Friday, May 18, 2018

William Hurt

William Hurt, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2005

WILLIAM HURT WAS BORED. That's the only explanation I have for the first of our two encounters at the film festival, when the actor ignored etiquette and protocol and turned what should have been a minute-long portrait shoot into a discussion about ethics and professional responsibility. It's one of my favorite memories of festival shooting, which was mostly a rushed and perfunctory sort of business.

I liked Hurt before I met him. From his damaged, drug-dealing veteran in The Big Chill to his mob boss in A History of Violence to his improbable appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he often seems bemused - the smartest man in the room, though he's loathe to point that out and prefers to let everyone else proceed with whatever error they're pursuing just to witness the outcome. The major exception is his turn as the dim but charismatic anchorman failing his way to the top in Broadcast News - probably the most prophetic film about the modern news media ever made.

Hurt showed up for our shoot with a raw, red patch on his cheek. He explained that he'd just come from set and that the prosthetic he'd been wearing on his face for the role hadn't been applied correctly, and had pulled off a big patch of skin on his face when it was removed. He asked if I could work around it; I said that thanks to digital photography and Photoshop I could do pretty much anything, and that of course I'd take it out (as I have here.)

William Hurt, Toronto, Sept. 11, 2005

He mused aloud about this being a matter of trust between the subject of a portrait and a photographer, and I responded - eager to establish some kind of rapport with my own subject - that trust was the biggest part of that relationship, especially when that relationship was usually a brief one. This seemed to interest him, and he began asking more questions about portraits and photography and ethics.

Nearly every shoot I did at the festival during this period rarely lasted more than a minute; I've learned since then that I developed a good reputation for being able to get results in almost no time, though in retrospect that reputation is more of a curse. Hurt was eager to talk - so eager that he kept brushing off his press handler's motions behind my back to cut it short and move on by asking me another question.

I'd shoot a few frames and Hurt would ask another question, which I was happy to answer. I'd given a lot of thought about the ethics of my business and the relationship between a sitter and a portraitist, and about the peculiar demands of making a portrait. I think I even quoted Pascal at some point. (I'd spent much of the previous decade at home reading, making up for my poor education.) But I could feel his handler's impatience growing behind my back, like a pot boiling over, so at some point I had to decide that I had my shot and thanked Hurt for his time.

William Hurt, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2007

I felt weirdly energized after Hurt and his entourage left the room, as it had been years since a portrait subject had taken such an interest in their own shoot. I felt flattered that Hurt had been engaged enough to push our encounter to nearly ten minutes of - perhaps pretentious, but who cares? - chin-wagging about philosophy and aesthetics. It was definitely the highlight of that year's festival.

Two years later, almost to the day, I was assigned to shoot Hurt again. By this point I was sure that our high-minded chat was his way of blowing off steam and amusing himself as the grind of festival press days wore on, and that he probably didn't remember me at all. I was taken aback when Hurt walked into the hotel suite and looked at me with a start - "Oh, it's YOU!"

"Look," Hurt said, leaning in towards me as he spoke, glancing back at his press minder, another brusque and professional young woman like the one two festivals before. "I would love to have another chat with you right now," he told me, before making his voice slip down to a stage whisper, "but she is really riding me to stay on schedule today and I think I'd better do as I'm told."

William Hurt, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2007

1 comment: