British actor John Hurt is renowned for a wide variety of roles—you can currently see him in the cinema in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—but we always remember him for his small part in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, when he sneers down at Johnny Depp like a dandified gnat unworthy of a fly-swatter. But given his sprawling body of work, with appearances in over 170 films ranging from Elephant Man and 1984 to An Englishman in New York and V for Vendetta, everyone probably has their own personal favorite Hurt role. And it's time to make room for one more: Hurt is currently starring in Samuel Beckett's short solo masterpiece, Krapp's Last Tape, a hilarious and haunting play about a man who celebrates his birthdays by listening to recordings made on previous birthdays. Hurt is phenomenally perfect for the role, and we highly recommend getting over to BAM before it closes on December 18th. It's an enthralling hour of theater.
I loved the way the performance begins with that long silence and I was so terrified that someone's cell phone would go off or something, but it didn't. It just held. I think that's probably how it evolved, to take in that, you know? Of course it evolved basically because he's been sitting there waiting probably for a couple of hours for this moment in time.
It's very rare in our culture, with all this noise, to have a moment where a bunch of people sit in silence. Yes, there's not a lot of silence now. It's almost impossible to go anywhere without electronic music of some sort. I don't know about you, but I miss silence terribly. If anything drives me out of the city, it's that. It's electronic, it's noise, it's constant music. I hate fucking music unless it's live, with a reason. I loathe it as a background. It drives people insane. So I agree with you.
When did you first do this play? I first did it in '99 at The Pit in the Barbican. The Pit is a theater; it's about three floors underground in the Barbican in London. And then I did it in 2000, after that I did it in the West End at the Ambassadors Theatre for seven weeks, seven week season. Then I didn't do it again, I don't think until... well I did the film in 2001. People seem to be quite happy with it, but I wasn't. I think it's a piece for theater. It's quite interesting to put it down on film but I don't think it works in the same way. Anyway, I did it again at the Gate Theatre, can't remember, between between 2000 and 2006 and then I did it the last time again at The Pit for the Beckett Festival in 2006. And then I haven't done it since 2006. Michael Gambon did it.
Right. Did you see that production? I didn't see it. No.
Did you see the production starring Harold Pinter? I wasn't around. My wife did. But I talked to Harold about it a lot. He asked a lot of questions about it.
He did? Yeah, yeah, what I felt about it and so on.
And what did you tell him? What I basically said is that it is your point of view. You cannot be definitive. No one has a claim on the play, anymore than they have on Hamlet. You simply have to play what you understand from the text. The text being your springboard, which Harold should understand. [Laughs] And I think he did. He played it very angry, and Harold was quite angry.
He was dying at the time. Well, I suppose so, yes. I don't think he considered that he was dying, I think he considered that he was beating death. But I suppose if you really want to look at it he was, yes.
Was Krapp one of those roles that you always wanted to do? No, I've never operated that way in my life. I've never had ambitions to do anything particular. I'm the result of other people's imaginations, which I find is a more interesting way to go.
You are the result of other people's imaginations? Yeah. I mean, in other words, the roles that come along are usually somebody else's idea. I would never have thought of doing Krapp.
The business of performing appeals to me. I mean, that's my life. So the fact that I was doing it with Michael Colgan—originally we did it with Robin Lefevre, now a different director, who seems to have disappeared. I don't know what happened to him. But it was at the Gate Theatre. I was living in Ireland. I wanted to be connected to the Gate because it's a very interesting theater and Michael is an extremely interesting artistic director of the Gate; he's an extremely interesting figure in the theater all together, very good for the theater. Quite wild and behaves seemingly like a buffoon sometimes but he's far from it, once you know him. So I wanted to work with him, and when we were in rehearsal it became... it's a very organic process and I just enjoyed it, it's terrific. I enjoyed it in the full sense of the word. In the full sense of the word: what I mean is that incorporates difficulties here and there.
Such as? What I mean by enjoy something, that means having a good time. I mean the full meaning of the word, which means totally enjoying all its difficulties.
Do you still find challenges with it now? It constantly throws something at you, yeah. I mean, it constantly throws. This production, I think we've cut out a lot of anger, which I've always wanted to do. So we sort of worked on it and cut out... I don't like anger, because anger to me is a very thin emotion. It doesn't really say anything. I don't think it gets you anywhere. It's not as interesting an emotion as say remorse or even regret. He has a temper, Krapp, that's kind of a wonderful device, but it doesn't last very long. He throws everything off the table and then it's, "Oh, not again." What I mean is, anger at the big things in life is a very thin emotion, and not very interesting.
There's that part in the play where he's listening to himself at 39 describe this vision at the end of the pier and Krapp is mortified. Why do you think that's so upsetting? Oh... Ugh... Embarrassing... Rubbish... Fucking nonsense... God you idiot, idiot boy. He's way past believing all that about revelations of artistic brilliance. I mean he is an existentialist isn't he, really? That's a lot of romantic nonsense as far as present Krapp is concerned. Present Krapp is no fool, I might say. Maybe a bit old and maybe decrepit, and maybe totally unsuccessful in modern terms and the way in which we look at things, but he's no fool. Anyway, I can't speak for Beckett. You saw the play [Laughs].
Did you ever cross paths with him? Oh, once a very, very long time ago when he was over at the Royal Court in London. It was for a production Tony Page was doing at the Royal Court of Waiting for Godot with Nicol Williamson and Alfie Lynch in 1964. And he was in a pub next to the Royal Court and I walked in there and I saw this figure sitting in the corner, rather like Krapp [laughs] folded over. He was reading the racing page of the Evening Standard and I just thought, "That's so right somehow." But I never really had an opportunity to talk to him. I was very young. I was only 24; a very young 24 at that.
What do you think it is about this character and this play that's so enduring? You think I haven't asked myself that? I don't know. It's not a long play. It is quite staggering what he has chosen to put in it. It's really quite extraordinary what works, and it all works. I mean he chooses a little black ball. He can't remember, when he says in a time 30 years ago, "I will remember it in my hand till my dying day." But why that image? Why seemingly such a vague and yet tantalizing image? The audience seems to be completely intrigued in Krapp's inability to remember it. Why would you remember a little black ball with a dog anyway? What on earth made me think that I was going to remember that for the rest of my life? And all of those things, I mean it's what's there that's kind of staggering. Of course the experience at the waterfall itself is something which Beckett went through himself.
Oh, really? Oh yes, that is biographical. What he's doing—whether he is in sympathy with Krapp or whether he's not in sympathy with Krapp—I don't know. But there is definitely... I've always felt that it was Beckett saying "there but for the grace of God," because it was his wife who trundled all over Paris trying to get his original manuscripts published. He was the most turned-down author of all time. Eventually it was a very small publisher who took it on. The rest of course is history, but it could have gone, it could have slid past with somebody less determined.
And in a way that's where Krapp finds himself towards the end of his life. Yes, Krapp says "17 copies sold of which 11 are trade price to free circulating libraries beyond the seas... Getting known." [Laughs]
Well, yes I suppose it has, in a sense, which is... boy... it's only about the second generation that that's possible. To have a physical documentation of your life. I don't dwell on it, I have to say. I don't look at old films unless by chance, which can be fascinating, I have to say. It can be really fun, but I never, ever think, what do I do tonight? "Oh, I'll look at an old film of mine." Never, ever do that.
It's usually if I'm leaving the house or something like that or a television being left on and I suddenly see something. I'm thinking of a particular instance. 1984 was on and I just thought, "Oh, I'll just have a look and see how that weathered with time." And it's weathered pretty well! It's pretty good. And I just watched the whole film, still standing, completely intrigued. For once not so much because of me or what I was doing in it—which you tend to be as a performer when your watching a film because that's obviously what your major concern is. "Am I all right? Have I been found out?" Or whatever. "Have I let everybody down?" Or whatever. But this time I was just watching what Mike Radford had done with it, and I thought it's a really very special film. Considering the difficulties, moving that from literature to cinema. Really, seriously difficult book to deal with because it is so full of the language of literature. But I thought it was really a very successful attempt indeed, oddly enough as I do about Tinker Tailor.
I am looking forward to seeing that. I think that's one of the best adaptations I can think of. Talk about making our life really difficult by insisting that we take things from books, which is a totally different language. We've then got to go through all of this, trying to move it from literature to cinema. A whole set of different approaches, images, languages all together. And the better the book, the more difficult it is. The more famous the book, of course, the more opposition you get from the public if you mutilate it. Trying to make our lives difficult instead of trying to write originally for the cinema. But you can't get the money if you write originally for the cinema, or it's got no track record. Why can't you trust it? You trust an author with a book. If you want to make really, really good films, you're going to have to learn to trust it. But if you don't, we'll only ever get adaptations from books. That's not a very rosy prospect, now is it?
Do you prefer theater to film? I don't even compare them. Quite, quite different. But in terms of the core of playing a part, there isn't any difference at all. In terms of acting, there's considerable difference when it comes to the craft of making a film and the craft of putting on a play. But then, you know, to be able to see the difference in the craft is common sense really. It doesn't need to be explained.
I would think the process of doing theater though would be more fulfilling though. It's wonderful. I mean Albert Finney grabbed my arm once and he said, "You don't know you've made a film until you've played a lead."
What does that mean? When you play the lead, you come in, and there is the camaraderie with camera crew, the director. There's a difference. It becomes more and more relaxed. And then, of course, you have more opportunity to contribute, when you begin to understand the whole structure of the film. You don't get that if you're only coming in for a couple of nervous days. When I'm playing a leading part, I really do make it my business to reach out to small part players. It's tough if you just leave them on their own.
Did any stars do that with you? Yes, they did, they did. I'm just a link in the chain, you see. Orson Welles for example. He was wonderful. I had a conversation with him once, and he told me, "Once you have experience, it doesn't mean that it gets any easier," he said. I said, "Mr. Welles"—and it was "Mr. Welles" in those days, or "Sir." And you called the director, without question, "Sir" until they told you to call them something else. But I said, "Mr. Welles, could you explain that?" And, boy did he know how to take his time. His pauses were as big as he was! "Your experience means that you understand how many choices there are."
But when you're young, and you're working entirely off your instinct, you don't think of any choices. You don't consider anything else. When you get older you realize you could go down this road or that road. Or down that for for a little bit and then cross over to this road. From here to there, there to here. Which would be right? I wish he was still here so I could remind him of that conversation. Possibly, if you get it right, it will be much more interesting because it's much more involved. The more complicated and involved you can make it, if it is right, then it won't seem to be involved, it just will be. You see what I mean? It just has more depth to it. But if you don't quite get it right you'll be in a sticky old mess!
Does that happen to you anymore? Oh, I think it happens to everybody! Nobody ever goes from one piece which is absolutely should be to another piece that is absolutely as it should be. Otherwise we'd all be extraordinary!
Do you still get nervous? Stage fright? Absolutely. You can always get the days when you think everything has deserted you. And you don't know why that happens. You've seen it happen with [Laurence] Olivier, when he was doing Shylock at the National Theatre. He couldn't remember any of it, he couldn't go on. Just had a kind of collapse, breakdown. Overload on the mind. It happens to people during long runs. Though it's never the same thing, really, but it is the same thing. Eventually, after a few months of playing eight performances a week, the mind gets rejects it. You suddenly find yourself dry. It's alarming! I know now what to do about it. Once that happens to you, go tell somebody. If you're a junior actor go tell the leading actor and say, "I had this horrible experience." They'll help you through it, because they've been through it. When it first happened to me, I had no idea. I was doing a John Osborne piece called Inadmissible Evidence at the Wyndhams Theatre and after four months, I thought maybe I was crazy. Offstage I could whistle through it, onstage I was blanking. We all get it. Everybody does.
I just saw Dead Man, you're so funny in that. Did you enjoy it? Oh, I did enjoy it! I get to work with [director] Jim [Jarmusch] again in the new year. A vampire movie! He's wonderful. He's one of those directors that make you say, "when and where?" You don't even have to read the script. It's that good working with him.
What else have you got going on? I'm doing a film with a man who goes by the title Director Bong. He's got all his people around him calling him Director Bong. [laughs] Wonderful title! He made a wonderful film called The Mother, in Korean of course.
I saw that! He's making his first English language film. I enjoyed meeting him hugely. And that I'll be doing in March, April, and May. And then Jim's film after that. And then if Michael Colgan can twist my arm enough, he'd like to get me interested in doing The Caretaker at the Gate Theatre. He's thrilled about this because it really does cement the relationship between the Gate and BAM.
BAM is terrific. It's fabulous to work there. Good crowd of people and you feel it. And great backstage. But they're not precious. Nothing too artsy.
It is still Brooklyn. It's very Brooklyn, yes. It's interesting because the look of the theater, which the way in which Peter Brook had it done when he was doing his piece there, he distressed the theater and they decided to keep it that way. When I first saw it I thought, "Well, it looks a bit Sunday Times supplement primitive." But then, somehow, well, blimey, if I had been here at the time and this is what they had done, I would have said leave it like this as well. 'Cause it just looks so great, doesn't it? Sitting in this ruin. And the acoustics are fantastic.
It does feel very intimate. But 850 people! Twice the size of any theater I'd played in before.
That silence at the beginning goes a long way towards drawing everyone into the same room. Yes it does, it needs that. There are no other distractions, nothing there, just blank. Just the ledger, the tapes and the tape recorder. Nothing to say who he is or what he is. It's entirely to the audience's imagination. Clever writing.
As an audience member it made it feel very universal, to me. I could see so much of myself and the way my mind works and the way memories disappear and reappear for no apparent reason. Alarming! Michael Calgon said after, "I don't know that I can watch this in this theater! It's too near the knuckle!"