and then. We could do a lot for that.

But it’s like any country, if you don’t have a lot of money to spend. And it’s interesting seeing how much money gets spent on Harry Potter. It’s quite absurd, really. I watch it and think it’s just the same as Hollywood. I look around and you’ve got three costumes there, none of which are likely to be worn, and they’re all replicas of each other. It’s a vacuous waste of money and it drives me insane.

What’s the answer, do you think?

JH: Well the answer is, really, that you have to learn to cut your cloth accordingly. But it seems to be a human weakness. Once you start making a lot of money, you just join in with everyone else. It’s like the banks, and we’ve seen what happens there.

Continue on to page two as Hurt talks about his time in Indiana Jones, shares memories of shooting Alien and dispels rumours about his appearance in Tron.

RT Interview: John Hurt on An Englishman in New York

An Englishman in New York


But you’re participating in these movies — you’re a part of the Harry Potter franchise, you’ve just done an Indiana Jones movie…

John Hurt: I know! What can I do? It’s the only way I can keep going too. And I enjoy the experiences — you can have fun — but I don’t enjoy seeing that waste. I don’t like that at all.

When it comes to Indiana Jones, I’d never done one before so I wanted to see what it’d be like. I’ve never worked with Spielberg before. But that is a huge movie. It’s a bit like a circus and you’re a part of it; you just have to accept it really.

Ultimately the film industry has always pushed out its biggies, and I don’t have a problem with that. I just wish that we’d spend more time nurturing the smaller ones.

I was on set of the last Harry Potter film and the thing I took away from it was just how slow the whole thing moved when compared to an independent set — are you less engaged as an actor if you’re waiting hours to actually start acting while all these people run around?

JH: I think you’ve got to get used to that kind of thing. The most difficult is doing complicated scenes in public areas, which can be tricky on any film. If it’s under a controlled situation, even when there are a lot of people there you get used to that sort of thing. You’re used to that in the theatre, having a lot of people around. You can’t very well say, “I wish there weren’t so many people out there!” [Laughs]

The Naked Civil Servant

At the Cannes photocall for Indiana Jones, May 2008.

The first thing you have to get used to in any kind of acting is the ability to make a fool of yourself. If you haven’t learnt how to make a fool of yourself, you shouldn’t be on the boards. That’s absolutely what it’s all about.

Does your character in these last two Harry Potter films have a little more to do than he did in the first?

JH: Well, not a lot more to do. It’s different. He’s kidnapped and tortured and he gives away information. They haven’t made it into a huge production number, so it’s not too far removed from the dialogue scene in the first film.

Is it true you’re a part of the new Tron film?

JH: No, I’m not in the new Tron film. That crept onto the internet at some point and I don’t know how it got there. Not unless I did something in my sleep, so who knows!

Ridley Scott is making a new Alien prequel, of course. Presumably you wouldn’t be able to play a younger version of a character you played thirty years ago, but have you talked to him about it?

JH: I’m much too old! I don’t know what the idea is behind it, so I don’t know whether it’s a good idea or not. I don’t know what Ridley’s got up his sleeve.

The Naked Civil Servant

With chest pains in Ridley Scott’s Alien.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years since that film — do you have fond memories of the experience?

JH: I do have fond memories, but I also have a lot of not so fond memories. There’s an awful lot of hanging around when you’re doing science fiction. Going down and waiting for them to set up, being told to go back to your dressing room while they change the track and the lighting and so on. And you come back four hours later and you’re told the same thing. That big stage at Shepperton was just thick with created smoke. It makes me cough just to think about it. I was thrilled to be involved with it, particularly given its legacy. It just wasn’t an awful lot of fun to do!

Hurt will next hit the big screen, in the UK at least, in Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control on 11th December. 44 Inch Chest, co-starring Ray Winstone and Ian McShane, will follow worldwide early next year.

Tag Cloud

remakes latino Hallmark Christmas movies Countdown zombies medical drama Photos Rocketman Spike video Paramount Network Film comic anthology Rocky Lifetime Christmas movies disaster Comedy BAFTA 2018 dramedy Masterpiece TIFF Avengers documentaries DC streaming service cancelled television Kids & Family Amazon Prime fast and furious mockumentary WGN A24 golden globes ITV jamie lee curtis directors Television Academy Black History Month finale dragons Paramount stand-up comedy Marvel Television BBC America Mudbound 20th Century Fox hollywood Toys GLAAD SXSW TruTV Anna Paquin nfl revenge Fantasy SDCC technology cancelled TV shows scorecard Pirates video on demand CBS All Access 2019 Animation spanish language Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Pride Month Showtime ABC Family Opinion Superheroes dc Video Games nature Sundance Sony Pictures Sneak Peek Premiere Dates Certified Fresh space comiccon green book Star Trek psycho chucky Hallmark American Society of Cinematographers dark Lionsgate sag awards ghosts canceled TV shows Horror Set visit travel movies cults Amazon Prime Video Nat Geo die hard Esquire classics HBO Go hist sequel franchise Cannes Winners TCA Winter 2020 discovery Comic Book TCA theme song anime Arrowverse Reality Competition canceled Interview diversity IFC biography thriller 4/20 child's play First Reviews independent FXX Musicals Disney streaming service strong female leads game of thrones kids Pixar miniseries Disney+ Disney Plus Election Nominations Funimation Disney boxoffice name the review cars composers X-Men critics Summer stoner NYCC game show festival Women's History Month Heroines Academy Awards screenings YouTube Awards RT History zombie Universal NBC adaptation Hulu serial killer Disney Channel facebook slashers television Spectrum Originals Ghostbusters Epix LGBT Travel Channel National Geographic cartoon screen actors guild docudrama streaming MSNBC ABC Tarantino obituary blaxploitation MCU supernatural Comedy Central DC Comics transformers Shudder 24 frames crossover TV Land 45 APB Spring TV sports Brie Larson Trivia Mary Poppins Returns spy thriller harry potter a nightmare on elm street witnail Captain marvel casting 2020 asian-american OneApp rotten TV Black Mirror Crackle FX natural history Disney Plus Reality President series Character Guide robots FX on Hulu 2016 scary movies Tumblr VOD Valentine's Day concert Bravo Rom-Com Freeform Film Festival Super Bowl Dark Horse Comics Classic Film History FOX USA Network dceu free movies crime reviews superhero Ovation versus Extras Music BET Awards Box Office Biopics MTV Teen Shondaland Discovery Channel LGBTQ satire children's TV TCM First Look 2017 cancelled TV series GoT GIFs nbcuniversal ratings Mary poppins criterion spain TCA Awards Turner crime thriller Podcast cooking TLC WarnerMedia indie DGA Writers Guild of America adventure Apple TV Plus Calendar spider-man Turner Classic Movies Family Amazon YouTube Premium The Arrangement football Amazon Studios 007 HBO Max werewolf Emmy Nominations TCA 2017 72 Emmy Awards best what to watch Mindy Kaling Action period drama Awards Tour ESPN romantic comedy Christmas Warner Bros. festivals Ellie Kemper The Witch book cats toy story Year in Review Nickelodeon mission: impossible Holiday comics cinemax award winner Marathons CW Seed Musical richard e. Grant Mary Tyler Moore aliens Britbox indiana jones Grammys TNT Comics on TV christmas movies all-time documentary Best and Worst Fall TV Logo Chernobyl halloween historical drama The Walking Dead political drama films Sundance Now Elton John cops Binge Guide Emmys DirecTV Tomatazos Cartoon Network RT21 PBS Thanksgiving TV renewals Country reboot crime drama justice league Netflix Christmas movies Peacock 71st Emmy Awards Columbia Pictures talk show Watching Series Apple zero dark thirty Netflix 21st Century Fox blockbuster Trailer Red Carpet joker based on movie Pop Star Wars Stephen King San Diego Comic-Con venice quibi Quiz stop motion south america teaser TBS foreign BBC One Superheroe rotten movies we love CNN Infographic CMT Pop TV renewed TV shows Sci-Fi Winter TV AMC The CW VICE singing competition twilight Crunchyroll sequels emmy awards Chilling Adventures of Sabrina IFC Films Apple TV+ Song of Ice and Fire Acorn TV DC Universe vampires SundanceTV social media batman USA Schedule worst movies breaking bad VH1 YA E! The Purge police drama A&E doctor who Drama laika New York Comic Con Trophy Talk animated hispanic Marvel Studios Western HBO parents Oscars Lifetime Syfy politics Martial Arts comedies tv talk Holidays BBC Cosplay Mystery Tubi E3 true crime war Rock Marvel Walt Disney Pictures Fox News Creative Arts Emmys Polls and Games PlayStation CBS mutant psychological thriller Lucasfilm universal monsters science fiction worst Sundance TV romance spinoff Endgame See It Skip It sitcom binge Adult Swim cancelled toronto YouTube Red Television Critics Association Food Network BET OWN news movie dogs Starz Baby Yoda Vudu Hear Us Out El Rey elevated horror PaleyFest 2015 unscripted Pet Sematary