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Remembering 'Elephant Man' Actor John Hurt

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The British actor John Hurt died of pancreatic cancer last week at his home in England. He was 77. Originally known as a promising stage actor in the 1960s, he went on to give acclaimed performances as outcasts and extravagant personalities in movies and TV. He starred as the deformed John Merrick in the 1980 film "The Elephant Man." He played the defiant, gay writer Quentin Crisp in "The Naked Civil Servant." In the BBC series "I, Claudius," he starred as the emperor Caligula. And in "Midnight Express," he was a strung-out English junkie. He also appeared in the films "Aliens," "Spaceballs," the "Harry Potter" films and the film "Jackie," which is currently in theaters.

I spoke to John Hurt in 1989 when he starred in the film "Scandal."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You've played several roles of outcasts and extravagant personalities - "The Elephant Man," "The Naked Civil Servant." Do you feel like you have a special affinity with that kind of role?

JOHN HURT: It's never been designed on my part. I suddenly can't deny that from, say, Caligula in "I, Claudius" to Quentin Crisp in "Naked Civil Servant," that these are not anything other than flamboyant people. I have played, of course, many other parts that are not in that area of flamboyance.

GROSS: Do you ever see yourself that way, as being...

HURT: Do I see myself that way?

GROSS: Yeah. As being...

HURT: No, I don't think I do.

GROSS: ...Unusual or having any extravagances.

HURT: I certainly don't see myself as Caligula.

GROSS: No (laughter). No, but, I mean...

HURT: Mind you, I have been offered Caligula three times, and that was the time that I played it. So I sometimes wonder what is in my personality that makes people think of me in that direction.

GROSS: You played the Elephant Man, John Merrick. Well, let me explain who John Merrick was for our listeners who don't know. He was the man who became known as the Elephant Man, who was severely deformed - grotesquely deformed. You played him as someone who, although having a grotesque exterior, had a refined, elegant, artistic spirit. Was it written that way, or was that something you read into the character?

HURT: That's something that I felt it was. That's certainly what I felt, and I think that David Lynch felt the same thing, the director. Yes, I mean, the simple thesis of that film is that people are not what they seem to be by - according to their looks.

GROSS: I'd like to play a short clip from this movie, which I think just illustrates this refinement of spirit that you have in the film. And I should say before we hear it that your character's mouth is deformed, and his speech...

HURT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Is slurred so our listeners might have a little bit of trouble following the exact speech. But this is a scene where Anne Bancroft, as a great lady of the stage, comes and visits John Merrick and introduces herself. And he's very excited to meet someone of the theater.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ELEPHANT MAN")

HURT: (As John Merrick) Mr. Treves tells me that you're in the theater. Do you live there?

ANNE BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Kendal) Oh, no, Mr. Merrick. I just work there.

HURT: (As John Merrick) Well, it must be wonderful just to work there. Is it beautiful?

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Kendal) You've never been?

HURT: (As John Merrick) I'm afraid not.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Kendal) Oh, Mr. Merrick, you must go. The theater's the most beautiful place on earth. Of course, I am a bit partial.

The theater is romance.

HURT: (As John Merrick) Romance - oh, yes.

GROSS: When you say, romance - oh, yes, at the end there, there's so much yearning in the voice that you communicate. I think it's a really beautiful moment in the film.

HURT: It is, yes. It was a wonderful script, I have to say. It was a wonderful script to play. And the Elephant Man, in a sense, embodies everything which is misunderstood in us all. And I think - I feel that's probably why people feel such a great empathy for him.

GROSS: In a way, your performance in "The Elephant Man" reminds me of Charles Laughton's performance in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" in the sense that I think they're both brilliant performances, yet the face and the voice of the actor in each is unrecognizable. Is it like working with a hand tied behind your back, knowing that your real face isn't visible and it will be harder to communicate facial expressions, and you have to use a different voice than the one you're accustomed to using?

HURT: Well, that is true. I mean, "Elephant Man," obviously, the voice was an enormous amount of my armory, as it were. And also I'd - rather than using facial expression, I worked quite a lot with a mirror and almost in a sculpture-esque way understanding how to use my body or the inclination of the head in order to say something. It's more like working with a mask in a sense. But the voice was, obviously, enormously important.

GROSS: I want to bring up Charles Laughton again. He said something that is one of my favorite comments about acting. He once said that people don't know what they're like and I think I can show them. I think that's (laughter) a beautiful statement about acting. And I think, really, that the best acting is somehow about what it is to be human.

HURT: Oh, I - I mean, you're talking about one of my favorite actors anyway. I think Charles Laughton was one of the greats. And I completely agree with that statement. It's a - it's perhaps an arrogant one, but I understand what he means.

GROSS: How did you get the role, by the way?

HURT: Well, it was a very high compliment, I must say. It came from David Lynch who particularly wanted me to play it on the grounds that he'd seen two things before. One was called "The Naked Civil Servant," where I played an effeminate homosexual exhibitionist called Quentin Crisp. And the other thing he'd seen was Caligula in "I, Claudius," both of which he said he felt that the actor got completely lost and he believed that that character was alive for him in front of him, which as far as I'm concerned, is the highest compliment he could have paid me. And he needed an actor like that, he felt, for "The Elephant Man," so that's how it came about.

GROSS: Your father was a clergyman. Did you have a religious...

HURT: Yes, that's right. He still is.

GROSS: Oh, good. OK. Did you have a religious upbringing?

HURT: He's 85 years old, and he's still working. Yes, I did. I had a very religious upbringing. As a Church of England clergyman, which is Episcopalian here - that's how I was brought up.

GROSS: When you were young, were you held back from doing certain things that the other kids did because your father was a clergyman?

HURT: Yes, certain things. My parents - for instance, I was never allowed to go to Saturday morning pictures, you know, things like that for children. They considered that to be a bit common. And also, by the very nature of being a clergyman's son, people tend to put you slightly apart, which is - you tend to live a life, at some stages, as being - people being suspicious of you and puts you rather on a - I don't mean lonely, particularly. But it does tend to put you apart.

GROSS: If you didn't get to go to the movies when you were young, what interested you in acting?

HURT: Oh, acting.

GROSS: (Laughter) Right. Where were you exposed to it?

HURT: Without question, not looking but doing.

GROSS: So had you seen a lot of acting before you started getting interested in it yourself?

HURT: Oh I'd seen quite a bit, yes, because my parents were lovers of the theater. And I used to go to the local repertory company quite frequently. But, I mean, what really gave me the passion for it was actually first appearing on a stage in a school play when I was 9 years old, I think. And I was in the school play every year from that time.

GROSS: You went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

HURT: Eventually, yes.

GROSS: Did you see yourself in the tradition of Gielgud? Did you want to be a great stage actor?

HURT: Oh, my God. I mean, no. That was one of the things that absolutely terrified me when I went to the Royal Academy. I thought everybody was going to be like Olivier and Gielgud. I also found it very daunting, very frightening because I had such huge admiration for them. I soon found out, when I got to the Royal Academy, that they were not all like that, however. They were terrific inspiration, but I never thought that I would be, as it were, in the same area of perfection (laughter).

GROSS: Do you think that the British tradition of acting is much different than the American? And I'm wondering if you relate to the style of American actors like Robert De Niro.

HURT: Oh, I certainly do, yes. I think Robert De Niro's a brilliant screen actor. But then I wouldn't say that Robert DeNiro is peculiarly unlike the British approach, in a sense - or Robert Duvall for that matter.

GROSS: What would you consider the British approach to be?

HURT: Well, I would say that the - it's a gross generalization. But the British tradition, basically, is to go to the character. And the Hollywood tradition, shall we say, is basically to take the character to the performer.

GROSS: Would you explain that?

HURT: Well, I mean - in order - the British tradition is to go to the character. Right? So you become the character. The Hollywood tradition is to make the character become yourself. You take the - so you use your own personality, as in Cary Grant. Right?

GROSS: Mm-hm.

HURT: Do you understand me?

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

HURT: Whereas Alec Guinness, for instance, will go to the character. He will become that character.

GROSS: John Hurt, recorded in 1989. He died one week ago of pancreatic cancer. He was 77. After we take a short break, David Edelstein will review the new film "The Salesman" by the Academy Award-winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. It's nominated for an Oscar, but he won't be at the ceremony because of the travel ban. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.