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Helen Hunt on How Age and Parenthood Have Transformed Her Career

There was a time when Helen Hunt was ubiquitous, appearing every week on television (Mad About You), starring in huge studio movies (Twister, As Good As It Gets), and sometimes, popping up in several films a year (as she did in 2000, with starring roles in Dr. T & the Women, What Women Want, Pay It Forward, and Cast Away). Over the last few years, Hunt has become more selective, and her role in Richard Levine's Every Day, out tomorrow — she plays the wife of Liev Schreiber, who must take care of her suddenly infirm father (Brian Dennehy) — is her first onscreen appearance since 2007, when she starred in her feature directing debut, Then She Found Me. As Hunt told Vulture, that absence is due to a combination of factors: writing her next project, raising her young daughter Makena Lei, and a growing desire to "have [her] own life."

This is your first project since Then She Found Me, which you also wrote, produced, and directed.
I did. How stupid! [Laughs.] And I just wrote another one that I would be in which is more stupid, actually, because it's a more ambitious movie.

Was it a relief, then, to simply have to act in this?
Oh, for sure. I just found myself filled with a desire to give [Levine] what he wanted, to have it go well for him. Both movies were made in New York City for a low budget and without that much time in between, so I definitely felt his pain.

You spent a lot of time in your career working in big studio films and on a top-flight network TV show. What is it like to now spend so much time in the independent-film sector?
It's just wherever the good part is, you know what I mean? I can't say that it has anything to do with anything, other than a good script and a good part and an invitation.

Liev's character has a brief affair with Carla Gugino, and in another kind of movie, there'd be a big confrontation scene where your character finds out about it. In this movie, it doesn't come. What did you think of that?
Well, when I signed up to do the movie, Liev was in and I had read the script, and those were the two elements that made me want to do it. I didn't quite understand the potency of the scenes with the father, and then they cast Brian, who I'd known for many decades, so I suddenly woke up to the fact that these scenes would be important because this actor is playing them. Then I realized that sure, what she's going through with her marriage and in her own home is important, but when it gets to your parents and your kids, you can't divorce them. That's kind of a no-joke part of your life, and you want to get it as right as you can get it. I suddenly found myself playing these scenes with Brian, and whatever was happening in the marriage was going to happen, and whatever [Liev's character] was doing became less and less important to this woman than finding a good way in this very tangled relationship with her father. That was a movie within the movie that I haven't seen before, an adult woman in such intimate contact with her dying father. I thought that was very bold. Death and birth come along and they don't care about timing. They're both very potent moments.

You're trying to get your next film off the ground. How do you decide when to focus on filmmaking — which can be a two-year enterprise from start to finish — and when to accept a role in someone else's movie?
A lot of it is opportunity. If somebody offers you a great part and you're not making your movie, you take the great part. A lot of it is good fortune and what comes your way. I can't control if the Richard Levines of the world give me a good part; what I can do is take the little steps every day to get my own work off the ground.

You've become more selective about choosing films since you had your daughter, and I recently read an interview with Amy Adams where she said she went through something similar, that when she was younger, she would —
When she was younger? How old is she?

I think she's 36 now.
Really? Okay, go ahead. [Laughs.] I was rolling my eyes, but I'll stop now.

She was saying that back then, she loved the challenge of throwing herself into a role, but now that she's a new mother, she's hesitant to take on parts that are going to require her to give up everything.
That makes a lot of sense to me. Movie acting is a great job for your twenties: You travel all over, you have affairs with people, and you throw yourself into one part and then another. It gets more challenging as you get older, and it's not just having a daughter, it's wanting to have your own life and be yourself. I have kind of a mixed relationship with that throw-yourself-into-the-part thing: There are times when I love it and I get to express myself in ways that I need to and wouldn't otherwise, and there are times when I really like my life and I don't want to cut my hair off and go to Tennessee and live in a hotel for three months. I just don't wanna! I'm too grown up. That's when choosing becomes really important. This year I did [Soul Surfer], where I got to take my daughter with me and shoot in my favorite place on earth. They were like, "Do you want to go to Oahu and bring your daughter and surf in a movie?" I went, "Okay!" [Laughs.] I haven't seen it yet, so I hope it turned out all right, but the opportunity to be paid and have my family with me and be in heaven was pretty great.

Your daughter is nearing the age that you started acting at.
Oh God, no! I can't look at it that way. She's 6, and I was older than that, at least.

According to IMDb, you were 8 when you started.
Nine or ten. IMDb's wrong all the time.

If she were to express an interest in acting —
Over my dead body. [Laughs.]

Do you wish you started acting later?
I don't wish I started later, but I was never a child star. I was in school every year and had normal friends and I loved it and here I am, so I can't say that I wish I hadn't done it. I used to say, "No, I didn't miss any of my childhood," but it is a very adult place to be, a movie set. Like, it's a little weird. I think if my daughter was interested in acting, I would find ways for her to act in theater that has to do with her school or a kids' improvisational thing. There are ways to do it where you're not on a movie set with 60 adults, which I loved at the time, but as a parent, I don't know that I'd be dying to put her in that spot.

We're in the thick of Oscar season, and it looks like a lot of people will be nominated that never have been before. As a former winner —
I don't feel like I really have my finger on the pulse of who's going to be nominated.

But you're an Oscar voter now yourself, right? Do you take that obligation seriously?
I go to the movies; I'm a huge movie fan. I get my screeners, but I like going to the movies and buying my popcorn and watching the movies. The good thing about the screeners is, like, last night I saw I Love You Phillip Morris, and I thought that was great! And I thought [Jim Carrey] was incredible! That's when the whole business of awards ... I mean, I've been very blessed in that realm and I have nothing negative to say about it and it's really fun to get to have that Cinderella moment, but when you see a performance like that floating by, you think, Somebody should be talking about how beautiful that work was.

I know that film had a lot of distribution problems. The release wasn't necessarily what I would have anticipated, just from the elements involved.
Yeah. It happened with my movie, too — not to compare them, but the company that was releasing [Then She Found Me] went bankrupt the night before it opened wide, on Mother's Day. It was devastating. But you know, [Carrey] did the work and we're still talking about it, so I have to trust that somewhere, there are people that my movie touched saying, "You should see that movie." When I hear that someone is talking about it, I'm very gratified.

Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images