William Hurt sat in his suite at the Chateau Marmont, having a telephone conversation in complete silence.
To prepare for his role in the film version of “Children of a Lesser God” (Mark Medoff’s Tony-award winning love story about a teacher of the hearing impaired and an uncommunicative young woman), Hurt was learning sign language and now used a special device to “talk” by phone hookup with one of his sign coaches, Mary Beth Miller.
“She’s partially hearing-impaired,” Hurt explained, half-rising in greeting and motioning his visitor to sit down. “I type my part of the conversation into this machine and a readout appears on the other end.”
Hurt excused himself for a few more minutes, lit a cigarette and turned back to the device, becoming re-absorbed in the conversation--the silence punctuated only by the tapping of his fingers on the keyboard.
The silence may have been the most enlightening part of the 2 1/2 hours spent with the actor. Hurt philosophized, argued, rambled, postulated, questioned, protested, pontificated and mused. He bantered, whispered, laughed, ranted, raved and cursed.
In short, he did almost everything but directly answer questions about “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” which was the reason for the interview.
For all of his talent and smarts (the former theology student graduated with top honors from Tufts University), William Hurt did not seem attuned to the demands of an interview that day.
Hurt’s performance in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” won him the Cannes Film Festival’s best actor award last May. The highly praised film version of Manuel Puig’s novel, directed by Hector Babenco, tells the story of the relationship between an effeminate homosexual window dresser (Hurt) and a Marxist political prisoner (Raul Julia) who are cell mates in an Argentine jail.
Visitor: “Tell me about Cannes. Did you see the film with the audience or--like so many actors--do you not like to watch yourself on film?”
Hurt: “I was moved (by the film). I thought to myself, ‘Well, it’s hard work for 40 minutes but if you (the viewer) work for 40 minutes, you’ll get something really good.
“But it’s not me up there (on screen). I’m not up there. . . . Sure, it’s hard for me to watch myself--like in the mirror, but you don’t play yourself. I wouldn’t know enough to be able to conjecture or judge the difference.
“There are different purposes for different techniques at different times. I think our purpose is to seek as great a contribution as we can, whatever that might be. In my case , I would probably couch that in the terms of classic structure. What does classic structure mean? It means something that is always changing, but always true and so a lot of people find it in different ways. There are people who find classic structure for 10 minutes and there are people who find classic structure for a millennium.”
Previously published interviews had hinted at the Hurt Reputation, describing him as possessing “Byronic intensity,” issuing “vaporous monologues” and “sounding like he’d just smoked his first joint.”
But Hurt came around to the question.
“Cannes was interesting--there was a standing ovation. You know, sometimes you have fantasies when you’re young . . . arhhgggggg, " he groaned. “ ‘They’re going to stand up for me someday.’ But it wasn’t for me; it was for the film. How can anybody stand up for me? I wondered if Americans would have as spontaneous a reaction to such a film.”
He paused, thinking over what he had just said. “Now I’m sure everybody’s reaction is always spontaneous, all reactions are spontaneous.” He laughed.
Hurt found Babenco “a talented man.” Working with Babenco “was tough. Man--he was in a tough situation working within four walls (of the jail cell) for a long period of time. I mean, how do you make a camera angle interesting without being distracting? How do you use this space?”
The word “space” triggered a tangent. “I am constantly asked, ‘What’s the difference between acting in the theater and acting in film?’ The only answer I can give is the space--you adapt to the space. But acting is acting .”
Feigning a half-wit, he mimicked the question again. “ ‘You like acting better in movies or in theater?’
Hurt’s expression darkened and his voice grew steadily emphatic. “Acting is acting . Now are you asking me ‘Do I like it better in the South Bronx or Staten Island. Or whether I like it better in Oskaloosa, Iowa? Well, what difference does it make? What’s the point ?”
Mercifully, he supplied the answer. “The point is that there are challenges within techniques. When you differentiate in technique, you challenge yourself; you ask yourself the same question in a new way. . . . You vivify your imaginative question, that’s all. As far as the difference between film and theater is concerned. . . .”
Now his jaw tightened and he spat out the rest of his thought between clenched teeth. “I don’t have enough film under my belt to be able to judge myself in any way that I would consider to be objective.”
Critics, however, think his film performances in “Altered States,” “Eyewitness,” “Body Heat,” “The Big Chill,” “Gorky Park” and “Kiss” have been pretty spiffy. Ditto stage reviews on, among others, “Hurly Burly,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Henry V,” “The Fifth of July” and his Obie-winner, “My Life.”
But what the critics think is of no interest to the actor. “I didn’t plan the reaction on ‘Spider Woman,’ ” he says, bristling at the suggestion that there may be an Academy Award nomination for him this year. “I haven’t planned a reaction on anything. . . . If you do, you’ve screwed up. “I think ‘Spider Woman,’ which is so singularly distinctive, points that out. No one could expect that I would have expected anything from it. See what I’m saying?”
There was no point in interrupting. Hurt was off and running.
“I mean, to the extent that someone will say (Hurt assumes a dopey accent): ‘You know this thing (him or his movie roles) is a big deal!’ ”
Angry, he shot back “How much of a big deal is this guy anyway? Thank you--no--but there is grief in the streets. The grief is on those billboards (he jabbed a finger in the direction of the billboard-laden Sunset Strip)--right there! That is grief to me. You see your character whitewashed by people who call themselves artists and politicians, diplomats, sociologists, scientists and on and on and on and on and on--who see meaning homogenized. It hurts me; it hurts me because I’m a part of it and because I’m not a part of it.”
He laughed dispiritedly. It was beginning to become clear why Hurt’s style had been described as “Byronic intensity.”
“My prejudices are not the point of our meeting. The point, I suppose, is and I wonder--although less anxiety riddenly--about what is the point of having an interview, but maybe I’m beginning to see a certain point in it, although it’s confusing.”
Hurt shook his head, morosely. “Yeah-h-h-h-h, I wish I was perfect; I wish I hadn’t done this. Maybe I uh, uh, maybe I’m beginning to see other people’s point of view more than I used to. I may not agree with it, but I can be patient with the fact that other people of perhaps greater or lesser intelligence, of greater and lesser perception and sensibility than myself exist, that I don’t know.”
He paused and looked down for several minutes.
“I mean today, on the testing (he was working with actresses auditioning for the lead in “Children”; Marlee Matlin has since been cast), as far as I’m concerned, the two people with whom I’m testing right now outclass me. Period. Period. They both remind me of (long, long pause) how hungry you have to be to act for its own sake, not for anything else.”
Hurt thundered, “The achievement is appreciation. Your ability to be surprised and awed by beauty! Not look at me. Now I don’t know, you know, what is it? For me. . . .”
He stopped, frustrated. “I don’t want to talk about that. I’m not important. In fact, what is important to me is to be left alone. To sort my problems out my own way and go through this life the best I can. But my work I truly wish to share.”
Slumping on the couch he added: “I think ‘Spider Woman’ and being 35. . . . " Hurt let out a short laugh. “I think I’m gonna try and retire in about a year from acting. I don’t know for how long. I’ve been working real hard and when I work, I work, so I can’t organize. I’ve got to get to the point where I can have some conversations with strangers on park benches again. I think I need to go and collect my thoughts.”
He sighed deeply. “That may be the reason I’m doing this interview. It’s a combination of many things. I suppose it’s like a mediocre indication that a piece of me wishes a segment of work to be documented as seen by an otherwise outside perception as having been conceived of.”
He looked into his visitor’s shell-shocked eyes and added, smiling, “By the way, I’m not cerebral.”