William Hurt

Mathematicians say that if you halve each pace in crossing a room you will never reach the opposite wall. I’m beginning to think this true of crossing the Charles Bridge in Prague with William Hurt walking beside me. He has a slow, flat-footed gait and, every few yards, he lurches to a halt, turns to me, head cocked, and asks if I agree with him. I mentally pinch the bridge of my nose, try to ignore the headache I feel coming on, and wonder, in an abstract way, whether I shouldn’t just make a run for it and leave him standing there – rather as you would if you found yourself cornered by a wild-eyed man with a sandwich board on which the nighness of the end of the world was proclaimed.

We have been talking for about 20 minutes, and our conversation has so far been largely one-way and desultory. I’ve introduced myself and asked him something inane like how is he enjoying filming on location in Prague? He has answered with a thesis on the interconnectedness of quantum mechanics, Tibetan Buddhism, infected blood, the Gulf War, Chaos Theory and Third World population growth. Which is unsettling.

Although he doesn’t believe in using a short word (such as ‘religious’) when there is a longer, more confusing one available (such as ‘religiosity’), he does use recognisable words. It’s the way he deploys them that throws you. One writer compared the unruly Hurt sentence to a balloon being folded into a matchbox. To be fair, Hurt himself is aware of his condition, apologises frequently for ‘the length of his wordings’, and, jokingly, I think, puts it down to his being logorrhoeic. And, in fairness, he doesn’t seem pretentious – earnest, sweet, friendly and steeped in liberal angst, but not pretentious. It’s all part of the William Hurt Experience: what you get when you ask to go on the full, white-knuckle, loop-the-loop ride.

The tip of the fat Cuban cigar he is holding glows red and, so close does he stand when he talks, I can smell its smoke on his breath. It’s gone eight on a clear and still evening and the floodlit view of Prague from the bridge is beguiling: the spires of the St Vitus Cathedral to the northwest are lit in ghostly green, the castle is yellow, the Church of St Nicholas pink. Halfway across the bridge there is a statue of the blind St Luitgarde kissing Christ’s wounds; when eventually we reach it, we turn back and head for a nearby Spanish restaurant the actor knows and likes.

Once inside, he recovers his equilibrium a little. He’s less distracted. The words no longer pour out in a convoluted stream. He’s a bit more like those dry, poised, detached characters he played in all those intelligent Eighties films: The Big Chill, Children of a Lesser God, Gorky Park…But it is, of course, always a mistake to confuse an actor with his roles, especially a versatile one like Hurt. One thinks of the gullible, seedy lawyer he played in Body Heat; or the shallow and self-absorbed anchorman he played in Broadcast News; or the fluttery, sensitive, soft shouldered transvestite in Kiss of the Spider Woman, the role for which he won an Oscar in 1986. Anyway, he looks more relaxed now. He takes off his chunky sweater, switches off his mobile phone, grins broadly.

His movements are more graceful, his speech more languid and…elliptical. His looks are more familiar, too: that dramatic cleft in the chin, the intense blue eyes behind metal-rimmed glasses, the mouth that turns up at the corners so that it looks as though it’s half-smiling, even in repose. William Hurt is a few days shy of his 50th birthday but the years have dealt lightly with him: he’s still handsome, lean and tall – 6ft 2in – and his fine, thinning hair is still dirty blond. ‘I have changed,’ he protests with a throaty laugh. ‘I creak and rattle when I get out of bed in the morning. I try to work out but actually I’m falling apart like everyone else. My body is going. I’ve had cataracts and hernia operations and I’ve got a bad back.’

He orders gazpacho, pesto spaghetti and mineral water. I order vegetable lasagne, on his recommendation, and beer. When it arrives, I ask if he minds me drinking alcohol in front of him. He used to have a serious drink and drugs problem – remarkably, he was a vodka and lithium man and, since checking out of the Betty Ford clinic in 1986, he hasn’t touched a drop. ‘Doesn’t bother me at all,’ he says in his resonant yet sleepy American drawl, stretching out the vowels hypnotically. ‘Though someone told me it’s illegal here for me to chin-chin with you if you’re drinking alcohol and I’m not…Ahh, to heck with it!’ We clink glasses and he tells me about a phone call he’s just had with his children. ‘I have four, aged 17, ten, nine and six. It’s easy to keep in touch with them when I’m working abroad. Less with the oldest one because of things that have happened. But the boys [the nine- and ten-year-olds] live with me now. The custody thing was hard. The kids are not responsible… Well… This is a big question. Are they responsible for your fame? I don’t know, there’s a sentence that says no one is innocent.’

The ‘things that have happened’ are – complicated. William Hurt married his first wife, the actress Mary Beth Hurt, in 1972; the couple separated after five years and divorced, amicably, after another five. From 1981 to 1984 he lived with Sandra Jennings, a ballerina with the New York City Ballet. They had a son, Alex. Hurt then lived with Marlee Matlin, an actress with whom he co-starred in Children of a Lesser God. In 1986 at the Hazelden Dependency Treatment Center in Minnesota he met Heidi Henderson. They married and had a pre-nuptial agreement which tied alimony payments to the ability of both parties to stay sober and clean. They had two sons, Samuel and William, but divorced acrimoniously after he claimed she had broken the agreement; he later won custody of the children. Then in 1989 Sandra Jennings reappeared, claiming that she and Hurt had had a common-law marriage, and accusing him of, among other things, violence, religious hallucinations, and urinating on the sofa.

The hearing, which was held at Room 1254 of the New York Supreme Court and followed daily on television by millions of viewers, became one of the most notorious ‘palimony’ cases in American legal history. Hurt won the case but compared the experience to having his skin steamed off in public. In 1993 he met the French actress Sandrine Bonnaire, by whom he had a daughter, Jeanne. Disillusioned with America, Hurt decided to reinvent himself as a European and that same year moved to Paris. ‘I prefer it when people don’t look at me cross-eyed when I speak of other peoples or of mortality or spirituality or transcendence of the material,’ he says, leaning back in his chair. ‘I’ve always felt that way about America. I don’t feel like an American. When I was young I used to break out into a sweat of embarrassment getting off a plane in Europe that had come from America. It was very hard for me because I had lived overseas. My best friends were Ivo in Guam, Sandy in Samoa; my mother’s best friend was Chinese; and in America no one knew these people existed. They can be so insular…I have a map of the Balkans next to my bed, so as I can follow what’s going on.’

William was six when his parents divorced – for a while, he lived with his mother and two brothers in a small apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, New York; his father worked for the US Agency for International Development and directed a number of foreign-aid programmes around the world. ‘He was a remote figure when I was growing up,’ Hurt says. ‘But when I was older I went back into a computer that I had thrown away and culled out of its dormentness much of my father. In his last years I would take him on films with me. He felt proud, I think. He was extremely charming and bright but didn’t give himself any credit for the ways I found him to be brightest – his childishness, his sweetness, his sense of romance. It was funny about him, not until he was dying did he acknowledge his great spiritual side. It was like it lived with him there by his side all the time and he disavowed it.’

His father died in 1996, aged 86, of complications from liver cancer. ‘I held his hand as he died into the light.’ When Hurt was ten, his mother, Claire, a secretary, married her boss, Henry Luce III, son of the founder of Time magazine. The family moved into a 22-room apartment on the Upper East Side and William was sent to Middlesex, an expensive Massachusetts boarding school. He felt lonely there but discovered a talent for acting. He won a scholarship to the Juilliard School of performing arts in New York, where Kevin Kline and Robin Williams also studied, and went on to read theology at Tufts University. After this he took to the stage and performed in some 60 repertory and off-Broadway plays – David Mamet described him as the best Hamlet he had ever seen. In 1980 he starred in his first film, Altered States, directed by Ken Russell.

‘What would I have done if I hadn’t been an actor? I think I might have been a pretty decent teacher. I could have worked on boats. Maybe I would have ended up in a monastery. In fact, I do that. I go away. Being in a monastery would be a good way of life but I can’t imagine not being a father and not being with my kids. I would give anything to go back to school right now, or start a theatre laboratory, so that you don’t get into the gossip end of the business, so that you can work with people who aren’t afraid of the idea which I see as emotion. The problem is we don’t trust our emotions because we are so out of whack. But if you are in balance you can trust your feelings because they are your mind. I mean, this is part of your mind.’ He strokes my hand. I lean over my microphone and say: ‘Let the records show that William Hurt is stroking my hand.’ ‘No,’ he laughs. ‘Touching it. And that’s part of your mind. Everything. Every sense and interpretation. You can’t separate the thought. Look at Spinoza. Look at William Blake. I think Blake was very much there, very much home. He accounted for himself. He didn’t preoccupy himself with how misunderstood he was. He was integrating his consciousness. The yin and the yang…Discovering the feminine sensitive side of yourself doesn’t preclude masculinity at all.’

While William Hurt was on honeymoon with his first wife, his mother died from pancreatic cancer, aged 47. Of his imminent 50th birthday he says: ‘It’s something…a milestone…I’m grateful to my mom, who didn’t get much mileage out of the trip but…her wheels turned well.’ His stepfather, a strict Presbyterian, seems to have been a more influential figure in his formative years. ‘He was a churchgoer. Big time. I had connected up to my father’s lack of religiosity and began my contest with doctrine in my stepfather’s family.’

Our food arrives. ‘Excuse me,’ says Hurt. ‘I stop before I eat. I don’t mean to embarrass anyone, but I stop. And it’s not so much a prayer but a sort of commemoration of something else. So excuse me. I’ll be gone for about 15 seconds.’ He closes his eyes. Thirty seconds pass. ‘Thank you,’ he says. I ask him what form his commemoration takes. ‘Whoever you are, thanks, thanks for the company, thanks for the food, thanks for reminding us to look for what is right…That’s why rehearsal is my flag.’

Hurt always requests six weeks rehearsal time before filming starts. He rarely gets it. This sometimes makes for tension between actor and director. Hector Babenco, the director of Kiss of the Spider Woman, is quoted as saying: ‘Hurt promises you a bad time and he delivers. How he made me suffer. Would I work with him again? Tomorrow.’ Hurt resents his reputation for being ‘difficult’, he argues that it is not a crime to try to deliver the best performance you can by rehearsing thoroughly. ‘You experience states of concentration,’ he explains. ‘Like hitting a golf ball. You have to think about it for a long time before you can stop thinking about it and do it.’

The characters he plays often seem lost in their thoughts, dreamy. Is this because he has become possessed by the role? ‘No. It’s technique. But I do try to be lost in something. I don’t think you’re co-ordinated until you stop telling the various parts of your body what to do…Acting is not lying. It’s not false emotion. Doesn’t everyone decide when and where and for whom to shed their tears? I’d like to act one more time in something where no one recognised me. I’d like to immerse myself in the craft, not in a schizophrenic way but by becoming the fabric of the conversation; where you occupy every cell instead of being self-conscious; where you walk through a mirror and it’s not you any more.’ He seems to have returned for a moment to the Hurt I first encountered – random thoughts and academic references spilling out, spiralling off, making him less fluent than jagged. Is this the authentic Hurt, I wonder, a man ill at ease with himself, or at least with his fame?

When asked if William was ever happy, his first wife once said: ‘How can you be happy if you never have a quiet mind… Most people will just eat a hamburger, he will want to know where the cow was born.’ Hurt doesn’t think success has brought him happiness, necessarily, which is why he feels wary of it. ‘Success isn’t going to help you deal with loneliness or help you make your peace with solitude. There are times when someone on the street says, “Are you William Hurt?” and I will say, “No, not at the moment.” I’m more myself when I’m whittling wood or doodling, doing something with my hands. That leaves me free to be played on. Played through.’

He has trained himself not to look in mirrors, he adds. And he never watches his old movies, he sees them once and that’s it. ‘There were many ancient words for vanity,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t just mean being self-centred. I don’t want to be my ego’s fool.’ Glenn Close, his co-star in The Big Chill, says that when Hurt stopped drinking he became more accessible, more forgiving of himself. ‘When you hate yourself it’s pretty hard to deal with other people,’ she said.  His self-loathing seems to have been connected with a sense of rejection he felt as a child. I ask him if he likes himself more these days. ‘I get along better with myself than I did then. I had a hard time for a while. There were a lot of things I didn’t like about myself. I was trying to assimilate conflicting impulses. I mean, a neurosis is defined as mutually exclusive goals, so how do you get everything going in the same direction? I came out of an environment where there was lots of conflict. My mother grew up in poverty on the prairies of eastern Oregon and was abandoned by her parents.

‘My grandmother was self-destructive to the point of suicide…She did commit suicide in a very gruesome way when I was 15. [He tells me how but says he would rather not see it in print.] It was a shock. I later worried that I might have inherited the urge to suicide. Your job in life is to accept a way of being that is not defined as conflict…Growing up I missed my father a lot. Had separation anxiety. Worried that people I loved would always leave… I used to have a terror dream. No story, just formless, infinite minglings of darkness. Even as I began to craft a sentence that would tell me who I was, it would be eaten away. Years later, when I stopped drinking and began to reconstruct, I had waking dreams that I hadn’t had for many years, and suddenly I would be in two realities at the same time. I would be talking to someone and this dream would be going on at the same time. It was a very visceral experience. It went on for two years.’

I wonder what effect his parents’ divorce had on his own relationships, whether it prevented him from falling in love completely. ‘How many times have I been in love? Really really really? There was some love in all my relationships, but twice it was more than other times. One changed everything for me. One did and still does give me nothing but strength and gratitude.’ (He prefers not to tell me who the one is because ‘private is private and things are not as good if they are not…kept for oneself’.)

It is nearly one o’clock in the morning. Hurt apologies for talking too much, says it’s only because he gets nervous, and he quotes a 14th-century rabbi who said, ‘If you can hear yourself talking, shut up: leave the talking to God.’  It’s raining as we walk back to our hotel along tiny lanes, over the wet cobbles of a square and past gloomy baroque buildings with sloping roofs and crumbling faades. I ask him if he ever feels as if he has sold his soul in order to become famous. I see his sad smile in the orange glow of the streetlights. ‘How could I admit that? It would be like damning myself. But it isn’t necessarily good fortune to be a success. Fame is a vacuum. It doesn’t necessarily bring you pleasure.’ His pleasures in life, he adds, come from fly-fishing, playing chess and flying small planes. ‘The ones I fly are more like kites than proper planes, but I enjoy doing it because when I’m up there I have my destiny in my own hands. I always carry a compass,’ he says, unzipping his coat to show me it. It’s a big one, the sort you use for map-reading. ‘That’s north,’ he says, holding it up. ‘Which means we’re heading to the river.’

In the morning, over breakfast, he tells me he slept badly because he was worrying about whether movie stars really are just narcissists who make a pact with the devil. It is only when he picks up the threads of the previous night’s conversation that I realise he doesn’t suffer from intellectual dyslexia, as I had assumed upon first meeting him. Once you tune into his wavelength you see there is method in his madness, a structure to his thinking. It’s just that, like William Blake, he is sometimes overwhelmed by his thoughts.

This morning he is obsessed with the theme of shame: how Clinton gave in to his; how Jesus went to the Cross despising it. Is this evidence of a guilt complex about something formless and dark in his life? Or a Christ complex? Or impostor syndrome? It’s anyone’s guess. A few days later, as the e-mails start arriving, I discover that there’s one complex he definitely suffers from: persecution. The letters are very long, thousands of ‘wordings’, and he writes like he speaks, with the same dramatic pauses and labyrinthine syntax. In one he broods upon how the media take famous people hostage in their own space, how interviewers always betray the interviewee. For a few days I wonder if he is being manipulative, trying to compromise me, then I conclude he is just being insecure. After all, he writes also of ‘the old nightmare times’ when the press went through his rubbish bins and people spat on his window outside courtrooms and tracked him down in London while his wife was pregnant and feeling hysterical. It had been cruel of the judges to hold the trial in front of the cameras, he adds, because adults know things that children are not ready for. ‘They never once thought of the effect it would have on our six-year-old son.’ He adds that Sandra Jennings has turned out to have ‘much of the qualities and loyalty and love to our son that I valued in our love, before it got bruised’.

The letters make me suspect that part of William Hurt never fully recovered from that legal battle with Jennings. ‘Whatever good I have done as an artist is obscured by it,’ he writes. It has left him vulnerable and raw, delirious and disconnected, desperate to be understood. That defining trauma has also left him hypersensitive to criticism – yet unable to resist the chance to expose himself to scrutiny in this interview. Perhaps it is Stockholm syndrome he suffers from, the pscyhological condition that describes the mutual dependence between kidnapper and victim.  But the letters are touching, too. In one he tells me it’s his 50th birthday. In another he quotes from the book about Augustine he is reading at the moment. In a tender one, from Paris, he writes: ‘People cry alone and they can laugh alone too. My daughter laughed and laughed in her sleep the other night. It wasn’t for anyone else. She was just laughing.’