John Hurt is a living contradiction. When he meets me in the lobby café of Manhattan’s Tribeca Grand Hotel, the English acting legend is at once gruff and timid. His gray hair is half-slicked, half-tousled, while his mustache is wildly overgrown, and it all seems too haphazard to suggest the look is for a role. He appears prepared to down a pint, but instead he’s sipping a glass of red wine, and when he speaks, he’s as mild-mannered as one can be while remaining thoroughly self-assured. When I told a few friends I’d be interviewing him about his role as a patriarchal, post-apocalyptic survivor in Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, a common crack was that I’d be chatting up the guy who played host to the Alien saga’s first chest-burster, in a part that, evidently, is gently mocked for its lack of dialogue. If not a touch disappointing, I found this line of thought terribly ironic: Hurt is best known for a shocking moment requiring little to no vocals, while possessing one of the greatest voices in the history of the medium. That voice is a wonderful contradiction too: rough and smooth at once, like sandpaper worn beyond use. It was also the only interview starting point I could possibly imagine.
Yours is one of my favorite voices in film, and if I had to pick someone to narrate my life, I think you’d be a great choice. Who is someone whose voice you love who you would, perhaps, want to narrate your life? And Morgan Freeman doesn’t count.
[laughs] He’s got a great voice. I have always been aware of voice in film. I think that it’s almost 50 percent of your equipment [as an actor]. It’s as important as what you look like, certainly on stage and possibly on film as well. If you think of any of the great American stars, you think of their voices and their looks. Any of them—from Clark Gabel to Rock Hudson. However, the first person that I became most aware of, and who probably influenced me the most in terms of film acting, was Alec Guinness. His voice was just wonderful. Hmm, what about women? That one’s hard for me. What about Katherine Hepburn? Her equipment was vocal. No question.
Did your love of Guinness have anything to do with you taking a role in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy?
No, no, no. All of that came entirely from Tomas [Alfredson]. Fabulous director. Quite a tough film too. You can’t afford to go to sleep. It was brilliantly put together and one of the best-edited films I’ve ever seen.
One of my favorite roles of yours is Quentin Crisp, whom you’ve portrayed twice, and who, incidentally, starred in Orlando with your Snowpiercer co-star Tilda Swinton. Any chance you and Tilda might have swapped Quentin stories?
You know, I think we probably did, but I can’t remember. God, there were so many stories. I talked quite a lot with Tilda. We both decided we didn’t want to work with another director other than Bong.
Why is that?
Well, he only shoots what he wants to see on screen. He doesn’t waste his time. He knows what he wants to see, and he shoots that.
A lot of storyboarding?
Yes, he storyboards. But it’s extraordinary. I mean it’s really, really difficult to do. It’s Hitchcock. Only, I’m sure even Hitchcock shot more than him. The average number of takes would probably be between one and five.
So it’s not a David Fincher production.
[laughs] No. The fascinating thing is that he would stop you in the middle of a line and he would be like, “I don’t need it anymore.” And that’s just…well, that’s fine!
Just to quickly step back to Quentin Crisp, would you ever consider playing him again if given the option?
Do Quentin again? No, I don’t think so. I mean, we’ve done that. The Naked Civil Servant was one of the best scripts I’ve ever had in my life, and it was Jack Gold at his absolute best. Wonderful director. And it was at the right period of time—when it was dangerous. It wouldn’t be the right period of time now. And it took me some time to decide to do [the sequel] An Englishman in New York. But then I thought it was such a different treatment of him—such a more private treatment of him. And it also had to do with old age, quite a lot.
You had mentioned “dangerous.” It seems as though you’ve never been averse to that. One of your earliest roles was playing a woman in a school production of Maurice Maeterlick’s The Bluebird, which at the time seemed dangerous or risky to some, I’m sure.
Oh! It was odd, yes. [laughs] Yes, I’ve never really balked at doing things that are a bit unusual.
Since Snowpiercer is filmed in tight quarters, in a single vessel, I’m imagining you might have had some Alien flashbacks. I was wondering if that was something you and Bong discussed.
No, I don’t think we discussed Alien. I might have said it to him at one stage, but then, I’ve certainty talked to him about almost anything I’ve done because he’s so intrigued in everything you do. But not with any specific indications, intent, or anything. He has his own ways. The set was fantastic. The whole length of the studio. Two lots, one train, with all those carriages. Extraordinary.
I hope some of that is going to be on the DVD.
Oh, I’m sure it will be.
Lately, I feel like we see you in a lot of roles pertaining to authority, science fiction, or a mix of the two, such as in V for Vendetta. Do you feel that sci-fi films tend to follow you or do you seek them out?
I don’t seek them out, no. I never sought anything out, really.
That’s a nice thing to be able to say.
Yeah, I never have. I never planned anything in my life professionally. It’s what came up; it’s what came through the mail.