John Hurt has created some undeniable characters. Many point to Cain in “Alien” but his list of credits from “Heaven’s Gate” to “Captain Correlli’s Mandolin” to “Hellboy” shows his ability to mix between genre and historical with an equal degree of ease. Perhaps his crowning achievement was as John Merrick in David Lynch’s 1980 film “The Elephant Man”. For his new film “Snowpiercer” from Joon-ho Bong, the Korean director of “The Host”, he plays Gilliam, a leader of sorts ruled by secrets locked in a train pummeling through a frozen barren wasteland. Hurt spoke to Inside Reel about the structure of a character, the language of film and the rules of the game.
Can you talk about finding the honesty within a character?
I can. I can talk to you about it. I don’t know whether it will mean anything particularly. When I’m looking at something, I think of how it should be. I don’t try to be clever. I don’t try to do clever things. I just try to make it seem what the writer intended it to be. That is what I do.
Has that process evolved?
It has always been in the acting of it. If something occurs to you along the way, that is more inventive…more exciting…more electric or whatever, you might take that on board. But the first thing you try to do is to get across the character as written. I believe that is considerably more important than what you may think.
So that belief in acting is important above all else?
Yes that I think the most important thing is that you must serve the script. It does not serve you.
Then how clear does a director need to be to an actor since scripts change all the time?
Things change. Of course they do. Sometimes you work on a film that is constantly changing. You work on a scene. You’re ready for it. You get there. And they’ve suddenly changed everything. It is very difficult to change the direction completely of what you’ve learned.
But do you need to have a concept of the character in the bigger world whether it be “Contact”, “Hellboy” or “Snowpiercer”?
Indeed. If you suddenly change all the dialogue, it makes everyting difficult. It is kind of important for us, as actors, from our point-of-view, that it has a certain consistency.
Does it have to have a certain rhythm to it or does that come naturally?
Yes it may have a certain rhythm to it indeed. It may have all sorts of reasons that it might be. But if you keep changing it, as if to say, “well just make it up”, that’s a very different area. If you say to me, “Look, I don’t want you to write this down…I just want you to improvise”, I will say “Ok. Good. Fine”. And I will improvise it. But if you say to me “This is a dialogue…and this is consistent to the way it should be”, I will learn it. But it is not fair to change the dialogue in the morning the day I do it. Do you get what I mean?
Then what does it take to make a better actor?
It depends on what you are saying. You’ve got to be clear what your signals are. As I say, “I don’t know how this scene is going to go, we’re going to improvise it”. I say “OK. Right. Let’s do that”. That is one way of doing it. But if you say to me, this scene has changed and it is absolute that “you have to learn it” and I learn it and that morning to shoot it, that’s not very fair. You weren’t talking about “Snowpiercer” were you?
Not directly. i was asking your thoughts overall. But how was your experience on “Snowpiercer”?
“Snowpiercer” was the most marvelous piece to work on ever. It was wonderful working with Bong [Joo-hon, the director]. He is brilliant to work with. He only shoots what he wants to see. He doesn’t think in a smaller size or a larger size or a different angle…he simply shoots what he wishes to see…and he knows how it joins together. I mean it’s Hitchcockian…it’s brilliant.
Does the fact that he is communicating in a different language (i.e. Korean) make it clearer?
Nah. Nah. Nah. It has nothing to do with language. It is an image on screen anyways. That is the language of cinema.
For you then, what is the language of cinema…what defines it?
The language of cinema, is, as I say, the information and the image on the screen. How you choose to add to that is actually of little consequence. (coughs) Well…shall I say, it is of considerable consequence. It is not as important as the image on the screen ever. It really doesn’t make a difference. I mean what can I take as an example of a very strong image on screen on film that I have done maybe.
Let’s take “The Elephant Man”.
OK. Take “The Elephant Man”…would it matter if it was English? If it was Spanish? Italian? Swedish? It really wouldn’t mean much. What is important is the image and conditioning and everything that is on the screen. That is the language of cinema.
How is that language used in “Snowpiercer” because, as a film, it has scope and yet it is intimate at times as well. “Hellboy” was that way too.
Yep. It can be. Bong is incredibly sensitive to what is actually said. Even though he is Korean speaking, he has a certain amount of English but not enough to be as sensitive as ,in fact, he is. He is very clear. He knows immediately if you’ve struck a wrong note.
Did you have to have a clear vision of who Gilliam, your character, is and who he appears to be in terms of his journey?
Well of course. That is from the beginning. Gilliam’s journey is quite a tricky one because he is the only character who seemingly seems to be duplictous. But I don’t think he is duplicitous, I just think that he believes in the status quo. He knows that this is the only way in which this whole circus is going to survive and he does everything he can to make it work from the back. But, at the same time, he knows very well that this revolution is doomed or he feels that it should be doomed.
The progression through the train for me represents for me, in a way, the seven layers of Hell from “Dante’s Inferno”.
You could put it that way too. It is a very symbolic film definitely. There are moments of hedonism. There are all sorts of things. They are clear.
Is cinema reflective to a certain point of where we are in society?
I can’t say that that is the answer to every film. You have to understand that this film is a comic too. It is not an intellectual film. It has a certain intellectual [angle] and it has the propensity, argument and consension [for it] but I don’t think you can say that it is an intellectual track.
This film is a collection of very different actors who usually work in different genres working together. Can you talk about that interaction?
That varies too like crazy. I couldn’t agree with you more. You look at Tilda [Swinton]…she is seemingly outrageous…but not really. She is one of the human race that got stuck on this train and given responsibilities presumably because they felt that she had the ability to keep those responsibilitie and deal with them. I don’t know. Those of course are questions we can’t answer. I don’t think there is any discrepancy in style if you see what i mean. It is a very different way of looking and playing things.
But that is true of many formulations. Can you talk how your upbringing and how that fed into your abilities?
You mean for real? I am not sure how to answer that one.
Maybe what it was about the acting process intrigued you?
I think what intrigued me is that I wanted to represent something which I though was real. Originally, I think so…that is what it probably was. And before that, I just loved entertaining anyway…from the age of 5. I used to invent things apparently. I don’t remember it very well. I do remember when I was at school at 8 or 9…just making things up and improvising and so on. And then I remember taking the first play I did at school to. All those things.
From that precept, where does the psychology of a character begin?
You feel your way into something. You don’t know it. You’re not aware of it being a character. I think it is just instinctive more than anything.