William Hurt on Kristen Stewart, Bernie Madoff, and His Love of Dave Eggers Magazines

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When you board the William Hurt Express, it's best not to have a destination in mind. The actor is an interesting person to interview specifically because he resists the normal confines of that sort of prescribed conversation, instead taking his questioner on several passionate detours. All this is to say that although I sat down with Hurt in order to discuss his new film The Yellow Handkerchief and his costars Kristen Stewart and Maria Bello, the interview began with him vividly reading out loud from his new favorite periodical, then blossomed unexpectedly from there.

How are you holding up today?

[Holding up a copy of the McSweeneys magazine The Believer] This is what I'm reading these days.

Do you read that regularly?

Well, I have a subscription.

Have you read a lot of stuff from Dave Eggers?

Not a lot, no. In fact, this is a wonderful revelation given to me by my friend Krista from Australia. She found it, and gave me this. I'm just knocked out! In fact, this woman Rebecca Solnit...ever hear of her?

I don't think so.

She's very, very cool. She is, in her own description, an essayist, because they can't present her any other way. Her quote is, "I still think the revolution is to make the world safe for poetry, meandering, for the frail and vulnerable, the rare and obscure, the impractical and local and small." [Hurt begins to read out loud from the magazine now] "How to avoid moralizing without rendering yourself totally ineffectual: Humor, self-awareness, the language of persuasion and inclusion." She wrote things like Wanderlust: A History of Walking. She wrote a thing called A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She wrote A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. She's an amazing person.

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And The Believer is your introduction to her?

It's a great magazine. From San Francisco, of course. They have this wonderful series of micro-interviews, these imaginary interviews given by an imaginary Ken Burns to the writer Brad Neely. I'll read you one of them. It's so good. What it was is that Ken Burns sent out this questionnaire to schools who'd seen his Civil War thing. It was like the teacher questionnaire, like "What does it mean to you and what is this historically and blah de-blah blah blah?" So Burns asked these schools, "Consider the events leading directly or indirectly to the Civil War. Was slavery the main issue for the war's beginning? What were other contributing factors?"

Then Brad Neely said, "Oh, if only it were the field I imagine. If it were, the entire evil South was this sort of Mordor, with sweaty colonels and fanning Pharaohs. If Lincoln slid into power and right away pulled a Moses on everyone by immediately sending our dashing, malnourished boys in blue to free the esteemed and respected people from chains. It's a seductive perspective that sees the cause of moral epiphany. In my simpler heart, this was our American Iliad, with Grant and Lee as Achilles and Hector reversed. Before the war, kids talented in the violent arts were sent to our national Hogwarts West Point [laughs] and later, when the war had bloomed into its pageant, those ex-bunkmates would square off in battle on either side of the good-and-evil line. Yep, Jefferson Starship Davis led everyone astray with his high, twangy rhetoric, and yes, he dressed up like a woman and rode around in trains. Oh, the personalities." It's just...Burns, eat your heart out. The next time you hand out these questions...

If only we'd seen that version.

If only we'd seen that one. Excuse me for the diversion. It's just that it's tremendous.

I mean, we could talk magazines for the whole time, but the publicist for The Yellow Handkerchief would probably take issue with that. Let me ask you a little bit about the movie.

Yeah.

I thought it was interesting that on this film, both the screenwriter, Erin Dignam, and the cinematographer, Chris Menges, have actually directed you before.

Yes, good for you! Yay, someone finally realized that! Thank you.

Does that give the director an incredible ability to tailor the role to you, or do you think, "I wonder if they're all passing notes about me..."?

I hope they're passing notes about me! They're really talented people and they deserve each other's company. I have never worked with anyone who I hold in higher esteem than Chris Menges. He's an absolute, bona fide, authentic artist. I love both of them profoundly, as people and as artists.

What puts them head and shoulders above the rest, as artists?

They're not fakes. It's not artifice, it's art. They're looking honestly at stuff, and they're not making it nice to make it fashionable or easy to make you like them. They like you -- they're not asking to be liked, but they like you -- and they just want to tell some truth.

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