In the past year, William Hurt has appeared in films as a cigar-chomping general (The Incredible Hulk) and a slick US president in distress (Vantage Point). He also appears regularly on Damages (AXN Asia, Fridays) as an upstanding scientist who blows the whistle on his company's evil deeds. So far, so predictable; throughout his career, the actor has mostly played characters bestowed with either intellect (Broadcast News) or power (A History of Violence). His role in The Yellow Handkerchief, however, sees the 59-year-old star playing Brett, an uncommunicative man recently released from prison who's making his way home to New Orleans with two youngsters (Kristen Stewart and Eddie Redmayne) in tow. He spoke to the South China Morning Post while participating in the Hong Kong International Film Festival. What was the major challenge in playing Brett? I talk too much, but this is a character who doesn't talk much and doesn't wear a tie. Thank goodness someone actually believed I could play that. And so to me it was just joy - the word problem doesn't even pop up. Challenge, maybe - to make a non-verbal, relatively uneducated, lower socio-economic class character believable, but I do have respect for every human being, so I didn't have to fight for that. How did you prepare for the role? It's simple - it's just who, what, when, where, how and why. So if I'm going to play you, or some character based on you, I would really do a lot of research. I would find out where you're coming from - ethnicity, socio-economic background, psychology, your issues, as much as I could possibly absorb, and I would not think that I knew who you were. There's lifetime research and specific research. You live your life and look at everybody you meet, and then you go and spend a night in a prison. I figured that was the way to get into the role - staying at a maximum security prison. I got out in the morning and it was a great feeling. How much did you get out of exchanges with inmates there? You don't draw from that so much to play a full-fledged character - you draw from your life experience because you can't ... it's not like some butterfly going in and absorbing an entire life. It's a revivification, a reconfirmation. But really you are drawing from the library of your own existence. Then specific experiences vivify those in the short term - but the long term is more important - how you look at people every day. What you decide to do with your day is your work, no matter if you're employed or not. How did you find playing a character confined with two youngsters? Again one of the most important ideas to me, especially now that I'm entering the last chapter of my life, is whether I'm listening enough to young people. Every generation makes its mistakes perhaps, but hopefully a few individuals will say, 'Wait a second, I'm not going to do this, I'm actually going to learn from somebody who will be around after I'm gone, who's actually born with a technology and an aspect of life that I was not born with and I'll never learn.' These machines are parts of our brains and the people who know about it best and what it means to think with that included are the young. So we need to be listening. Did your experience as a father of four affect your interactions with your on-screen co-stars? My kids teach me everything - but that doesn't mean they teach me what to do. But they teach me every day - and it's the glory of it, the most glorious thing in life.