John Hurt, by his final director: 'Impish, unsentimental – and as generous as Julie Andrews'

In Hurt’s last film, That Good Night, he played a screenwriter with a terminal illness. Here, director Eric Styles recalls the actor’s good humour despite his own diagnosis

John Hurt had a constant companion on the set of That Good Night: a container of revolting-looking bright green vegetable juice which, he testified, tasted “bloody awful”. He chugged dutifully away on this throughout the shoot, forgoing his beloved fine wines in favour of something that might help the prognosis – for he had pancreatic cancer.

In our film, John plays an ageing writer who is facing his own mortality following a similar diagnosis. He must have chosen the project with the parallels in mind, though he was not a man especially solemn about his remaining time on the planet – or, indeed, about anything.

Yet he did confide to me that he felt unusually close to his character, a demanding and irascible man, desperate to reconnect with his family and make amends for past transgressions before it was too late. In the scenes between John and the actor who plays his son, I think that comes through: there’s a beauty and an honesty there that can feel quite painful.

In production, John spent time with his own children: Sasha – a hard-working member of our art department – and Nick, who had a small acting role in a restaurant scene. His abundant pride in his two boys was evident and endearing.

His gregarious manner and impish behaviour made time on and off set more pleasurable for everyone. When I went out for a meal with him and my own family just before shooting started, my two young sons weren’t impressed by me talking shop with a colleague, no matter how famous, and wanted to steer the conversation towards football. John was delighted by the opportunity to rave about the promotion to the Premier League of his beloved Norwich City. They were thrilled too: finally, a man who spoke their language.

Hurt with Charles Dance as a dapper Grim Reaper figure, the Visitor.
Poignant dialogue … Hurt with Charles Dance as a dapper Grim Reaper figure, the Visitor. Photograph: Paul Stephenson

John’s sartorial elegance has been documented many times before, and neither his illness nor the heat of the Algarve sun put a cramp in his style. When I first met him, he was wearing a very dapper and incredibly loud paisley shirt. His hair had grown back after chemotherapy in quite a singular, spiky, unkempt manner that, as it happened, seemed perfect for his character. That said, he was concerned his beard – at that stage quite thin – might all fall out before filming. But he framed the concern with such a wry smile that we never quite took it seriously.

As both a man and a performer, John lived in the moment. He was generous and present, listening with such quiet intensity to his fellow performers that filming always felt fresh and the results – I hope – vital. He reminded me of another legend I’ve been lucky enough to work with: Julie Andrews. Both were all you’d hope for and more: humble, tolerant, with a brilliant eye for detail and a compassion you’d never need to question.

‘He lived in the moment’ … Hurt with Sofia Helin as Anna.
‘He lived in the moment’ … Hurt with Sofia Helin as Anna. Photograph: Paul Stephenson

Sadly, the green juice didn’t repay its revoltingness, and John died before the film was complete. As we worked on the final edit, many scenes – and indeed specific lines of dialogue – acquired an awful new poignancy. “When you get old,” he tells Charles Dance’s character (a sort of dapper Grim Reaper), “you’re not afraid to die – more afraid that you won’t die in time.” I’d listen to his distinctive, mellifluous voice on the studio speakers – immensely thankful for my brief time with such a man, and immensely sad it was cut short.

That Good Night is released on 11 May

Eric Styles

The GuardianTramp

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