From 'The Big Sick' to 'Here and Now': Holly Hunter Opens Up About Her Resurgence

The actress talks with THR about how good roles for her dried up after 'Saving Grace' ended and why she wanted to work with Alan Ball on his new HBO family drama.
Courtesy of HBO

"Is this Holly?" I ask somewhat disingenuously as Holly Hunter's distinctive voice comes on the line. She answers in the affirmative, then laughs. "As if anybody else sounds like this."

It's true: Even over the phone, there's no mistaking the veteran actress for anyone else. Had Hunter been a lesser talent, that unique (at least in Hollywood) Georgia twang may have limited her opportunities in Tinseltown. But her command of the screen was undeniable, and in 1987 she vaulted to mainstream stardom with her performances in the Coen brothers' Raising Arizona and James L. Brooks' Broadcast News, the latter of which netted her the first of four Oscar nominations (she won for The Piano in 1994).

This early burst of success afforded Hunter high-profile roles in such films as Always, The Firm and the serial-killer thriller Copycat. But by the late '90s, her career began fading in and out of view, even as she continued working and even occasionally garnered acclaim, as with her Oscar-nominated performance in the 2003 drama thirteen. In 2007, she regained pop-cultural prominence with her lead role on TNT's three-season drama Saving Grace. But after taking two years off following the show's cancellation, she returned to discover that the kind of high-quality roles she had enjoyed earlier in her career were not forthcoming.

"After Saving Grace, I didn't want to work," Hunter tells The Hollywood Reporter. "The schedule of that show — and being an executive producer — was so relentless that I was like, 'Wow, I need to take some time off.' I didn't want to work for almost two years. And then when I did want to work, the stuff that was out there for me to do … were not some of the greatest projects of my career."

That all changed last year with The Big Sick, the critically acclaimed Kumail Nanjiani-Zoe Kazan feature that surprised industry observers by grossing more than $40 million in North America. In the process, Hunter garnered widespread acclaim for her role as Beth Gardner, the no-nonsense mother of Kazan's character who develops a tentative relationship with her daughter's ex-boyfriend.

To many who hadn't kept tabs on Hunter's career during the past decade, it could have been mistaken as a re-emergence. In the years since Grace, she racked up close to a dozen credits, but these tended to be either little-seen dramas (Won't Back Down, Strange Weather), blockbuster films that relegated her to supporting roles (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) or prestige TV series that rendered her near unrecognizable (Jane Campion'sTop of the Lake). But with The Big Sick, it's as if people are finally starting to see her again. Not only was it a plum acting role, but it also reminded the public of why Hunter became a star in the first place.

In the wake of The Big Sick, comes (arguably) Hunter's highest-profile role in at least a decade: Here and Now, the Alan Ball-created drama premiering Sunday on HBO. Hunter stars as Audrey Bishop, the high-strung matriarch of an upper-middle-class Portland, Oregon, family in which three of the four siblings were adopted from disadvantaged countries (Colombia, Vietnam and Liberia). For Hunter, it was both a meaty, bold-faced role and an opportunity to work with Ball, the Emmy-winning creator of HBO's Six Feet Under and True Blood.

"When I finished reading the first episode, I didn't say, 'Oh, wow, I don't know how he's going to live up to this,'" Hunter says. "I thought it was an incredible beginning, [and] I wanted to know what the 'more to come' was. I think that this is one of the great gifts that Alan Ball has … he's such a rich creator. And I felt like this world was so complicated, and it did not veer from that in any way. It was very intricate in the relationships between people."

Creator Ball reciprocates in kind. "She brings an intensity and a commitment that is probably more intense than I've ever worked with before," Ball tells THR of the collaboration. "She's kind of awe-inspiring. The way she approaches her work is so committed. She just wants to do the best job she can possibly do. And it's great to be working with somebody who has that attitude, because it rubs off."

The series also represents an onscreen reunion between Hunter and Tim Robbins, who last starred together in the 1989 drama Miss Firecracker. Robbins plays Audrey's husband, Greg, a philosophy professor who undergoes an existential crisis. For Hunter, the repairing is a marker of how long she's been in the game, and how few of those she started out with are left. "There's a sense of pride about going through the decades and looking up and seeing some of the same actors that I started out with," she says. "And Tim is one." She continues: "In a way, [it's] a completely new meeting. We're essentially the same, but also we've changed a lot in the 30 years since we worked together."

The business itself has also changed dramatically since Hunter first rose to prominence. In this way, Here and Now — with its multicultural cast and abundance of women behind the scenes — is also a marker. When she first landed in Hollywood, such a set simply wouldn't have existed, and Hunter admits that early in her career she was blind to many of the industry's systemic injustices.

"I mean, that was my own lack of experience and my own ignorance," she says. "I needed to be educated just like so many others … when I first started working, I didn't bat an eye about all of the crew members being male. It's like, 'Oh, yeah, camera operator, focus pullers, the electrics, the grips, they're all guys.' I didn't go, 'Hey, where's the women?'" When she looks back on it, that lack of inclusion is something Hunter regrets. "I feel retroactively robbed," she says, "of the experiences that I could have had in the last 35 years that I have not had."

Still, while Here and Now is far more inclusive than any of Hunter's earlier projects — in fact, the show's main cinematographer, Quyen Tran, is the first woman she's ever worked with in that role — her filmography is unusual for the sheer number of female directors it includes. Her career may have been launched by the likes of Brooks and Joel and Ethan Coen, but she's done some of her richest work in films directed by women, namely Campion (The Piano, Top of the Lake), Catherine Hardwicke (thirteen) and Jodie Foster (Home for the Holidays).

"I certainly have known that it's just a million times harder for female directors," she says. "I remember Catherine Hardwicke, after I had done thirteen with her — which nobody could have directed except for Catherine — and then she did the first Twilight, and when Twilight was a massive success, they got somebody else to direct the second one. [And] it was a guy. I was like, 'That's not good.' If a woman does something that doesn't come out utterly successfully, she will not get a second try. But with Catherine, it was like, she hit one out of the park and didn't get a second try. … That was disheartening."

For all the forward progress being made now in Hollywood thanks to movements like #MeToo and Time's Up (for the record, Hunter calls "the extent of" the allegations against one-time collaborator Harvey Weinstein "shocking"), she seems to relate to her Here and Now character's sense that things have in some ways gone backwards politically. On the show, Audrey and Greg — baby boomer liberals who met and fell in love while attending UC Berkeley — have become disillusioned with the state of the world and the seeming destruction of the idealism they once harbored for themselves and their country.

"I definitely do feel that a lot of the values that they've fought hard to instate have taken major steps back, and that there's injury involved, in that there's a certain kind of destruction involved," she says of the characters. "And sometimes when institutions, when cultures, when societies take steps back, what is destroyed cannot easily be put back. I also believe that there's just a personal disappointment as well that feels extremely human. That you are not now who you thought you might become. And it's not who you wished you would become."

But in one critical way, Hunter is the nearly the polar opposite of the character she plays. In Here and Now, Audrey has if anything become more fastidious and obsessed with maintaining control over her life and surroundings than she was as a young woman. Hunter, on the other hand, has in some ways pulled back. For starters, she's not sweating her Oscar snub for The Big Sick. "The whole Oscar thing — that's a real crapshoot," she says. "You get one or you don't. I mean, no one has control over that stuff." (Though awards season PR reps may disagree.) But on a grander scale, she finds comfort in knowing that she made it through the gauntlet and remains standing.

"I'm a little more relaxed at this point in my life than I was when I was younger," she says. "The relaxation has been hard won, but it's also been kind of a gift. Often when I'm faced with a situation I go, 'Oh, yeah, this is kind of like that time blah blah.' And I realize that I've actually lived through it. I've gotten through it."

Here and Now premieres Sunday, Feb. 11, on HBO.