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The many deaths of John Hurt

The character actor has feigned death in almost all his movies. He’ll soon be back as a wise, old resistance leader in Bong Joon-ho’s train-set thriller Snowpiercer, where he may yet die again

By: New York Times | Updated: June 22, 2014 3:53 pm
Well into his eighth decade, Hurt shows no signs of slowing down Well into his eighth decade, Hurt shows no signs of slowing down

If you’ve ever considered what it must be like to die, or at least to pretend to die, the man to ask is John Hurt.

Now 74, the British actor has convincingly feigned death in more than 40 movies and television shows since his career began in the 1960s. He died onscreen for the first time in The Wild and the Willing (1962), plummeting from a castle tower, but that was only the beginning.

There were back-to-back hangings in Sinful Davey (1969) and 10 Rillington Place (1969), and consecutive stabbings in The Ghoul (1975) and I, Claudius (1976). His character in Hellboy (2004) was run through with a sword. In the performance many consider his best, his Oscar-nominated turn as John Merrick, the tortured character ostracised by Victorian society in The Elephant Man (1979), he welcomed death by simply lying down.

And then, of course, there is his most famous death, one he himself later spoofed in Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs (1987). Playing a space scientist in Alien (1980), he dies in gory agony as a hissing, razor-toothed creature bursts from his chest.

“I don’t think anybody has died in films as often as I have,” Hurt says, chuckling, during a telephone conversation from London. “I think I’m probably in The Guinness Book of World Records.”
When quizzing him about an upcoming role, he adds, his two sons, now in their early 20s, no longer ask if his character dies in the end.

“They say ‘How do you die?’,” Hurt jokes. “I sometimes think that, when I do actually die, all those (screen deaths) are going to flash in front of me like some sort of terrifying frieze.”

In short, fans who have followed Hurt’s 52-year film career will not be surprised if his character in Snowpiercer, a high-octane yet quirky apocalyptic sci-fi thriller set aboard a futuristic train and due for release on June 27, should die a violent death.

It is 2031, and the titular train is hurtling through a frozen landscape in which there appears to be no life. Seventeen years earlier an experiment to counteract global warming went awry and Earth was plunged into an Ice Age. Now the only survivors on the planet have been corralled into a massive train that circles the globe at breakneck speed, powered by a perpetual-motion engine.

Those on board are divided into two classes. In steerage is a ragtag band of malnourished, unwashed passengers who live in squalor and survive on protein bars provided by their oppressors, a group of well-armed militants. They protect the passengers in the front of the train, a privileged group who while away the years in the lap of luxury, dining on the finest food and indulging in communal sex and a variety of drugs. Hurt plays Gilliam, a one-armed, one-legged spiritual mentor to the rabble in the rear of the train and adviser to Curtis (Chris Evans), the reluctant leader of the group.

Based on a French graphic novel, Snowpiercer was shot in the Czech Republic and directed by Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho, best known for The Host (2006) and Memories of Murder (2003). Bong recalled Hurt’s performance in The Elephant Man and wanted the actor for the part. The two met at the Soho Hotel in London, and the creative spark between them was immediate.

“It was a matter of chemistry,” Hurt says. “I adored him. Bong gives off all those wonderful qualities that you look for all the time in people –—and it’s unusual in the film industry.”

Bong is a meticulous storyboarder, and Hurt raves about the Korean’s detailed preparation.

“He out-Hitchcocks Hitchcock,” he says. “He only shoots what he’s going to see on screen. He never says ‘Oh, I’d better put this  in, just in case’. Every single thing we did seemed to be absolutely precise. He knows exactly what he’s looking for. I can’t wait to work with him again. I wouldn’t even ask what it was, I would just say, ‘When and where?’”

The son of a clergyman, Hurt wanted to act from an early age but was cajoled into pursuing an art teacher’s diploma before winning a scholarship to the famed Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London.
Hurt made his film debut in Young and Willing (1962) and had a small role in the Oscar-winning A Man for All Seasons (1966), but it wasn’t until the television movie The Naked Civil Servant (1975) that his career really took off. His work as the flamboyantly gay writer Quentin Crisp earned him glowing reviews, despite predictions by some that it would destroy his career, and the movie was credited with changing British attitudes toward homosexuality.

“We shot it in 21 days,” Hurt recalls. “It’s a 90-minute film, and of course it was shot on Super 16. There were no monitors or anything like that at that time, but I think everyone was enjoying it. We had no idea that it was going to have quite the effect that it did.”

Since then he has specialised in misunderstood characters living on the fringes of society in such films as Midnight Express (1978), The Elephant Man, Scandal (1989), Love and Death on Long Island (1997) and An Englishman in New York (2009), in which he reprised his role as Crisp, as well as the television series I, Claudius (1976), in which he played the depraved Emperor Caligula.

“They have always interested me,” he says. “I suppose I was around when a lot of those films were being made. I happened to be there at the right time.”

Well into his eighth decade, Hurt shows no signs of slowing down. He continues to act on stage, and reportedly will star in the latest attempt to make Terry Gilliam’s legendarily trouble-plagued The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. He emphasises that he hasn’t signed to make the film, but adds that he would readily do so, despite the project’s erratic history.

“With absolutely no question whatsoever,” he says promptly. ”I think it’s a terrific script.”

Next up is the sword-and-sandal action flick Hercules, starring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. Hurt plays King Cotys of Thrace. It’s not The Elephant Man or even Snowpiercer, but the actor has no complaints.

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