When television captures tragedy live on air – the horror of the 9/11 attack, for instance – it can change a generation for ever. When the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after take-off on the morning of 28 January 1986, killing all seven of its crew, the screams of the schoolchildren who had gathered to watch their teacher Christa McAuliffe venture into orbit effectively ended the dream of space exploration.
“Christa was chosen specifically for that flight because she represented Miss America,” William Hurt explains, describing his reasons for starring in The Challenger, BBC2’s docu-drama about the investigation into the accident. “She was picked to represent all of us – civilians, everyday Americans, not a neurophysiologist or a professional astronaut, but one of us. And she perished in a fireball while her pupils and her parents watched. And at that point we all knew – we’re not ever getting off this planet. I’m a member of the generation who were forced to come to terms with the fact that the time of great men is over and the time of mediocre groups is here.”
Hurt plays the brilliant US physicist Richard Feynman, a former member of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb, who was invited to join the commission charged by President Reagan with discovering the cause of the tragedy. What follows is an accurate account of Nasa’s attempts to cover up the truth and disguise internally expressed doubts that Challenger should not have taken off that day – and Feynman’s fight to make those doubts and problems public.
Playing Feynman adds to Hurt’s recent choices of roles that document cover-ups and conspiracies – from Endgame, about South Africa’s apartheid government’s secret negotiations with the ANC, to US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in HBO’s Too Big to Fail, which documents attempts to save the US economy during 2008’s debt crisis by deliberately cutting Lehman Brothers loose.
“I am sorry to see fewer actors having an awareness of their own history” he explains, “so I lean towards a script that helps change that. I like stories about an individual versus the group. It’s a paradox that it’s the people who are part of institutions who give Feynman the knowledge of what went wrong so that he, as an individualist, can speak to his nation.”
Hurt’s father Alfred McChord Hurt worked for the US State Department and, until his parents divorced when he was six, young William visited Pakistan, Somalia and Sudan with his father at the height of the Cold War. Does he recognise his father in the likes of Feynman and Paulson – decent men who were struggling to make the best of desperate times?
“Absolutely unequivocally yes,” he says immediately. “That’s been a subject for me in a number of projects. The Good Shepherd was another one. My father was a really good man. He went through the rigours and the issues involved in setting up the US Agency for International Development that was, on the surface, a wonderful tool for America to help other people. But it was a time when any cloak to hide information gathering was conceived as perfectly legitimate, so any arm of the government would have been used as a cover. There was no question that my father was disillusioned.”
He pauses. “There’s always a problem with the idea that people we authorise to take care of us do so in ways that we have no knowledge of…” Then he laughs, over a crackly line from his home on the west coast of America. “This conversation is probably being sieved through some computer programme somewhere to try to understand whether you and I are loyal.” He laughs again, though for a minute it’s not clear if he’s joking.
He’s clearly a deep-thinker – a long way from the handsome anchor he played in Broadcast News. He talks extensively about the history, science and personal life of Feynman, touching on his discoveries in quantum physics as well as his guilt about the destructive power the Manhattan Project unleashed.
“Feynman was ahead of his time,” he says. Ahead of our current age where we’re subject to the “mediocre group”? He laughs again. “You know, the group isn’t really such a bad thing. It’s just a new model. In a way I love it because at heart I’m a bit of a communist – or an anarchist.” He pauses again. “That’s a scary thing to say…”
It’s true he’s always been something of a maverick – although he’s rarely described as an anarchist. His early career was marked by controversial films like Altered States and the erotic thriller Body Heat, which seem unusual choices for a man who studied theology at Tufts University near Boston.
“I started out studying theology but it was too academic in its understanding of spirituality,” he explains. “It was the theatre for me where it actually happened. Theatre is essentially what I love in life, which is a discussion. You need to have your mind – how can I put this – procreating with other minds. So that’s why I pursued it. But as movies took over it’s become harder and harder because they don’t want actors actually pretending to be smart any more.”
And that, in the end, is what he saw in the script for The Challenger, he explains. Feynman was raised in a Jewish family and went to synagogue as a young man before rejecting his faith and refusing to identify as Jewish. “And yet obviously his Jewishness supported his reverence towards life – even though he wasn’t hiding behind a notion of God that you’d find in the Bible,” Hurt says earnestly. “It’s something I understand – I’d rather see a sermon than hear one. I think he was one of the last great minds who really thought they were the same as everybody else. That’s what I despise about the punditry cycle times we’re in – they shout too much, they keep other people from speaking by intimidating them, and they make themselves movie stars instead of dictators.”
Just before we say goodbye he emails a link to an extensive article in the New York Times documenting new facts about the size and scale of the Holocaust and he suggests I take a look at Feynman’s breakthrough work on nano-technology. This is not the traditional closing line from a Hollywood star. But then Hollywood movie stars don’t usually take part in small BBC Scotland science unit programmes about an eccentric man who chose his own route in the face of the group that said he was wrong.
Hurt may think he’s telling the story of his father – and its clear the men he plays symbolise something that’s been missing since his parents divorce some 56 years ago – but it doesn’t take a degree in psychology to see that he’s also playing a version of himself.
Don't miss The Challenger on Monday at 9:00pm on BBC2