John Hurt for “The Skeleton Key”

It seems on the surface at least, that John Hurt hasn’t been working of late, but that’s a myth of course. As we chat in a small, New Orleans hotel room, the always affable British star of the likes of TV’s The Naked Civil Servant and The Elephant man, thinks his disappearance is exaggerated. “It’s very strange, I’m always working.  I mean I’m always doing something,” he says, speaking with that quiet eloquence of his.  “I think certain films take on a kind of attraction, while certain films seem to slip by without people noticing.” In particular, he muses, is one of his favourite films of recent memory, Love and Death on Long Island. “I’m a huge believer, for instance, in Richard Kwietniowski as a director, I think he’s a wonderful director, though he had a very considerable profile in a way, got sort of disregarded and totally ignored by every single establishment, which I find intriguing. I don’t know quite why or how that happens, but then you do something which you think is much, much lighter weight than that and it attracts an enormous amount of attention,” he concedes, referring in part to The Skeleton Key.

An atmospheric thriller exploring the underbelly of hoodoo and voodoo in America’s south, Hurt plays an apparent stroke victim, who spends most of the film confined to a wheelchair, and without dialogue. It hardly seems the kind of juicy role that would appeal to someone as distinguished as Hurt, and he says that had he read the script before meeting with the film’s director, fellow Brit Iain Softley, he would have turned it down. “Fortunately he didn’t give me the script before he told me what the part was, because if I had seen the script I might have gone flicking through it and thought, you can take that back, but that wasn’t the case. He told me with considerable seriousness that it was a very important part and it didn’t have any words. So I started thinking in terms of well, this is a very nice idea. I’ve always been looking for a part that doesn’t have to speak, it’s got Gena Rowlands, and it’s New Orleans. In other words, I thought it’s just got all the makings of a very good film.”

Hurt agrees that being an actor with such a recognizable and rich voice, he had to relearn a lot of acting techniques. “I think you always have to be in this kind of part if you’re dealing with masks. There are certain visual things that you can do and you can help it. I don’t know exactly what they are, but you can use your body or you can use a shape in order to be able to get some kind of understanding across when you’re not being able to use all your equipment. You also have to use your eyes. In the same way that if you’re, as I have done as well, if you’re narrating something and you don’t have any physical presence whatsoever, then obviously everything has to be done vocally, and through your voice in a quite different way than you would use your voice if you were being seen.”

If one is wondering where Hurt has been, he has not stopped working, and has a number of films due in the next few months, two of which will premiere at the Toronto Film Festival: The Proposition and the Rwanda-set Shooting Dogs. In comparing Shooting Dogs to last year’s Hotel Rwanda, Hurt frankly says “there’s no comparison.  It’s a much better film. It’s a completely different aspect of the war and doesn’t have any escapism in that sense. I play a catholic priest whose school it is where the whole incident takes place. Also at the time of the beginning of the film he’s sharing it with the United Nations, who have one of their bases there, and eventually of course, it’s when the troubles really start firing up, and it becomes a refugee camp as well.” 

Hurt also spent some time in the Australian outback filming The Proposition, written by musician Nick Cave and featuring Guy Pearce and Liam Neeson. “Oh, I love that film, I must say.  I’ve just saw that recently for the first time and I think it’s terrific, a super film. It’s a very, very good script and a western.  It’s only possible to make it in Australia because it wouldn’t be suitable to the American myth. It seems to me that you can’t make a western outside of that myth.  But being Australia, it’s such a different frontier there because they were pushing into an interior that was utterly impossible,  certainly for a white man.  I mean it was difficult beyond belief for the Aboriginals, but impossible for a white man. They hadn’t even got it together at that time to understand that you had to drink water.  I mean they were drinking whiskey not water, and you’d turn around and you’re talking somebody and they’d drop dead on the floor.” Hurt plays an educated bounty hunter. “It was a beautifully written part – fabulous.  I had a great time, and enjoyed being in the outback in Queensland as well.”

Hurt also returns to the London stage in a “play written by a Frenchman called Gerald Sibleyras and it’s being translated and adapted by Tom Stoppard. It’s a three-hander and we’re doing it at the Wyndham theatre starting in October, with Richard Griffiths, Ken Stott and myself. I’m really looking forward to it.”

An actor for some three decades much has changed since moviegoers remembered him as one of the doomed spacemen in Alien. Not one to look back on a career defined by many diverse performances, the actor won’t be drawn on a favourite film. “That’s always a difficult one to answer, in so far as they’re not equitable. I think Jack Nicholson’s got the right idea. When he’s asked that question he immediately says Easy Rider without batting an eyelid, because that’s the one that changed the public’s perception of him, and the business’ perception of him. So I would answer in exactly the same way and say and say The Naked Civil Servant, which is a film that I made about Quentin Crisp for, Thames television.  That was a changing point for me both business-wise and public-wise, as well as for me. So there you go.