The Yellow Handkerchief - Maria Bello and William Hurt
Ex-wife May (Maria Bello) and Brett Hanson (William Hurt) © Samuel Goldwyn

In the new movie The Yellow Handkerchief, Oscar winning actor William Hurt portrays Brett Hanson, a man just released from prison after serving six years for manslaughter, who is making his way across Louisiana in the hope of perhaps reuniting with is former love, May.

Maria Bello plays May, an independent woman who had loved Brett before the unfortunate accident that took an innocent man’s life. Most of May and Brett’s scenes are shown in flashback, as he relates his past to two young people, Martine (Kristen Stewart) and Gordy (Eddie Redmayne), with whom he hitchhikes.

William Hurt and Maria Bello both starred in David Cronenberg’s The History of Violence, but never had a scene together – at the press day for The Yellow Handkerchief they spoke about finally working together.

You both made The History of Violence, but never did a scene together.

The Yellow Handkerchief - Maria Bello
May (Maria Bello) © Samuel Goldwyn

Maria Bello: But we really had a connection and a quick friendship and both said we were dying to work together one day. Arthur Cohn (the producer) pass this beautiful script along to me and then I found out William was doing it and I immediately jumped in. He’s an extraordinary actor.

Can you say what was it about the script that attracted you?

Maria Bello: t’s so subtle and so beautiful and so real. It’s a real love story, it’s not this pretend like, oh everything’s perfect, and they get together, and they’re not afraid. It’s real adult love.

William Hurt: That’s Erin (Dignam, who wrote the screenplay). I’d done a film with Erin before, Loved, with her directing, so I learned the deepest respect for Erin of almost any American writer. The moment I heard this was her, I just knew  we were dealing with real characters here.

Maria Bello: We basically didn’t change a word, she was just right on.

So much is not said in this movie, what kind of back story did you write for your character?

Maria Bello: I don’t write back stories, I take it from my own experience and as I get older I’m certainly more jaded in terms of you’ve been in love before, we’ve all been hurt, we’ve all hurt other people, and there’s something about that that makes you hold back a little bit maybe, and to trust someone again and fully jump in is difficult.

I think these people are wounded in so many ways and it takes really seeing someone and being seen, wounds and all, all of your broken places, to learn how to love yourself and know each other again.

William, can you talk about spending the night in prison to research this role?

The Yellow Handkerchief - Willian Hurt
Brett Hanson (William Hurt) © Samuel Goldwyn

William Hurt: The night that people talk about, I spent on maximum security, although I spent a lot of other time there as well.  I asked to meet every member on the cellblock. And because he was so intelligent and so aware of what he had done, they put me next to a guy with whom I talked for three and a half hours intermittently all night long who was in for 2,020 years. We talked around the corner, and I couldn’t see his face. And I asked him a lot of questions.

I would ask (the inmates) ‘Why are you here?’ And most of them went, ‘Second-degree murder,’ and I’d say, ‘What happened?’ and they’d go,’ Wrong place, wrong time.’ In our film the scene outside the bar is the wrong place, wrong time. And what Brett decides is he is partly responsible (for the man’s death), and May fights him on it, but he says, ‘No, in some sense there really may not be that many accidents.’

And he saw that because of his history, he knew that his behavior had been misinterpreted. He knew that that nastiness had actually metastasized again, even though he could get away with (the manslaughter), but getting away with it was not his point, because he could never love her completely or earn her love if he had cheated.

Maria Bello: He had to go through what he went through to learn how to love.

William Hurt: Right, he had to accept responsibility.

This is more of a European film, without violence and sex, which is European and not American

The Yellow Handkerchief - William Hurt and Kristen Stewart
Brett Hanson (William Hurt) and Martine (Kristen Stewart) © Samuel Goldwyn

William Hurt: It used to be American, before America changed. And by the way, my nephew is a soldier, my son wants to be soldier, I’m never going to put down the American military. They’re our guys.

I think it’s a worldly story, and to that extent it’s not parked in a stereotype. It’s not a cozy road story. It’s dimensional. The rebellion of the film is its gentleness, which takes a lot of guts, and I think it goes against the current permission given by even some of our great works of art like There Will be Blood and No Country for Old Men, which are wonderful films and have audacious talent in them, but they honor the gluttony of violence and sometimes it’s unstructured.

We made a film called The History of Violence that I think was very, very well structured, I think it a beautiful commentary on how violence does not work.

Do you feel you were like a mentor to Kristen and Eddie?

William Hurt: They mentored me. You learn from them.

Maria Bello: They’re both fabulous.

William Hurt: They’re gutsy; they’re so talented, so upfront. To me, if I had my wish for Christmas, I’d get a year in university, I’d be able to go back to school. Not as a teacher, but just as a student. That’s what I want.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.