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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. Im 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 didnt tell him at the time, but my thought is, how dare you comment on me while youre 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 youre just committed. Youre doing something. Youre 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 dont 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 youre just joining us, my guest is William Hurt and he's starring in the new movie "The Yellow Handkerchief."

Now earlier you mentioned that youre 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 youre - it's a movie that's directed by David Cronenberg. Youre only in one scene in this, but you are so good that, you know, when you leave the movie youre thinking...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...you're thinking about this scene. So the main character in the movie - youre 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 doesnt 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 youre 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 doesnt 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 dont 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 weve 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 dont know why its true. I dont 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 dont create anything. I dont write the words. I dont write the themes. I dont 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 dont 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."

Well talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If youre 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, youre 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: Dont 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 youre 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 dont 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 didnt 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 dont 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 couldnt 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, its 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: Youre 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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