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Just days before Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city in August 2005, two stars of The Skeleton Key, Gena Rowlands and John Hurt, gave this interview to Johanna Juntunen in New Orleans, where the film is set. Marking the release of the film on DVD, we dedicate this interview to the memory of New Orleans and all who lived and died there.

Q: Do you like New Orleans and do you believe in ghosts and Voodoo?
I donít think thereís anyone who doesnít like New Orleans. I havenít encountered a ghost this time, but I expect I will before I leave.

Q: Do you believe in Voodoo then?
Rowlands: No, I donít.

Q: How about you, Sir?
Hurt: No, but I believe in believing things. Things happen to people who believe that things will happen to them. Itís happened too many times. You could get very involved in magic in a sense that you donít know what is actually real. When you get in that area you start to believe in all sort of things.

Gena is correct, I donít know anybody who doesnít like New Orleans either. There is an enormous romance attached to it in so many different areas, be it the graveyards or the artistic areas, itís just an attractive city, architecturally, especially the French quarter.

Q: You said before, you donít believe in Voodoo?
Rowlands: I personally donít. But itís as John says, there are people who do believe next to you and then it exists.
Hurt: Same question in a sense, I try to give it another answer. I believe you need a definition of the word supernatural. Itís a belief, any religion is based on belief rather than fact. There is no such thing as proof, but there is such a thing as proof through belief. In that general sense I believe in it. But Iím not actually a believer.

Q: Ms. Rowlands, this was a very different role for you, was that the reason you wanted to do The Skeleton Key?
I wanted to do the part because itís a role I havenít ever come close to in all my years of acting. It was fun to be up there with all the spooky shadows, trees and old mansions... There were three no six, peacocks in the backyard at all times. Usually they are not too friendly but these had obviously been there since they were little. They would take food out of your hand and do things they werenĎt supposed to. It did have a wonderful atmosphere. You couldnít have done this movie anywhere but in New Orleans.

Q: Mr. Hurt, you didnít have to memorize too much dialogue for this role, how tempting was that?
Hurt: Iíve been looking for that for years! That's what attracted me when Iain Softley approached me, that the character doesnít say anything beside the occasional outburst. On top of that, I wasnít even me! Me the character! It posed some interesting things to do, conundrums. The challenge was it had to be done almost like a silent film. You have to try to get it across with your expressions, and with modern technology and cutting being what it is, the camera doesnít exactly linger. So you better get your skates on.

Q: How would you describe the theme of the movie?
Rowlands: The fear of death is the motivator for this couple and they have found ways to bend minds. If you thought you could get out of dying, I could see how you could forgive yourself for what you did.
Hurt: They also had a very bad deal and in terms of storytelling they had a reason to get back at their employer. The plot thickens as it were. It also has distinct religious connotations, the constant look for the elixir, human desire. We mix it all up together. It makes good dramatic stuff. I think itís a kind of religious theme, a continuance.

Q: Were you injured in the scene where you fall down the staircase?
This is not where I was injured. Itís also not where my stunt girl was injured. How she did that I donít know. They threw her off the stairs and she rolled off all those steps and then they said ďLetís do it again". I said ďI canít even stay here and watch this.Ē Where I did get injured was during a night scene where we were shooting in the mud and the rain and I was carrying a rifle and a flashlight. I just took a wrong step where it was slippery and I didnít have a way to protect myself because both my hands were full. So I smashed my shoulder. But itís perfectly fine now.

Q: Ms. Rowlands, You have had a wonderful career shooting with your husband and now with your son. Can you talk about working with family?
Well, it seems such a natural thing, I guess. John and I shot a lot of scenes in our own home. The kids were always coming out of their rooms stepping over cables. They worked right through it and I donít think that they thought it was peculiar or anything. They were so used to it that they didnít have any awe or fear of the media. Although I hadn't expected Nick to become a filmmaker. What I did expect was that he would become a basketball player which is what he always wanted. But then he had a bad accident and wasnít able to do that. Then he did acting, then writing and then directing. On The Notebook, Jim Garner said, ďthis is the first time I heard somebody yell: ďAction Mom". He couldnít get over that. I think itís wonderful.

Q: Can you still learn something from young actors like Kate Hudson?
Rowlands: I love working with young actresses to see how they approach things. Kate is very talented and surprisingly dedicated and serious. Because she has such a gay and darling personality you might believe that she just would not take it so seriously. But she does, she isÖ I hate the word professional, but she loves it.
Hurt: She takes it seriously. The charm of a young actor is always lovely. I remember working long time ago with Orson Welles on A Man For All Seasons . He was expounding about how experience was of no great value and I said ďIt may not be and Iím sure youíre right. But could you explain yourself?" And he said and looked at me ďItís a matter of choice. The more experience you have, the more choices there are. The more avenues there are to go wrong." When you watch somebody whoís a young actor or actress, they donít consider choices, they know where they want to go. Kateís much like that at the moment and itís interesting to observe.

Q: Do you feel that this is an unusual film for a big Hollywood studio to make?
Hurt: I certainly think that the treatment of the genre is unusual and the ending is unusual. The fact that it isnít tied up in a pretty bow. It goes down the areas it has chosen to talk about in an unusual way. It was an interesting film.
Rowlands: It was just so different from anything Iíve ever played. That always gets you interested. I also liked the actors involved, I always wanted to work with John. And I love New Orleans, so it came from a lot of places.

Q: Do you feel that actors want to become eternal through the screen?
Rowlands: You answer that, John.
Hurt: Thatís why she likes doing interviews with me. You think itís our supreme egotism? You hear people say that you will always be remembered because of your films. I think that is actually something that is wished on us. I certainly have never entered a film thinking this is my ticket to everlasting whatever. One does it for the reasons of doing a play. It doesnít cross my mind. I think itís a perfectly reasonable question nonetheless.

Q: In this movie thereís no family connection at all, is that a relief, joy or burden?
Rowlands: Most pictures I donít make with my family. I would love it if someone were there all the time. Acting is so much fun. To be able to rid yourself of your own personality for a while, itís like having a vacation. I think it may be egotism. But I do think if more people in school had to do more plays and movies more of them would go into the profession. Itís fun and itís different for your whole life. At my age you can still act and in what other profession can you say that? And they still will find avenues for you to explore? Itís a wonderful profession.

Q: What was the most challenging or difficult scene to do?
Rowlands: How about the scene where Kate gives you the bath.
Hurt: Oh, that was really challenging, yesÖbut I canít differentiate one from the other, I canít give any quips either. We rehearsed it so we knew what we were doing and where we were going. So we were well equipped to get there, not challenging as such.
Rowlands: Itís a very clean cut story for such a spooky premise. Once you got thatÖ
Hurt: Once youíre inside it, it makes itself quite apparent.

Q: Have you ever felt another soul taking possession of you?
Hurt: Frequently (laughs). Oddly enough thatís basically what weíre in the business of doing. Weíre in the game to take over people and hopefully breath life into them. And when you lose yourself, yeah, probablyÖ

Q: Have you ever lost yourself?
Rowlands: Each day. One weird thing that people always say, even actors say it, is, that weíre just lying and are liars. Thatís an easy thing to say but if you consider the actorís contract with the audience Ė ďIím going to pretend to be someone else for two hours in hopes of entertaining you.Ē And the audience says ďyes, go ahead, Iíll accept that." That's a very honest agreement on both sides and it only works if both sides stick to it. You donít lose yourself so you canít get back. You can lose yourself, just as in life, to the point where you know you can get back. The only time when weíre in trouble and actors have breakdowns and such, is when theyíre going a bit too far. But actors are very aware of that.

Q: In the Lars Von Trier film Dogville, you werenít seen, only heard and in this one you are seen but not heard. Can you compare these two experiences?
Hurt: The two films were fascinating because even though you werenít seen, you became a character. One of the characters of the cast of the film. That in itself was a very interesting thing to do. This was completely the opposite, because youíre very much there but youíre not heard. I couldnít really compare them because it was a really different experience.

Q: Where do you feel more secure?

Hurt: Ah, where do I feel the most secureÖYou got me completely, I donít know how to answer that. They are two different conundrums. Itís a different approach, one is through the voice, one through your appearance.

Q: How has the movie making changed over the years?
Rowlands: So many changes, it goes at the speed of light. The technical stuff has gotten beyond me. What they are doing with the cameras and films, and putting things in the blue wallÖ I think itís intriguing for the filmmakers. It doesnít necessarily make for better films. Some of the best films Iíve seen were made many, many years ago. I think right now everybody is obsessed with the technique and seeing what it can do. And now with the DVDs, such a big struggle is going on about when to put it out, immediately or not at all. Are you making a film that is not being seen by a whole lot of people sitting in a theatre, because thatís a lot different than somebody sitting at home watching by himself or herself.
Hurt: Itís constantly developing too and itís still such a young industry. In terms of the arts itís the youngest art form, still. The likelihood isÖ itís almost impossible to imagine that film wonít move into the digital world. There is a huge resistance to that because thereís such a romantic feeling about film itself. If thatís what youíre talking about. Because the technical side was always there, first with the silent films then moving into the talkies that were immediately made into a mushroom of developments, leaving people behind.

Rowlands: Do you think they are trying to get rid of us?
Hurt: Probably. One never knows which way itís going to go.

Q: What was your favorite scene to shoot?
Hurt: It was the last scene between us. We didnít expect that kind of communication really.
Rowlands: We sort of make it feel it would go to a different direction which is not making any sense to anybody (laughs).
Hurt: But itís a moment you remember.

Published December 15, 2005

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John Hurt & Gena Rowlands


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