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William Hurt: In Every Role, A New Life To Inhabit.

William Hurt has been nominated for four Academy Awards, and won in 1986 for his role in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Hurt prepares for his performances by burying himself deep inside the character — for his role as an ex-con in the film The Yellow Handkerchief, Hurt spent a night in a Louisiana prison.

45:09

Other segments from the episode on February 25, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 25, 2010: Interview with William Hurt; Review of the film "Ajami."

Transcript

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William Hurt: In Every Role, A New Life To Inhabit

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, actor William Hurt, was recently
in prison, not doing time, just preparing for his role as an ex-con in the new
film "The Yellow Handkerchief." Hurt became famous in the early '80s for his
starring roles in the film noir "Body Heat," the thriller "Eyewitness," and the
science fiction film "Altered States."

He won an Oscar for his performance in "Kiss of the Spider Woman" as a drag
queen sharing a prison cell with a political dissident. Hurt's performance as a
gangster in the David Cronenberg film, "A History of Violence," was so amazing,
he was nominated for an Oscar, even though he was in just one scene. Last year
he had a starring role in the FX series "Damages."

Hurt's new film, "The Yellow Handkerchief," is set in post-Katrina Louisiana.
At the beginning of the film he gets out of prison after serving six years for
reasons that become clear as the story unravels. He's trying to travel back to
the woman he loves, but he doesn't know if she'll take him back. He gets a ride
with two teenagers, played by Kristen Stewart and Eddie Redmayne. In this
scene, the three of them are in the car. Hurt is driving when they're stopped
by the police.

(Soundbite of film, "The Yellow Handkerchief")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) I need to see your license please,
sir. Sir, I need to see your license, please.

Mr. WILLIAM HURT (Actor): (As Brett Hanson) I don't have one.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) So you've been driving without a license,
sir?

Mr. HURT: (As Hanson) No.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Could you speak up please, sir?

Mr. HURT: (As Hanson) My license is expired.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Well, then, you've been driving without a
license, haven't you?

Mr. EDDIE REDMAYNE (Actor): (As Gordy) Sir, this is my...

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Be quiet. Why is that, sir? Tell me your
name please, sir. Sir, could you please tell me your name?

Mr. HURT: (As Hanson) I don't have a license because I've been in prison the
last six years. The kid don't know anything about this. I hitched a ride with
them, and I took the wheel when I hit – they don't know anything about it.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Sir, slowly put your left hand behind your
back.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Now your other hand.

GROSS: William Hurt, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's really a pleasure to have you
here. Let me start by asking you to describe your character in "The Yellow
Handkerchief."

Mr. HURT: My character is blue collar, originally from probably Kentucky, ran
into trouble, works as a steam fitter on oil rigs and moved to Louisiana after
he ran into drug trouble, tried to make a new life, met someone, fell in love
with them, got into an accidental bit of trouble which put him in prison for a
long time, and he takes a road trip with some young people after he gets out.

GROSS: Now, I read that you spent some time in a prison talking to inmates so
that you could learn about what your character might be like. So what prison
did you go to, and what did you want to know?

Mr. HURT: We were in Angola in northern Louisiana, and a prison that's gone
through a lot of changes in the last few years, since its – heyday isn't the
right word, since its horror days. And I spent night in maximum security there.
I think I'm the other person who electively has done that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HURT: I think someone else tried to but screamed and gave up at midnight. I
spoke with every member on that row who's incarcerated in an eight-foot-by-
four-foot cell 23 hours a day for the rest of their lives – those who would
speak to me. Some wouldn't.

I had four days basically on the grounds with many people, asking them
questions about their lives, what got them there, what it was like there, how
they were now, what they thought, and I learned a lot.

GROSS: So would you describe what it felt like to be in this small maximum-
security cell?

Mr. HURT: Claustrophobic isn't the word. It's much worse. I didn't think that I
was uncomfortable most of the night. I was preoccupied with my companion, and
the bed has about an inch-and-a-half-thick mattress on sheer steel. The toilet
has no soft seat. The floor is marbleized concrete. It's horrible. It's
unthinkable.

GROSS: So when you were interviewing or speaking with men who were in that
maximum-security unit, did they know who you were? Did they know your films?

Mr. HURT: Oh, they were told who I was. They were told why I was there. Some
chose...

GROSS: But were they...

Mr. HURT: Sorry?

GROSS: Were they familiar with your movies?

Mr. HURT: To some extent. Some of them knew that I was, you know, an actor.
Most of the films I make are not most of the films they see. In the maximum
security division, the cells are all on one side of a hallway because the
definition of maximum security is no human contact.

So they don't want them communicating with anybody. They put them next to each
other with walls in between them, but they won't put them facing another cell
so they can't communicate with anybody facially or by hand signals.

GROSS: So you had all your conversations...

Mr. HURT: Around a corner.

GROSS: Around a corner, not being able to see the person you were talking to.

Mr. HURT: Not all of them. I was taken with a group of guards to the front of
each cell and allowed to ask a few questions with a team of guards standing
around me to protect me, you know, from someone who couldn't get out, and of
course that intimidates any conversation.

Then I moved through the row and finally got to my cell, which is at one end.
They had vacated a prisoner for that one night for my access.

GROSS: So what did you take away from the experience of being in Angola, in
prison, and speaking to prisoners who were in the maximum security wing? What
did you take away from that that you were able to use in the movie?

Mr. HURT: It's pretty limitless, primarily sorrow for them. Most of the time I
would ask them: Why are you here? And most of the time they would answer
second-degree murder. Of 5,108 inmates, 85 percent of the people in there are
going to die there. So there's no compunction when you're talking to someone
whose only desire on Earth is not to have their body buried on the grounds of
that prison.

There's no problem in being frank. There's no compunction about telling the
truth. Conversations are wonderfully, refreshingly, brutally honest.

GROSS: Were you shocked by anything you heard?

Mr. HURT: No, I've been around. So I mean, I've talked – I've – this isn't the
first time I've talked to prisoners. It isn't the first time I've talked to
murderers.

GROSS: For movies or for other reasons?

Mr. HURT: For various reasons. I used to visit prisons. It's kind of - as an
outsider taking a message to prisoners about hope. I can't really go into that.

GROSS: That's too personal, you mean?

Mr. HURT: No, well, it's personal for other people.

GROSS: Right, okay. But that was work you were doing, though, going to prisons
to take a message of hope?

Mr. HURT: You'd call it charitable work. I had worked with some people who were
involved in a prison program, and they periodically visited the prisons in
Rockland County in New York State to take a program of hope and self-
rehabilitation to them, and I would accompany them. So I met a lot of people
that way, and also I – this is a little hard to say rightly, but I've always
been interested in people, and I've been interested in people who were off the
track.

I mean, I ran into problems, for instance, in Brazil 25 years ago when, by
accident, I was taken hostage on a dark night in a small village south of Sao
Paulo and, you know, had a guy with a gun in my pocket. He was going to blow my
genitals off. And then after an hour, he told us to face the wall, and we were
sure he was going to shoot us.

GROSS: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Let's back up. What happened? Why were you taken
hostage?

Mr. HURT: We were...

GROSS: Is this while you were making "Kiss of the Spider Woman"?

Mr. HURT: Yes, and then we had 36 hours off from filming, and me and my date at
the time get into a car and we drove south to a village where her parents had a
small villa in a very modest town with dirt streets.

And as we drove into the driveway at midnight, a car pulled up behind us and
blocked our exit. The engine of that car was turned off. There were four people
in it, two men and two woman. One of the men had a ski mask on, a black ski
mask. The other man just hid his face, and the one man leaned out the window
and he said to us - we were standing outside our car just – we had just
arrived. They must have been following us.

And he said something in Portuguese, and I asked my date: What did he say? And
she turned white, and she said he wants directions. So she knew right away. And
after that the doors of the car opened, and they both got out with guns, and
that's when it began.

GROSS: How'd you get out of it?

Mr. HURT: Well, what do they say in Sanskrit? They say life is about creation,
sustenance, dissolution, control and the bestowal of grace, right? Probably the
bestowal of grace.

We were in the house for an hour, and one man, the guy in the ski mask, his
duty was to hold the gun on us in the corner and shift us around the house
while the other guy carried everything out of the house and put it into our
car.

There were a couple of times when I thought the guy was ready to pull the
trigger, and you could see the bullets. It wasn't fake. And he and I were just
looking at each other for about an hour, meeting his eyes through the mask.

Anyway, he told us to face the wall and he was going to shoot us, and so I said
no, I can't do that. And my feeling was if I'm going to die now, I want to be
looking into another human being's eyes, even if it's yours.

GROSS: Did you say that to him?

Mr. HURT: I did eventually, yeah. And he drove me to the ground. He put the gun
in my forehead and he leaned on it with all his might, and he was screaming at
me, and we both went to floor, his face a few inches from mine.

He's screaming at me in Portuguese. My date was collapsing in the corner, and I
just was looking at him very, very steadily, and I just kept saying I don't
want it in the back of the head. And he backed away slowly, and he said: Don't
call the police for 15 minutes or I will find a way to come back and kill you.
And he left.

So I called the police pretty much right away, and eventually they showed up,
and they were almost worse than he was. I mean, really, there's a lot of
violence in the world. So I've seen not just that, but I've seen it in other
places as well.

My father worked for – was the head of AID in Lahore, Khartoum, Mogadishu. I
lived in all those places with him when I was young. I grew up in the South
Pacific. Basically, my brothers were Guamanian. I spoke words of Guamanian long
before I spoke words of English, and so I've seen a lot. You know, I've
traveled in places where people don't have the benefits of American life. And
so I've seen a lot of stuff. So the prison was not new to me.

GROSS: Right. After hearing that story, we should hear what you were doing
professionally as it was happening with you and listen to a clip from "Kiss of
the Spider Woman," because, I mean, in that movie you're in prison. We've been
talking about prison, you were nearly killed while making this movie...

Mr. HURT: Well, we weren't allowed to tell anybody about it at the time because
we would've had to stop making the movie, because there would have been so much
press...

GROSS: Why, because...

Mr. HURT: That's right. No, press attention, and then people accusing the
production of being irresponsible and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,
blah, blah, you know.

GROSS: And then also, the people who kidnapped you would've known where to find
you because they'd know...

Mr. HURT: No, they had a gun battle with the police the next morning, and the
women were captured by the police, were being beaten to death. When we went to
the police station, we had to beg them on our knees to stop, and the men were
being chased by and corralled in the jungle, where they had fled, and the
police were running around, showing everybody proudly, you know, shells from
the exchange of gunfire.

So no, they weren't going to find us, and that wasn't the point. The point was
that I didn't want to embarrass the lady. I didn't want the – you know, we were
asked not to bring false attention to the production, or we would've had to
pull the plug on it. You couldn't say anything because you would attract all
this attention that would distract from the making of a film that we were doing
on spec anyway. The real problem was the press.

GROSS: My guest is William Hurt. He's now starring in the new movie "The Yellow
Handkerchief." We'll talk about making "Kiss of the Spider Woman" after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is actor William Hurt. He stars in the new film "The Yellow
Handkerchief." When we left off, he was telling the story of how he was taken
hostage and held at gunpoint while making "Kiss of the Spider Woman" in Brazil.
He not only survived and finished the film, he won an Oscar for his
performance.

The two stars of the film are you and Raul Julia, and you are both in a prison
cell together. You're there – you play a drag queen who's had sex with an
underage boy. That's why you're in prison. He's there. He's a political
prisoner. He is in the resistance.

Mr. HURT: I didn't – not an underage boy.

GROSS: No? Who was it?

Mr. HURT: They said it was, but it was just for being homosexual.

GROSS: Just for being gay, right.

Mr. HURT: Just for being gay.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. HURT: And for being flagrant about it.

GROSS: Yes, because you're kind of a drag queen in it.

Mr. HURT: Yeah.

GROSS: And you have this real, like, romantic view of the world. You have a
very romantic sensibility, and even though you're in prison, you're wearing
this, like, flowered robe, and you've put a towel on your head as a turban, and
because Raul Julia is in such pain – he's been tortured, he's bleeding – you're
trying to divert him and entertain him by telling the story of a film that you
saw that you think is a really, like, thrilling and romantic film, and you're
kind of doing it as if you're narrating the film. You're telling him the whole
story of the film, and he kind of figures out that it's a film, it's a Nazi
propaganda film, but you don't realize that.

Mr. HURT: But I didn't get that, but I interpret it as romantic sentimentalism.

GROSS: Yeah, so in this scene from the beginning of the film, you're narrating
the movie, and Raul Julia keeps interrupting you with kind of cynical comments.
He is not a romantic like you are, and you're defending the film before
continuing the story of the film. Here's the scene.

(Soundbite of film, "Kiss of the Spider Woman")

Mr. HURT: (As Luis Molina) I know it's nothing terribly intellectual, like you
must be used to. It's just a romance, but it's so beautiful.

Now, suddenly, this military convoy rushes forward.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Mr. HURT: (As Molina) Marvelous German soldiers, those (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HURT: (As Molina) Nearby is this small truck. These two French thugs from
the Resistance were spying on the Germans, this hulking clubfoot and his half-
deaf flunky.

Mr. RAUL JULIA (Actor): (As Valentin Arregui): Wait a minute. Those weird guys
the Germans arrested.

Mr. HURT: (As Molina) Yes.

Mr. JULIA: (As Arregui) What do you mean they didn't look French?

Mr. HURT: (As Molina) They didn't look French. They looked Turkish. I'm not
sure, but they had these, like, these caps on their heads, like these – like
Turkish, fezzes.

Mr. JULIA: (As Arregui) Those caps are yarmulkes. Can't you see this is a
(bleep) anti-Semitic film?

Mr. HURT: (As Molina) Oh, come on.

Mr. JULIA: (As Arregui) Wait. This must have been a German movie, right?

Mr. HURT: (As Molina) I don't know. It was from years ago. Look, I don't
explain my movies. It just ruins the emotion.

Mr. JULIA: (As Arregui) This must have been a Nazi propaganda film done during
the war.

Mr. HURT: (As Molina) I don't know. That's just the background. This is where
the important part begins, the part about the lovers. It's divine.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: That's my guest, William Hurt, with Raul Julia in a scene from the film
"Kiss of the Spider Woman." It's such a good film. Your character in that is
someone who sees life as theater. You know, life is – you know, he wants his
life to be theater.

Mr. HURT: But he ends up sacrificing himself for his...

GROSS: That's right. Yeah, he ends up becoming quite political in the end.

Mr. HURT: Well, he ends up sacrificing himself for the person he loves.

GROSS: Uh-huh, uh-huh. Now, in playing the drag queen in "Kiss of the Spider
Woman," what did you want to capture about the character's way of moving and
speaking?

Mr. HURT: Capture isn't my word for anything. It's more like release, you know.
When people capture things, they put them in cages. I don't put the truth in a
cage. I try to find a way to release it. But I do use a form, which is a prison
itself.

It was that there is something in that man, that human being. So I didn't play
him, by the way, as gay. I played him as a woman, and it was a big point for me
during the rehearsal we had, and by the way, rehearsal was key and is always
key, and almost all the really good work I've ever done had a lot of rehearsal
because it became a collaborative, a true collaboration, rather than a false
one, just showing up and jumping out of the box, which is what we're usually
paid to do.

It was that there was something in that being's heart that was searching for
the truth that really went beyond politics, if you want to call it that. So
this guy, this human being, goes beyond that and proves himself more of a man
in many ways, ironically, than many men.

GROSS: When you say you played the character as a woman, not as a gay man...

Mr. HURT: The key for me as an artist, as I was researching the character, I
had a wonderful teacher there, a dance teacher, who was helping me try to
figure out how to move, because every character had different movement and
physical life.

And I would, you know, I spent time - for instance, in the same way I spent
time in Angola, asking prisoners, you know, about their lives, I spent a lot of
time in gay bars and trying to, you know, soak that up too. I'm not gay myself,
but many of my friends are.

And I wasn't getting it. There was something that wasn't working, and I was
walking in the street one day, and I was looking at a woman who was walking
ahead of us. We were walking down the street in the same direction, and I said,
you know, I don't think Molina's gay. I think he's a woman. I think he really
is a woman, he's just caught in a man's body, like, you know, sometimes I'm an
actor caught in a movie star's body.

GROSS: William Hurt will be back in the second half of the show. He stars in
the new movie "The Yellow Handkerchief." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with actor William Hurt. He stars in
the new movie "The Yellow Handkerchief." His movies include: "Body Heat," "The
Big Chill," "Children of a Lesser God," "Broadcast News," and "A History of
Violence." Last year, he was a guest star on the FX series "Damages."

When we left off, we were talking about his Oscar-winning performance in "Kiss
of the Spider Woman." Hurt played a drag queen in Brazil whose in prison
because he's gay. He shares a cell with a political prisoner played by Raul
Julia.

You had mentioned years ago, in an interview, that when you were rehearsing
with Raul Julia, you switched roles with him so that he played...

Mr. HURT: It's a very rare technique to use between actors because actors
should never comment on each other. I recently had an actor step back from me
in a scene that we'd just shot and he said, you did good in that. And I'm
going, my thought, I didn’t tell him at the time, but my thought is, how dare
you comment on me while you’re working with me? You know, how can you be...

GROSS: What's wrong with that?

Mr. HURT: How can you be in the scene and looking at it the same time?

GROSS: Oh, I see.

Mr. HURT: You can't be judging something as you do it. You have to have judged
it before; maybe you can judge it after, but not during. During it you’re just
committed. You’re doing something. You’re not thinking.

GROSS: So getting back to when you switched roles with Raul Julia as you were
making "Kiss of the Spider Woman," and you became the...

Mr. HURT: You are insistent.

GROSS: Well, I just want to know what you got from it. You became the political
prisoner and he became...

Mr. HURT: It's something you rarely do. You never do it, because you don’t want
another actor commenting on - but Raul and I had a great friendship and we
respected each other very much as artists. So I suggested it to him one day
because we were feeling rushed about rehearsal and we weren't to places I
thought we could get to and he took it on. And we went - we used to sneak to
the Quonset hut where we were making "Spider Woman" on Sundays, unbeknownst to
the producer; we weren't allowed to go there because it was a dangerous city.
And we would work under a naked light bulb on the platform, and we reversed
roles. I played Valentin and he played Molina and we made all these incredible
discoveries very, very quickly, but only because we trusted each other
immensely as people and as artists were we able to use those discoveries
otherwise, we would've seen them as invasion and commentary.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Did you change anything about your performance after that
exercise?

Mr. HURT: I enhanced it. He was so much better than I was in my view, at what
we were doing that I went - we went running back and I said - I knocked, I
hammered on the director's door and I said, we have to change roles. We have to
change roles. And the director panicked and said no, no, no, no. We have to
have a talk and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HURT: So we weren't posing and we were talked out of it, but it did - we
were inspired by each other's discoveries and it basically gave us each immense
amounts of permission to go further into the choices we'd already made, but
just freed up.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is William Hurt and he's starring in
the new movie "The Yellow Handkerchief."

Now earlier you mentioned that you’re very interested in people who've gone off
the track, so I thought I'd play an example of one of your roles - the
character has gone off the track and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...this is another great film. It's called "A History of Violence."

Mr. HURT: Oh.

GROSS: And you’re - it's a movie that's directed by David Cronenberg. You’re
only in one scene in this, but you are so good that, you know, when you leave
the movie you’re thinking...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...you're thinking about this scene. So the main character in the movie
- you’re the brother of the main character in the movie. The main character in
the movie is played by Viggo Mortensen. He used to be a gangster but he wanted
out of that life so he's moved to a small town, he's changed his name, he's
renounced violence. He now owns a diner that he runs with his wife, he has, I
think, two children. And then, just to - I won't complicate things, but he gets
dragged into violence after the diner is robbed. And then his past starts
coming up to haunt him. And he knows that you, his brother, who's still in
crime, is, in part, to blame for this. So he goes to pay you a call at your
fancy home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And first you have him frisked, even though he's not carrying and then
you pour yourself a drink, you give him a big kiss and a big hug, and he's just
like wincing because he doesn’t even want to be in your presence; he just wants
out. And then you explain why you can't let him off the hook.

Here's the scene.

(Soundbite of movie, "A History of Violence")

Mr. HURT: (as Richie Cusack) You know you cost me a lot of time and money.
Before you pulled that (bleep) with Fogarty, I was a shoe-in, to take over when
the boss croaked - a shoe-in. It was made very clear to me Joey, I had to clean
up your mess, or nothing was ever going happen for me. You got no idea how much
(bleep) I had to pull to get back in with those guys. You cost me, a hell of a
lot Joey, a hell of a lot.

Mr. VIGGO MORTENSEN (Actor): (as Tom Stall) Looks like you're doing all right
over here.

Mr. HURT: (as Richie Cusack) Yeah, I am. I am. I'm still behind the eight-ball.
Because of you, there's a certain lack of respect; a certain lack of trust. And
boys in Boston are just waiting for me to go down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HURT: (as Richie Cusack) You always were a problem for me, Joey. When Mom
brought you home from the hospital, I tried to strangle you in your crib. I
guess all kids try to do that. She caught me, whacked the daylights out of me.

Mr. MORTENSEN: (as Tom Stall) I've heard that story.

Mr. HURT: (as Richie Cusack) Well, what do you think? Better late than never?

Mr. MORTENSEN: (as Tom Stall) Richie, I'm here to make peace. Tell me what I
have to do to make things right.

Mr. HURT: (as Richie Cusack) You could do something, I guess. You could die,
Joey.

(Soundbite of fighting)

GROSS: And that's the sounds of one of your henchmen trying to kill Viggo
Mortensen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It's such a good scene. And this character, you play him and he sounds
like an overgrown child.

Mr. HURT: Right.

GROSS: He sounds like a child who has a lot of...

Mr. HURT: That's exactly right. He never got out.

GROSS: ...like a lot of power and a lot of guns and stuff.

Mr. HURT: He's right back there in the room where his mother's whacking him
down for doing exactly what she told him to do, which is win. Be her little
man. Be the guy. Be the macho boy. Beat all comers, including your brother. And
when he does it, she whacks him down so he gets polarized. He lives in a trauma
for the rest of his life.

GROSS: So the way you’re playing him he's kind of like wielding his power but
it's coming off almost like whining.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HURT: Right. Absolutely. He's a kid. He's the way a lot of violent people
are, basically big kids, but they're very dangerous, aren't they?

GROSS: Oh yeah.

Mr. HURT: They're children and they're crying out. They're just crying out with
violence because they feel unattended. They feel no one was listening.

GROSS: So tell us more about like just the way you played the role - like, what
you did to prepare for it.

Mr. HURT: Well, that was, you know, David was so kind with...

GROSS: David Cronenberg, the director.

Mr. HURT: Yes. Yes. I went - I arrived 10 days early. I filmed only for a
couple days. I'm of the belief that there are no small roles, only small
actors. You know that old phrase?

GROSS: Yeah. Well, I was going to ask you this is such a - this is literally...

Mr. HURT: Yeah, but then that's...

GROSS: ...in terms of time, it's a small role, in terms of its impact it's
(unintelligible).

Mr. HURT: But that framework doesn’t work for me.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. HURT: You know, who cares?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HURT: You know, if your life, if some people you know, I've met eight-year
olds that have more wisdom than 80-year olds. So my mom died young and she had
a great life. So, you know, you can't measure things in terms of time - or at
least the quality. So so-called main characters, what's that? We're all main
characters. We're all main characters in our life.

GROSS: Okay, so getting back to playing the role and preparing for it.

Mr. HURT: Yeah. I arrived 10 days early and I asked him if he'd pay for a hotel
room and get me a dialect coach. And he did. And then the key was Viggo's
generosity, because even though he was at the end of a very long shoot and
therefore, just whacko tired, he must've been exhausted, he would give me
evenings. We would have dinner almost every night and we would talk about the
basics of the character, where they were from, given circumstances. He and
Maria had developed this incredible array of wonderful given circumstances for
their characters and they - and he shared that with me. In fact, though I only
met Maria just one time on that film...

GROSS: You mean Maria Bello? Yeah.

Mr. HURT: Yeah. She was the one who actually filled us all in because she came
from Philadelphia; she knew all about it, and she and Viggo had done all this
research together. So Viggo passed that on to me and I just based the character
on their given circumstances so I can make them all come from the same world.
That's what I was doing. And from there came the character. That to me - that
was not somebody waltzing in, dropped in by helicopter jumping out of a box and
doing a great cameo. That was an actor working with another actor, and out of
the conversation between those actors comes, you know, emanates the character.
You don’t just show up and do a performance. It's a reflection of a process.
And if that process of the 10 days beforehand hadn't been there, I would've
done a terrible job in that film.

GROSS: And what did you want the dialect coach for?

Mr. HURT: The sound. His speech. Talking like this, you know, Ritchie is
talking in there like that. You know, I also thought it as a farce - and a
grandiose farce - and very, very funny. So I saw him as trapped between these
images of himself as, you know, half Italian mafia, half Irish mafia...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HURT: ...and half John Wayne. So I thought he was so funny and that's what
I basically did with him, was create these bigger than thou, bigger than
himself images, so that he could bluster his way through life and pretend that
he was strong enough to stand up to his mom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right.

Mr. HURT: Because she was the one that trounced him for doing exactly what he -
what she and his dad told him to do, which is be number one and pounce on
everybody else.

GROSS: So we’ve been talking about your approach to acting. Has it changed over
the years? Do you approach roles differently now than you used to when you,
like say, in the "Body Heat" era?

Mr. HURT: To me, I mean, there's a standard and the standard was something I
arrived an understanding about after I had been looking for it for 15 years of
study. The standard is six weeks of rehearsal, 42 days, to hatch a character
the way, you know, nine months to hatch a kid. I don’t know why it’s true. I
don’t know why we need nine months, but it is true for me and anything less
results in a premature character. That means, of course, that I'm guilty of
launching a lot of premature characters out there the way we live in a post-
adolescent society. But I always have that image of what a proper rehearsal
would be where we would go in everyday, eight hours a day, five days a week and
prove that we were friendly to each other, not competing with each other. Where
we would check our ego, guns, at that the door, go in, inspire each other,
communicate with each other, research with each other and bring about the best
possible life that can be breathed into that play.

Stanislavski said, when he was asked a question by a young actor, once, what is
it that I do? I don’t create anything. I don’t write the words. I don’t write
the themes. I don’t write the (unintelligible). Am I an artist? Do I create? He
says, of course, you create. You breathe the ethic into the play. And he said,
that's essential. A lot of people don’t understand the ethic of assemble at
all. They offer awards for assemble when I can guarantee you that the only
thing that those people had in common was that they maybe all met the director
but they never worked together. They never sat in rooms, you know, before
shooting, before judgment, before the, you know, the array of critiques and
opinions and... They never got past auditioning for the next job. They never
had the job, you know, what I'm saying?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. HURT: They never felt secure. And I believe in being secure. And I believe
in proving my trustworthiness to another actor - that I'm not just there to gun
him down. I'm not there to beat him. I'm not there to win. When people turned
the role in "A History of Violence" into the shortest Academy Award nomination
in history, I was chagrined by that. That's not what we did. It was a role.
It's a guy. All the roles could be that great. Everybody can be that great.
Everybody can be that vivid. You know, if you do the work right, everybody's
vivid. Every life is vivid. That's what we're trying to say, right?

GROSS: My guest is William Hurt. He stars in the new movie "The Yellow
Handkerchief."

We’ll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is William Hurt and he's starring in
the new movie "The Yellow Handkerchief."

You were telling me before the interview started, that although, you know,
you’re in LA right now to do this interview, you actually live in Oregon in an
unpopulated area.

Mr. HURT: I live in the county where my mother was born and buried.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. HURT: Yeah.

GROSS: Is that why you live there?

Mr. HURT: That's basically it. I took my two middle boys there after we had
troubles, you know, relating to their mom, who was sick. And after I got them
back into my permanent custody, I was looking for a place to put a foundation
under their feet and I sent a little prayer by a balloon and I said: Mom, what
the heck do I do to save our lives and she said bring them home. So I put them
in a VW bus and I took them to, you know, the place where she was born and
buried in Eastern Oregon and I put them in a one-room schoolhouse.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. HURT: Where there was a lady who knew the difference between a math grade
and a human being and we're doing great.

GROSS: Do you visit your mother's grave often? I mean does...

Mr. HURT: Yeah.

GROSS: Does the substance of a grave like, the physicality of a grave have
meaning for you?

Mr. HURT: It means a lot to me.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. HURT: On my mother's grave it says: Don’t coddle me into the grave. I'm
going to march into it. I'm a man after all. It also says: The truth shall make
you free, and it has the picture of a butterfly on a very flat stone in the
lost cemetery that you can't see till you’re 15 feet away from it in the Sage
prairies of the Great Basin of America. Not far from a piece of, you know, dirt
where her grandfather had a reputation for poverty and for hospitality. So
anybody who showed up at his door ate. That's within the sight of her
gravestone. But you can't find it if you don’t know where it is.

And she's next to her mom, who was troubled. And her grandfather, on his
gravestone it says: He played a poor hand well. And his parents, who had come
out to that remote section of the world - that very dry high desert, to help
their son, my great-grandfather care for his two baby girls, who were all he
had left after he had come down by ox-drawn cart in the winter in 1902 from
British Columbia to be, of all things, a wheat farmer in the most impossible
earth imaginable. So that means a great deal to me. My father's buried in
Kentucky and that means a lot to me too.

My first cousin, by the way, on my father's mother side was John Marshall
Harlan, who was a Supreme Court justice, as was his grandson. And I think a lot
of my fight and my work to struggle for fairness and the techniques of theater
and in subject matter probably stems in some way from some sense I have of his
issues in life. He was the one and only Supreme Court justice to stand up to
all eight other justices in Plessy vs. Ferguson, and his words became the
prototype for the rescinding of Plessy in Brown vs. The Board of Education in
'54. So there is a natural connection to civil issues and I think that has a
lot to do with why I do what I do.

GROSS: Can I just say one more thing?

Mr. HURT: Also my - yeah.

GROSS: It sounds like your mother came from a background of small town and
poverty. Your father came from a family with a Supreme Court justice in it. It
sounds like two very different places they came from.

Mr. HURT: They were very different. They met in China. I was conceived in
China. I was conceived in Shanghai, China, in '49. My father...

GROSS: Your father was in the State Department or something?

Mr. HURT: He became a member of the State - the State Department didn’t exist
at that time.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. HURT: The Department of the Interior did and State evolved out of that. My
mom, during the war had gotten pregnant with her husband, an American solider,
in New York City having come, you know, to New York from what some people would
call a cultural backwater - I don’t call it that - and he went off to the war
before she came to term. He was so badly battle-damaged that he came back with
mental damage and couldn’t function and his parents said we'll take him if
you'll take yours. And so she had a pair of high heels and a kid in New York
during the war.

She was such a brilliant woman that she managed to work herself up from below
the bottom wrung of the Time Inc. ladder to become an assistant and an
essential member of a team. She was asked by Charlie Stillman, who was one of
the appointees of Henry R. Luce to go to Shanghai to help Chiang Kai-shek
consolidate the retreat to Formosa and establish Nationalist China. So she
went. She put my brother in the school in the Philippines, went to Shanghai,
met my dad there, who was liaising between the Communists and the Nationalists
for the Department of the Interior. And then when State and AID were being
established in the early 50's, he became a prominent chief of AID eventually.

But he was head of the trust territories, which is why I lived in Guam during
the early 50s. And then as AID developed in the mid-50s, he became head of that
in Asia and Africa. So there was my dad on the one hand, but my parents
divorced in '60, which is why I then went to live in sort of Spanish Harlem,
Yorkville in New York with my mom for a years, but I spent a year and a half in
Lahore during that time during the coup d'etat '58 - '59.

So I've seen a lot of stuff. And then my mom remarried, in '60, the son of the
founder of Time Inc. - the son of Henry R. Luce, Henry Luce III, who became my
stepfather. I moved from three and a half rooms on the Upper East Side to a 22-
room duplex on Madison Avenue in the Carlyle and sitting on Louis XV with a
view of Vuillard, Vlaminck, Corot on the walls and Ming and Tang to talk about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HURT: And so, it’s been quite a journey and from all that I have had three
amazing parents: my father, my stepfather and my mother. And they bestowed on
me amazing privileges of education and experience that from which I refer for
my work. And that's one of the reasons why people sometimes say that I'm
variegated in my work choices.

GROSS: Well, William Hurt, thank you so much for talking with us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HURT: You’re welcome. All right.

GROSS: It's been great to talk with you. Thank you again.

Mr. HURT: Same here. Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Okay.

William Hurt stars in the new movie "The Yellow Handkerchief."

Coming up: our critic-at-large, John Powers, reviews an Israeli crime drama
which is nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It was made by an
Israeli Arab and an Israeli Jew.

This is FRESH AIR.

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From Israel, A Humane And Honest Look At Life

TERRY GROSS, host:

One of the most acclaimed international films of the last year is the Israeli
film "Ajami," a time-warping crime drama set in Jaffa that is one of five Oscar
nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. Made by an unusual pair of writer-
directors - one is an Israeli Arab, the other an Israeli Jew - "Ajami" has
begun playing theaters around the United States.

Our critic-at-large John Powers says that the movie offers a vision of Israeli
life we don’t often see in America.

JOHN POWERS: Every American journalist knows that one topic that always gets
you in trouble is Israel — even if you're just reviewing movies. Over the
years, I've gotten letters calling me pro-terrorist and anti-Semitic, a dupe of
the Israel lobby and a Zionist racist, not to mention a coward who believes in
moral equivalence. For a great many Americans, there's only one true position
on Israel, only one righteous side.

In Israel itself, people know better. A wonderful example of this is the
gripping new film "Ajami," which was written and directed by Scandar Copti — an
Arab Israeli — and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew. The movie takes its name from
its setting, the Ajami neighborhood in the port city of Jaffa, which is
something of a bumper-car rink filled with daily collisions between Israeli
Jews, Israeli Arabs — both Muslim and Christian — and the Palestinians who've
entered the country illegally.

"Ajami" begins with Bedouin gangsters gunning down a teenager on the street —
by mistake. You see, the killers thought they were shooting a young man named
Omar. Omar himself had done nothing wrong, but his uncle had shot a Bedouin
extortionist, and in this neighborhood everything is ultimately and inescapably
familial and tribal. Guilt by association is one of life's givens.

As this beginning suggests, "Ajami" is a tale suffused with grit, the endlessly
ramifying mess of urban life. Yet Copti and Shani steer clear of the plodding
linearity that can make realism so deadly. In fact, the plot is something of a
brainteaser. Told in five chapters, this tale of crime and revenge shuffles
past and present a bit like "Pulp Fiction," although it creates a far denser
world than Quentin Tarantino's. There are scads of characters, including the
Muslim Omar, his Arab Christian girlfriend, Hadir, his friend Binj, a charming
Arab doper with a Jewish girlfriend, a sweet-faced Palestinian illegal, Malik,
and an explosive Jewish cop, Dando, whose brother has gone missing from the
Israeli army.

The neighborhood is so packed with interesting characters and situations that
it reminded me of the HBO series "The Wire." I kept thinking that "Ajami" would
be even better, and less schematic, if it could run for 10 or 12 hours and give
its characters a bit more room to breathe. As it is, Copti and Shani do a nice
job of capturing the texture of life, be it Omar and Hadir's secretive
flirting, Binj cracking up his pals with a goofy dance, or the terrific scene
when a local Arab judge negotiates how much Omar must pay the Bedouins so they
won't kill him and his family in reprisal for something that everyone agrees
wasn't remotely their fault.

Of course, to get this money, Omar is driven into crime that will breed further
violence. And so it goes: Kids and crooks, cops and restaurateurs — everyone's
held hostage by what's happened before, which is essentially how Israeli and
Palestinian politics play out to this day. Every action, however bad, is
justified as a response to something bad that happened earlier, all the way
back to an original sin that happened decades or even millennia ago. I think
that's one reason why Copti and Shani have chosen to tell their story out of
chronological order. By muddying the lines of causality — so-and-so did this
because somebody else did that first — the movie avoids the logic of blame in
order to reveal the horror of entrapment.

In the process, "Ajami" offers a portrait of Israeli life that's both harder-
edged and bleaker than American accounts of Israel — or, to be frank, American
accounts of America. With a compassionate sense of human frailty, it depicts a
society in which even the most decent people are imprisoned in social
identities they didn't freely choose and find themselves inexorably pushed
toward a thuggishness that isn't natural to them.

It's a dark, unsparing vision, yet what makes watching bearable, even
pleasurable, is Copti and Shani's humane intelligence. They step outside the
infinite regress of attack and reprisal to show us the tragic reality of
characters, none perfect but none monstrous, who live knee-deep in the swamp of
history. And in this swamp, "Ajami" makes clear, everybody has his reasons and
nobody can be completely clean. It's a thought worth remembering, especially
for those who specialize in writing angry letters.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and writes the "Absolute Powers"
blog for vogue.com.

You can watch clips from "Ajami" on our Web site at freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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