This, William Hurt figured, was a sure bet. A seasoned fly fisherman, he had taken his four-year-old son, Alex, to his rural New York retreat for some ordinary angling with bait and a pole in a lake filled with perch and bluegill. “I talked it up like this big event,” he says a few days later, “and I just couldn’t latch on to anything. I mean, I can catch a trout from 70 feet away, but I couldn’t get a bluegill with a worm. I’d forgotten how to do it.”
The pained grin that accompanies this admission will appear several times in our talk at a Broadway restaurant, punctuation for the insights of a man who clearly feels he’s out of the dark woods of his middle 30s. Upon arrival (clothed preppy, as expected) he’d been offered the chair facing out. “No,” he’d said, “I’ll concentrate on you.”
Well. Hurt has conducted some of the most notorious interviews in magazine history, sometimes fueled by prodigious drinking. Squaring off for imaginary sex with a female interviewer from Playboy (“I had you, and from every angle”), roaring at another “Don’t treat me like God,” he had a brief response for the reporter who turned up late for an interview with the men of The Big Chill’s cast and complimented him on his acting: “Fuck you.”
But accounts of his successful stay at the Betty Ford Center, which he reportedly attended with Marlee Matlin there for moral support, offer assurance that he is indeed sober.
“I think it’s made a big difference,” says longtime friend Glenn Close. “He’s in great shape; it’s wonderful just to be around him. He’s more accessible, more forgiving of himself. When you hate yourself, it’s pretty hard to deal with other people.” Without looking askance at the glass of beer his interviewer is drinking for his own good reasons, Hurt orders Perrier, and we talk about the time off he’s been enjoying with Alex, the product of his relationship with dancer Sandra Jennings. If he’s forgotten how to take a bluegill, he’s far from forgetting his emotional history—but, he will point out, he’s finally come to terms with it. “The job is to act, not act out,” he says.
And if he’s cranked his real-life intensity down a few notches, it hasn’t affected the intensity of his approach to film. He has two in the hopper: Broadcast News, a serious comedy from Terms of Endearment director James L. Brooks, due at Thanksgiving, and Destiny, from El Norte director Gregory Nava, due early next year. The films share a key element, which he explains in one of those Hurtian sentences that’s built like a railroad apartment, with the bathtub in the kitchen and closet doors that look like exits: “I think in both films what’s interesting is that it really is up to an individual seeing the work to decide for himself something the characters refuse to decide for themselves.”
“I work with people who don’t play by the rules sometimes, and it’s awful because they’re really spitting on you. If I give you something, you gotta catch the ball and throw it back. Otherwise I’m falling on my face.”
Brooks shot some 400,000 feet of film, spurred by what he calls the “irresistible” élan of his three stars: Hurt, Albert Brooks, and Holly Hunter. The classically trained Hurt talks with near-reverence of the TV-bred Brooks’s “commitment, energy, and dedication,” and the director is blunt about Hurt’s importance to the project, which Brooks had nurtured a long time but nearly despaired of undertaking: “The moment Bill said he’d do the part was the moment I said I’d do the movie. The great thing about his being a ‘movie star’ is that he will cause to be made pictures that wouldn’t otherwise be made.”
One such picture, perhaps, is Nava’s Destiny, a sprawling drama set in the World War II era. Hurt plays the black-sheep son of a Basque immigrant settled near San Diego. The family’s favorite daughter falls in love with a serviceman, played by Timothy Hutton, and when they elope, the father is killed chasing them. Hurt’s character vows revenge, but when he goes off to war alongside Hutton, their enmity gets tangled up with battlefield brotherhood as the story moves toward resolution. Hurt is brooding over whether his characterization overshot the mark: “I had always thought the piece was, in effect, an opera, and I’m not sure, frankly, how well we did it … I risked borderline melodrama.” Hurt’s answer is more a clue to his self-deprecating nature than an assessment of the state of his craft. With quite a few trout on his line already, what he’s really done is perform two more bold stretches in a career that, since 1980, has been marked by complex, pioneering, even career-endangering choices.
Hurt has always brought a good deal of himself to his roles, and when he talks earnestly about “the major question of Broadcast News,” you have to wonder if perhaps it’s a major question in his life as well: “What is the nature, to put it simply, of romance in our time? What are our motives in wanting to be together? How do we pair up? Who do we mate with, and why do we do it? A lot of us don’t know the answer, a lot of us feel in flux, and the fears that really put me in a panic … ” He pauses, grinning down at the table. “Now I don’t panic so much. I’m a little older-that helps, but there’s a new kind of self-searching going on, a greater sophistication of our—at least my-—tendency to want simple solutions and possibly facile images of transcendence and victory.”
“I’ve got a hunch his creative life is an enormous part of his life,” says Brooks. “And everything else gets expressed by that, and feeds into that, in some way.”
“There are ways of approaching each scene so it has the repetitive themes that can be used by a director and editor.”
If he can chisel away at life’s riddles for long and often arcane stretches, Hurt is also a man who laughs readily, if blackly, and at himself first of all. And yet, says Brooks, “Here we were doing a comedy, and he’d go crazy if I talked in very bald terms about ‘funny.’ He was uncomfortable when we met, and I said to him, ‘I’ve seen your pictures, and I don’t know a laugh you’ve missed.’ ”
Given Brooks’s oversize screenplay, says Hurt, “It was apparent right off the bat that a lot of it was gonna get cut. Somewhere in there you have to structure a character—do you structure one who happens on the cutting room floor? But there are ways of approaching each scene so it has the repetitive themes that can be used by a director and editor. Jim is such a dedicated guy that you know it’s gonna be a bloody experience cutting it. He’s such a passionate person. I think to myself sometimes that I choose my work carefully. Well, he makes me look like a garbage compactor.”
If the film’s title sounds only marginally better than the “Jim Brooks project” it went by during 70 days of shooting in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, it may be part Brooks’s decision to keep the film’s themes hidden well below its surface. “It doesn’t fixate on one given excuse or platform for conflict,” says Hurt. “It ranges really well. Certainly, they are questions about the characters’ motives—are they pure are they ambitious?”
Hurt’s Tom Grunick is a Midwesterner, perhaps a couple years younger than the actor’s age of 37, who comes out of boonies to make a run for a network anchor job due to be vacated by a Cronkite-style figure (played in a cameo by no than Jack Nicholson, whose randy astronaut in Brooks’s Terms of Endearment won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar). What made Broadcast News an unusual choice for Hurt was an aspect it shares with Destiny: in each case, he surrendered territory to the director, so Nava would have an operatic-scale character, Brooks an intellectually inert one, to mold. Brooks, in fact, discouraged him from researching his part as thoroughly as Hunter (playing a gritty producer) and Albert Brooks (as a seasoned rival on the fast track) had. Before working with Hurt on Broadcast News, says Hunter, “I would have said it would be really tough for Bill not to play somebody who wasn’t first and foremost, intellectually inclined. Yet I think he’s achieved a real simplicity in Tom Grunick.” “I kind of went with flow,” Hurt says, “to fit something I think Jim wanted was trying to get—it was something I had never allowed myself to do as fully and deliberately before.”
“What do you need from a director?” Hurt was once asked in a letter from a college student, who specified an answer 250 to 750 words. “As I was putting it in the trash can,” recalls, “I said one word: sanction.
“That implies so much, because it implies understanding my craft, of my need to do something I’ve never done before as well as the permission to attempt, the defense against intention and distraction—sanction. To sanction my childish courage—childlike courage, really—innocence.”
What Hurt also came with was talent, and it shot him right from an acclaimed stint on the New York stage into a lead role in 1980’s Altered States. Hurt’s portrayal of obsessive scientist Eddie Jessup revealed his unignorable presence, in what Time called “a star performance of contorted intensity, mandarin charm, and sleek sensuality.” The picture’s troubled production history meant it emerged only weeks before his second film, Peter Yates’s Eyewitness. In place of the hissing, near-mad researcher of Altered States, audiences found a calm if dormantly sensual working man who happened to be infatuated with the newscaster played by Sigourney Weaver.
With Body Heat’s unveiling in late summer 1981, Hurt, costar Kathleen Turner, and writer-director Lawrence Kasdan all took a giant step into the big time. As Ned Racine, a lawyer with a pencil moustache and dubious scruples, Hurt fell spectacularly into a film noir stew with Turner’s Matty Walker. Using a hollow burr of a voice, increasingly haunted eyes, and plain old sweat, he drew a riveting portrait of a man going under. He doubtless felt it was incidental that his star wattage was being compared with Robert Redford’s.
In fact, Hurt’s next outing with Kasdan, as one of a seven-member ensemble cast in 1983’s The Big Chill, was almost an anti-stardom maneuver, though you could make a case that playing the physically wounded, withdrawn Nick was a sly way of becoming the still center of the film. “Larry had legislated ‘ensemble’ yet also left the rules quite professional, so it wasn’t this obfuscated, oblique notion of chemistry,” Hurt says. “Intimacy can come from respect and experience and craft rather than from hoping that Belinda Bodangle and Chris Danglelower ‘get it on.’”
If Hurt has in some quarters collected a reputation as a “difficult” actor, it’s probably because he doesn’t allow himself to be rushed, and his directors tend to become an audience for his spoken tracts on character development. His manner with Kasdan, says Big Chill costar Glenn Close, was “very frank. If they disagreed on something, they disagreed; they fought about it till they came to an agreement. It was a real collaboration, and I think their friendship was the bottom line.”
Not every director, of course, has the advantage of being pals with Hurt. During Michael Apted’s Gorky Park, Hurt was reportedly slugged by an English actor in a tiff during shooting, after which Lee Marvin is said to have remarked, “Good, man, you saved me the trouble.” But that was a particularly tense shoot. Big things had been expected from the Martin Cruz Smith thriller in which Hurt’s central figure of Arkady Renko, an investigator for the Moscow militia, conducts an affair with Joanna Pacula and tangles with Marvin’s ruthless businessman. Apted, in the midst of sorting out the accents (the inflections for Russian characters would be British) had to detour Hurt from a Slavic accent he’d prepared. “Life’s gray, not black and white,” Hurt grumbled in an interview as he undertook to portray the brooding Renko. Reviewers largely felt neither the detective nor Hurt’s British accent came off well.
As if to prove he still had his curveball, he chose next to portray the comely homosexual window dresser Molina in Hector Babenco’s film version of Manuel Puig’s novel Kiss of the Spider Woman. After Babenco instructed him to reserve some elbowroom for Raul Julia’s Valentin, a political prisoner, the two actors did a revelatory exercise in which they traded roles. With the piquantly fey character of Molina in place (“Darling, you don’t know page one,” he scolds Julia’s character), Hurt went on to win Best Actor awards at Cannes and from the Academy here in the United States. “I accept this with Raul,” he said generously in his succinct acceptance speech. “I’m proud to be an actor.”
His date at the awards was a young unknown named Marlee Matlin, whose film debut alongside Hurt in Children of a Lesser God was still some months from release. Directed by Randa Haines from Mark Medoff s adaptation (with Hesper Anderson) of his own prize-winning play, it’s a story in which his teacher character, James Leeds, falls in love with a fiercely independent deaf girl, Sarah. For her, Matlin has said, life leapt ahead of art at her audition with Hurt: “For me … it was love at first sight.” In a storybook rounding-off, Hurt, as the prior year’s Best Actor, would present the Best Actress Oscar in the 1986 ceremonies. “I made a clear decision before I walked onstage,” says Hurt evenly, “that I didn’t know whose name was in the envelope and it didn’t matter.”
If that’s not what his expression said as he read Matlin’s name, he is conspicuously careful of his manner when he speaks of her today, in New York, five months later; reports have had it that, for now, they aren’t living together. It is not the sort of question Hurt responds to: “I guess I don’t even typify my relationships to myself. I’ve never found it useful. I can’t really express to you any better than I might intimate in my work what the current status of definitions of relationships is. And I fight those definitions anyway—’cause I never saw a simplistic one I could live up to myself.”
Hurt was born on March 20, 1950, the son of a State Department official whose duties took him all over the globe. Until age six, he was raised, privileged but often shirtless and shoeless, in the Edenic environs of the American compound in Guam. “I was lucky,” he says. “I was living in paradise.” He’s fond of his father. “Oh, I love him very much. In fact, he was just here a couple of weeks ago. He lives in Spain, and he’s a sweet guy.”
At age six, after his parents’ divorce, Hurt moved into a four-room apartment in New York’s Upper West Side with his mother and two brothers. He would escape from those pre-gentrification mean streets by visiting his father in such exotic duty stations as the Sudan, Somaliland, and Spain. He was ten when his mother married Henry Luce III, son of the founder of Time. Suddenly he was the child of great wealth, living in a large duplex and having the run of Rockefeller Center.
Showing a bit of disorientation from his change in class, Hurt was sent off to Middlesex prep school in Massachusetts, where, as a “short, fat, and uncoordinated” nonathlete, he was unfulfilled until he took to the stage. In a preview of several out-of-body experiences he would have some years later, he occasionally found himself feeling highly alienated. “A piece of me actively wonders why I’m there a lot of the time,” he says. “It started while I was in high school—you know, ‘Why am I wearing these tights?”
As he grew, shooting quickly up to his present height of six feet three, Hurt was increasingly under the influence of his scholarly stepfather, and he enrolled at Tufts University as a religion major. But his drama studies pulled just as hard, and he met and married actress Mary Beth Hurt in the spring of his junior year. The psychic tumult of his childhood was still somewhat with him and would remain: “It was hard, yeah. I’m finally resolving it to a degree. Therapy’s helped me a lot, and living’s helped me a lot, and I’m glad I had my work; when your structures change and you don’t understand it, it’s good to have something consistent to go to. I didn’t choose this—didn’t say I wanted to be an actor—but when I couldn’t think of anything else to do … better go act. It never satisfied me as a surrogate family, none of those hopes I had for it ever came true, and the attention you get for it never replaces the love you need. But there are other satisfactions.”
He and Mary Beth moved to London, where he spent his senior year as an acting student. His hope was to continue his studies in New York, but his audition at the prestigious Juilliard School came almost on a whim during a visit there. He hastily prepared three excerpts from John Osbome’s Look Back in Anger and a speech from King Lear, delivered them passionately, and then waited out the results in London. Juilliard accepted him, and he and Mary Beth moved to the East Village. Among his school buddies were Robin Williams and Kevin Kline, but he felt frustrated at the institution, and his marriage was wobbly. Around this time his mother died, and with New York generally oppressing him, he left town on a motorcycle not long before he was due to graduate. At a Shakespeare festival in Ashland, Oregon, he hooked up with a local company to play Edmund (“The best Edmund there ever was,” he later claimed) in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.
By 1976, Hurt was back in New York with a new sense of confidence. He would collect both a Kojak and a PBS credit on television as he began his ongoing membership in the Circle Repertory Company, and his New York stage debut in Corinne Jacker’s My Life won him an Obie. He originated the role of crippled homosexual veteran Ken Talley in Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July and offered a well-received Hamlet as the Hollywood feelers multiplied. He was impressive alongside Sissy Spacek and Sally Kellerman in public television’s Verna: U.S.O. Girl, but when his first couple of films appeared, his romance with New York theater critics almost inevitably dimmed. In 1984, though, he came back strong as the misogynistic, taunting casting agent Eddie in David Rabe’s vivisection of Hollywood mores, Hurlyburly.
“Remember to keep your work in the verb, not the adjective—in participation, not description. Choose your imaginative realities carefully, because you must submit to them.”
Hurt calls Christopher Walken, who played Mickey in the play, “one of the great actors I’ve ever known. Chris is meticulous, and once he’s been meticulous, abandoned. I really do have a physical pleasure in working with good people.” He likewise has a revulsion to working with actors who violate his credos. The keys, he says, are “comprehension and submission. Remember to keep your work in the verb, not the adjective—in participation, not description. Choose your imaginative realities carefully, because you must submit to them.”
This is a topic Hurt warms to. It’s his favorite, in fact, and his passion can turn almost wrathful as his meditation winds tighter: “Your primary obligation is to be true to the circumstances within the imaginative reality. The more you feel, the better you vivify your imagination, but don’t break the rules then you’re screwing around with other people. I work with people who don’t play by the rules sometimes, and it’s awful because they’re really spitting on you. If I give you something, you gotta catch the ball and throw it back. Otherwise I’m falling on my face.
“Now, I have, fortunately or unfortunately, skill at going down paths of endless non sequiturs. I can play any reality I want, and if you’re not giving me anything, I’ll use it—but that’s an unfortunate choice on your part, because what I will do make damn sure I run circles around your reality. I will prove to you that underneath it all, you don’t have one. It’s not about winning, it’s about something else—hopefully achieve some compassion.”
Asked for an example of helpful direction, he remembers Kasdan helping him play the crucial moment in Body Heat when, while talking to Matty on the phone, Ned is numbed by the realization of how thoroughly his lover has duped him. “I was doing something that Larry wasn’t aware of at first, I had let the cigarette burn way down [on his fingers], and it was getting hot. I was using that in the scene—that she was burning me more than it was—and we had the scene timed down to the millisecond. I thought I was being perfectly still, and he said, ‘Less motion,’ and then when he said it, I was ‘Right,’ and just went through a barrier to a wonderful place in the work. I was so grateful that he saw a place I could go to.”
The very intensity that Hurt has trained himself to command with the quietest of gestures made the flamboyance of Molina in Spider Woman hard for him to accept. “It seemed immodest to grandstand,” he says. That his performance was so far removed from the clichés of “leading man” made it easier for him—at acquaintance Steven Spielberg’s urging–to attend the Oscar ceremonies. “I remember asking [presenter] Sally Field, when I went up to get it, ‘How do I deal was this? and she said, ‘Go with it.’” He did, though not so effusive as she had the year before. “It is fantasy come true,” Hurt …. with a smile. “Then you have live with the sucker.”
One aspect of living with Oscar is dealing with the deference it brings: “I’m not coming out of the sun anymore, so I can blindside anybody—even if what I’m blindsiding them with is good,” he says. As Jim Brooks points out, Hurt could easily have the sort of film projects superstars command, “those scripts that everybody thinks are great and commercial.” But those are the very films Hurt is most wary of. “The tendency to make things sentimental, for instance, is for me too general, and it’s evasive,” he says. “There’s something that is more profoundly beautiful in taking the trouble to suffer the dismantling of generalization.”
If Hurt admits to some misgivings about his own work in Destiny, he found costar Tim Hutton entirely up to his standards. “You can’t get away from his eyes, and so I felt pinned down, in the good sense,” Hurt says. “In one sense you suffer, but in another you’re glad—the guy has the guts to pin me down, and he’s relentless. I just thought, ‘God, this guy is right there. There is nothing he will not receive from me.’”
Hurt has been turning down avalanches of scripts for some years now, and yet he insists there are projects he has to fight for. His putative next role, for instance: “There’s one that I hope to get, but I don’t know if I’ll be offered the role.” So there are gates to pass through even for someone with his credentials? “If you think of yourself that way there aren’t, but if you come right down to it, there are very few gates at any given moment through which you can grow.
“There are lots of gates,” he says, opening his hands as he warms to the metaphor, “through which you can race the race you raced last time, all kinds of gates—and they come with checks on them.” His fingers pluck air, and he’s clearly not unhappy that the imaginary pieces of paper he’s grabbing now have seven figures on them. Hurt knows he proves something when he does a picture for paltry money, as was the case with Spider Woman, and he’s smart enough to know he proves something else when he does the next one for Big Star bucks.
Still, there can be problems, even for someone of Hurt’s stature, in driving virtuous projects into the marketplace. One recent attempt, Albert Camus’s The Plague, still is without a backer. Hurt doesn’t sound especially avid to jump back onstage (though he still considers himself a member in good standing of the Circle Repertory Company), but he recently completed his first series of acting classes in twelve years, meeting twice a week for three hours a day with twenty other students under the tutelage of Bill Esper.
“I took this beginners course—it was utterly fascinating and scary. It was the first time in a long time I’d had the guts to say, ‘Okay, I’m gonna go back and look at this from the bottom, really check out the foundations.’ Pure exercises, about relying on the other actor, ‘be here now’ stuff—real basic, really subterranean work.”
By now what began as a light lunch with Hurt has stretched deep into the afternoon, but fueled by cups of black coffee, he’s fading not a whit we prepare to walk uptown. “They used to say, when I was younger, ‘To really act well—you might do it in your early 40s.’ I guess I believe that these days,” he reflects, “I really see with less fear how much work I have to do.”
After some four hours of sitting relatively upright. Hurt leans back for his summation. “I always hold out the optic that I’m gonna stop this and go fishing the rest of my life. There’re some guys who figure if they make one chair leg right in their life, they’ve done a lot, and I think they’re right. I hope what I can do is create situations in which I can treat my work more and more with the seriousness of a ditchdigger.”
On Columbus Avenue, even amid the foot traffic and the poseurs in the sidewalk cafes, Hurt turns a few heads but creates no immediate stir. But then we encounter Anatoly Davydov, a Russian émigré actor/screenwriter /consultant (he met Hurt on Gorky Park). He and Hurt are stopped on the sidewalk, talking animatedly; when the ante jumps giddily: Sean Penn and Madonna turn up. Hurt looks faintly abashed when a few teenagers start crowding in alongside the entire group ambles north. There’s something droll about the pairing of the big, blond ex-enfant terrible and Pen whose outbursts put mere temperament in the shade. They manage cordiality; seeing Penn’s Los Angeles Raiders hat Hurt offers a tidbit about the exhibition game the team was play against the Cowboys, but Penn cites his ignorance of play football: “It’s an airport hat, man.”
The caravan moves on, a bit uncomfortably, before jiggling apart near Hurt’s parking garage. Though he pronounces the past several minutes “nerve-wracking,” Hurt calms by degree as we discuss the abominations of George Steinbrenner. We reach the garage entrance; Hurt is ready to collect his car and be gone. It’s that sometimes melancholy part of the day when those with a home to go to are thinking about getting there—and the time of day when a drink is an alternative to that. The apartment where Hurt and Matlin spent a few months is just blocks away but is covered in drop cloth and his summary of where he stands at 37 is not without its own melancholy shade. “I think I discovered a long time ago, and rediscover sometimes, that I am alone—not that I’m lonely, but that I am alone. I’m not as depressed by failure or illusioned by simple dreams as I used to be, so I guess I’m feeling my manhood, my adulthood. I think I got some circuits burned, but I’m glad I’m accepting myself more.”
The sonorous voice, at once merely conversational and urgent, goes on. “I remember seeing this tarot card—I don’t know which one it was—of a man standing with his back the viewer on the edge of a river. The river is sadness, and you see one of his cups is smashed at his feet. But there are three more from the original set over his head, and you know he’s gonna turn away from the river and go on, maybe appreciating what’s left better for what’s lost.”
When Hurt shakes hands, it is with the cordial solemnity that is his trademark, and a last look shows him waiting for his car, eyes veiled as the traffic flows past him down the avenue.