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The Yellow Handkerchief’s William Hurt on Kristen Stewart and Oscar Advice From Sally Field

The acclaim surrounding Jeff Bridges’s turn in Crazy Heart — in which everyone seemingly slaps their foreheads in remembrance of how talented the guy is — also recalls William Hurt, another actor with a penchant for blending seamlessly into his surroundings. In The Yellow Handkerchief, Hurt plays a recently paroled convict who, beset with inner conflict about whether to try to reach out to a past love, crosses paths with a young duo (Kristen Stewart and Eddie Redmayne) on a post-Katrina road trip through Louisiana. Vulture caught up with a bearded Hurt recently to talk about his career, the world's shrinking IQs, and what Sally Field said to him when he won his Oscar.

A rooted sense of place is such a big part of this film. Does location shooting make a big difference for you?
It makes a huge difference, especially looking out at New Orleans instead of a green screen. You’re glomming it up, soaking up the environment. I spent time in Angola, in maximum security and among the prison population there. I actually didn’t want to live in a hotel, because I don’t like hotels and I didn’t want to live with the crew if they were confabbing in the evening, so I took a small trailer and parked it in a field on the other side of the road from Angola. I lived in that, and fished in a small pond there. It was nice. I only had one day off a week, but I’d go biking in the countryside, and if I went into New Orleans I’d go to a jazz bar or something.

Your performance tends to subvert preconceived notions one might have just based on hearing you play an ex-convict.
I think that’s right. People tend to oversimplify, by nature, and one of the purposes of film, it seems to me, is to challenge oversimplification. That’s one of the things you do; you come out firing from the hip at any stereotype you can see. I think art is about particulars, it’s not about generalities. Generalities are prejudice.

A lot of movies in your recent filmography, like Mr. Brooks, The King, and A History of Violence, have a bit in common with this film — a sense of dormant menace, just lingering in the background.
That’s interesting. We have been moving into insinuating times. We live in a time when no one knows where their next job is coming from, and the number of people majoring in liberal arts, humanities at universities is going to be about the same as it was at the turn of the last century. Now we have Ponzi schemes like Madoff’s, and who knows — maybe Greenspan pulled one, too. There are Ponzi schemes everywhere, it seems like, and a lot of insidious agenda that seems to be going on — there’s a spread [of] what I call the creeping murmur and the poring dark filling the wide vessel of the universe, [from the] prologue to Henry V. It’s possible that there’s a theme there. Steve Martin defined it as the age of regret in that Picasso play [Picasso at the Lapin Agile]. I think it’s a little pretentious myself to say that, but he was saying something. Now that we’ve turned a corner with the world getting smaller and more finite in lots of ways, anxiety is increasing — you see people homogenizing, and you see IQs decrease as anxiety increases.

You had three consecutive Best Actor Oscar nominations in the eighties, and starred in five films nominated for Best Picture in that decade, but it occurs to me that most audiences got to know you as an adult, and after you had a body of stage work that I assume was a mooring experience. Could you have jumped into film at a younger age, like Kristen Stewart?
Oh, absolutely not. But I see myself as a repertory ensemble actor. I don’t see myself as a movie star at all, I really don’t. Movies are no different for me, in intensity or quality or essence, from any other act of theater. It’s true, it’s a different medium, but essentially it’s all theater. And my training in theater was important, and that grounding was in place from lots of rehearsal. I know for a fact that if we rehearsed more, all our movies would be better. I know it for a fact, and I’ve spent my life arguing that. I know every movie in which I’ve ever been permitted to have rehearsal was always a better movie. I know it, so why doesn’t Hollywood get the point? Acting [isn’t] competing with other people. In fact, you do the opposite: You prove that you’re a trustworthy human being who’s not just trying to audition for his next job within a role, you’re actually trying to help make the other guy or girl better, because you want the scene to be better, you want the truth that’s inherent in the script to be more available to everybody. You’re not trying to steal attention, you’re trying to pay attention. Those ethics to me are standard. They emanate from an ethic that is the heart of theater.

Did the awards attention that came your way from A History of Violence surprise you?
It was odd, because I built it exactly on the ethic I’m talking about. I got there way early. David [Cronenberg] was nice enough to pay for ten days of the hotel room and hire a dialect coach for me, and then my lucky stroke was Viggo [Mortensen] and Maria [Bello], because I built the character based on the circumstances that they’d accepted as true for their characters. I just made my character fit into their world. I didn’t go in and jump out of a box, and do a great or funny thing.

Given that we're in the midst of awards season, what Oscar memories do you have?
I remember when they presented the Academy Award to me, the first words out of my mouth on the stage were to Sally Field. I said to her, “Sally, what the hell do I do with this?” And she looked back and understood completely, because she’s a wonderful person. She said, “You live with it.” That’s a great answer. And then I walked over and said the only thing that I could think of, because I didn’t expect to [win]: “I’m glad to be an actor.”

Photo: Patrick McMullan