Holly Hunter talks about her film and TV career with such a casual, I-can’t-believe-I’m-still-working attitude, that you almost forget just how damn good she is. Almost. From her breakout role as a baby-crazy cop in the Coen Brothers’ sweetly absurd Raising Arizona to, more than 30 years later, her Independent Spirit–nominated turn as a mother fighting for her comatose daughter in The Big Sick, Hunter, 59, has defied the gloomy cliché that compelling roles for female actors only evaporate over time.
The four-time Oscar nominee and winner (for her lead role in Jane Campion’s stunning 1993 film The Piano) and six-time Emmy nominee sat down with Vulture in Los Angeles last November for a live SAG-AFTRA Conversations event, and again in February, to discuss her return to TV in Alan Ball’s new HBO drama Here and Now, how the seeds of her love affair with acting were planted while growing up in Georgia, and why she never wants her face to be a source of mystery. “I don’t want anyone to ever wonder who I am,” she says. “I’m not interested in fooling people.”
You’ve been promoting The Big Sick for more than a year, but I only recently learned that you and Judd Apatow first met at your alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University?
Yes, I went back to Carnegie to teach an acting class and Judd was touring the campus with his daughter. He sat in the class and I met him afterwards. A few weeks later, they offered me The Big Sick. I wanted to do it because it was such an incredible, unusual story. It was also fun to have a close encounter with straight-up comedy again. [Laughs.]
Did you ever meet co-screenwriter Emily V. Gordon’s mother, whom you portray in the movie?
I never did. The most heavily fictionalized part in the film was the mother character. I never even had a phone conversation with her because I just wanted to make her up, which is what actors normally do. We’re generally not playing real people.
It’s been more than ten years since your debut in TNT’s Saving Grace, a passion project that ended after only three seasons. What made you want to do TV again with Here and Now, especially coming off a critical hit film?
A lot of it was about working with Alan Ball. This is his milieu. He sets an unbelievable stage and then develops it — unfolds, digs, and pulls back more layers. It’s also incredible to be around so many diverse, highly skilled actors. And working with Tim Robbins again is a joy. We played brother and sister once in a movie called Miss Firecracker. [Laughs.]
In Here and Now you portray Audrey, a hippieish former therapist who is the mother of four grown children, each of whom is a different race. What do you think the show has to say about race and identity in America in 2018?
I think Alan openly grapples with that question. Can someone raise a child from another country? Yes. Are there limitations? Yes. Are there going to be disappointments? Yes. Are love and generosity enough to overcome those challenges? Yes. We have a lot of issues with division right now in our country, feeling alienated from each other. But we always have. We’ve all at some point experienced name-calling, being ostracized and excluded. You can walk down the street and be scorned merely for being a woman.
The series, like Alan’s breakout drama Six Feet Under, is a deep dive into the dynamics of a complex family. What was your own family like growing up Conyers, Georgia?
I had five brothers and one sister, so it was heavily a male-influenced household. But my mother was quite strong and my sister had a huge influence on me. While we were outnumbered, the female thing was potent! I wasn’t a rebellious kid, but growing up in a sexist environment where the boys worked on the farm and girls were not allowed to work, I think, gave me my own kind of existence. My thing was all about moving around invisibly.
When was the first time you performed and felt, ‘I want more of this’? Were your parents encouraging?
When I was in fifth grade, I did a scene from The Miracle Worker. I played Helen Keller and I was like, “Oh, this is it.” She throws this huge tantrum and tears the room apart. Then I started doing plays in high school, which I loved. It felt very free playing a grandmother when I was 13. Or a dog. [Laughs.] Oddly, my parents were very encouraging. From fifth grade on, I’d been looking for a way to express myself creatively, starting with singing and playing the piano. Then I found acting and it was like a personal jackpot.
I’ve read that you also judged poultry as a kid. Is this true?
When I was growing up, rural areas had 4H Club, an agricultural community program. I was in horse, pony, and public speaking 4H and I also did poultry judging of live animals: broilers, fryers, eggs in the shell, and also broken. [Laughs.]
How did your interest in theater figure into your wanting to attend Carnegie Mellon?
Exclusively. I went to my high-school counselor and asked, “How can I get into Carnegie Mellon University?” And he was like, “You can’t!” He was only thinking about SAT scores — I was an average student — but unbeknownst to him, Carnegie was a conservatory. You didn’t have to have fabulous grades unless you were applying as an engineer. If you applied as an actor, all you had to do was audition. So I went to Pittsburgh with my father and did a two-day audition process and I got in.
How did that training prepare you for theater in New York?
When I got to New York, I felt, “I am entitled to walk into these rooms. I’m entitled to audition. I’m entitled to ask for stuff.” Acting is a tremendously insecurity-making profession. I always feel insecure and I always feel confident. They’re slammed up against each other and it’s a constant balancing act.
When did you meet your longtime friend and one-time roommate, Frances McDormand?
My boyfriend and Fran’s boyfriend were best friends. I met mine doing a play at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis, and then I came back to New York. He said, “Hey, my best friend is going to Yale, let’s visit.” And his girlfriend was Fran. The four of us hit it off, and we all moved to the North Bronx. We got two apartments, one for each couple. Then we broke up with our boyfriends and Fran moved in with me.
What was she like to live with?
Fantastic. Fran’s as fabulous as she seems. We had a blast. We stayed up there for a couple years, and then she did Blood Simple. After that, [writer-director] Joel Coen sort of moved in with us and they eventually got married. It was a great chapter.
Speaking of Blood Simple, your voice is used in the film in an answering-machine message. Did the Coens pay you for that?
It’s been 31 years since Raising Arizona. Is it true that the Coen Brothers wrote the part of Ed for you? Did you have any sense of what Raising Arizona was going to look like in its final form?
They did, yeah. And oh God, I had no idea. Blood Simple and Raising Arizona were of the same family, but Raising Arizona was really whacked out. [Laughs.] I thought the script was brilliant; there isn’t a syllable you want to change in the Coens’ writing. You want to memorize it absolutely as it’s written. Their stuff leaps off the page and enters a realm cinematically that I didn’t even know existed. But I don’t think I really understood Raising Arizona until I saw it with an audience. You need to see a comedy with a crowd. It has a different life with an audience — that alchemy is what seals the deal. I felt the same way after seeing The Big Sick.
I’ve always wanted to know what it was like for you and Nic Cage to shoot with all those babies. How many were on set at a given time?
I think we had like 18. [Laughs.] They had to discourage the babies from walking! Babies only crawl for a small window before they start standing up, but it was crucial that all those babies still be in the crawling mode. By the way, Nic was incredible. He continues to be, to me, a thoroughly surprising actor. His interpretation of H.I. defied what was on the page — he took it to another stratosphere.
Raising Arizona opened in April 1987. What was the initial reaction?
Some people were offended because it dealt with child kidnapping in such a heartfelt way and then some, therefore, had a difficult time with me. I was so gobsmacked by that because it had never occurred to me that I was even a kidnapper because the movie, tonally, is so loving.
Ed just wanted a baby.
Yeah, I thought that obliterated the criminal aspect. Her being a good cop I thought evened things out, too.
I’ve heard that you replaced Debra Winger in Broadcast News. Is this true?
[Producer-director] Jim Brooks went through a really tormented casting process for that movie, as he’s done many times in his career. I didn’t know about Debra Winger, but I do know that the movie was being cast forever, but I purposely wasn’t going up for it because they were looking for known, established actors. Also, I knew that Jim was looking for someone tall.
Was that because William Hurt was so tall?
I don’t know! I’ve never thought of casting an actor based on being “small” or “large.” Size is such a nonentity. Often when I meet actors, I’m shocked by how tall or small they are because it’s virtually meaningless to me on camera. The stage also normalizes people to a degree. Mostly, Jim was looking for an actress with great experience. But after six months, he just said, “Let the floodgates open,” and I came in.
I watched the movie recently and it feels even more timely than it did 30 years ago. Also, your chemistry with William and Albert Brooks is staggering. It’s hard to imagine anyone but William playing that role. He had the difficult task of being simultaneously endearing and loathsome.
Yes, it was a near-impossible part for anybody. Bill Hurt is one of our great actors. He was a mentor to me, whether he knew it or not. He was also an extremely scary guy to be in the room with because of his talent and searing intelligence. There is no one I’ve ever worked with before or since who has so much clear-sightedness. That was the most scared I’ve ever been! Bill really understood the actor’s fear, but also how formidable it can be to be afraid and use that. He said, “You are afraid. And you will always be. Embrace that fear and treat it with the same respect that you have for your approach to a character.” I’ll never forget that.
You earned your first Oscar nomination for Broadcast News. What do you remember about attending the Academy Awards that year?
Our limo broke down. [Laughs.] They also didn’t have the whole drop-off thing figured out, either. I remember Glenn Close had to present Best Supporting Actor — the second category of the evening — and she was like eight-and-a-half months pregnant and I saw her run past my car. [Laughs.] I thought, “This is so not good.” Then, I didn’t have my tickets for some reason and they wouldn’t let me in the door. I was like, “I’m nominated!” That was pretty funny.
When you finally got inside, were you able to appreciate the moment?
I just remember that when Cher won, she had to have like five people help her onstage.
Yes, the Bob Mackie dress. Remember the headdress?
Oh man, and it was all so trippy. She was the only person there in an actual designer gown.
If you have to lose, it’s best to lose to Cher.
Yeah, you gotta lose to Cher.
In 1993, The Piano and The Firm netted you two more Oscar nominations, and a win for The Piano. How did Jane Campion’s script come to you?
There’s an agent named Tracey Jacobs whom I liked a lot, but who wasn’t my agent. I was sitting next to her at Sundance and she says, “Listen, I just read one of the greatest scripts I’ve ever read in my career. You should read it.” And it was the greatest script I’d ever read. The way Jane writes is so visual and visceral, you can feel the movie. I knew I wanted to work with her, so I got together with a dialect coach to teach me a Scottish dialect. The character of Ada was mute and obviously didn’t speak in the movie, but I memorized her bookend monologues. I also put together a piano tape because I could already play fairly well, and then I met Jane.
Had composer Michael Nyman scored anything at that point?
No. But once I was cast, he started sending me pieces as he wrote them, around three months before we started shooting, so I could learn them as I went along.
What do you remember about the casting of Anna Paquin as your daughter?
It was actually Anna’s sister who was brought in to audition, and Anna happened to be there. Jane asked her, “Why don’t you audition too?” She was 9 and living in New Zealand. And Anna was a piece of magic, as she is.
Her Oscar acceptance speech is also one of the sweetest TV moments of all time.
Yeah, the best ever.
What was the most grueling part of that shoot? There was a lot of rain and a lot of mud.
Those were fun things, actually. [Laughs.] The hardest part for me, again, was negotiating with my fear. Playing piano in front of people was paralyzing. I love to be onstage and perform for the camera, but playing piano is not fun. And I had to travel with that piano! That was my biggest challenge — the piano was a broken-down piece of shit. It was built in 1850. There were many notes that didn’t play and the ones that did sounded like they were being played through wads and wads of cotton. When I first arrived, Jane said, “Here’s the instrument!” I’m like, “What?” So the piano stayed in my apartment. Whenever we’d travel from one location to another — and we traveled a lot — the piano had to be moved too. Then, when the movie was in postproduction, I had to fly to Munich and replace all of the piano I played in the movie with the Munich orchestra. That was another nightmare. “Now I have to play with an orchestra?” So, I took the Valium they gave me and also a good German brew. Of all the things that I did in that film, playing piano in Munich was far and away the hardest.
Do you know where the piano is today?
Jane has it. It’s still a gorgeous instrument, but now has no real voice, which is interesting because Ada didn’t have a voice either.
Speaking of Anna’s Oscars speech, what do you remember about accepting your own trophy that night?
I just remember that it felt like such a drag for [co-star] Harvey [Keitel] not to be nominated. I really hated that. Just being honest. I thought he was so brilliant.
It’s incredibly moving to see the clip of you thanking Jane, who won Best Screenplay that night, and your producer Jan Chapman. For three women to have had such an impact at the Oscars in 1994 feels especially poignant today.
Totally true. A few months ago was the first time I’d ever been on a set with a female director and a female DP. It was a richness I’ve never experienced before — to be photographed and directed by a woman. We need more of that.
Another director who also changed your career was Catherine Hardwicke, with her directorial debut Thirteen.
A beautiful, small little gem. I loved Thirteen. I love Catherine!
You remind me a lot of her, actually.
[Laughs.] We hit it off. She’s unbelievably gifted and joyful. Also, the script for Thirteen was so exotic. It was co-written by a 13-year-old girl and you could feel that. It was like, “Wow.” Scary and exotic. And then I met Catherine, who brought a sense of mischief to the movie. The movie was an embodiment of her rawness and her intuitions. She knows exactly what she wants to see and then she sees it. She’s very impulsive.
Is that rare in a director?
Yeah, very. Also, oddly Broadcast News and Thirteen had something in common in that both movies were shot almost totally in sequence. Broadcast News was an enormously expensive endeavor because of that, and we shot virtually all of Thirteen in sequence because we were mostly in my character’s house.
What was it like working so closely with then-teen actors Evan Rachel Wood and Nikki Reed?
It was crazy, nuts. I didn’t have kids at that point. I was never around 14-year-old girls. I didn’t remember being like that! They had so much energy. And I have a lot of energy. But compared to them, I was dead. [Laughs.]
Did you feel your career shift again after that? Did you crave more small-scale, intimate films?
As an actress, you take what you can scrounge up from the gutter. [Laughs.] After Thirteen, I did the Saving Grace. The character was so full-bodied and lived an incredibly sexual life. Her age was never once mentioned in 46 episodes. I was having sex with busboys. I was having sex with CEOs. And that was really fun, fun, fun.
She was acting like a man.
She was, but she was all woman, too. And it was a real shock when the show ended. It felt like diving into the deep end of really cold water. “Welcome back to the real world of feature films. This is gonna be tough.” By then, there was no real use for me in a leading role in features.
It’s interesting that both you and Glenn Close, who also had a very busy film career in the ’80s and ’90s, went to basic cable in 2007 — you to TNT with Saving Grace, she to FX with Damages. What did you learn from doing episodic television?
Glenn was beyond brilliant in Damages. It was unbelievable seeing her stretch like that, you know. After Saving Grace was one of my harder transitions that I’ve had because I was feasting at a banquet — and then not at all. I learned that, unlike sometimes in film, TV is all about the writing.
You mentioned having done Thirteen at a time when you didn’t have children. I ask this of male performers too: Did becoming a parent change your relationship with acting? Did it change what work you felt compelled to do?
I’ve never had that much opportunity or to be able to go, “Hmm, which of these brilliant things must I do? Somebody give me a glass of wine!” [Laughs.] You’ve got this one that’s slightly crippled with an okay director, this other one they’re offering you okay money, and this one is beautiful and glimmering. It’s an imperfect thing. If you’re waiting around for The Piano to show up, you’ll never work again. You never know what the evolution of something is gonna be. The Big Sick is a lovely movie and everything went right along the way. That’s kind of miraculous.
Do you think being in a Judd Apatow–produced comedy has netted you a new generation of fans, or encouraged Hollywood to see you differently?
It’s hard to say. An actor’s career is in a constant state of metamorphosis. I don’t know what I’ll be doing in two months. Where will I be? Geographically, I live in New York, but maybe I won’t be there! I love there’s a part of my life that’s uncertain and unknown. There’s a part of that that I resent, but I’ve learned to live with it. More than anything, I wanna keep it real. I wanna keep my face real. This is hard, particularly for actresses as they get older. I want people to understand my face. I don’t wanna do stuff to my face where people don’t recognize me anymore. “I think that’s Holly Hunter?” [Laughs.] It’s a constant negotiation for actresses — you wanna be photographable, but you also wanna get older because that’s real. I don’t want anyone to ever wonder who I am.
It’s a totally practical concern.
It is, and it’s something I feel at home with now. I’m not interested in fooling people. I want to connect with desire, loss, need, fear, love, and rejection. I feel privileged that The Big Sick connected with an audience. That’s all you want as an actor and it’s all you want as an audience member, too. To have that hook up, you know? It’s cool to think that I’ve put in almost 40 years in an industry. There’s something durable about my career that I’m very pleased with. It’s like, “Wow, how lovely. How nice.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.