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British actor John Hurt, who died Jan. 25 at age 77, has several films awaiting release. But his last big-screen appearance was in Jackie, directed by Pablo Larrain and starring Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy coping with the assassination of her husband. Hurt plays a priest who counsels Jackie, revealing his own doubts about the meaning of life but offering her a reason to go on living.
NATALIE PORTMAN: John was such an incredible human being, very, very kind, very easy to work with. We were shooting in really cold weather, doing difficult, very long takes, where he had a lot of dialogue. He was doing an Irish accent. He was just so good-natured and funny. The things he would come up with on his own between takes, Pablo would say, “That’s better than what we have, just say that.”
We didn’t rehearse, so really all that energy from him was apparent when we were filming. Pablo gave direction sometimes that was almost counter-intuitive. He would ask John to be bored and act like he didn’t want to be there. John said, “No one’s ever asked me to do this thing before that goes against everything I assume about this character. But this is interesting.” And then when we did it, he’d say, “Oh, I understand where this is going, why he’s asking for these things.” Pablo would say, “Say, you want to get a drink right now.” And John would say, “I don’t know that a priest with Jackie would necessarily say that in life.” But it was not about being truthful to history necessarily, but creating a dramatically interesting scene.
It was nice to see someone who was such a legend and who had so much experience, who had every right to have an attitude about that sort of thing, but he was just interested in learning and trying something new and experimenting. It showed a lot of openness.
It was really devastating to lose him as both an actor and a human being. When you look at all the films he’s made, it’s crazy, but hopefully at the moment, people will be revisiting 1984and V for Vendetta, among his incredible body of work.
PABLO LARRAIN: We needed an Irish priest, and for some reason I thought about John. I talked to him on the phone and he said, “OK, I’ll read your script but send me your movies.” So he saw three or four of them, and I talked to him again and he was asking why this movie would need him. I told him, “There’s a culture that goes unexplained, why she should stay alive, why she should move on. To do that, you need an incredible amount of truth and an incredible amount of confidence.” The priest is someone you needed to trust in the film, and I felt John was someone you could really, really trust as a man. So he could play that very honestly and I think he did. At some point, you see him not only as a priest, but more as a father in the film. He would give you his shoulder to cry on. It’s so beautiful and moving what he did.
We discussed it all while shooting: I know much of what the priest says in the movie is something that a Catholic priest would never say. He would never put in doubt the existence of God, which is what he does. But John does it in a way that creates even more confidence in life. It’s not just because it’s beautifully written, but also because it comes from someone who can contemplate the limits of existence and create every possible angle on the existential terror that we all face every day. When John says that on screen, it’s terrifying, but also it has some weird optimism when he says there’s nothing to do but get up in the morning and make a pot of coffee. He does it with a level of truth so that there’s nothing else to say after that. It was very beautiful, there was just something in his voice.
If you look at most of the characters John played in films, many of them aren’t the lead role. Most of his movies, he would usually get the toughest roles, the ones that needed a very elevated level to work. He was usually doing the hard ones, but he was so unbelievably good and talented, he would make them look easy. He was the kind of actor who could make everything look simple. And that simplicity is the most sophisticated thing an actor can do. I asked him once how he how felt about theater and cinema, and he said theater was his home and cinema was his backyard.
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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