Never lose the edge - John Hurt interview

Despite his appearance in the latest Indiana Jones film, John Hurt defies any suggestion that fame has made him cosy or complacent. Chitra Ramaswamy asks the former hellraiser what still drives this tetchy workaholic

SPENDING merely an hour in the company of John Hurt, you get to witness the spectrum of his moods. Despite his 68 years, he has as much of the volatile teenager in him as he does the seasoned, Rada-trained actor. At times he is full of fun, mischief and great anecdotes such as: "I remember talking to Olivier when we were doing Lear," he says in that grand, gravelly voice that rolls over vowels and savours consonants. Even when he orders a double espresso in the London hotel where we meet, it sounds like a great lost line intended for the stage. "He said: 'When it comes to your obituary they will only mention two or three performances, and they will be the ones that defined you early on.' I said: 'What willthey write about you?' 'Richard III and Wuthering Heights,' he replied. And he was right."

I ask Hurt what his defining roles would be. "Mine are already there. The Naked Civil Servant, I, Claudius, The Elephant Man, Midnight Express, Alien." That's more than Olivier, I quip, but he doesn't smile. "It doesn't necessarily mean they are the best."

If Hurt were picking films for his obituary he would include lesser-known work such as The Hit ("Stephen Frears at his best"), and The Field ("I love it, but it would never be mentioned"). Then he gets bored, and says "these are things for other people". Then he gets touchy: "If people say my career is over, it certainly is not the case."

He is right about his career, though. Hurt has nearly a dozen projects in the pipeline, from the film we are here to discuss today – The Oxford Murders, a rather silly English murder mystery co-starring Elijah Wood – to a Jim Jarmusch project, The Limits Of Control, with Tilda Swinton and Bill Murray, and Recount, a TV drama about the 2000 US elections, with Kevin Spacey and Laura Dern.

Then there is the small matter of being in this year's most anticipated blockbuster: Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, what Hurt rightly calls "a biggie". He plays Abner Ravenwood, the professor from Raiders Of The Lost Ark, though he isn't allowed to speak about the film – "they'd sue if they found out I'd been giving things away". So we talk about Harrison Ford instead, who is three years his junior.

"The great accusation against Harrison is that he can't act but he knows exactly what he's doing, and that is acting," says Hurt. "He really does lead a company and that's quite rare nowadays. You find a lot of stars don't give a bugger about anybody else, but Harrison will spot someone who is only in for a day and go over and make them feel at ease."

In The Oxford Murders Hurt plays a brilliant professor at Oxford to Elijah Wood's ambitious and adoring American student. Together, they end up attempting to solve a series of murders they believe are based on a mathematical logical series. An occasionally hammy 'guilty pleasure', Hurt is, not for the first time, the best thing about it. "This year I'm playing four professors," he laughs, and takes it well when I suggest perhaps his age is starting to become a factor. "Yes, yes. It has something to do with age, I suspect."

Most interviews with Hurt comment on his face, how lived in it looks, how it tells the story of his drinking days. It's true, beneath thick, foppish grey hair his face is heavily lined, and he looks out from narrow, hooded eyes. There is something almost reptilian about him. He has looked like this for a long time, though the moustache he is sporting today hasn't always been around.

Hurt has often played outsiders, from Quentin Crisp to The Elephant Man's John Merrick. After The Naked Civil Servant was broadcast in 1975, Crisp wrote: "I told Mr Hurt it was difficult for actors to play victims, but he has specialised in victims. And when he stopped playing me, he played Caligula, which was only me in a sheet. Then he played the Elephant Man, which was only me with a paper bag over my head." Interestingly, Hurt will play Crisp again in a follow-up to the landmark TV film, this time set in New York. "I have done quite a lot of outsider figures," he concedes, "but then drama is all about them. Hamlet isn't exactly one of the crowd, is he?"

Neither was Hurt, growing up in Derbyshire as the son of an Anglican vicar. At the age of eight he was sent away from home to an Anglo-Catholic school. "It was an extraordinary place," he recalls. "It was so High Church, all lace and purges and incense. Enormously theatrical. I found all the pageantry and ritual most exciting. All the camp." The religion, though, he rejected. His brother did too, by becoming a Catholic monk, but Hurt did it through acting and discovering all the kindness and generosity that he had looked for in the church in the theatre.

"We were crawling away from the war and the two essentials were respectability and security," he says, talking about his parents who were more keen on him teaching art than acting. "I didn't want to teach. I wanted to act. It was quite a long and difficult road to get there but very thrilling when I did." Hurt remembers his family living opposite a cinema and not being allowed to go inside. "I think they thought it was a bit libertine and lowbrow. It gave me something to revolt against."

At moments Hurt becomes quite morose, like when he talks about attending Anthony Minghella's memorial service. They worked together in the late Eighties and were friends. "A wonderful man… tragic… just 54. It shouldn't have happened." Later he suddenly starts talking about a friend of his who committed suicide recently. "What a funny way to take yourself out of it. I think he got to 60 and decided it wasn't going to get any better. Very him. Still, it came as a bit of a shock... What was I saying?"

He also tells me about his sister who died – she had variant CJD – while Hurt was making The Proposition in 2005. She was adopted by his parents immediately after Hurt's older brother died in childbirth. "She had a pretty tough time of it. The relationship between my mother and her was always extremely difficult. She was very bright but she wasn't allowed to go to university."

Hurt lives in Soho, London, but he is considering heading to the country with his fourth wife, Anwen Rees Meyers, an advertising film producer much younger than him, whom he married in 2005. He would like more space to paint, and she is interested in pottery. "I'm horribly self critical," he says of his art, something he has pursued for as long as his acting. "I destroyed all the early stuff, mistakenly probably."

Much has been made of his giving up drinking and smoking since his latest marriage, but on the subject of his colourful past, Hurt goes into touchy mode again. "I've stopped drinking," he admits. Was it a big decision? "It was… I suppose a sizeable one," he says. "It wasn't serving me, and the climate has changed. People don't do it any more."

There are things about those days that he misses though. "I miss the camaraderie, when it was fantastically creative. People love to talk about the drinking bit as though it were hellraising. Actually O'Toole put it really well when he said the drinking was to feed something else. Even when you weren't working everybody would meet somewhere. That's all gone, completely."

People love to think of Hurt as a hellraiser though, in that same league as Oliver Reed and Richard Burton. "I've lived publicly and never hidden behind closed doors," he says. "Therefore if I have gone over the top sometimes, it has been visible. But it was not a way of life. Otherwise I wouldn't have the CV I've got, would I?"

• The Oxford Murders is released on April 25