The World According to Hurt

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In his near 20-year film career, William Hurt has played such diverse roles as a scientist in “Altered States,” a slick TV news journalist in “Broadcast News,” a flamboyant gay prisoner in “The Kiss of the Spider Woman” (for which he won the best actor Oscar) and even Professor Robinson in the remake of “Lost in Space.”

On stage, he appeared in the original off-Broadway production of Lanford Wilson’s “The Fifth of July” and received a Tony nomination 15 years ago for David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly.”

In Showtime’s new film, “The Big Brass Ring,” the 49-year-old actor plays an enigmatic politician who is running for governor of Missouri in the year 2000, with an eye on a future bid for the White House. A reporter (Irene Jacob) uncovers a mysterious figure from his past who threatens to ruin his dream.


“The Big Brass Ring” was adapted by director George Hickenlooper and F.X. Feeney from an original script by the late Orson Welles and Oja Kodar.

The intense, philosophical Hurt, who was last seen on the big screen in 1998’s “One True Thing,” talked over the phone about the project, Welles’ legacy and the actor as artist.

Question: Did you ever meet Orson Welles before he died in 1985?

Answer: I ran across him one time in a restaurant. He was impressive.

Q: Did you become involved in the project because of the Welles connection?

A: It wasn’t as general as that. I was a fan [of Welles]. I had specific reasons for being a fan and it wasn’t because he was self-destructive. A lot of artists who may have been self-destructive get generalized as such and we forget what they were offering in their work. In the last 23 years, the line between who we are and what we do has been sort of eradicated. I think your secrets are for you and you alone. You face God alone. I think that is one of the things he’s saying in this movie. It is sad so much of his legacy is colored by details of his personal life in a certain light. But the work itself stands.

Q: Is this version of “The Big Brass Ring” vastly different than Welles’ original script?

A: I never saw the original. I was looking [at a version] six years ago and I was looking at it again a few years ago. I didn’t want to do it, but then George came along with something better.

Orson was a stylist and a great stylist. He bent characters out of shape. He is like a person who draws who has to know a lot about graphics and a lot about the human anatomy to create an expressive form. Welles did that. He bends people out of shape to make characters. I think that a lot of what we have lost in film is character. I think we were even losing it when I started making films. I mean, you get all of these polite adolescent morality tales coming out of Hollywood and you don’t learn anything about humanity.

Q: Do you turn down more parts than you accept these days?

A: I used to. I think [Hollywood] finally got the message. I think it took them quite a while to get the message. I think they can get someone who will say yes a lot more easily than I will and will pay them more and that’s fine. I still feel quite privileged to do work with interesting people.


Q: You’ve always worked with interesting directors and taken roles some actors would have been afraid of tackling.

A: Those are things that excite me.

Q: Do you find more three-dimensional roles in the theater?

A: Probably, because they write them there--but also because they prepare them there. It can be oversimplified by saying if you have to give an actor X amount of time to memorize his lines, you should give him X amount of time to understand them. The problem with most of the work we are asked to do--not even so much on the page but in the way we execute it--is that we are not asked for any depth at all. Actors just aren’t asked for depth anymore.

Q: Were you asked to dig deep with this film?

A: To an extent. I still feel hampered by filmmaking. For over two decades, to every person I meet on a film I say, “We need six weeks of rehearsal,” and they laugh at you or giggle or they walk away or they say, “It is an industry.” I say, “Excuse me, I know it sounds prehistoric, but it is not an industry, it is not a business, it is an art.”

Most of the people who make films don’t believe that. They don’t think it is an art. They think it is a business and an industry. If your ethic is filled with “industry” and “business” all the time, then it is going to be binary; your thought process about your work is going to be binary in nature. If it is binary, it is two-dimensional. That is not what art is about.

Q: Well, did you get rehearsal for this film?

A: Yes, but it was all private, all stolen on the side. They won’t pay you for it. They say, “It costs too much money,” and I say, “I will save you lots of money and I’ll do a better job.” I had three weeks of rehearsal on “Altered States,” “The Big Chill” and “Spider Woman” and it shows.

I began to study acting when I was 14 and I didn’t start accepting jobs until I was 25. It took me that long to understand that Stanislavsky was absolutely right--you need six weeks of rehearsal. Could you imagine what we could do with artists who are paid a living wage for six weeks to take the chance of doing something that stretches them out completely? The mantra of America is that winning is the only thing and money is time. That is crap. Time is love. Time is your treasure. You have been given a certain amount of heartbeats in this life. How you spend them is everything.


* “The Big Brass Ring” can be seen Sunday at 8 p.m. on Showtime.


“Excuse me, I know it sounds prehistoric, but [filmmaking] is not an industry, it is not a business, it is an art.”