William Hurt on Spending the Night at Angola
The actor William Hurt spent the night at Louisiana’s (in)famous Angola state prison as research for his role in the new film “The Yellow Handkerchief.” Hurt plays an oil rigger who goes on a road trip in post-Katrina Louisiana after he’s released from prison, where he was serving time on a manslaughter charge. Terry Gross interviewed Hurt about the film on today’s episode of Fresh Air; you can listen to the interview or read the transcript at the NPR website. Here’s Hurt’s description of his night at Angola:
GROSS: So would you describe what it felt like to be in this small maximum-security cell?
Mr. HURT: Claustrophobic isn’t the word. It’s much worse. I didn’t think that I was uncomfortable most of the night. I was preoccupied with my companion, and the bed has about an inch-and-a-half-thick mattress on sheer steel. The toilet has no soft seat. The floor is marbleized concrete. It’s horrible. It’s unthinkable. …
In the maximum security division, the cells are all on one side of a hallway because the definition of maximum security is no human contact.
So they don’t want them communicating with anybody. They put them next to each other with walls in between them, but they won’t put them facing another cell so they can’t communicate with anybody facially or by hand signals. …
I was taken with a group of guards to the front of each cell and allowed to ask a few questions with a team of guards standing around me to protect me, you know, from someone who couldn’t get out, and of course that intimidates any conversation.
Then I moved through the row and finally got to my cell, which is at one end. They had vacated a prisoner for that one night for my access.
GROSS: So what did you take away from the experience of being in Angola, in prison, and speaking to prisoners who were in the maximum security wing? What did you take away from that that you were able to use in the movie?
Mr. HURT: It’s pretty limitless, primarily sorrow for them. Most of the time I would ask them: Why are you here? And most of the time they would answer second-degree murder. Of 5,108 inmates, 85 percent of the people in there are going to die there. So there’s no compunction when you’re talking to someone whose only desire on Earth is not to have their body buried on the grounds of that prison.
There’s no problem in being frank. There’s no compunction about telling the truth. Conversations are wonderfully, refreshingly, brutally honest.