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Detail and devotion

William Hurt, in Thailand to film his new movie, on Tinseltown and the Land of Smiles

Published: 27/03/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Realtime

William Hurt was talking about his recent trip to Chiang Mai, where one afternoon he told his driver to stop on a dirt road so he could stroll around a village market on the city's outskirts. He was thrilled to have found a spot that wasn't overrun by tourists, a rural bazaar of authentic smell and colour.

''There I found that Thai people love to create all these little toys and figures, it's clear to me that they create them with a great sense of detail and devotion,'' said the American actor. ''Those are the same things I always try to put into my work.''

Hurt, 59, lodged at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok for two weeks in mid-March while he was in the country to shoot a US film called Shadows. In the psychological drama with an element of Siamese superstition, he plays an American expat living on a Thai beach with a couple of concubines. His is not a leading part, but it'd be rash to conclude that a small role is tantamount to small impression, especially in Hurt's case. ''It's not the size of the role,'' he said smiling. ''It's the quality of it.''

Coming from him it didn't sound like a justification, more like proof. In the 1980s Hurt, who had started off as a play actor years before, shone in the leading roles as a gay prisoner in Kiss of the Spider Woman, a sign language teacher in Children of a Lesser God, and a hotshot TV reporter in Broadcast News _ he was nominated for three consecutive Oscars from the three films (and won from Spider Woman).

Cruising below the radar in the 1990s, where he went without a hit, Hurt has in the past many years moulded his career into that of a dexterous scene-stealer: a utopian scientist in A.I: Artificial Intelligence, the US president in Vantage Point, the mysterious gatekeeper in Syriana, the jealous father in French film The Countess (he speaks fluent French). But above all, its his role as a super- creepy mob boss in A History of Violence; Hurt shows up to cause fabulous pandemonium only in the last 10 minutes, and that was enough to earn him another Oscar nomination in 2006, this time for a supporting act (he didnt win it).

''When I pick a role I always take risk,'' said Hurt, a big man with a mild manner. ''I'm always trying to challenge myself on every level. Crudely, I challenge myself first on the skill level: can I pull it off? Is there a character demand that I can meet?

''Basically I want to challenge the cheapness, though it's not always easy in

[the film business].''

Hurt elaborated on the dilemma of trying to be a quality actor in the business _ the art? the system? the medium? _ whose nature seems to facilitate the glory of the superficial.

''I think projected images are very distracting _ people are distracted by what they see. In film, the biggest distraction is film itself the effect of the visual. I mean people will watch almost anything on a screen. It doesn't have to have any meaning. It doesn't have to be good. They watch it because they try to avoid something else. The problem is like drug addict _ people will watch the image for its own sake.

''Now the people in the so-called industry see that they can make a business out of this. They just

[don't care so much about whether its good], they just have to crank out the image, since the audience will watch it anyway. This is why we always see explosions in films.

''It's strange that I'm saying this, but I'm always in conflict with that idea _ the idea of gratuitous distraction. My real work as an actor is to contradict the cheapness perpetrated by the gluttony of the media. That they try to sell junk since they know people will watch it no matter what _ to me, thats a social crime.''

Since he started out, Hurt has shown an instinct in picking the right projects. In 1981, he played a lawyer locked in a sultry deception with Kathleen Turner in Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat (Thai fans knew him mostly from this film). His role as a dreamy homosexual in Kiss of the Spider Woman, directed by Brazilian Hector Babenco in 1985, was audacious to say the least, then his turn as a newsman and an object of Holly Hunter's affection in Broadcast News, in 1987, was a move that won him both fans and praises. Later, Hurt chose to be in French films, German films, Russian films, and worked with arthouse directors such as Chantal Akerman, Wim Wenders, Istvan Szabo and David Cronenberg.

Hurt's previous movie was The Yellow Handkerchief, which he said he was having trouble securing distribution because they think its not violent enough. His tone was tinged with dismay when he recalled this, then Hurt launched into a mini-analysis of on-screen brutality we're experiencing.

''We still live in the age of There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, we live in a time when people are producing a lot of pure gore,'' he said, referring to two Oscar-winning films in 2007. ''Those films have courage and audacity, but they're not well thought-out in many ways.

''[This has a lot to do with] the real-world appetite for random violence. People are living in the environment of anxiety. I think that when the anxiety level increases, human intelligence decreases.''

But isn't A History of Violence, a gory film in which Hurt presides over shoot-em-up mayhem, part of that anxiety? ''The way

[director] David Cronenberg approached the violence in that film is completely different: it's not gratuitous. It's meant to shock you, and you're completely shocked

[by some scenes], but not in the way we're shocked by the indulgence of bloodletting, which is what most people are doing. You're shocked by the motif, not the act. In a way it's a critique of movie violence.''

This was the first time Hurt came to Thailand; his father, working for the US State Department, was stationed here during the Vietnam War. Once freed from the shoots of Shadows, the actor went to Chiang Mai and Koh Samui, and he only had good things to say about the country.

Hurt is not familiar with Thai cinema, or Asian cinema in general, though he admitted that he was curious about it. The same way that he's curious about all the roles that are still left for him to play.

''There are still plenty of good parts,'' he said. ''What else do I want to play? Do you think I can still play a 20-year-old? Well, it doesn't seem possible, but who knows? Maybe with a little preparation I could try.''

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  • May

    Discussion 1 : 27/03/2009 at 08:31 AM1

    William came to visit my film class at Chulalongkorn University. It was definitely an experience worth remembering. He really is a true artist.


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