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Emmys 2011: Come Emmy Night, William Hurt Could be Too Big to Fail

William Hurt
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

The theater and movie vet opens up about playing Henry Paulson in HBO's Emmy-contending original film.

With one win and three other nominations, William Hurt is a familiar Oscar favorite. But he has never had a role as challenging as playing U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in HBO's financial-collapse drama Too Big to Fail. Here, the front-runner for lead actor in a miniseries or movie reveals what it was like to make a film about "extraordinary people dealing with real events."

You're a movie star. Why did you opt to do an HBO movie?

I always look at the material, the caliber of people you're working with and how well they're going to work on it.

Having castmembers like James Woods, Ed Asner, Cynthia Nixon and Paul Giamatti
probably made the decision easy for you.

Oh, yes. "Show me with whom you walk, and I'll tell you who you are," is an old Latin phrase. So I'm a very rich actor.

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But how do you convey the drama of something as arcane as the fiscal crisis?

That was my trepidation from the beginning. You know, it's docudrama. You're mixing two very powerful metaphors, and sometimes they're not compatible. Also, the other dangerous territory is pretending you can play a living human being.

So you spent time with the banker-turned-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. What did you take away? Your body actually looks different.

I worked hard on that, but I get a lot of help from the costume department. I wore a T-shirt with padding. He's idiosyncratic and very taut, a football player, always leaning toward the tape physically. Square, square shoulders, and what he does with his hands is impossible to accommodate because we would have had to plan every shot around the hands themselves. He's also very conscientious, conscious of how differently you play the game when you're on the field at Goldman Sachs and when you're the referee.

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I was ready to hate him and couldn't help liking him.

I was ready not to, too, and I couldn't help it either. He pours immense amounts of his personal resources into getting national parks instituted in China, to address the carbon problem there. This is a man who doesn't wear his political or spiritual heart on his sleeve but operates personally by a set of principles more scrupulous than perhaps a lot of us. And then he gets grouped as one of the selfish, greedy bad guys. That's not appropriate. As an artist, I have to ask myself where did this person come from, not where do I come from that I can load my moral judgment on that person in retrospect.

An approach a lot of actors would take.

For sure. Attitudinal, sentimental drivel.

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Almost all of the movie/miniseries noms are fact-based. Even Downton Abbey was inspired by a diary. Do you agree that people don't really understand reality anymore until they see it done in artistic form?

That is really the most important point. Being able to inform on a subject that intimately concerns every human on the planet, that's a privilege and a responsibility. This project does not analyze it from the point of view of someone who wakes up with a $22,000 debt to a bank in Iceland. It's not Inside Job. There are so many ways you can address the colluded delusion that the world fell into. This is a dramatized series of events. You choose one aspect; you analyze the brain of an entire event, slice by careful slice.

How did HBO have the cojones to make a movie like this? Movie studios couldn't afford the risk.

I was on an escalator with [HBO's] Len Amato and asked, "How do you guys do this?" They're smarter than I am by a lot. He said, "Well, we do have an alchemy going on here."

The movie captured the emotional alchemy of figures we usually think of as unfeeling masters of the universe who crush the rest of us under their jackboots.

Really, what they are is extraordinary people dealing with real events. They have extraordinary talent, and they're just as vulnerable as any of the rest of us.

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