ASK JOHN HURT about the traditional vanity of actors, and he says, "Me? With this face? You must be joking. The only thing I could do about this face is plastic surgery.

"There are handsome actors. Lucky them. That's terrific for them. The only consolation is that there are very few extremely good-looking actors who last."

It's a healthy attitude for a man playing, in "The Elephant Man," the most grotesque film hero since the hunchback of Notre Dame.

To achieve the appropriate degree of ugliness for Mel Brooks' new movie, Hurt had to spend seven hours a day being made up. His cranium had to swell to twice normal size, and half his face was masked with bulging deformities. "It was the most unusual job imaginable," the 40-year-old actor said recently in London. "To play the part, my only resources were thought, my voice and prayer."

Why was he cast for the part? "It's difficult to say why," Hurt says, "because it's so flattering. They said that in the work they'd seen me do, I wasn't acting the character, I was the character. I informed them I was not -- but if that was what they felt about my work, it would be churlish of me not to accept their opinion."

Hurt, who looks the most normal of men, says, "I'm often told that I never play ordinary men, characters who are considered to be within the norm." And he has become Britian's formost young character lead by playing abnormal characters: a drug-crazed prison inmate in "Midnight Express"; "The Naked Civil Servant"; the drooling Caligula in "I, Claudius"; the crewman whose stomach explodes in "Alien"; Raskolnikov in the current PBS serialization of "Crime and Punishment." And in the upcoming Michael Cimino western, "Heaven's Gate," Hurt is another fish out of water, a drunken Englishman in frontier America.

"It's true, I don't play parts you can instantly identify with," Hurt continues in his rich, authoritative voice. "Funny enough, you can identify with the elephant man, deformed as he was. And that's the point of the film -- bringing yourself to identify with someone so far outside the pattern of what we call beauty. Not identifying with the way he looks, but with the way he is inside."

Hurt says that, "In my country place in Oxfordshire, there's not a single mirror." He says he "never got 'round to putting one in" -- not even for his wife Marie-Lise, a model. "I ought to put one in, if only to comb my hair. But with this face, why bother?

"Besides, no matter how many mirrors you have, you never see your own face from the front. It's with the other side of your eyes that you see yourself."

He was born in Derbyshire to a family that was "academically extraordinarily bright. My father, who became a Church of England clergyman, was a mathematician. My mother was a qualified engineer, and she was the first female draftsman with her firm in Manchester." But Hurt had wanted to be an actor since he was 9. "I told my parents I wanted to be an actor one time when I was on my way home from school. The announcement met with silence -- a worried silence, I think." He took his family's advice and went to art school first "as something to fall back on." (He still paints for recreation.) Eventually, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

When Hurt was fresh out of drama school, his agent told him, "John, you should probably come into your own at around 40. You'll always work, but you'll come into your own rather. late." The agent was five years too pessimistic. Since Hurt's portrayal of "The Naked Civil Servant" in 1975 earned him numerous TV awards, his reputation has grown steadily.

Despite all his credits -- including voices roles in "Watership Down" and "Lord of the Rings" and an Academy Award nomination of "Midnight Express" -- Hurt remains a little-known face and name. "Success isn't a word that interests me," he says, "unless you define success as working at what you wish to work at, and enjoying it. If you define success as stardom, I'm not interested."

Nevertheless, there were times "when you scream at the world. I'd be pretending if I said I hadn't got angry sometimes. I thank the Lord that I wasn't born with jealousy. It's like Nastase when he fails to win at Wimbledon. The reporter asks him if he's disappointed at losing, and Nastase says of course he is -- what's the next silly question? If you're up for Hamlet and they cast you as Laertes, you're disappointed more than you're jealous. But you'll get another chance, even in so short a life."

Hurt is leaving for Germany soon to star in "A Wind to the West." Disney is producing this true story about two East German families who built a huge hot-air balloon out of bedsheets and rode it over the border to freedom. a

"I adore working in film," Hurt says. "I love the medium and I take it seriously. That's one difference between England and America. English actors don't treat film seriously, but the Americans are brought up on it. The English have a lot to learn from American film performers."