Xena Magazine #23 - Actor/Director Michael Hurst

Author: David Bassom
Source: Titan`s Xena Magazine #23
Date: August 2001

These days, keeping up with Michael Hurst is a truly Herculean task. In the two years since he completed his tour of ancient Greece as Iolaus in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Hurst has been moving between projects with an energy and enthusiasm that would put even a god to shame. And despite the hectic demands of his breakneck schedule, the talented actor-writer-director is dearly relishing the opportunity to create new legends away from the son of Zeus.

"Life has been very busy since I finished shooting Hercules," confirms the ever gracious and charming Hurst, speaking from his home in New Zealand. "What you have to remember is that I thought Hercules was going to finish earlier than it did. I thought it was going to finish at the end of the fifth season, and I had gone ahead and planned my life. So when they turned around and said, 'Well, Michael, we're gonna do a final batch of episodes', I already had other things planned. So we actually had to do some very quick juggling to ensure I was actually available for some of those final episodes.

"Consequently, the day after I finished shooting Hercules, I started to prep directing the movie Jubilee. So there was no gap. And since then, I've been directing a lot of Xena, I've directed another one-hour drama for New Zealand, I've acted in same things, I've done a play and I've been writing and doing (several courses at) university.

So my life has been very full since Hercules. "I'm involved in a number of different things at the moment because I want to be," Hurst says emphatically. "I'm interested in a lot of different things. Whenever I'm asked if I prefer acting or directing or TV or theatre, I always say, 'It's always one thing for me: it's telling stories. That's what I do.' It doesn't matter how I do it. Plus I'm in a fortunate position, which I'll be forever grateful to Hercules and Xena for - I don't have to rush to take the first thing that comes along. I can pick and choose a bit, and that's very nice."

When Xena Magazine last spoke to Hurst (back in Issue 9), he was fresh from directing his first post-Hercules episode of Xena, season five's Anthony and Cleopatra, and was preparing to helm his first instalment of the show's sixth season. That episode was Who's Gurkhan, a dark and edgy tale in which Xena and Gabrielle travel to North Africa in a bid to rescue Gabrielle's niece from a vicious raider.

With Who's Gurkhan now long in the can, Hurst is happy to offer his views on the finished product. "Who's Gurkhan is a weird one he notes momentarily pausing for thought. "To me, the story doesn't actually add up to the sum of its parts but nevertheless, it's very atmospheric.

"I learned a very big lesson with that episode," he reveals. "I did the second unit shoot on it - which I decided it a really good way to go - and I got carried away shooting it. We really went to town with the scene in which Xena decides to let herself get beaten to a pulp for the love of Gabrielle. But then when I saw the dailies afterwards, I went, `Oh, my God, this is so violent! Did I do this?' What you, see in the final episode is only about a tenth of how far we actually went - it was really extreme! So on that episode I learned a great lesson concerning the power of television."

Hurst applied the lessons of Who's Gurkhan? in his next sixth season Xena directorial outing, To Helicon and Back. The episode sees the Warrior Princess leading the Amazons on a bloody, mission to save Queen Varia (Tsianina Joelson), and provided Hurst with a memorable final stint behind the Xena cameras.

"My brief was basically to do Saving Private Ryan, Xena-style," he recalls. "I went to town with it and again did my own Second unit filming. I spent three days shooting all the beach stuff - it took a long time, but that was really exciting for me.

"What was funny about it was they had written some extraordinary stage instructions like, 'Xena gets up and is pumped full of arrows', or, 'She is incinerated'. So I went, 'Okay, this means exactly what it means'. But while we were shooting it, I started getting phone calls from the Americans saying, 'Er, Michael, we're a little concerned about you dailies. They're a little violent!' I thought 'Excuse me, can you tell me how I'm supposed to shoot this?'

"The version that, I've got - the director's cut - is actually much more graphic than the one that was finally shown," he notes. "It's slightly too long - by about four minutes - but it's far more dramatic - it's got a whole different structure, and I really love it. It's actually the one Xena episode I've kept all the dailies from, because I think some of the stuff I shot was the best work I've ever done. I was really thrilled with it."

While I>To Helicon and Back proved to be one of Hurst's favourite directorial assignments on Xena his final appearance in, the series proved equally memorable. In a complete change of pace for the man behind Iolaus, the light-hearted sixth season episode You Are There features Hurst as a reporter determined to learn the 'Truth' about Xena and Gabrielle and their long-debated relationship.

"That was hilarious," says Hurst of You Are There. "It was a lot of fun. I really loved doing that episode. I just had a ball. "You Are There broke the rule," he continues. "Before we did that episode, the producers had always said, `Yes, we can do Hercules and Xena shows that are modern - where everything is looked on as an historical event', but they never had modern stuff in the real episodes until that point, So there I was wandering around as a CNN reporter in the middle of the Ancient World and all that, and it was great.

"The thing that was really fun about that episode was that at one point, you had, Lucy [Lawless], Renee [O'Connor], myself, Kevin Smith [Ares] and Joel "Tobeck [Lucifer] - all these people together. We have worked together for years - a lot of us have actually worked together, before Xena - so we all knew the technique backwards and, honestly, it was a riot! It was the funniest, happiest, wildest time on the set that I can recall. We would just stand around laughing all the time. We were professionals - we got the job, done in record time - but it was also very loose, and everyone was being naughty. Lucy was; Renee was... So we all had a laugh."

Of course, Hurst's work on Xena accounts for only a fraction of his recent output. His biggest post-Hercules offerings include the aforementioned Jubilee, which marked his feature film directorial debut. Although the comedy-drama won rave reviews on its initial release in New Zealand, its lacklustre performance at the box office has delayed its arrival to US and UK shores.

"I believe the distribution company is trying to get jubilee released simultaneously in the US and Britain," says Hurst of the film, which follows a small-town family mans voyage of discovery as he attempts to organise a local school's 13th jubilee. "They had quite a bit of interest, basically from the [Hercules and Xena] fanbase.

"Jubilee's been very badly handled in my opinion," he states matter of factly. "It's a good movie, I just don't know why, but it got buried. I'm not going to worry about it; I'm going to move on. It has got me recognition from some people who have seen it, especially in the US, so it's done its" job for me." '

Hurst's work on Jubilee helped him land his latest non-Xena directorial assignment, 'Love Mussel'. A stand-alone one-hour comedy, the New Zealand TV production top lines fellow Hercules and Xena alumnus Kevin Smith. "Love Mussel is about a shellfish which is peculiar to one small New Zealand town and is suddenly discovered to have the properties of Viagara," elaborates Hurst. "So suddenly it's worth a lot of money, and Kevin Smith goes down as himself to do a documentary about this small town."

In between stints in the director's chair, Hurst has continued to pursue a selection of acting roles. The classically-trained actor recently returned to the stage to star as The Player in a production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for the Auckland Theatre Company. "That was my first time back on stage for six years, and it was fantastic," he enthuses. "I'm also currently in discussions about doing a big production of a Shakespeare play. Right now, we're trying to decide which to do - it's all venue-dependent. But I really want to do that."

Meanwhile, Hurst's latest small screen acting gig came with the pilot episode for a possible new Discovery Channel television series. "The pilot is called The Man Who Has Everything," reveals Hurst, "and it's about a man called George - that's me. Basically, the idea is that if it goes into a series, George will have something wrong with him in every episode, and he'll have to explore it. In the pilot, he has something wrong with his heart and has to have an operation.

"It sounds dire, but it's actually really funny," he continues with typical candour. "It's a bit like Ally McBeal. The doctor might say, 'I'm going to look at your heart,' and George will fantasise about ripping his own chest open and having his heart pulled out! It's basically about the anxieties that men in their forties go through to do with doctors, We shot that both in New Zealand and in LA, and it's really quite fun. I enjoyed doing the pilot because it has a socially responsible edge to it."

Although it remains to be seen if The Man Who Has Everything gets picked up for a series, Hurst is already lining up more projects. In addition to finalising the details of his next stage appearance, he's currently in talks with a US studio about "a potential film directing deal." He's also kept up with all the rumours concerning his long-mooted guest appearance in the new hit science fiction series Gene Roddenberry! Andromeda. While Hurst has yet to be formally approached about working on the show, he makes it clear that he would definitely be interested in any project that would reunite him with his former Hercules co-star, Kevin Sorbo.

"If they ask me to be on Andromeda, and if I can fit it in, of course I would love to be on the show," he states. "I'd love to work with Kevin again. I think it would be great, I think our chemistry will always be what it is. We keep in touch. We email a lot. When we see each other, its always great.

"So yeah, I would love to do it," he admits. "It's a funky show. I quite like it. I get episodes sent to me, so I've seen most of them. I haven't actually heard anything official, but when I spoke to Kevin he said it was going to be a funny role. And that's great. So if it happens, I'll be there if I can."

Speaking of Hercules, Hurst is well aware that its viewers still cherish their memories of both the series and his legendary portrayal of Herc's best friend and companion, Iolaus. But as much as he enjoyed his time in the Ancient World, Hurst readily admits that he's had absolutely no problems adjusting to life after Hercules.

"Sometimes it feels like a distant dream," he explains. "In fact, they're finally showing the last series here on TV now. It was never hugely popular in this country, believe it or not. I don't go out of my way to watch it, but sometimes I catch it. I'll turn the TV on and think, 'Wow, look at me! I look so different, it was so long ago...' Sometimes it feels like that. But other times the memories flood in and it feels like it was only yesterday.

"The truth is, I was ready to move on," Hurst states. "I have moved on - it's almost two years now since I last did Hercules. The continued interest in the show still surprises me... It's kind, of strange to me to be dealing with fans who still want to talk to me about episodes that frankly I can barely remember! That life the show has now is no longer in my control, and it's a strange thing to me.

"In some ways I think, 'Okay guys, I've moved, on. Let's not dwell on Iolaus. Iolaus has outlived his usefulness: But who knows? In a few years, if they were to make a feature film and asked me to do it, yeah, that would be fine. He'd be an older Iolaus, but yeah, he'd be older. "But truthfully I've definitely moved on."

While Hercules clearly isn't the focus of his attention these days, the series does nevertheless continue to hold a very special place in Hurst's life and career. He's "extremely proud of most of Hercules" (although he cites a few "real clunkers", such as season two's The, Mother of all Monsters), and is happy to discuss his experiences on the show (along with his more recent projects) at conventions such as the upcoming Cult TV event in the UK. Hurst also recognises that his six-year stint as Iolaus has claimed him a place in the annals of television history, and will long be remembered by audiences around the globe.

"Funnily enough, the other night I happened to turn on the TV and there was the theme music, and I thought, 'It's already sounding to me like the theme of the original Star Trek,"' he reveals with a chuckle. "When you put Star Trek on now, it's about 35 years old, and you think, 'I remember that when I was a kid!' When I heard the Hercules theme music, I had an image of kids who watched Hercules corning up to me in 20 years' time and saying, 'Do you remember that scene?' I had that in a flash. That was a syndicated TV moment!

"That is really great," he admits, "but there are other things I want to be remembered for as well. Those are yet to come, I think. I've yet to do anything majorly significant [apart from Hercules]. But that's alright. It'll come."

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