William Hurt

photos by Susan Shacter

For a relatively young actor, Bill Hurt has acquired a surprisingly powerful mystique as a bruised soul and flaky person. It’s easy to see where this impression comes from.  He has played a long string of characters who are physically, spiritually, or sexually crippled. He has appeared onstage as Hamlet, Ken Talley in Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July (with the Circle Repertory Company, of which he is a long-standing member), and Eddie in David Rabe’s Hurlyburly – all of them wounded creatures, as were the men he played on film in Altered States, The Big Chill, and Kiss of the Spider Woman. In interviews, he has a habit of talking at great length with excessive earnestness about acting. What some people consider flakiness, however, is often simply thoughtfulness and a refusal to be glib. Besides, when he starts talking about out-of-body experiences, you can simply change the subject.

Born in Washington, D.C., Hurt was raised in the South Pacific, where his father served in the diplomatic corps. When he was ten, his parents divorced, and his mother went to work at Time Inc., where she met and married Henry Luce 3d, the son of the company’s founder. There is an aristocratic aloofness to Bill Hurt that could be traced to his background, but also the self-questioning of someone who doesn’t take anything for granted. He was married to actress Mary Beth Hurt and later lived with a ballet dancer, with whom he has a young son. While filming Children of a Lesser God in Canada, he fell in love with Marlee Matlin, the deaf actress who was his costar, and they were living together when I met Bill in the office of his publicist. He had been nominated for but had not yet won the Academy Award for his performance in Kiss of the Spider Woman, and he had been idle for several months since completing his work on Children of a Lesser God.

What do you do when you’re not working?

Whatever occurs to me that day. I have a really good time not working; it’s a lot of work to act. I have some hobbies – I fly-fish, I sail, I have a fleet of remote-control boats that I work with my son in the bathtub. I love those things.

Did you always want to be an actor?

No more than I wanted to be a cowboy, fireman, cop, diplomat, statesman, artist, whatever. I never thought about being an actor. I wanted to do something serious. I used to think a lot about religion. I read a lot. I loved the woods. I would love to have lived out in the wilderness and been a ranger or parks department guy or farmer.

            Until I was sixteen, I was very chubby and a terrible athlete. My grades were shit. I didn’t have many friends. I had real trouble adjusting. One day a teacher named Hugh Fortmiller walked up to me, and said, “How would you like to try out for the school play?” I didn’t know him from Adam; he was just trying to help a kid. I was fourteen. I was nervous and said, “Okay.” I got this part, and I did it. I was playing a boy.

As opposed to the boys who were playing girls?

No, there was a girls’ school nearby, so girls played girls. That was another interesting part about it. Very interesting part about it.

This we liked?

This we liked. (He laughs.) There was something about theater and the women that changed the experience for me. People couldn’t dump on me so much when the girls were around. You had to act polite.
            When I was around sixteen, I grew six inches, and I began to be physically attractive to people. Suddenly, doors were open that weren’t before, and I’d go, “Look, just close the door, I don’t want to come in.” I had the same heart before I grew – why wasn’t I loved for that?

When you went to Tufts, did you study acting?
I started out as a religion major. I wanted personally to be saved, and I wanted other people to be saved. I had lived in many countries with my father and seen tremendous agony inflicted on supposedly innocent beings. I couldn’t comprehend how a God I loved could allow these things to happen. I began to ask the question when I was eight and worked on it ‘til I was nineteen or twenty. In the center of my thoughts, I didn’t really work on anything else. I became furious. I was also probably furious at myself for lots of reasons.
            I was raised as a Presbyterian. I had myself confirmed as an Episcopalian. I learned about ritual and how important it is. If possible, I wanted to belong to a ritual that leaves people their independence but at the same time allows each participant to learn more about him or herself and the mysteries of this existence. A lot of religious rituals are too dogmatic. I guess I wanted to belong to a ritual in which one is encouraged to ask questions. In drama, the order of the day is curiosity about the human condition, not judging it. Your effort is to become more compassionate and to seek compassion.

Is there a relationship between movies and that kind of ritual?
There can be. Making a movie is a tremendously ornate affair; a lot of people you never even meet work hand in hand with you. Your participation is through you work, your job. It’s not a surrogate family. That takes a long time for people to get out of their systems. They’re trying to assuage their personal fears of loneliness or separation through a communal act.

Where does the satisfaction come from in making a movie?
Acting. Acting is not different when you’re onstage or on a film screen. Ultimately, it comes down to this phrase: “trying to find the truth.” In acting, I have an opportunity to ask a question other situations don’t afford me. Someone else could satisfy himself being a taxi driver or a philosopher. Acting is just my form. That’s the way I ask.
            I could go on forever about the things I enjoy about acting. I get the giggles sometimes if I’m standing offstage just before an entrance and I’m wearing tights. I think, “What the fuck am I doing here? This is hilarious. I have skinny legs. Why am I about to walk out in front of those people wearing tights?” I enjoy other actors. I especially enjoying not having an excuse to look away from somebody else’s eyes or listen hard. I love that. I love the fact that our usual avoidance systems are set aside, and I can just saturate myself and look at another human being.
            When I was on the road, I’d be having a cup of coffee and staring at some guy gassing up his truck. So many truckers said to me, “What are you staring at?” ‘Nuthin’.” I could never say it, but a lot of people say it to me.

When you got out of college, did you set off to be an actor?
I thought I wasn’t an actor. I knew I didn’t have the technique. I didn’t know what technique was. It was just this big word. I could walk out onstage in one act as one character and have a totally different character the next act. I was having a ball, but there was no consistency. So I thought, if I’m going to think about this seriously, I have to have a specific idea of what acting is.

Did you set your sights on Juilliard?
As it happened, I would never have gotten into any other school. I was taking my senior year of college in London. I didn’t have enough time or money to get back to America to audition for schools, which meant I’d have to wait an entire year, go back to the Sates, dick around, wait for auditions, take my chances. I was beginning to entertain the idea of going to an English school when a very dear, sweet boy in my class at Middlesex was killed, and I was on the next plane home for the funeral. I had to stay in the States for five days because of my plane ticket. So I just called schools, and nobody would give me an audition in that short a time except Juilliard. I got hold of them at five o’clock in the afternoon, and they said be here tomorrow at ten with $40 and two pieces. So I worked all night with my stepbrother trying to memorize this speech from the heath scene in King Lear because it was the only script in the house. The bookstores were closed. I had been working just for myself on Look Back in Anger, so I strung three of those speeches together to come up with two full minutes. I just went in, did it, and wrote it off. No way I would get in.
            After that school year, I was in a farmhouse in Gloucestershire with sixteen other people from school mounting a production of Lanford Wilson’s Rimers of Eldritch on our own. I was sitting at the breakfast table one day, and there was a message that I’d gotten into Juilliard. I asked Mary Beth – we were married then – how she felt about that. She wanted to start looking for work in the States, so we went back to New York. Those were lean years.

How did you get to Circle Rep?
After Juilliard, I went to the Ashland Shakespeare Festival to play Edmund in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I don’t think I’ve acted well but a few times in my life. In my own opinion, I don’t think I’ve acted really well in a film yet. I hope I do someday. I don’t know if I can. I’m not crapping on myself, I just think it’s a very serious thing. But as Edmund, I acted well. The following season, I thought I’d get some decent roles, and I got nothing. I asked the director, and he said, “You have to pay some more dues here.” I said, “No, I’m not paying those kinds of dues anymore. I want to work.” I just got in my car with my dog and took off, drove around the country trying to find a job. I couldn’t find a job anywhere. I drove to Seattle, San Francisco, some other theaters around the country. I’d show up and say I wanted to audition. They’d say, “We’re sorry, we don’t have anything.”
            I went back to New York, and I couldn’t even get a showcase. Then I walked into the Children’s Television Workshop, where they were doing The Best of Families, and there I was with this great job. The head writer, Corinne Jacker, asked me to come down and read the first act of an unfinished play called My Life. I went down to Circle Rep and sat in those chairs with those people. I didn’t know Marshall Mason [artistic director of Circle Rep, who directed Fifth of July and many other Lanford Wilson plays]. I didn’t know anybody, but I felt like I was home.

So My Life was your first role in New York?
No, I played three parts in Henry V in Central Park. Paul Rudd played Henry, Meryl Streep played the princess. I played Bates, Scoop, and then an invented role, the French interpreter. I created these three totally different roles, with beards, makeup changes, accents and everything. I was onstage maybe a grand total of half an hour, but I was so busy racing around that I would lose three or four pounds a night.

You liked doing that stuff, changing the way you look?
Yeah, the mask is everything. I do the same thing in film, it’s just more subtle. I wish I could take huge physical risks in films. Kiss of the Spider Woman is about as extensive as I have been allowed to do in movies. I wanted to do twice as much in Spider Woman. I wanted him to start out almost as a harpy, like a Medusa, then become a true queen. I had a whole physical idea in my mind, but I wasn’t allowed to do it as flagrantly as I would have liked. I think I could have pulled it off believably but it’s really hard to get people to accept that.

You have an unusual voice; you don’t seem to have to do much to get a lot of volume and resonance.
I don’t use my voice that well. Some people have a hard time hearing it in theaters. I’ve been accused of being a mumbler onstage. It has a lot to do with what a person expects coming to the theater. If a guy comes to a Broadway house, he’s expecting Jerry Orbach out there, going [He suddenly speaks in a loud, brassy voice] “Silver platter? Screw the silver platter! I’m gonna give this to you on a freight train!” [Back to normal] Maybe this is selfish, but I think more about what am I doing with another actor on the stage.

When you started acting professionally, did you think you would do movies?
I was frightened of movies, because of the things they do to your life. I don’t like people peering at me and prying into my life. So I turned them down for a long time. I was enjoying myself immensely at Circle. I couldn’t have been in a better position. I was a member of a wonderful company working on wonderful plays in a wonderful atmosphere. Someone offered me $10,000 if I wouldn’t accept a job from someone else for six months, and I turned it down. I knew I wasn’t going to accept a job from anybody else anyway. Then I read Altered States, and that was it. I knew I couldn’t turn that one down.

Did it happen right away, the thing you thought would happen? Did your life change?
The changes were not as severe as I feared. I do lead a private existence. No one can really take that away from you. It takes a while to learn that people are looking at you because they’ve seen your movie. “What are you starin’ at?” “Nuthin’.” That’s what I’d like them to say.

Are there actors you’ve looked to as role models or inspirations?
There’s a Greek actor Mary Renault wrote about in The Mask of Apollo. He was a renowned actor, but he wasn’t known as a man. He was himself. He would walk on his own feet between cities. He would do this great thing for the kings and the queens and the people, get a little money and a wreath or something, then he would walk to the next city. He had dust on his feet like everybody else. The mask was important. The comprehension of the ritual was important.

            It’s hard to talk about contemporaries. Meryl did one of the most incredible character jobs I’ve ever seen in Out of Africa. It was a remarkable, ephemeral, honest job of physical characterization – there was real blood in those very fine capillaries. Olivier had the mask for the better part of his career, as did Spencer Tracy, but the use of the mask there is so different. You could say that one suited his mask to the piece, and the other vice versa.
            The best performance I ever saw was Paul Scofield in a piece by Pirandello, where it was as if his thoughts came out of his body. I was just sitting there and I started to tremble. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. I was plugged into some mental-emotional organism that wasn’t my body but that I recognized. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to stay there very long. I kept thinking, “I’ve got to check out of this, it’s too much.”

What’s the silliest thing about being an actor?
There’s nothing about it that isn’t silly – that’s one of the attractions.

After the interview was over, the receptionist appeared and told Bill he had a call from Marlee. I thought, “This will be interesting – talking to his deaf girlfriend on the phone?” But Bill whipped out a portable computer terminal from a shoulder bag, stuck the cradle of the phone into the computer’s built-in modem, and proceeded to have a conversation with Marlee by typing on the computer keyboard. I peeked over his shoulder to see how it worked, and he turned to me and said, “Please! This is a private conversation!”

from Caught in the Act: New York Actors Face to Face (1986)