LOS ANGELES — William Hurt was virtually unrecognizable on the recent Golden Globes telecast when the cameras panned to the “Damages” nominee. The 59-year-old actor was sporting a beard of such massively bushy dimensions, he looked as if he had walked off a Smith Brothers’ cough drop box.
Hurt laughs when the beard is mentioned. “I had just finished ‘Moby Dick,’” he explains over a cup of tea in the cozy office of his Beverly Hills publicist. “It’s a two-parter for TV we made in Malta and Nova Scotia. I play Ahab,” says the now neatly groomed Oscar winner.
After appearing mostly in supporting roles of late — including his scene-stealing, Oscar-nominated turn as the quirky gangster kingpin in 2005s “History of Violence” — Hurt gets the chance to be a leading man again in “The Yellow Handkerchief,” which opened late in 2008 for a one-week Oscar-qualifying run and releases wide on Friday.
In the haunting drama based on a 1971 short story by Pete Hamill, Hurt plays Brett, an ex-con just released from a Louisiana prison who hitches a ride with a rebellious 15-year-old girl (Kristen Stewart) and an odd young man (Eddie Redmayne) traveling the countryside in his old car.
His character is a man of few words, but he wears his emotions on his face, especially when he sees his wife for the first time after his release. It is one of Hurt’s finest moments in the film. “I love the idea of a person who was eloquent without talking much,” he says.
The actor, who also will be seen in Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” in May, was pleased to finally play a blue-collar guy. Though he’s played a wide variety of roles in his career, Hurt says he’s generally been typecast as “someone who is fairly educated and can talk. But that doesn’t mean I can’t play a cowboy or a gay window dresser.”
He tells of trying to get a small movie made “with me and Gena Rowlands as a woman dying of cancer alone in the West. I couldn’t get it done. They couldn’t get past the idea that I played a cowboy. I happen to live among actual cowboys in eastern Oregon.”
So is that why it took so long for “Handkerchief” to get a wider release?
“I can’t even tell you how many people called (producer Arthur Cohn) back and said, ‘This film is not violent enough to sell,’” Hurt replies. “Those are the very words. Arthur is an amazing man. He is a dynamo. He never gives up. He never quit trying to get a distributor.” Samuel Goldwyn is distributing the film.
Hurt marches to his own drummer. During a two-hour interview, he asks the reporter if she can name all the Supreme Court justices. He talks about his dismay over the court’s recent decision last month to remove restrictions on corporate and labor donations to election campaigns. And he takes time to read selections from San Francisco-based literary magazine the Believer that he enjoys because the writers are unencumbered by advertising concerns.
Listening to him read brings to mind his theater career. In the 1970s and early ‘80s, the Juilliard-trained actor was a member of New York’s acclaimed Circle Repertory Company. And in 1984, he earned a Tony nomination for David Rabe’s play “Hurlyburly.” Though he hasn’t tread the boards in New York of late, Hurt says he’s continued to work on stage.
“In the last five or six years, I have worked twice in a 154-seat house in Portland,” he says. “My old buddy Allen Nause is the artistic director of a small company called the Artist Repertory Theatre. He and I were spear carriers in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. I also did a ‘Richard II’ at the Manitoba Theater Center up in a very chilly Winnipeg — 30 below in March.”
And after he finishes a small romantic comedy in Europe with Isabella Rossellini called “Late Bloomers,” the actor is heading to Australia to work at the Sydney Theatre Company, where Cate Blanchett and her husband, Andrew Upton, are artistic directors. Upton will direct Hurt in Eugene O’Neill’s masterwork, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
“Then we are bringing that back to Oregon to a small venue of 900 seats that also falls under Allen’s management,” he says. Hurt also hopes to take a small role in the Sydney company’s production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
“Then I can become what I really am,” he says, “a repertory ensemble actor.”