role call

Helen Hunt Answers Every Question We Have About Twister

The actress on performing with Bill Paxton, what it was like to be temporarily blinded on set, and what her future with the Twister franchise looks like. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Vestron Picutres

Vulture’s Friday Night Movie Club selection this week is Twister, an incredible 1996 action/disaster/rom-com/horror film about people who are extremely horny for tornadoes. It’s the rare ’90s action movie that still holds up, in large parts thanks to the fact that director Jan de Bont famously terrorized his actors by insisting on practical effects, spending upward of $90 million hurling actual pieces of ice directly at stars Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton. Though production was infamously plagued — what with the camera crew walking off set a few weeks into filming, reshoots, endless overtime requirements, and actors getting conked in the head and temporarily blinded — the movie went on to become a massive hit, raking in nearly $500 million and beating out Mission: Impossible at the box office.

Much of Twister’s long-lasting appeal can be attributed to the fact that a gigantic cow flies across the screen, and, as Paxton once put it, it’s “traumatic fun for the whole family.” But the movie also functions as a sort of screwball romance between Hunt and Paxton, two storm chasers who love each other but can’t stop arguing about who is better at chasing storms. Hunt plays Jo with a latent sadness that gives the movie a center of gravity: She’s traumatized from a childhood incident in which her dad was swept away by a tornado, and can’t heal until she solves the very problem of weather itself. Her chemistry with Paxton, who finds her exhausting but irresistible, is naturalistic and sweet — though he’s got an elegant sex-therapist fiancée (Jami Gertz), you spend the movie rooting for these two crazy kids to get their shit together and find their way back to each other.

It’s been almost 25 years since Twister touched down in theaters, but Hunt graciously hopped on the phone with us ahead of our Movie Club to talk about her memories of the late Bill Paxton and Philip Seymour Hoffman, what it was like to be temporarily blinded, how she feels about de Bont calling her “clumsy,” and why Jo never wore a ponytail. And yes, we have reason to believe that Helen — who, for legitimate and professional reasons that will be made clear, I may have accidentally called Jodie at one point in this interview — isn’t done with the franchise yet.

Hi Helen!
You sound like you’re in a wind tunnel.

Do I? I have a fan on, it’s hot in New York.
I bet it is. I don’t want you to be sweating.

It would be apropos if I were in a wind tunnel for this conversation.
[Laughs.] Yes, it would.

What do you remember about the first time you heard about Twister? How did it come your way?
All I remember is that I didn’t think that I wanted to do it. Which is crazy, because I’ve never been the lead in a big, fancy movie before. But I guess I just didn’t know what I could really contribute acting-wise. Then I got on a lunch break from Mad About You — “They want you to have lunch with Steven Spielberg and Jan de Bont” — and I just, like, wandered into the fancy Amblin offices with the fancy catered lunch and was like, “I’ll do it!” It didn’t take much. But they had cool ideas about what the script was gonna become, and they hired good writers to work on it, and it was me at the center of this gigantic movie. I went from — I don’t know why I didn’t think it was a good idea — to thinking it was a great idea to be in this movie. And I’m lucky that Jan de Bont wanted actors. He wanted theater actors, and not movie stars, which I’m sure was not easy for him to convince people.

There was a quote from him where he said, “I wanted Helen because she reminds me of a whirlwind. She can boss people around. She has a strong persona, which I like.” Do you think that’s a fair assessment of you?
[Laughs.] I can boss people around? Okay. I guess so. I can act like I can boss people around, for sure.

What do you remember about meeting Bill for the first time?
We’d already worked together in a movie years before; we didn’t have a lot of scenes together, but I’d met him already. So that was a nice, slightly familiar thing. But I didn’t know any of the other guys, and I actually became very close to the other guys in the movie. Phil Hoffman, who’s gone, sadly. Joey Slotnick, who’s still my good friend. The shoot went on forever, and it was really brutal, physically. I think the reason it holds up is that it wasn’t a lot of visual effects; they were actually just throwing shit at us constantly. And so we all took refuge in my dressing room, playing cards until 5 in the morning, when they’d finally let us go home. In the way that movies can be, especially when you’re younger, we all got really close. I was friends with Phil Hoffman up until he died, just from that movie, working on that wild movie together.

What kind of things did you do with Phil after the movie?
He had a theater company called Labyrinth and I went to see all of his plays. We would go to dinner, we would be at the bar, chatting. I wrote a movie that I directed that I offered him a part in. I’d written it for him, and then he won an Oscar. And I was like, “Well, I have this small movie.” And he was very sweet about it, but all booked up. I just always adored him and loved his work, and what he was trying to do with his theater company. So in the middle of this — Oklahoma, Iowa, trailers on the side of the road — we just really connected. And same with Joey Slotnick, who I just saw in New York right before the pandemic. Jan wisely just chose really interesting people who did really interesting things. We all found each other and played cards, just all night, night after night.

When was the last time you spoke to Bill?
I don’t know. But whenever I’d see him, he was always excited. “There should be a sequel!” He was a champion of that. He was very enthusiastic, and excited to be in the movie. His enthusiasm was one of the best qualities a person can have.

There’s been a lot written about the horrors on set. What specifically sticks out in your mind regarding the intensity of the shoot?
[Laughs.] I mean, I don’t have perspective on — all I know is at the time, I was pretty freaked out. You’d get through five days of the hail machine, throwing actual bits of hail at you, and you’d go, “Woof, that’s done. Tomorrow must be easier.” And then the shards of candy glass, fake glass, would be thrown at you on the floor of some garage. And then there’d be a jet engine … I don’t remember the easy part of the shoot. And then we’d have a scene inside, but it was 110 degrees. It was rigorous. And Jan de Bont — there’s a reason his movies look so cool. Which is what you want in a filmmaker. It really is.

Knowing what you now know about how difficult the shoot was, would you do it again?
Do I have to answer it? Do I have to? I don’t know. Sure. I don’t know how the science fiction of redoing your life [works]. But the jewel in the middle of all of it was the friendships, and how much I loved those guys. Jami Gertz and I flew there together the first day. We were both ambivalent about leaving our lives at home, and I really was super-fond of her. There were things in the original script where the women were sort of catty with each other, and I raised my hand and said, “That’s not gonna be fun to play or to watch. I’m not sure if I want to do that.” Both as characters and actors on set, we just kind of linked arms. I liked her a lot. She got pummeled, too. But the movie looks so cool! To think that I was the central character in a giant blockbuster … I know each thing in your work leads to the next thing. I’m really lucky he hired me.

Can you tell me more about the women’s relationship in the original script and what you changed?
There were a lot of writers who had their hands on the script, so I can’t say exactly who did what, because I don’t know. But I know that there was a draft that I saw where the women were sort of catty with each other, and I didn’t at that point know that I had a feminist agenda, which I do. I just knew it wouldn’t be fun to watch and I didn’t want to play it. The technical term would be “yucky.” I just raised my hand and said, “There’s a better way.” And nobody said, “No, you have to.” Jan hires good, smart actors and trusts us quite a bit to speak up about that part of it. And I heard him in an interview say, “You try to walk in front of a camera, open a door, and say two lines.” He was telling a group of filmmakers at film school to get in an acting class. Which is what I always say to people who want to direct: “Get in an acting class,” so you know what it’s like.

What do you remember about the day you were temporarily blinded?
[Laughs.] Let the record show that you brought this up. I don’t want this to be a list of complaints. I think Jan, unfortunately, got saddled with the sunniest, most blue-sky tornado season in Oklahoma history. I feel for him as a filmmaker because you fly all the way there with all of this equipment to capture the stormy skies and it’s, like, sunny and blue skies almost every day. So he had all of these units out shooting stormy skies in other parts of the country, but in order to darken the sky behind us, he had to shine a ton of light on the actors. Does that make sense? So that when he brought the image down, you could still see Bill and I on the truck. So I remember these four 16k bulbs — 16,0000 watts of light — strapped to the back of the camera truck, shooting us. And I have very squinty, sensitive eyes anyway. And I remember going, “I can barely keep my eyes open!”

We were there all day shooting the scene, and the next day, Bill came into the makeup trailer and said, “Can you see?” And I said, “Not really.” It was super-weird. But it was not a big deal, ultimately. We put on some dark glasses and we walked around like the mice in Cinderella for a while. But I was very relieved that Bill was the one who came forward and said, “I might be going crazy, but I don’t think I can see.” But it went away. I guess they fry your corneas off and then they grow back.

Well, that’s terrifying.
It’s horrible!

Do you remember any actual weather issues on set, or was it really always sunny and nice out?
One day we were in a van, I don’t remember where we were going. It wasn’t during production, it was before we started. Somebody said there was some sort of tornado activity close by. I never saw one with my two eyes, but … he said, “We’re gonna get out of the van now.” And there was a ditch nearby. It was hard for me to understand how being in an eight-inch ditch could help you, but I’m not a tornado expert. So we were just listening to whoever was driving me. And the thing I remember was that the sky really does go a sick color green. Not sick in the way that kids use it today. Sick, like, a nauseating color of green. And the barometric pressure changes, so your body feels all wrong so quickly. I remember feeling sick, and then it passed. And I thought, “Boy, am I not like my character! I am not the guy who’s gonna run toward this feeling. I’m the guy who’ll be in my trailer, driving away.”

There was another incident where you got hit in the head during filming, by a car door. And Jan later told EW, “I love Helen to death, but … she can be also a little bit clumsy.”
That’s so brutal. That is so brutal. Let’s just leave it at that. We’ll just let him have the last word, that it happened because I was clumsy. I’d prefer to leave that sitting on the table.

Would you describe yourself as clumsy? You seem very physically adept in the movie!
Yeah, I wouldn’t! But he did. And that’s okay.

Were there any scenes to film that were just fun, or particularly thrilling?
Bill and I had a big scene where he says, “Is that what you think, that the tornado came after you?” You know that one? It was a beautiful spot, unlike any other place we were. Deep green trees and hills, which I didn’t see a lot of while we were there. And I thought the scene was really well-written, and Bill was a fantastic actor. We got to really — everybody appreciated everybody’s work. You’re trying to do the deepest, realest scene in a big action movie, and that can be hard. But I remember enjoying that it was about the acting, and capturing that on film the way that Jan wanted to do it.

My co-worker who’s doing the livetweet tonight thinks that the movie is secretly a rom-com. What do you think?
Yeah, totally. I agree. There are a bunch of writers that came in, and the last one was Jeff Nathanson, and he was in the middle of helping to break stories for Mad About You. The two of us in the trailer would poke around about what funny things these two characters would say to each other. It’s totally a rom-com. We drive each other crazy. They don’t get back together, then they do.

I know it was a long time ago, but I’m curious if there are any on-set stories you didn’t share at the time that you could share now.
I don’t remember at all! I remember when I was doing press for the movie, some woman raised her hand and said, “Wouldn’t she put her hair in a ponytail?” I said, “Screw you! Don’t get technical with me!” [Laughs.] You know, she had a point.

That is a good point, actually. Why didn’t she have a ponytail?
Then all the hair wouldn’t go flying!

True, it wouldn’t be as dramatic.
Honestly, my takeaway is that I’m super-lucky that this filmmaker — who made different kinds of movies than I was usually in — even knew who I was, frankly, and thought I’d be cool in the middle of this movie. And that the other actors that he chose were such good actors. That was really lucky for me.

Looking back, how do you feel like being in Twister changed the arc of your career specifically?
You know, you can never know for sure, but when James L. Brooks was casting As Good As It Gets, I was told that he thought I was just wrong for the part. And it was right after Twister. So I guess he had that to go on, and Mad About You. And I understand why he wouldn’t see me as the right person for that job. I don’t know if the studio pushed him to do it, or what happened. But I got in the door and I auditioned. So even though what I did in Twister might have made him think I wasn’t right for that part, it might have been the thing that forced him to see me. And then in the middle of my audition, I remember him running around to get someone to film the audition, and he started to get interested in me.

You don’t know what the effect of what you do can be. But I know I made really good friends from it. And that it still holds up! I like big action movies, but they’re not all I watch. Sometimes I don’t, because effects have been updated since the movie, so you kind of cringe while the old effects happen. But that’s not the case for almost all of Twister. And I think that’s because he didn’t rely on a lot of visual effects. He really threw shit at us, and it looks amazing. I think it’s a giant accomplishment to make a movie where the mythology makes sense, the story, and the effects, after all these years, hold up. I had occasion to watch it not long ago, after not seeing it for a decade. It’s like getting on a giant roller coaster. And it never stops. It’s an amazing movie, and he’s an incredible filmmaker.

Publicist: We just have time for one more question.

What was the occasion? Why watch it now?
Um … I was watching it with some friends for reasons I won’t talk about right now. But it was cool. I watched it on my front lawn, actually. I got a little projector. And for a bunch of reasons, I decided to watch it. But it held up!

It really does. I know you said Bill was very into the sequel, but do you know why we never got one? Is there any shot?
That’s the point I just can’t talk about right now. I’m gonna let it sit there for today. But thank you guys for screening it. I hope people have fun watching it. With 20 years’ perspective, it’s easy to say I had fun making it, but I definitely feel so grateful that I got to be in it, and that I was in a movie that, all these years later, still looks so cool.

Okay! Well thanks so much, Jodie.
Did you just call me Jodie?

Oh my God. Yes. I was about to ask you about the tweet you posted a few years ago where you were mistaken for Jodie Foster at Starbucks, but then your publicist said we only had one more question —
Oh. Well, there’s nothing more — it’s all in the tweet.

I’m so sorry. I was just looking at that question so that’s why I said “Jodie.”
That’s okay. Have a good day.

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Hunt appeared in a number of films prior to 1996’s Twister, but was also well known for her TV and stage work — including her role in 1990’s The Taming of the Shrew, alongside Tracey Ullman and Morgan Freeman, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. 1989’s Next of Kin, starring Patrick Swayze. Then She Found Me, a 2007 dramedy. in 2006, for Capote. Including Joss Whedon, who was brought in for rewrites to Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin’s original script. Later, writers Steven Zaillian and Jeff Nathanson tinkered with the script, as well. Hunt won an Oscar for her role as waitress Carol Connelly, opposite Jack Nicholson. In June, Variety reported that a Twister reboot is in the works at Universal, to be directed by Joseph Kosinski.
Helen Hunt Answers Every Question We Have About Twister