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John Hurt – Standing In The Way Of Control

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spys spymaster general John Hurt talks awards, Gary Oldman and filming Down Under with Flicks.co.nz’s Matt Glasby, in London.

John Hurt as Control in 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'

One of the UK’s greatest ever screen actors, and the veteran of more than 100 films, John Hurt seems to have spent his entire onscreen life at the mercy of terrible, faceless organisations. Whether it’s the Turkish prison system (Midnight Express) or the English death penalty (10 Rillington Place); the crushing machinery of state (1984) or a rather more literal kind (Watership Down). It’s there in his physique – slump shouldered, frail-seeming – and that voice – donnish, undefeated, hanging on in quiet desperation…

In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (opening today in cinemas nationwide), the latest of many Hurt’s literary adaptations, from 1978’s animated Lord Of The Rings to 2010’s Brighton Rock, he plays Control, the head of M16, or “the circus” as it’s mirthlessly nicknamed. It’s a slowburn thriller of sludgy browns and furrowed brows, and Control is a little more than a spent civil servant with one retirement option. As George Smiley, another mirthlessly named lifer who sacrificed all for “the cause”, Gary Oldman heads a UK cast with an almost embarrassing pedigree.

Besides Hurt, Colin Firth and Mark Strong, Tom Hardy (Inception) pops in for a monologue; Stephen Graham (This Is England) makes the tea. Awards, you suspect, are on the agenda. When Flicks caught up with him in London, Hurt and co were at the mercy of another faceless organization: BAFTA.


FLICKS: It seems congratulations are order…
JOHN HURT: Thank you. What for?

Tinker Tailor’s 11 BAFTA nominations.
I didn’t realize that had been made public yet. I’d love Gary Oldman to be recognised. I think he’s absolutely brilliant in it. I’ve been looking forward to working with him for many years and finally got the opportunity and was thrilled to do so.

How does it feel being part of such a strong production?
It was a complete joy from beginning to end. It didn’t surprise me in the least, but we unearthed a genuine and marvelous director in Tomas Alfredson [of the Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In] as well…

As an outsider, what kind of insight did he bring?
He brought a huge amount, the whole look of it, the whole feel of it, the whole editorial aspect of it, the whole conception of the way in which the story would be told – along with the writers of course, such wonderful writers. But he’s a very clever director, no question.


“We unearthed a genuine and marvelous director in Tomas Alfredson.”


It’s a very grim way of depicting spy life…
But what we consider unglamorous is part of the appeal of it for them. It’s the lack of commitment in domestic life. That kind of living on the edge is indeed, part of the ‘glamour’. It may not be glamorous when you’re living it, but it certainly attracts people – extremely intelligent people too. I think one has to be very careful by what one means by ‘glamour’… if you’re thinking James Bond, well, no one lives like that. If you go into the actual reality of spying throughout the centuries, you’re living on a razor’s edge all the time, and that in itself is exciting. It is therefore, to some, glamorous.

David Dencik and Gary Oldman in 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'

Smiley and co reminded us of Winston Smith, broken by the bureaucratic wheels in 1984
Well I wouldn’t say that was glamorous (laughs), but then Winston’s not living on the edge, he’s living under the thumb of it all.

Aren’t these characters under the thumb of it all too?
Well, it isn’t put to them like that (laughs)!

The film has a very British sensibility, how has it gone down abroad?
I never know whether people are telling me the truth or not, but the people whose opinions I really care about have liked it enormously, directors, in particularly seem to love it.

Like who?
Why, you don’t think there can be any (laughs)? John Hillcoat [who directed Hurt in The Proposition] thought it was a terrific piece of work all round.

We love The Proposition
So did I, loved doing it. I wasn’t in The Outback for that long, but it was fascinating. Much more interesting than the coast. In what way? I just think it’s more ‘glamourous’ (laughs), it’s more edgy, you’re really in Australia. Most Australians have never heard of Winton County [Queensland filming location]. Why would they? The only difference is, it’s bigger than Belgium!


“It’s almost impossible to be a visitor now. They make everything like it is at home…”


Do you like roles that take you to the edge?
I didn’t say that, you’re putting words in my mouth! But I do like being places that have a bit of edge to them. Particularly in this world where we’re getting less and less of it. It’s almost impossible to be a visitor now. They make everything like it is at home…

Were you worried about tackling such a classic book?
It’s very rare to make that leap from great literature to great cinema, a problem that we give ourselves constantly by buying beautifully written books and then having to make them into films. It’s a totally different language; you’re giving yourself infinitely more trouble than if you had conceived something as a film in the first place. But that’s a gamble that generally speaking the studios are not prepared to take. They’re prepared to make the other gamble, which is moving something from literature to cinema, which I would have said was more difficult, but there you are… I digress.

It was a wonderful script, and with someone like Tomas at the helm, you just knew it was going to make a film. When I finally got on set, there was an extraordinary communality. There was no starriness. There was no one pushing people about or anything like that. It was a complete ensemble and without anybody saying it just fitted in and slotted and worked brilliantly. I think it’s a terrific film, but I suppose not everybody does, I don’t know…

We do, and we hope it brings you everything you want.
Thank you very much. It’s all down to you boys treating it so nicely…

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