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John Hurt on his iconic gay roles — his final GT interview

© GT

A tribute to the late acting legend

Acting royalty Sir John Hurt has died at the age of 77. Gay Times were fortunate enough to be granted an audience with Sir John Hurt when he reprised his iconic role from The Naked Civil Servant as Quentin Crisp for An Englishman in New York. As a tribute, we present the previously unpublished in full interview here.

When Gay Times meets John Hurt in the green room at London’s BFI, he rolls his eyes and gives a mischievous grin. He’s somewhat taken aback that journalists are being filed in and out to interview him, regaling us with tales of how people would sooner climb out of window than be seen giving interviews to other publications. It’s a mark of his long career and changing times…

Have you had a long day of it?
Really enjoyable, fortunately no two people are the same.

You’ve got a Q&A tonight (for the screening of An Englishman in New York), how are you feeling about that?
That’s alright. I can but say what I can but say. You always hope that you’re going to be on form and feeling reasonably erudite. You hope.

How do you deal with the continued interest in Naked Civil Servant?
I think the interest is in Quentin, and Quentin is an endlessly fascinating character. He stands for a lot. He’s somebody capable of changing lives, and any such character is going to be endlessly, limitlessly interesting.

What was it like meeting Quentin?
I first met in ‘75 when I was filming Civil Servant and he came up for lunch a couple of times. I didn’t want to meet him too much because I didn’t want my portrayal to be an imitation, which it never was in fact. It was certainly very useful because he always knew what he was going to say and when he was going to say it. He had quite a contrived pattern of speech, which was dramatically very useful, and also quite insightful into how he worked things out in his own way. He knew there were only a certain amount of questions, I think he spent a lot of time asking himself ‘what questions could I be asked, what questions should I be ready for’, rather like Wilde. I think he honed a lot of his replies in private in such a way that they came out fantastically articulate and wittily and seemingly a direct response.

His interviews do come across as quite scripted, unlike many who don’t appear to think before they speak.
Not many people do that, preconceive what the questions are likely to be. That’s how he did his show. He opened the second half to questions, but he knew there were only going to be variations on about 20 questions, all of which he had a superb answer for. Some of them he had a quick answer for, some of them he a longer answer for. They were well preconceived and digested and worked out. As I say, honed. The only other person I know who did that was Wilde.

What did Quentin think of your portrayal and the film in Civil Servant?
Of Civil Servant?

Yes.
Well, obviously Civil Servant [howls with laughter]

Not unless you’ve got a ouija board exclusive you want to share…
[Laughs] Well he was asked “what did you think of John Hurt’s performance”, and he said, [adopts uncanny Quentin voice] “Mr Hurt is my representative here on Earth”, so that’s absolutely typical of Quentin – never a direct answer. He wasn’t a giver of compliments either, so you wouldn’t get a rave review. He wouldn’t do that. And it was always oblique. And the other time it was with huge trepidation, we’d both seen it for the first time it was on the big screen and I asked him what he thought of it, he said, [adopts voice] “Well, it’s a lot better than real life, because it’s so much shorter.” [laughs] So you just sort of take it. He was very funny, wonderfully funny.

You recently reprised the role, how did you approach that?
I haven’t put the two together but I think what I do in this one’s slightly different. In this one it’s slightly more like Quentin than it was in the first one. I think. I may be wrong, I don’t know.

I watched them both recently and it was like watching a mini-series.
[Laughs] There probably isn’t much difference and what difference I can hear somebody else might not.

[Tea is served] Ooh, it’s in a pot this time.

Posh tea?
Ooh no. Strong. Literally I’ve never forgotten it of course. [Thinks for a while] Yes it was a hugely important piece of my life. That was the piece that changed the public’s perception of me and the professions, the businesses perception of me. It was what they call [adopts American accent] ‘the break’, you know. And it was a break. It was a huge break. And unexpectedly.

It was quite a daring role to take on though, I’d imagine?
Well I was advised by many people not to do it. They said “you’ll never work again if you do that”. At that time it was really… [trails off as he stirs his tea] But it had exactly the reverse effect. But nobody could possibly have known that. I don’t think Quentin knew that either. I think he was delighted that they’d be doing it but he hadn’t had a huge success with the book. Nobody could have been sure that it was really going to do what we hoped it would do. But it did infinitely more, right across society. It had an extraordinary effect. I’m still stopped today by people whose life was changed by it, but that’s Quentin you see, it really is Quentin. The film was unmakeable without Quentin, and that’s extraordinarily important because he was and is, by his legacy alone, capable of changing people’s lives. In private, in conversation, in a café in whatever. Whether it be through books or films he was capable of changing people’s lives. That’s an extraordinary gift.

Was that what attracted you to the role in the first place?
No, I don’t think I saw as much as that. All I know is that instinctively I thought it was a terrific script. It just seemed the right set up. Jack Gould, who was hugely respected and right at the peak of his career, Philip Matthew who was a wonderful writer and a friend and then Verity Lambert who everyone knew was up and coming, and Jeremy Isaacs. An extraordinary team of people connected. You tell me where I can find the Verity Lambert’s and Jeremy Isaac’s in television these days. You’d be hard pressed. No, I don’t think that I claimed to see. And I wouldn’t claim things that I don’t think I would see. I thought it was a fabulous script and I knew I wanted to do it.

Did you watch any footage of Quentin Crisp himself?
There was a show that he’d already done. I can’t remember what it was. Can you remember what it was? You wouldn’t remember because you wouldn’t have been around… Was it Horizon. They did it basically in his room, it was the one where he said ‘I have a message for the British housewifes, after the first four weeks the dust doesn’t get any worse’.

That came out before we did it and that was enough, I didn’t need to see any more than that, and a couple of times he came up to lunch.
He came down as an adviser on a couple of occasions, we didn’t know how far we could go in the 1920s, 1930s. Particularly in the café. There we were camping away, and Jack got Quentin down that day and said “how camp can we go?” and Quentin said “you couldn’t be camp enough”. Now when you say that to a load of English actors, [laughs hards] well, you know! It was wonderful!

There’s an anticipation this time around, for this movie, how was the public reaction to the first film?
Civil Servant was unbelievably well received. I mean it was unbelievably well received – from the start. Clive James said that it was the best thing to be on television since the last thing Jack Gould did on television. There were two major pieces of that period – one was Pennies From Heaven, the other one was Civil Servant, they were both seminal pieces. Extraordinary mailbag. I’ve never known anything like it before or since. I literally couldn’t get into a taxi, they wouldn’t let me pay. They let me into the taxi, they just wouldn’t let me pay. Not every time, but one out of three for quite a long time. It was extraordinary.

A lot of gay people have cited it as a film that changed things for them, do you get that?
Lots of people. Lots of people. I can’t tell you how many people come to me saying that they watched it with their parents, not knowing what to say. Sounding the parents at the end and suddenly finding that the parents are saying ‘oh my God, I didn’t realise how difficult life is’. It gave the possibility to someone who didn’t know how to tell their parents they were gay to be able to start a conversation, and a successful one. One extraordinary time, I was sat at the back of one of those big cafes in the afternoon with a friend. We were the only two people in the café and two boys came over looking at us. Eventually one of them came over and asked if I was who I was, and I said ‘who do you think I am’ and they went ‘well we think you’re John Hurt’ and I said ‘Yes I am’ and he said, ‘I can’t believe it, we’ve just got married today,’ – it had only just been made legal – and they couldn’t believe they’d just seen the very person from the film that had made them come out to their parents all those years ago.

It must be quite strange for you, being such an iconic person in the gay community despite not being gay yourself.
Sexuality has never worried me, I don’t care. Love worries me. If somebody can’t express their love, that is worrying. I’ve never had any difficulties in who it is you give your love to, it doesn’t make any difference to me. I think that’s what Quentin would have liked to have seen, personally. His argument with the activists, basically, was that he didn’t see homosexuality as being a separate entity, to be divided. No way would Quentin have ever said ‘ I don’t want to be with him, he’s straight’, it wouldn’t be in his language at all. His interest, it seemed to me, is that he would have liked it to have been understood and integrated. When he made comments in the Civil Servant like he did, that it was better to be a heterosexual however poor than an homosexual, whatever the exact phrase was, I can’t remember, he didn’t mean that homosexuality was a lesser being, what it really meant was that it was better to be heterosexual because the world is geared towards heterosexuality and it’s easier, it isn’t such a difficult ride. Of course where he was at odds with the activists there, the activists made it possible for that to be the case. It’s always so complicated. Where I stand in all of this I don’t know. I stand in a sort of peculiarly asexual area, I don’t stand as a “straight” looking on, you know? It is what is. It doesn’t worry me and I’m not concerned by either heterosexuals or homosexuals.

What was the catalyst for you coming back to this role?
When he died, which was nearly 10 years ago now, people began asking when we were going to do the rest. I was trepidatious about it, I didn’t want to do anything that would harm the original, because that stood for something. Then I read Brian’s script and I thought there was more than a germ of something really worth doing, because it had a different flavour, a different look – of course it did, it’s a different period, a different time in my life – and then Richard came on board it really started to breathe and I thought “this is going to be really interesting,”. Actually, it was very exciting to do it in the end, despite the initial trepidation. If trepidatious is a word. Can ou be trepidatious? It doesn’t sound right.

If you want to be, you can be.
I’m sure Americans would say that.

What’s the relevance of Quentin’s story for a modern audience?
[Thinks hard] Well to start with, I wouldn’t underestimate a modern audience. It kind of comes into it, doesn’t it, at the gay party on the roof in Englishman In New York.

I don’t know. Has it changed that much? Your editor probably feels that it has.

He’s quite politically driven. He cites Civil Servant as being the first time he realised…
What’s his feeling though, as far as Quentin is concerned? Obviously if he’s the editor of your magazine he’s gone on to a more political activist area probably. He might have fallen foul with Quentin’s philosophies.

He referred to it as a fascinating and important role.
It affected as many straights as it did gays. And that’s the point. In that sense, the relevance hasn’t changed. If you can make attitudes change, attitudes that are antagonistic , that is a very considerable relevance. I hope that Englishmen in New York will have a similar effect.

I’m a huge fan of The Storyteller, and I love Merlin, a lot of your roles have become quite iconic, haven’t they? Your role in Alien, for example.
Oh yes, Alien was huge. If I’m doing a play in town and people come to the stage door, 30% of them will be waving that horrific Alien picture at me, with the blood everywhere. Amazing really, for half a day’s work.

You could build up a nice little pension fund from convention appearances, couldn’t you?
I went to one quite recently, actually. They pay big money for it, too. I was rather dreading it though, I thought it’d be awful. But they were charming, really charming. Everybody was so sweet. I had a great time.

Do you find that you get asked to sign really bizarre things? Strange things that have come out over the years that tie-in. Is there an Alien toy, perhaps?
I haven’t seen any toys.

You’ve recently appeared in the BBC series Merlin as The Great Dragon. How is that filmed?
They have all these wires attached to me as I film my lines, so that when they come to animate the dragon they can use my movements.

As well as Merlin, you’ve been involved in various other epic series, the Storyteller, for example.
Well that was different, I was involved all the way through. And of course it was written by Anthony Minghella, way before anyone knew him as the director of such films as The English Patient. Then there’s the people who began their careers on that show. They were fabulous to do, beautifuly done.

You can get it all on DVD now, you know. In America, at least.
Really? I can’t find it here.

You’re about to record another series of Merlin, but what can we expect after that?
I’m doing a film in Australia, called ‘Lou’, it should be a very nice film. It’s taken a bit of time to get going, but I’m playing somebody who has Alzheimer’s who goes back to stay with his family and his grandaughter, who’s 11 years old, and it’s about the relationship between the two of them, it’s a beautiful story.

Are you in the position now where you can just pick and choose your roles?
The only people who can really pick and choose are the top Hollywood boys, you know, and they’re ever changing. It’s much more difficult to pick and choose at my age, anyway. Fortunately people still come and say “Do you want to play this,” and I can choose the best from those, but it’s not like there are millions of scripts coming my way. Not that many get made now, there are lots of scripts I’ve been involved with that haven’t been made, because they couldn’t get the money or whatever.

You mentioned the theatre earlier, is that something you’d like to go back to doing?
Oh definitely, but I can’t say what exactly. I’d love to find a new play.

Do you have a favourite live performance that you’ve seen yourself?
Almost anything Schofield did, and Vanessa Redgrave in As You Like It.

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