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

William Hurt in 'The Yellow Handkerchief' i i

In The Yellow Handkerchief, William Hurt plays a criminal eager to change his life after having been released from jail. Samuel Goldwyn Films hide caption

itoggle caption Samuel Goldwyn Films
William Hurt in 'The Yellow Handkerchief'

In The Yellow Handkerchief, William Hurt plays a criminal eager to change his life after having been released from jail.

Samuel Goldwyn Films

William Hurt plays an ex-con who takes a road trip across post-Katrina Louisiana in an attempt to get his life back on track in the new film, The Yellow Handkerchief. To prepare for the role, Hurt spent a night in Louisiana State Penitentiary — better known as Angola. Entering the maximum security facility, he tells Terry Gross, was an "amazing experience."

"I spoke with every member on the row ... those who would speak to me," Hurt says. "I had a three-hour conversation with the man in the next cell. I never saw his face," he said.

From time at Angola, Hurt carved out the character of Brett Hanson, a blue-collar oil rigger taking a trip across Louisiana. "He moved to Louisiana after he ran into drug trouble," says Hurt. "He 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 when he gets out."

Hurt says it's not the first time he's immersed himself in research for a part.

For his role as Luis Molina in Hector Babenco's Kiss of the Spider Woman, Hurt worked closely with a dance teacher to capture the right movements of Molina, a Brazilian drag queen who was incarcerated for being gay. Hurt won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Molina, who spends his time in prison recalling a Nazi propaganda film.

Last year, Hurt appeared in the FX series Damages as a corporate whistleblower, and scored an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role opposite Glenn Close. Among his many films, he has appeared in Broadcast News, A History of Violence, The Big Chill and Body Heat.

Interview Highlights

On being taken hostage in Brazil while filming Kiss of the Spider Woman:

"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 women. One of the men had a ski mask on ... . The one man leaned out the window and he said to us in Portuguese and I asked my date what he said, and she turned white. 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." [Hurt and his date were let go some hours later.]

On playing a drag queen in Spider Woman:

"I didn't play him as gay. I played him as a woman ... the key for me as an artist, I was researching the character — I had a wonderful dance teacher who was helping me try to figure out how to move, because every character has different movement .... And I spent time ... in gay bars and trying to 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, and I said "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 sometimes I'm an actor caught in a movie star's body."

On getting into his supporting role as the final-act villain in A History of Violence:

"David [Cronenberg] was so kind with with me. I arrived 10 days early. I filmed only for a couple days. I'm of the belief 'There are no small roles. Only small actors.' ... The so-called main characters? What's that? We're all main characters. We're all main characters in our lives."

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