Legendary British performer John Hurt has consistently exemplified the qualities of an on-screen chameleon, skillfully transforming and inhabiting roles often marked by physical and psychological struggles.

In 10 Rillington Place (1971), he toyed with mental anguish as a murderer wrongly accused. Then, in The Naked Civil Servant (1975), he so embodied the part of Quentin Crisp, a troubled and flamboyantly gay writer, actor and raconteur, that he earned an Emmy. Later, he played the part of the crazed emperor Caligula in “I, Claudius” (1976), a tortured Turkish inmate in Midnight Express (1978) and the space explorer Kane, whose body is violently overtaken by a chest-exploding monster, in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).

All very memorable. But among Hurt’s characters, perhaps none are more memorable than the gentle, disfigured John Merrick in David Lynch’s classic study on human dignity, The Elephant Man (1980).

Surprisingly, says Hurt, “All of those [roles], in a sense, were the least challenging, because they were such wonderful parts to play.”

A native of Derbyshire, England, John Hurt studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and went on to solidify his acting chops on stage, where he took on many challenging roles, well before the likes of Merrick or Crisp.

“What’s really challenging,” notes Hurt, “is when you don’t have a very good part and someone wants it to be number one on the charts. That’s tough. That’s really tough.” Challenges aside, Hurt has found excellence in every genre, from science fiction (1984) to children’s fantasy (Harry Potter). He has even lent his distinguished voice to such projects as Watership Down (1978), The Lord of the Rings (1978) and The Black Cauldron (1985).

After narrating two of Lars von Trier’s films, Dogville and Manderlay, Hurt said told von Trier: “‘You keep giving me the narration, but you never put me in front of the camera!’ Shortly after, he called my bluff and asked me to do this part.”

“This part” is his role in von Trier’s apocalyptic drama Melancholia, a deeply meditative film that follows the lives of two sisters (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg) struggling for meaning in their lives and relationships as a new planet rapidly approaches Earth. In the film, Hurt plays the girls’ fun-loving father, in another role that the gifted actor would undoubtedly categorize as “least challenging.”

Mark Sells (MM): Growing up in a small coal mining village near Chesterfield, you lived near a cinema, but weren’t allowed to visit, right? And your parents wanted you to become an artist. When and how were you able to cut footloose and focus on acting?

John Hurt (JH): Boy, you want a long story already! (laughs) My parents always loved the theater, but they came from a generation and a period where cinema was quite new. They weren’t sure about the cinema. They thought that it was a bit risqué. My father was a clergyman, and they loved the theater. They just couldn’t conceive of one of theirs being one of those on stage.

I didn’t really make the move from painting to drama until my father had disappeared into the mission field. He went to British Honduras [now Belize] and left me on my own to do what I wanted. So I went from Saint Martin’s School of Art to the Royal Academy. And I was very fortunate I got in, because I always thought the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art was where Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud went. The world was a much bigger place back then. You didn’t have all the information at your fingertips. But I got in on a small scholarship that allowed me to go through.

MM: Do you still paint today?

JH: I do, yes. And I’m very pleased that I didn’t go straight into acting, because it’s an interest and an activity that I’m passionately fond of.

MM: Throughout your career, you’ve managed to juggle high profile audience pleasers with critically acclaimed dramatic films. What criteria do you use in selecting a role?

JH: My basic criteria with any film is that it should stand the chance of succeeding on the level that it is intended to succeed on. It really doesn’t matter whether it’s a comedy, a drama, an art film or a blockbuster, as long as it stands the chance of succeeding on that level or in that style.

Then the next thing I ask myself is if there’s something I can do with the part that’s being offered to make it completely personal. Again, it really doesn’t matter if it’s a lead, a supporting part, a cameo, etc.—as long as I can add something to it. This simple approach keeps my life varied, which I enjoy.

MM: Is there a character you haven’t portrayed that you wish you could play?

JH: That’s a very interesting question, because I’ve never really had ambitions to play any particular thing or any particular person. I’ve never been the kind of actor dying to play Hamlet or Lear or those sorts of things.

In essence, I consider myself the result of other people’s imagination. Half the things that I’ve done, I would never have thought of for myself. It’s always been at somebody else’s suggestion. And that’s the way I like it.

The problem with allowing actors to have too much say in what they play is that they would only do the parts that they would see themselves doing. And that’s enormously limiting if you think about it, i.e., I would never have thought of myself to play Caligula, quite honestly. But somebody else did.

MM: Was it somebody else’s suggestion that you do Melancholia?

JH: Actually, what attracted me to Melancholia was Lars von Trier. He is one of a small group of directors that, if he calls you up to do a film, you say “Where and when?” There aren’t very many. There’s Jim Jarmusch. And Billy Bob Thornton, who I just worked with [in Jayne Mansfield’s Car]. But it’s a very select group.

The film came about because I had done the narration for Dogville and Manderlay, which are exceptional films. But I had never worked in front of the camera with him. So, I said: ‘You keep giving me the narration, but you never put me in front of the camera!’ Then, one day, he called my bluff and asked me to do this part. And I’m so glad he did, because I got to work with Kirsten, and she’s absolutely sensational in it.
MM: Lars has been seen as both an artistic trailblazer and a provocateur. What was your experience like working with him? And what do you admire about him as a director?

JH: Apart from his extraordinary understanding of what film means, the image on screen, etc., to actually work with him, it’s difficult to describe. He’s quite unlike anybody else. He doesn’t rehearse. You start and you shoot. Then you shoot some more. Then you shoot around that. And set up and shoot some more. It’s a most extraordinary way of working. And always exciting.

He’s an extremely perceptive man. I believe he can be difficult, but I never found him to be so.

MM: I’ve heard that he’s pretty tough on his actresses…

JH: I’ve heard that too, but when I’ve talked to Charlotte and Kirsten, I don’t think they found that. Lars is a man of many moods, depressions and excitements. He’s extremely honest and absolutely brilliant with women.

If he was having a jibe at you, it was because of his sense of humor. And you’d have to be really thick skinned not to realize that.

I’m sure that he has upset people. Clearly he has, because they’ve said so. But those same people turned in the best performances of their lives. Bjork will never be as good as [she was in Dancer in the Dark]. And I doubt Nicole [Kidman (Dogville)] will be either.

MM: In Melancholia, there’s no alien running amok, bursting out of people’s chests. It’s a much quieter fear: The fear of the unknown. Have you ever had a fear and attempted to conquer it?

JH: I never had a phobia or that sort of a fear. Never had anything as severe as that. I can’t say that I particularly like heights, but I’m not phobic. And I’m not in a hurry to get over that completely. I don’t mind being slightly frightened of heights (laughs).

MM: Did you ever have stage fright?

JH: It depends on what you mean by stage fright. Fright would suggest a sense of panic. I’ve never gone into panic. But you do get into a very heightened nervous state. Absolutely. It would be strange if you didn’t, because I doubt you would be able to entertain if you were just flaccid.

MM: You’ve had so many iconic, career defining roles: Quentin Crisp, Caligula, John Merrick, etc. Is there any one character that stands out for you?

JH: All of those [roles], in a sense, were the least challenging because they were such wonderful parts to play. They were incredibly enjoyable to play. What’s challenging is when you don’t have a very good part and someone wants it to be number one on the charts. That’s tough. That’s really tough.

I’ll never forget Jack Nicholson, when asked a similar question, without batting an eyelid, said Easy Rider, on the grounds that that was what changed the audiences’ understanding and perception of him and the business’ perception of him all at the same time.

And if that were the case, I would have to say The Naked Civil Servant, without any question. I had done things like A Man for All Seasons and 10 Rillington Place before that, but The Naked Civil Servant was, as it were, my break.

MM: How important is live theater in the development of an actor?

JH: It varies according to the actor. But, from my point of view, it’s enormously important. You need to know how to entertain. And by entertain, I don’t mean razzmatazz. It can be the quietest thing in the world. As you said quite rightly, Lars has made a science fiction film that is incredibly quiet, but extraordinarily moving.

For a performer, you have to understand the difference between the audience and the camera. And that’s a technical thing, something that has to do with the craft. But if you really want to understand the soul of performing, you have to do it with an audience.

MM: Do you have any lessons you’d like to share with young actors today?

JH: That’s a good question, but a difficult one. And it’s a difficult one for this very reason: Things change. Things escalate and change in such a way and at such a speed that what would have applied as advice when I was a young actor, to a young actor today, would not be advice at all. It probably wouldn’t be of any interest and may not be applicable.

So I think one has to be very careful. The only thing I can say to a young actor is to pursue it if it’s what you need, if it’s what you’re passionate about, and press on. I can’t tell you more than that. I can’t tell you the tricks of the trade because there aren’t any tricks of the trade. They don’t exist.

MM: You don’t think acting can be learned?

JH: I think, like anything—music, poetry, science, etc.—you either have an aptitude or you don’t. Call it an aptitude or a gift or whatever you like… And you can, on top of that, build. But you cannot produce that gift for someone. You cannot make a mathematician out of someone who isn’t. You can make them okay at arithmetic, okay at A plus B equals C. Perhaps a bit of algebra or make them understand the Pythagorean Theorem. But you’re not going to make a mathematician out of them.

The same thing applies to an actor. If they don’t have that kind of imagination, you’re not going to be able to create it. But if they do, to a certain degree, you can always add to it. You can make it better. You can hone it. You can show them the immense possibilities.

Like in chess, you can awaken them to the idea that there are millions of moves; a lot of them stupid, but some of them quite brilliant.