“I recognised you from your teeth.” That has to be one of the strangest things that has ever been said to me and the fact that it was uttered by Oscar-winning actor William Hurt, who I’d only met for the first time when I’d interviewed him a few days previously, made it even stranger. That was in late 2008 when Hurt was appearing in the TV legal drama Damages and I’ve just recently interviewed him again in New York about his return to TV, starring as Texas Ranger Frank Hamer in the mini-series Bonnie & Clyde, the latest attempt to depict America’s notorious outlaws portrayed by Mancunian star-on-the-make Holliday Grainger and Emile Hirsch soon to be playing John Belushi in a new biopic.
Hurt, 63, is a fascinating, complex individual and he’s had an equally fascinating and complex career. In the 1980s he was one of Hollywood's hottest leading men following roles in Body Heat, Children of a Lesser God, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Broadcast News (the last three won him consecutive Oscar nominations with his imprisoned transvestite in Kiss… winning the golden statuette.)
In the 1990s he worked with some fine directors- Wim Wenders, Anthony Minghella- on their least successful films. In recent times he's returned with acclaimed performances in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence and playing U.S Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson in HBO’s 2008 economic crisis film Too Big to Fail.
Hurt spoke about going back to college, how filmmaking has changed and why he objects to being considered to have enjoyed an imperial phase. This time, my teeth went unmentioned.
How are you?
I decided to go back to school. I’m a continuing education undergraduate student in Buddism and computer science at Columbia University. The rarest of all privileges. Just to be able to take a step to a classroom.
You’re known as a cerebral actor. Why return to college?
You’re not well-read unless you continue reading. Maybe they’re all wrong the whole time. Maybe I lied. Maybe I’m not smart. I think I’ve probably proved that.
You had what Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys called an imperial phase with your acclaimed roles in the 1980s. How is it looking back on that era?
I wouldn’t call that. You call it that. I don’t come from London.
You’ve never seemed that comfortable with working within the Hollywood star system?
I was working then and I’m working now.
What was the main difference between then and now?
I was younger then. It was not as hard to find projects but it took more time.
How has Hollywood changed in the last three decades?
There was little time to prepare for movies and there’s less time now
It just seems that studio heads wanted to put you into a box?
Who wants to be in a box? I don’t know anything [that wants to be in a box]. Not even a cockroach. I’m going to school to keep my mind alive. It’s actually a good feeling to do that. It’s a pleasure.
You certainly now seem more at ease in navigating the pressures and pitfalls of the film industry?
I don’t know if you can ever keep from getting subsumed by something, failure or success. I was subsumed by aspects of it because it was something I didn’t know. It was new territory. It was all kinds of things they didn’t teach you at Juillard or anywhere else about the results of your efforts. They taught you something about the craft of how you do it and you pursued the route to that craft but that doesn’t mean you understand how to play the result, win lose or draw.
That just comes up and you’re not going to know who you are in that situation until you’re in that situation. So I found out things about myself, facing those things. Some of them weren’t fun. Some of them I was not happy with and I’m not talking about the situation as much as my own inability to deal with it in a smooth, elegant way, in a controlled way. So I had to learn. We all learn. That’s what life is about.
How does this Bonnie & Clyde compare with the iconic Bonnie & Clyde directed by Arthur Penn starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway?
This Bonnie and Clyde and the other one- those are two different times. Who’s really saying what in what time about what? It’s so different. This time the world has changed completely after 9/11. Everything’s different. There isn’t any aspect of your life that isn’t different. Nothing. Not mine as a citizen on the face of the earth. It’s all different. In this country there were the two facts- there was that one and there was the 2008 meltdown. You’ve got a lot going on. A major civilisational shift.
This is so differently defined from any other version because now what this film implying is something in our time that people might accept that these events were inevitable. There’s a total inevitability about it. That’s an entirely new message.
What did you think of your version of Bonnie & Clyde?
A lot of things are done with production value that there was no way for us to know about on the day. We shot it so fast that you were that much more confused about what the final project was going to look like… I’m looking at it and what I see is a very blunt morality tale. I see a story, fairly directly told with new elements in it that the old one certainly didn’t have at all like the fact that it was previewed, like the whole story between them, between character and destiny as far as their relationship was concerned and what they did and how it turned out. Talk about Macbeth, it’s written before it ever happened. This is what you get from this one. This is a tragedy in the classic sense.
There’s a lot of work coming out like that because of the morality that’s being shaped in these times by the people who are shaping it. You go ahead and fill in the blanks. I’m just saying that’s what happening. That happens sometimes. You look back through the history of drama. Take a look at Restoration drama, Reformation drama, Classic Greek Drama or Jacobean Drama or Elizabethan Drama or mid-60s drama or post 9/11. To hold a mirror up to nature.
Where does it stand in the William Hurt canon?
No, no, no. I’m not going to quantify it for you. I don’t know how to do that anyway. It’s what it is. I’m trying to learn from it too, where I stand.
Some critics took Bonnie & Clyde to task for historical inaccuracies.
The documentary has never been told in a really thoroughly accurate way. It was always a massive idealised, demonised or lionised interpretation of an event and that’s one of the things that’s an aspect of this telling of the tale. The relationship between the events and the media that tells it is an extraordinary participant in this. That’s an important thing to say. It’s been told a number of ways. Batman did it, Superman did it with Lois Lane. There are a number of movies that are coming out that are saying be careful what papers you read because they’re telling you what to think, let alone CNN and Fox. Those elements are not the elements you would have been stressing 35 years ago in my imperial phase or whatever you call it.
The Imperial Phase- the time in your career when you are at your most commercially successful.
I don’t call it that. I’m an independent, not an imperialist. The Middle Ages is dead and forget them. Imperialism is white Anglo-Saxon Protestant… You’re looking at a sea change in the way stories are told. I mean a quarter of a century ago, producers started saying about themselves, I’m just a storyteller. I’m going what. You are? I thought you were a producer. If you want to be a producer in the sense that you seem to think you are, why don’t you go to the kiddies bookstore up one end of the block, buy one of those little thin ones and walk it down the other end of the block and go into a kindergarten and read it to them. But don’t hire me because that’s not what I do. I don’t tell anybody what to think.
How is technology changing filmmaking?
Technology is getting closer to extending us, or some idea of us, for a long period of time. But I’m not going to make it out of here alive, or not personally. Some ideas I care about might but I’m just a participant.
Do you Tweet?
I don’t Tweet. I got near Facebook but I saw right away that it was going to be so addictive and I watched my kids back away from it. The idea of Tweeting is interesting. I’m working on programmes about it right now. I actually think it’s the haiku of the age. I’m beginning to think the form could be beautiful as an imposition. Every imposition is a freedom. Every time you’re disciplined to do something within a time and space then the challenge is on. It’s very tough with all these systems now to make sure that when you sign up a relationship with someone through any one of the interfaces that you’re not signing up to someone who you can’t back away from because you have to know how to pick and choose within a technique. That’s one of the reasons I’m taking computer science.
What’s up next?
Final exams. I’m just having a ball.
Bonnie and Clyde concludes on the Lifetime Channel on 13th February