Actor John Hurt on Snowpiercer and His Career in Cinema

On a Half-Century of Acting and Choosing the Right Directors

Jun 27, 2014 Web Exclusive
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Since he made his silver screen debut more than fifty years ago, John Hurt has carved out a long and impressive filmography rivaled by few other actors. From Kane, the chest-burster victim in Ridley Scott’s Alien, to John “I Am Not An Animal” Merrick in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, he’s been part of several of cinema’s most memorable and iconic scenes across his almost 200 roles.

Hurt starred in Midnight Express, A Man For All Seasons, and Nineteen Eighty-Four; in more recent years, he’s been part of the Harry Potter, Indiana Jones and Hellboy franchises as well as the Doctor Who TV series. Chances are even the mildest of film fans will recognize John Hurt from multiple roles he’s played over the decades.

John Hurt sat down to talk with us about his long career in acting and his latest role as the sage mastermind of a rebel uprising in Bong Joon-ho’s science fiction thriller, Snowpiercer.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: I have to say up front, I really enjoyed this film.

John Hurt: You choose the right directors, you’ll be alright.

You’ve chosen a lot of great directors, actually, in your career.

Over the years, if you look at it. It even surprises me. From Fred Zinnemann, John Huston, Richard Fleischer, all of those ones from here, and all the lovely, lovely English ones, like Stephen Frears. I’m always forgetting a few. 

Ridley Scott, David Lynch…

Oh, David! How could I forget? That’s the trouble. You can’t leave people out, and you forget.

Well, with as many films as you’ve done, it’s understandable.

You have to remind me what I’ve done.

You were one of the first names attached to this film, Snowpiercer. Do you remember what specifically attracted you to this script?

I’m not sure how it happened—it must have come through my agency—but a meeting [with director Bong Joon-ho] was set up at the Soho Hotel, and… it was a love affair. It was like, “I know you. This is it. This is right.” And so we talked about it, and he told me what he wanted to do with the film, and what the film is about. This was before I’d seen the script, or any of his other work. I thought, wow, this is fantastic. So I said then and there, I want to do this and that was it, right.

Apparently Tilda [Swinton] had said the same, but I didn’t know that back then. I didn’t know that we were the head of the flock, as it were. I had no idea.

Having worked with so many directors, do you notice things that set them apart from one another?

I’ve never met two the same.

What makes Bong Joon-ho different from anyone you’ve worked with in the past?

I can give you a very, very easy explanation. He only shoots what he wants to see. He’s not interested in doing two sizes, two angles, two anything—if we’re not going to see it, he’s not going to shoot it.

He’s so daring it’s unbelievable. It’s Hitchcockian. But the difference between [Bong] and Hitchcock is that the [human element in his films], both emotional and intellectual, are far superior to Hitchock’s.

That’s quite a statement.

And I’ll stand by it! Have you seen Mother? The Host? His other one is Memories of Murder. They’re wonderful films. Just wonderful films. Totally understanding of the language of cinema.

The language of cinema, in my own terms—perfectly arguable, of course—is the image on screen being your information. Literature is the sentence on the page being your information. Don’t confuse the two. Of course, both overlap, but for quite different reasons.

Working with a great director is like working with a great painter, really.

What is it you look for in the script, which helps you decide whether you want a role or not?

Besides the director? Well, I do have a criteria. It’s that the script should succeed on the level it’s intended to succeed on. Those are as carefully chosen words as I can give you.

I don’t care what the genre is. I don’t care if it’s a comedy, a light comedy, a high comedy. I don’t care if it’s a drama. I don’t care whether it’s a little, tiny gutter movie. I don’t care if it’s an intellectual movie. I don’t care what it is, just so long as it stands a chance at succeeding on that level. If it doesn’t stand that chance… if it’s pretending to be comedic and it just isn’t, I have to say I’m sorry. It’s not for me. I can’t do anything about that; I can’t make it funny.

Anyway, having made those decisions, you then say to yourself: what of my part in it? Is there something that I can do that’s very specific? Maybe something that I can do that somebody else could not? And if those two things come together—and you think the director is wonderful—then you immediately go yes, please!

You’ve done pretty much every genre of film in your career—

I’ve done a few genres now over the years.

I think people might associate you most with science fiction, just through virtue of you having appeared in some of those genres’ best-regarded franchises. Is there something that keeps bringing you back to science fiction, or are those just the scripts good directors keep coming to you with?

I mean, the first science fiction I did was Alien. But Ridley, you see—we all came up together. So it was Alan Parker and Ridley, they were two directors, and I was one of the actors [at that time]. It all made sense that we would work together. So really, I didn’t give a shit that it was science fiction. It was an amazingly good story, and it seemed pretty well-written. And we all knew Ridley was going to be up there. [He hikes a thumb toward the ceiling.] He was a marked man. We all knew that. As was Alan Parker. But, both were very different. They were the two marked directors, and I think that happens with every generation.

I get this problem every time when an interviewer asks what piece of advice I would give to a young actor. What advice could I possible give? The situation I knew of when I was their age is so completely different from the situation they are in now. Whatever I said would be of little importance.

You’ve probably seen the industry change so much over the decades.

I couldn’t possibly even begin! You have to remember that film is a very young industry. It’s just only over 100 years old. I’ve been around it for 55 of them!

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen during your career?

Well, obviously, massive technical changes. Those have been huge. And also, massive commercial changes. I mean, in the early days, the Jack Warners, the Goldwyn-Mayers, and so one… they were monsters, but they were passionate filmmakers. I can’t say the same for Sony. Or, the film executives of today. They’re not interested in film at all. They’re only interested in making money.

And I want to make money, of course! I want people to come and see things. That’s the whole point of being an entertainer.

Out of all the roles you’ve played and all the ones you’ve been offered, are there any parts or types of films you’d like to do but haven’t gotten a chance yet?

I’ve never done a Brecht. That would be interesting. I’d quite like to do a Brecht. I think he’s rather like Beckett; it’s not as sterile as you think. People think of Beckett being very intellectual, and he’s not at all. He’s full of juice, and Brecht is as well.

But, I don’t know what part. I might look into it, though.

And you’ve never had the itch to direct? All your work has been in front of the camera.

I’m not a director. It’s a totally different talent, one for which I have a huge amount of respect. I do adore working closely with a director. The closer the better, as far as I’m concerned—but in our own [roles.]

A director has to envision a whole film. It’s a totally different talent, and if you think it’s not, well…

Then you have no idea what you’re in for.

Right. You don’t want to finish up like poor what’s-his-name. You know, American actor… lovely, lovely guy. He made that wonderful film with the blow-up doll.

Ryan Gosling?

Yes! He was a calamity, with his directing. That totally took me by surprise. All the films I’ve seen him playing in have been fairly straight-forward. Not cutting edge, necessarily, but very good, with excellent acting. Good entertainment. But then he makes a film, and every critic in the world tears him to shreds and says he’s the most pretentious director ever. Now, where did that come from?

Maybe he has a bit of a target painted on his back, being a beloved actor?

Stick to the right side. It’s a different talent.

I could direct a movie and it would be perfectly acceptable, but that’s not enough nowadays. But, I wouldn’t want to, so why should I? I rather like my side. I’m an entertainer.

You wouldn’t have made so many films if you didn’t enjoy it.

Of course! That’s what I do. What I’ve done from the age of five!



Snowpiercer opens in theaters June 27th. Our review can be read here. To read our interview with the film’s director, Bong Joon-ho, click here


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