for William Hurt 1950-2022
I thought of what William Hurt told me, as I steered a stretch of the St. Lawrence River, on a dark night, ten days ago.
‘Every actor should play Hamlet at least once in their career,’ he said. We had been working together on a production of Moby Dick. I was a ship’s rigger. He was Ahab. He took a shine to me and my rigging partner Jon. He would come find us in our workshop at the studio and watch us while we worked. He was often still in costume. Period dress and a fluorescent green stocking on the one leg where they would CGI Ahab’s wooden one. He could never remember our names so he called us Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet’s doomed childhood friends who help further the plot of the play and are eventually murdered off stage.
He wasn’t friendly with his fellow cast members and had only contempt for the film’s director. Jon and I are both unmoved by celebrity, or more to the point we don’t make a big deal of it, which I think he liked. However, I was secretly very impressed. The Big Chill had been a seminal movie for me as a child, and Hurt’s Porsche-driving, drug-dealing character, who came back from Vietnam ‘changed’ was my favourite from that large ensemble. We had a copy on VHS, along with The Kiss of the Spider Woman (for which he won an Oscar) and The Doctor. He liked to talk, and as Jon and I are artist and writer respectively, he found he could do so on all the subjects that piqued his interest, which included, notably, but perhaps not surprisingly, himself. He had a very clear vision of what the new film version of Moby Dick should be and I admired his deference to the novel and as a result could understand when he vented his frustration with the director at me. I loved the novel too after all. He carried with him an old fat, paperback copy, made even more obese with post-it notes. The text was colour coded. He had highlighted passages, whole paragraphs and pages. His own, rough writing and directions stuffed the margins.
We were having a drink with him on the deck of the Activ, the Danish schooner standing in for the Pequod, when he told us about Hamlet.
‘It’s the role I’m most proud of,’ he said. He was in his late thirties when he played him.
‘Old for Hamlet,’ he said. He had very little regard for any contemporary actors with the exception of Mark Rylance. Despite his seeming arrogance he was not reverent of his own performances which I found surprising considering his status and the quality of so many of his roles.
He spoke fluent French. Called himself a Francophile. Talked about Paris.
‘Everyday I wake up and I’m ashamed to be an American,’ he said.
‘You don’t have to be ashamed,’ said Jon, who is from Portsmouth, England and never short of a quick and barbed one liner. ‘Maybe just apologize once in a while.’
Throughout the evening he watched as Jon and I rolled and smoked our own cigarettes. He went quiet for a second and I found him staring at me. That famous tilt of head. The squint and closed mouth smile.
‘Can you roll me one of those,’ he said.
‘Of course,’ I said and I did so lickety-split and handed it to him. He held it away from his face like someone near-sighted, examined it for a moment and put it in his mouth. I proffered a flame.
He took a long drag and smiled again.
‘I haven’t smoked a cigarette in 18 years,’ he said in his best William Hurt voice. I remembered that scene in Body Heat when his character goes for a run on the California boardwalk, out to the end of a pier. He takes a break, leans against the railing and stares out to sea as he smokes a Marlboro. Such an odd thing for a runner to do.
I have been running up a storm of late. Two months ago I jettisoned an insole and some bad advice that a sports medicine practitioner had foisted upon me two years ago and found myself suddenly cured of all the complaints that had stopped me chewing up kms and propelled me into the quacks office in the first place. I have topped 300kms in the last 60 days. I broke my 10km speed record without meaning to. 50:55. Not an athlete’s time but not too shabby for an old guy. A guy who just turned 48.
I am into my sixth year running. It is the perfect sport for a man like me. One so impatient who is always in a hurry and uncomfortable being in one place for too long without a set purpose. Right now I am at a retreat in upstate New York trying to quash some of those reflexes. I am with my father who is 83. He is in fine fettle, all there up top and down for long walks in the hills. He has been coming to this place since 1980. I came here first in 2005. I realize this place is my father’s legacy to me and I am lucky to be able to still visit it with him.
I run daily on steep, mountain trails slippery with mud and decaying leaves. I nearly ran headlong into a doe, a deer, a female deer, who seemed in no hurry to get out of my way and we observed each other beneath the interlocked bare branches of white pine, birch and maple. I got briefly lost today and experienced the pure terror that only the truly navigationally challenged can know.
It is quiet here. The monastery is located on the spine of a ridge of mountains. In the midst of woods and rolling fields where the monks keep sheep and at night three Abruzze Sheepdogs stand guard for wolves and coyotes. Last night I slipped out into the pitch dark for a ciggie and had to feel the way with my feet until I knew I was under the branches of the old, huge oak I like to sit under. When I finished and turned around the light from our small cabin drew me back.
It is easier to walk towards the light then it is to walk away from it.
The first profound thought I had in three days of meditation and it was precipitated, not by prayer, but by a cigarette.
I have been thinking of what William Hurt said about Hamlet. About what a challenge the role is for an actor. To play a sane man putting on ‘an antic disposition’. Or an insane man acting sane pretending to be insane. Either way, a man wild with grief.I guess that everyone, at some point in their professional life has a ‘Hamlet’ or if they don’t, they should.
My life certainly does not present such rich challenges these days. Steering a big ship, once you grow accustomed to each vessels nuances, and how she behaves in different conditions, becomes easy.
‘A trained monkey could do what I do,’ I often tell people, more for a laugh than anything.
A friend in Toronto asked me, just days after my birthday, what it was like to be running at 48. I shrugged and told them it is much the same as running at 47, only there is a little less far to go.
At the wrap party for Moby Dick, Jon and I presented William Hurt with one of Moby Dick’s enormous teeth which we had extracted from the white whales silicon carcass. He examined it and then looked up at us with what I thought to be genuine emotion (he was an Oscar winning actor and could probably summon looks like that in his sleep). He gave us each a warm hug.
‘To William,’ the tooth said in Jon’s best sharpie marker approximation of scrimshaw.
‘With love from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.’