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One of the strongest acting showcases in this year's Festival, An Englishman in New York is a look at an English individualist in the twilight of his years. In what is a turn for the record books, John Hurt returns, 33 years later, to the role of Quentin Crisp (which he made famous in the 1975 film The Naked Civil Servant): he's in full makeup and stylishly dressed, and his quest for individuality is in steep conflict with an AIDS-ravaged 1980s gay New York. It's safe to say that there has never been a writer and raconteur quite like Quentin Crisp, and Hurt's magnificent performance is a fitting tribute to his legacy.
What makes An Englishman in New York a Tribeca Must-See?
Oh God, that’s for everyone else to decide, isn’t it? It's shot in New York, it celebrates difference, it's about a man who was unique. Quentin had been attacked, ostracized by society; New York was attacked by terrorists. For a very individual city to be attacked was a very fitting metaphor for what Quentin lived through. We had our fair selection of terrorist attacks in London, but I think that the extraordinary kind of attack on the skyline and individuality of New York was so brutal that I was struck by what sun shine shone out of the city when I was there this past summer [shooting Englishman].
What was the craziest thing that happened while making the film?
It’s like childbirth: you never remember, or you'd never do it again. The craziest thing that happened was reading the script, believing that I could make the next chapter in this character’s life with the same actor who did it before. Sting was at the wrap party, that was quite crazy. What else? Working with John Hurt. It was all a bit of a gift for a director. A precious gift, to tell this story.
What are your hopes/fears/wishes regarding Tribeca?
My hopes are that the film is received really well, that people from all types and of all persuasions and of all individualities connect with it. I hope it celebrates the wisdom of old age and the vulnerability of individuality. I hope the audience gets that.
I hope someone in the industry offers me a script making the most beautiful film in the world.
My fears are that it’s only celebrated as a gay film rather than a film about the human condition—I'm not for one minute disrespecting gay filmmaking or gay film, [but this story] has a universality. My fears are that I wont stay awake for the Q&A at the screening. I'm flying in on Monday, and Sunday I'm going to the BAFTAS (with Hancock & Joan, about a very famous comic in the '60s who had a very destructive, alcohol-fueled relationship with his best friend’s wife). But I would do the Q&A on no sleep. I'm absolutely thrilled that Tribeca wants to play our film, and I'm really proud of it. Tribeca is very well respected. It celebrates film and a city that welcomed me as a British filmmaker with open arms.
If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead)—who would you want it to be?
Ang Lee. Because Ang Lee turns his hands to different genres—he lifts the lid on the human condition and the hilarity and complexity of being alive. He also manages to communicate, through the camera and the screen, a really acute connection with his stories emotionally. It's yin and yang, you can't have good times without the bad ones.
What piece of art (film/book/music/what-have-you) do you recommend to your friends?
I recommend... anything that I've seen, really, that I've loved, anything that connects with me and that I connect with. For example…I've gone completely blank, it’s a little like that question about the filmmakers, I already want to add Joel and Ethan Coen to the previous question. I can tell you a film I've seen and recommended to my friends: Rachel Getting Married, I loved it. I absolutely adored Burn After Reading. I recommend Slumdog Millionaire for some people, too. It depends on who you're recommending things to, of course. You’ve got Mary Stuart on Broadway. It’s wonderful. It opened last week and it’s wonderful.
Could you give us some context regarding Quentin Crisp? I only have vague memories of the guy as a presence on talk shows when I was a kid. Who was he and why was he important?
He wrote a book, and then the screenwriter of The Naked Civil Servant adapted the book and wanted to make a film. They wanted John to be in it, after seeing him in some dingy Soho pub joking around one evening. For three years they tried to get the film made. Quentin Crisp only became notorious as a result of the film, since it told the story of Quentin Crisp and highlighted this man who actally existed. It launched John Hurt as an actor of major stature. He won the BAFTA for it.
I wanted to ask you about John Hurt's portrayal of Crisp. Is he the type of actor who disappears into a role? What's his process? I'm curious about that.
He has a very close association with Crisp because he played him before, and he got to know him as much as anyone got to know him. He probably occupies a Quentin perspective during the shoot. Certainly, for an actor to be as viscerally connected with a performance and a character as he was on this film, he has to have the sound and that character in the bones of his body. So to say he was walking around as Quentin during the shoot when he wasn’t on set or shooting wouldn’t be entirely accurate, but to say he wasn’t aware of a perspective of life like Quentin's [perspective]... he was, he had it in his bones.
When I arrived on set he had already been in makeup for one-and-a-half hours for the shoot. I never saw him as John Hurt. It's amazing how like Quentin he manages to look.
I was really impressed by Jonathan Tucker's performance. Can you tell me more about that?
Jonathan had the most phenomenal, brilliant portrayal, and I say that because he really wanted to play this part and we had lots of chaps beforehand come in to audition. I was worried that he’d be too buff, too dimpled-chin, boy-next-door, all-American guy. We talked about beauty and belief coming from within rather than outside. We kind of went for it, and he gave the most incredible portrayal of the torture that character feels. I have to add, I feel the same way about Denis O'Hare, who plays Phillip Steele, who brought such compassion and heart to his portrayal.
How was filming in New York?
When I was sent the script, they wanted to shoot it in Manchester, with two days of shooting exteriors in New York. And I said you have to surround Quentin with America. It was something we fought for.
Bringing it home to New York matters more to me. Speaking as an English filmmaker shooting in New York, it's hard to do with no money showing a city in a time gone by. We tried, with all our hearts, to be honorable.