Holly Hunter: ‘Sometimes I take a movie that I know is not great’

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The Oscar-winning actor is back on the big screen and receiving awards buzz for her role in romantic comedy The Big Sick. But despite a string of earlier successes, the industry hasnt always been kind to her


I havent been to Holly Hunters house and, Ive come to terms with the fact that I probably never will, but meeting her in a New York hotel room gave me a tantalizing idea of what kind of host shed be.

As I wait outside a suite at the Four Seasons, I can hear the Oscar-winning actor conduct some last-minute feng shui with a publicist, doubling up as furniture re-arranger. When I enter, shes up on her feet awaiting my arrival and quickly explaining that she wanted us both on the sofa together as the previous set-up was far too much like an interrogation. We sit and shes offering to serve me tea before talking through why its so much better in the UK (All I drink is tea but in a way, we just dont know how to do it) and offering up career-based empathy (Its got to be a weird job when you have to have to talk about movies that you dont like). Needless to say, most interviews dont tend to start with such informal warmth.

Maybe its just pure southern hospitality or it could be the result of a recent career boost thats lifted the 59-year-old actor out of smaller, often thankless roles, and back into the spotlight. Last year she made an impression, against all odds, in box office behemoth Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (arguably her most widely seen performance to date), she received raves at last years Toronto film festival for Netflix indie Strange Weather, cropped up playing Natalie Portmans mother in Terrence Malicks music drama Song to Song and her upcoming slate includes a buzzy HBO drama and a much-anticipated Pixar sequel.

But were here to talk about The Big Sick, a charming Judd Apatow-produced romantic comedy that recounts the real life courtship between standup comic turned Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani, playing himself, and his now wife Emily V Gordon, played by Zoe Kazan. As the title suggests, its a love story with a twist, the sick referring to a coma that Emily found herself in after the couple broke up. Hunter plays her mother with enough comic gusto to spark early whispers of awards attention.

It goes to this really private and intimate place because Kumail and Emily meant it, she tells me, tea in hand. Thats one of the reasons I was attracted to it because it had an authenticity, it had even more than an authenticity, it has an inside track that I felt was compelling.

Its a rom-com as well as a family drama as well as the story of a comedian trying to get his career started as well as a delicately drawn portrait of Muslim life in America, the latter element arriving at a particularly necessary time. That is an unintended, unsought after byproduct of the movie, Hunter says. I dont think they were going for that at all but it is, for us, a crucial thing. For us as an audience, boy do we need to hear that.

The film also serves as a valid reminder of Hunters scene-stealing skills, curiously absent in recent years. She broke out in the late 80s with the one-two punch of Raising Arizona and an Oscar-nominated turn in Broadcast News but such high-profile roles still werent enough to guarantee her more work.

I remember that when I was in my 30s, a hot age for an actress, lots of offers were coming in but nothing was great and I didnt work for 18 months, she tells me. It was at a really fruitful age and I wanted to work. There was nothing coming down the pipeline that I thought was good and then I got The Piano. I have never been an easy fit. Im a leading lady character actor, I dont fit in one slot simply. Ive always been used to a certain amount of struggle and that prepared me wonderfully for a mature age.

An Oscar win for her role as a mute pianist arrived in the same year as a nomination for starring alongside Tom Cruise in The Firm and for a while, the industry was kind and Hunter appeared in serial killer thriller Copycat, Thanksgiving comedy Home for the Holidays and worked with Danny Boyle in A Life Less Ordinary and David Cronenberg in Crash. But by the beginning of the following decade, things started to change.

Im working on 40 years of being an actress and of course Im proud of that, she tells me. But also with that has come the price to be paid for being a female in the movie industry. Its a hard tightrope to navigate and then to be an older woman, it has its own very special challenges. But Ive worked even when people didnt know that I was working. Sometimes its very difficult to do a movie thats good and then have that movie make it to the light of day.

Holly
Holly Hunter in Copycat. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/WARNER BROS
Its also meant that some of Hunters later choices havent always been the slam-dunks she might have hoped for. Sometimes I take a movie that I know is not great, its not great on the page but I need to work, she says. Sometimes I need to make the money, I need dough. I want to work and so Ill take something that is compromised in some arena. But its like, actors gotta act. Its the same way in any profession. Everything is not going to be the nectar of the gods.

In 2007 she pre-empted other female actors of her age by making the move to television at a time when it was far less common. In Saving Grace, she starred as a dysfunctional detective aided by an angel to mend her destructive ways and for three seasons, she was consistently working, no mean feat for a woman in Hollywood in her late 40s.

I got seduced into thinking hey this is my career, this is my life and once that ended, I was in cold water again where I was like ohhh yeah, oh right, Im playing the mom again, she says. But Im talking about a not very well-written mom, sometime who shows up occasionally and is supportive of something. Ive been reawakened a few times as to the limitations of aging as a woman in the film industry.

Theres a self-confessed counter-intuitive decision-making process thats led Hunter down some unexpected routes (she tells me after Broadcast News she ignored advice and picked a TV movie because she wanted to) but its also led her here to a place where shes excited to be working again as she enters her 60s.

Hunters sudden visibility is indicative of an industry thats finally, slowly broadening its sights and allowing multi-faceted older women the opportunities they deserve. Shes currently in the middle of reprising her role as Elastigirl in The Incredibles 2 and Oscar-winning American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball has cast her as the matriarch in HBOs multiracial family drama Here, Now alongside Tim Robbins. Alan doesnt write anybody thats not real, she says, excitedly teasing the show. Every character that Alan writes feels like the lead and when that character is on screen, this series is about that person.

Its been a tough route in an unforgiving industry but Hunter avoids any form of victimhood, even when it comes to the difficult feedback shes faced throughout her career from casting directors (shes previously stated that her short stature was often preventative).

Every actor gets it, she says. Even Brad Pitt Im sure gets Oh hes too good looking for this and Brad is like I can take it down so yeah, Im no exception.

  • The Big Sick is in selected US cinemas now and will release wide on 14 July with a UK release on 28 July

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jun/23/holly-hunter-the-big-sick-interview-age-women-hollywood

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