I have to look at this mostly-blank page and ask myself why I have left it "under construction" for so long. I think
it's because I just got so sick of bad theater and bad directors and crummy experiences with the idiots who abound in community
theater. I had to just step away from acting several years ago, and the two or three times I've briefly flirted with it since
have just reconfirmed my disgust. SO... what I'm gonna put here instead is an interview I ran across with one of my theatrical
heroes-- Holly Hunter. I listen to someone like her and it makes me feel there's a point to it all.
By Jamie Painter Young
Holly Hunter may be diminutive in size, but that's about all that's small about her. Up close, she's muscular,
powerful, and commanding. Her melodious Georgian accent also disguises, at times, a clearly determined, forceful voice that
is meant to be heard.
The same can be said of her acting. Hunter is in total control of her
instrument and has shaped some of my favorite performances on screen, including Ed, the lawwoman-turned-babynapper in the
Coen brother's screwball comedy Raising Arizona, as the driven TV news producer Jane Craig in James L. Brooks Broadcast
News (for which she received her first of three Oscar nominations), and the mute Ada McGrath in Jane Campion's The
Piano (for which she won her first and only Oscar). Frankly, Hunter has too many great performances to mention in this
Her latest triumph is Thirteen, in which she plays a recovering alcoholic
and frazzled mother of a troubled teenage daughter. Hunter not only took charge of her character, she took charge of the production,
signing on as an executive producer of this film, which was directed by first-time director and former production designer
(Tombstone, Three of Kings, Vanilla Sky) Catherine Hardwick. Thirteen was co-written by Hardwicke and then
13-year-old Nikki Reed, who co-stars with Hunter and the young Evan Rachel Wood in the film.
a recent conversation with Hunter, she shared her reasons for stepping in as a producer on some of her films, her observations
on the passivity of her fellow actors, and her frustration with some of her films not connecting to audiences.
Back Stage West: How did you get involved with thirteen?
Hunter: I was sent the script with an offer to play the role of Melanie, and I read it. I think the thing that initially
galvanized me, and attracts me to the script still, was the [idea] of two people living under the same roof and not knowing
each other to a profound a degree and how easily that happens, how inconsequential the lapses seem at the time, and then they
accrue, and the culmination is this huge chasm that exists between the two of you even though you live together. [My character]
has raised this child and loves this child more than anyone other than her brother. The love is enormous, and, still, they're
strangers. I can relate to that theme even though I have no children. I think that the experience that's portrayed is purely
a human one that kind of transcends age relations. I mean, I don't think one person truly knows [another], and even I can't
fully know myself. I can not fully unravel the tangles that exist in me, much less in someone else.
The teenage girls in this film [played by Reed and Wood, who plays Hunter's daughter] are lost souls and become such
messes. What were you like when you were 13 years old?
Hunter: I was very normal.
I had a particular outlet with music, which was great for me. I was playing in the [marching] band and I was playing in the
concert band and I was playing piano. Then I started acting in plays in high school.
What instrument did you play in the school band?
Hunter: I played trumpet
and French horn and baritone. It was a really wonderful thing. I had a lot of passion for it. I spent a lot of hours every
week involved in band practice, and then I spent a lot of hours every week involved in play practice. My life was really focused
between those two activities. I was seeking but I was not lost in the particular way that these girls are.
BSW: Coincidentally I interviewed director Jane Campion, with whom you of course worked on The
Piano, earlier today. She was telling me how much she loves to work with actors who are willing and wanting to take risks.
How important is the risk factor when it comes to your acting?
Hunter: I don't
ever really think of it as risk. I don't ever think, Oh this is risky. I honestly don't. I think, This is interesting, but
I don't necessarily think it's dangerous or risky. My mind tends not to look at my life that way.
What matters most then when it comes to joining a project as an actor?
I always want to express myself. I want to express something about my life. I want to be a part of the world, and this is
what I can do to be a part of the world--to act. It's a way that I can make manifest my own experiences about my life. That's
very important to me. It doesn't exclude doing things for money or doing things because it will keep me at home and I'll get
a paycheck and it will be good for my immediate future. It doesn't exclude those arrangements that I can make sometimes, because
acting is a privilege sometimes, and then other times it's my job; it's what I do to make money.
I have to kind of accommodate the life that I like with the life I have. Most of the time I end up doing things that I want
to do, and often there's no synchronicity between me and the public, which is too bad. For one reason or another the movie
is a joy to make, and somehow it doesn't make it out into the world without injury or it just doesn't live. It doesn't make
it to the last step, which is between it and the audience. It's distributed poorly or there was no money put into it or the
people that were around it weren't smart enough to know what it was that valuable about it.
most cases I do movies for very personal reasons, and sometimes I do movies because it's all that's around and I want to act,
or it's good for me at that time to engage in something and say Yes to something rather than to say No. Sometimes say Yes
and make the best of it. Say Yes and bring yourself to it and make it something you can devote yourself to. And sometimes
it's not ideal. I mean a Piano doesn't come along once a year. So I don't count on that because why should I? I have to live
now. Recognize the opportunities that come up. Thirteen was a script that had a shimmer, and I said Yes.
BSW: Is that one of the key reasons you decided to sign as an executive producer on this film,
because you wanted to make sure it deservedly reached audiences?
are a lot of people who are producers who are protecting the financial aspects of the movie, who have money involved or they
raised the money to make the movie possible. That's not my interest. My interest was what I thought was valuable and critical
about the script that I wanted to protect. We were shooting at an emergency pace, really. I mean, it was unbelievable. It
was almost like we weren't even making the movie in some ways. It was like, I can't believe that a movie is coming out of
this, it was so fast. In that frantic pace, there were things that were in the script that I wanted to constantly be the voice
of reminder on the set: This is what's written. This is the order of things. This is how this scene unfolds. In a more practical
or pragmatic sense, there were stage directions, if you will, that I thought were extremely valuable, and I felt much more
of an entitlement to be protective of those elements. It was more of a creative role that I wanted, in terms of that I didn't
want people to ask me about casting because they wanted to be nice to me. It was part of my being producer that I was completely
involved in the process.
BSW: And have you taken on the role of producer before?
Hunter: Yes. I executive produced a movie called When Billie Beat Bobby
about [tennis champion] Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. It was very enjoyable for me to feel absolutely from my job
description part of the building of the movie. I was not part of creating the script, but it felt good to have an official
voice to be able to say, "I just don't feel that we got it. I feel like we're missing this," or, "If we can, let's reshoot
BSW: Many actors don't feel they have much control over the material
they're working on. Do you feel that way when you're just the actor and not the actor/producer?
I actually feel that actors have a lot more control and a lot more say than they give themselves room for on a set.
Actors are generally rather passive in participating in the impact of their role, in feeling entitled to things on a set.
I mean little things, like clearing your eye line or asking for one more take. Actors can feel extremely timid and intimidated
on a set. They feel like they cannot ask for simple things like that, and then they regret it. The frightening thing about
doing a movie is that this is the moment and if you wait--if you feel that you haven't explored the scene properly or that
you discovered something and you want to explore it a little bit more in another take--that moment is going to be gone. In
one more minute it's over, and we're moving to a new setup. It's gone and you will never have the chance again. I work with
actors all the time who do not feel that they are entitled to speak.
you always spoken up on sets?
Hunter: I feel that I am the advocate for my character,
more perhaps than anyone else. Even if I'm talking to the director and the director wrote the part, the fact is that I am
the part now. I am the physical manifestation, and I am for her more than anyone else is going to be for her. I've always
inherently felt that, but it's certainly something you can learn. I had some really good teachers. Working with William Hurt
in Broadcast News taught me a tremendous amount about what an actor's job is.
Who else among your peers has had such a strong, positive influence?
I've certainly loved directors I've worked with. Robert Woodruff directed me in [Sam Shepard's] A Lie of the Mind here
at the Mark Taper Forum, and Woodruff shaped some of my thoughts that I had about acting. He has always been a real source
of inspiration for me in terms of doing things that were very provocative--new shapes, new forms, new ways of looking at the
world and different interpretations on important writers. And of course Joel and Ethan Coen have been tremendously inspiring.
I don't understand how they've been able to stay so vivacious over two decades. Their movies are always worth seeing. Every
single one of them, to me, is a jewel. I marvel at them. I just stand back in awe of their ability to remain very fresh and
ironic. At the same time their movies have a majesty, and they don't intend for it to be majestic but somehow it makes its
way in there. There's a grandeur to some of their landscapes.
BSW: I know that
you were roommates early on with Francis McDormand, who married Joel. Is that how you met the Coen brothers?
Hunter: I was in New York. I kind of made a backdoor Broadway debut with Crimes of the Heart,
written by my friend Beth Henley. Mary Beth Hurt was the first one to leave the original cast, and I replaced her. So I kind
of slipped in, and it was great. The show was a hit. It was always sold out. Serendipitously, Joel and Ethan went and saw
it, and I happened to be in it, and they asked to meet me for [their first film] Blood Simple. So I met them for
Blood Simple, and they offered me the part, and I couldn't do it because I was going into another Broadway show written
by Beth Henley that I was going to open in. And so they met Fran, my roommate at the time, and they offered the role to Fran.
BSW: Did you suggest her to them?
No. She auditioned and they did the movie with Fran. I ended up becoming friends with them through Fran doing Blood Simple.
That was 1982 that I met them. Then in 1985 I was living with them. We were all living in Silverlake--Fran and Joel and Ethan
and me and Sam Raimi were living in a house.
BSW: That's the coolest household
I've ever heard of.
Hunter: Joel and Ethan came in one day, and they said, "Read
the script. We've written you this part of Edwina." So I read the script, and I couldn't believe it. And then we all did
Raising Arizona together.
BSW: Was Raising Arizona the film that essentially
launched you into the world as a film actor?
Hunter: It was not a hit [when
it played in theatres], but it led to nothing but great things. It was a great thing in my life. I can't say that any role
that I've done has been because of Raising Arizona, but from that moment on my life was different because I did that
movie. I've remained really good friends with Joel, Ethan, and Fran. So, yeah, it was nothing but one of the best things that
ever happened to me, but more because of the friendships that have come from it than from what the movie did for me professionally.
BSW: What about Beth Henley, who's had such a big impact on your career? [Hunter
has acted in seven of Henley's plays, including The Miss Firecracker Contest, which was adapted into a film, also
starring Hunter.] Is it true that the two of you actually met in an elevator?
Yes, but I eventually was going to meet Beth, anyway. That was happenstance that day. I was going to meet Beth through [director]
Ulu Grossbard, who was auditioning me for The Wake of Jamey Foster that had been written by Beth Henley. So I was
going to meet Beth. But I've been incredibly fortunate and, you know, people are not always fortunate, and I will go through
patches when I'm not fortunate, either. But I've had this kind of lion's share of opportunity. There's an ebb and flow of
opportunity, and part of life is learning how to handle both--when it's ebbing and when it's flowing. It's been equally crucial
for me to understand how to navigate both, because they're both terribly stressful. But basically it's all good. Both are
BSW: How is success stressful? I can just hear some of our readers groaning
Hunter: See, my saying that is not a complaint. It's a fact. It's absolutely
part of the circumstance. For example, you do a movie for whatever reasons and you have the experience that you have, and
then the movie for whatever reason hits an oblique angle and fires up a synapse with an audience and it becomes a success.
There is inevitably responsibility that is a result of the success. You have to continue to bring the movie [forward]. You
have to be responsible for the movie. You want to shepherd it out there so that as many people can see it as possible. You
have a responsibility just as you had a responsibility in bringing your character. Now it's your responsibility to bring the
movie, and that takes time and energy and focus and engagement. You're interfacing with the world in a way that can be stressful
because you only have so many hours and you have other priorities in your life, but this is perhaps the number one priority
for this limited period of time. You get other job offers. You have to think about what it is you want to do.
The most difficult aspect of doing a movie is whether to do it--the choices that you make and how you're going
to devote your time for the next six months. Whether you're going to be at home with someone you love or whether you're going
to devote it to a place in Sri Lanka in a character that you only feel mediocre about but it's a big paycheck, or it's no
money and no one's going to see it, but you still want to do it. I mean, it's checks and balances. What are the priorities
in your life then? How do you stay healthy so that you can do what you want to do? Taking care of your family. Taking care
of yourself. Paying off bills. Taking care of debt. Whatever it is. Buying somebody in your family a house. These are all
not bad stresses, but it's stress nonetheless. It's just a different set. Do you want to be a celebrity? Do you want to be
People make choices that reveal who they are. You can tell a lot about a musician by
the songs that he writes or whose songs he or she covers. It's the same with an actor. You can tell a lot about an actor by
virtue of what they choose or what they don't choose to do.
BSW: So many great
film actors like yourself started out in the theatre. Yet there are quite a lot of young actors out there who are not working
onstage before entering film careers. Do you think they're missing out by not doing stage work?
I'm doing this movie right now called Little Black Book, and these two young actors, Kevin Sussman and Jason Antoon,
are in it and Kathy Bates and Brittany Murphy, and all of us have done theatre. Kevin, Jason, Kathy, and I all come from theatre,
and Brittany did A View From the Bridge with Anthony LaPaglia and Allison Janney on Broadway just a couple of years
ago. So it's not something that's dead. Young actors are coming from training conservatories and head for New York with something
similar to how I felt about what I wanted to do. [Hunter earned a degree in drama from Carnegie Mellon University.] I wanted
to be involved in theatre and still am involved very much in theatre. [Her last play was By the Bog of Cats
at San Jose Repertory in 2002.]
Generally when people start out in theatre, at least in my experience,
the actors I know tend to revisit the theatre and continue to do theatre throughout their careers. Others don't, but for me
it's always been imperative that I do plays, as well. It's just a different medium. It's the actor's medium. Whereas doing
a movie is a director's medium. It's great to have that sense of destiny that you can have when you're doing a play that you
don't have when you're doing a movie.
BSW: Do you ever get asked to audition
for parts now?
Hunter: I still audition. I auditioned for Living Out Loud.
I mean, I had an Academy Award and I was very happy to audition for Living Out Loud. Auditioning is tough, but,
you know, it's part of the evil, logical steps to getting a part. You've got to show up. I think it's good to audition.
BSW: What was your worst audition?
Oh, I don't want to speak badly of anyone. I mean, commercial auditions are always a little bit humiliating. I did one commercial
for Arby's, but you know sometimes you have to do commercials to pay the bills. I think it's very difficult to make a living
as an actor. People feel bad about taking sitcoms. Sometimes it's really fantastic to have steady work as an actor, to have
a steady paycheck, to be able to actually get to work.
BSW: So what's the most
fantastic thing for you about being an actor?
Hunter: The lack of knowing. I
like the not knowing. It's a chance to feel a bit disoriented. It's a chance to not know what will happen next. To prepare
myself adequately and to know what's important for me in the role, what the predominant thing is that I want to express and
to explore in the part. That's the great moment for me. BSW
On this page, I'll write
about some of my work
as an actor and director
-- including the plays
that mean the most to me:
the ones I've directed
in my high schools.