RIP: John Hurt

Over the weekend, the acting world lost yet another of its fine members. John Hurt CBE – a man of enormous talent and film credits to be in awe of – had been battling pancreatic cancer since 2015, yet announced later that year it was in remission. Which makes it all the more sadder to hear of his death.

Back in 2009 I had the pleasure of interviewing and photographing him, and was immediately struck with how calm and down to earth he was. You get to meet a lot of famous folk in this industry, and a large number of them can be so up their own arses it’s unbelievable. Which is why I’ll always fondly remember my short but pleasent encounter with him.

In December 2014 I wrote a short blog post about my experience with the man, so it seems fitting to share it here today in honour of a fine actor who hailed from my beloved shire of Derbyshire.

When Matthew met… John Hurt CBE

Bizarrely, most people respond by asking, “who?” when I tell them I’ve photographed John Hurt. Maybe it’s a generation thing; after all, he was born in the 1920s, making him something of a relic in the eyes of today’s Reality TV-Loving Youth.

So if that’s your generation and you’re reading this asking the same question, then may I simply answer by saying Mr. Ollivander in the Harry Potter series. That’s right, the man who makes all the wands for the Hogwarts Massive is played by none other than Derbyshire’s very own Mr. Hurt.

To everyone else you’ll no doubt be aware of John’s acting credentials, most famously, perhaps, as Kane from Ridley Scott’s original Alien. Kane is the guy who showed the world what it would look like for a living creature to pop out of your stomach whilst you’re still alive; a truly classic moment in cinema history.

Our first glimpse of Ridley Scott's Xenomorph

And let’s not forget his turn as Winston Smith in the film adaption of George Orwell’s 1984, The War Doctor in the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who, Chancellor Sutler from V for Vendetta, Professor Oxley from the last Indiana Jones movie, and John Merrick, aka The Elephant Man.

Hopefully now you’re all aware of who John Hurt is, which means I can finally get on with my story.

Unbeknown to me at the time (September 2009) John was the Patron of Derby Quad – a brand new building in the city centre that dedicated itself to the arts. It really is a fantastic place, with a small cinema playing Hollywood blockbusters as well as Arthouse productions; an exhibition space, conference rooms, regular creative workshops, and an on-site cafe.

When I found out I was going down to Quad to photograph John I immediately got really excited, especially as I was a huge admirer of his work.

John Hurt, Quad, Derby, Derby Telegraph, Photography by Matthew James, actor, celebrities, celebrity, harry potter, 1984, indiana jones, elephant man

So together with reporter Claire Duffin we headed down to Quad and joined John in a small room with a pot of coffee. Now, at this point you don’t know what to expect: could he be a total drama queen and a bully (very much like Danny Dyer was), or would he be manic and bouncing around the room, perhaps? Well he was neither of those things, just an absolute gentleman with a soothing voice and plenty of patience and wisdom. As Claire started firing off great questions one after another, I couldn’t help but join in. “How do you feel about working with Green Screens and invisible actors compared to the theatre and independent productions?” I asked him. To which he gave a very dignified and honest response about the industry as a whole and “that’s just how things were.”
Then I asked him about working with Daniel Ratcliffe, “Ah, Daniel,” he replied warmly before taking a sip of coffee. “He’s so bloody rich, you know.”

Throughout our interview, John was present but slightly distant; as if he had a lot on his mind. He answered all of our questions with such honesty and carefully thought about his answers before responding. So when I led him over to the window to get a couple of portraits, my first thought was ‘how am I going to get him looking jolly excited to be here?’ I decided to try that approach later, so we started with a ‘thoughtful’ pose by the window. And as if he had read my mind, John was already standing by the glass and gazing out to the streets below with a very pensive look on his face. I just remember thinking, this is Kane from Alien.

When we were finished we all headed downstairs to cut Quad’s birthday cake and it was like someone flicked a switch on inside him. Lifting the cake up to his mouth, he pulled the kind of face we Derby Telegraph photographers always tried to make everybody else do when we photographed them: Big eyes, large mouth, etc etc. It’s cheesy as hell, but when you’re photographing everyday things then it’s important to embellish them a bit for the camera. It helps things come alive.

John Hurt, Quad, Derby, Derby Telegraph, Photography by Matthew James, actor, celebrities, celebrity, harry potter, 1984, indiana jones, elephant man

He held that pose long enough for everyone present to get a quick snap, and following a genuine round of applause from those present, he took a bite out of it and wolfed it down.

The last thing on my list to do was take a picture with John holding a Derby County scarf high above his head. The Rams had a big game on at the weekend and the paper wanted to show some support, as always. The truth is, the picture absolutely sucked (as my boss quickly told me when I got back to the office) and I don’t even have a copy of it in my archives. I explained that he was probably a Chesterfield fan (the town he grew up in) and therefore didn’t really want to do the picture in the first place. It was a nice try, but a load of bollocks all the same.

So there you have it. To all you young’uns out there, may I suggest watching some of John’s back catalogue; there’s plenty to choose from. And even if some of the films are stinkers, as he admits himself, John’s acting abilities can’t really be questioned. A true professional, through and through. I’ll leave you with a quote of his…

“We are all racing towards death. No matter how many great, intellectual conclusions we draw during our lives, we know they’re all only man-made, like God. I begin to wonder where it all leads. What can you do, except do what you can do as best you know how.”

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