Icon: Holly Hunter


Was there ever a less likely movie star than Holly Hunter?

Feisty, diminutive, unmistakably Southern, a crackling fireball of energy and eccentricity, her presence turns the conventional notion of stardom on its head. She has nothing of Halle Berry's glamour, nothing of Angelina Jolie's sex appeal.

But what she does have is a ferocious talent that has led to numerous memorable roles over the course of more than two decades -- from the batty cop in 1987's "Raising Arizona" to the superhero mom in 2004's "The Incredibles," to TNT's "Saving Grace," one of the best women-driven series in years.

It's a body of work that would make any actress proud, though not the sort that is usually rewarded with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which Hunter is receiving Friday.

There's something about Hunter that's far removed from the manicured confections of Hollywood's past. Rather, she seems utterly contemporary: edgy, troubling, powerful, vulnerable -- an incarnation of the modern world.

She has found it best to convey those facets in independent, rather than studio, films. Indeed, she's been almost absent from studio filmmaking her entire career, with the prominent exceptions of "The Incredibles," 1989's "Always" and her Oscar-nominated work in 1993's "The Firm."

"I've always been attracted to very different characters," she once said. "Early in my career, I could have done a television sitcom, 'Designing Women' or something. I could have done that and made a comfortable living. I don't want to put that down; it's just not what I wanted."

That's the sentiment one would expect from an artist who, early in her career, shared a Silver Lake house with those avatars of the fringe, Joel and Ethan Coen. (Joel would eventually marry Hunter's former roommate, Frances McDormand. Another housemate was director Sam Raimi, who has moved on to wider-audience fare with the "Spider-Man" franchise.)

It would be intriguing to know how these talents impacted each other. All have straddled that line between the quirky and the accessible, all have remained true to their art, all have dipped their toes in and out of the establishment. Is this why we like them?

"I was always extremely particular," Hunter told an audience in London at a screening of 2003's "Thirteen." "From the beginning, I was never desperate. I did other things for money; you know, the normal, boring stuff: I temped, I did waitressing. But I actually quit a play early on in my career -- it was one of the first things that I ever got cast in -- but I quit because there was something about it that I didn't like."

That commitment to her art has made Hunter one of the best actresses of her generation, as her colleagues testify.

"Every day she blows my mind," says Nancy Miller, executive producer of "Saving Grace." "We have 12-hour meetings where we go through every scene. And the preparation she does is unlike anything I have ever seen. She has made me a better writer."

Born in Conyers, Ga., in 1958, Hunter grew up on a farm as one of seven children. After starring in a school production of Sandy Wilson's "The Boy Friend," her family encouraged her to pursue acting -- despite the fact that she was, in her words, "profoundly deaf," with no hearing in one ear following a childhood bout with the mumps. Following studies at Carnegie Mellon University, she moved to New York, where she made her mark in a number of plays written by Beth Henley.

The Coens saw her in Henley's "Crimes of the Heart" and offered her a role in their first feature, "Blood Simple" (1984), but Hunter was already committed to another play. Instead, she recommended roommate McDormand.

The Coens returned to Hunter and cast her in "Raising Arizona," the movie that put her on the map. Playing a cop who joins with her criminal husband to kidnap a child, Hunter's marvelous oddity, intensity and humor all blended to create a fresh persona.

But could she do anything else? She could, and did -- when filmmaker James L. Brooks cast her in 1987's "Broadcast News."

Brooks had been expected to re-team with his "Terms of Endearment" (1983) star Debra Winger, but Hunter got the part, and her ability to invoke one of the toughest producers in the news business -- a part loosely modeled on CBS News producer Susan Zirinsky -- while at the same time making her funny and empathetic, stands as one of the greatest performances of the 1980s.

"I almost had a nervous breakdown," Hunter once said, "because I had very little film experience, and I had to play a person who was smarter than Bill Hurt, and he's a very smart guy. It was the most afraid that I've ever been."

The picture earned her the first of four Academy Award nominations.

Hunter segued from Brooks to Spielberg with "Always," and followed that with Lasse Hallstrom's "Once Around" (1991), winning an Emmy along the way for playing the real-life "Jane Roe" in "Roe vs. Wade" (1989).

Then in 1993, she delivered the performance for which she is still best-known, as the mute 19th century woman who emigrates with her daughter to New Zealand, in Jane Campion's "The Piano."

It has become industry legend that Campion didn't want Hunter for the role, that she envisioned a more patrician Meryl Streep type, but that Hunter fought until Campion gave in. That's when the real work began.

"There was no American Sign Language or British Sign Language," Hunter has said. "So I had to make up a sign language. And I hired an American Sign Language interpreter, and she and I together created these signs that looked good in my hands. ... And then I had to take piano lessons and learn the music that Michael Nyman, the composer, had written."

When "The Piano" was released, Hunter found herself nominated for two Oscars in the same year -- in the lead for "The Piano" and in a supporting role for "The Firm." Her visible delight in co-star Anna Paquin's victory as supporting actress in "Piano" made her own win as best actress all the more memorable.

That was the kind of triumph that should have left Hunter with role after role in major films for years to come. The fact that it didn't says more about Hollywood than about her.

Over the following years, Hunter jostled between some forgettable films and more impressive TV roles. Then came "Grace."

Hunter was the first person Miller thought of for the part. As Grace Hanadarko, her ability to be strong and soft, funny and intense -- all at the same time -- is almost unique among today's stars.

Her "Roe vs. Wade" director, Gregory Hoblit, remembers discussing this with Oscar winner Joanne Woodward.

"Joanne knew about 'Roe vs. Wade,' " he recalls. "She said, 'You know, Holly really is the best of all of us, isn't she?'" 

Colleagues recall Holly Hunter’s dedication to her craft

Brad Bird
(director, 2004's "The Incredibles")
"She was great on her feet. There's a scene where they're on a jet plane and she has to do all these maneuvers. Our head of story is a military buff, and so we made sure all the patter she was doing was real. When we gave the 'sides' to her to read, she didn't just read it -- she wanted to know what every single thing meant. And then she did it amazingly, the first time."

Albert Brooks
(actor, 1987's "Broadcast News")
"After (director) Jim Brooks chose her, we went to Washington and spent a couple of weeks in newsrooms. We hung around CBS and under the wing of (news producer) Susan Zirinsky, whom Jim modeled the part after. I recall her being really serious about her work. She wasn't playing that woman; what she does is show you the person full-blown."

Catherine Hardwicke
(director, 2003's "Thirteen")
"I got this phone call at 5 p.m., saying, 'Holly will meet with you tomorrow.' She had two ideas for scenes, two pivotal moments. And I'm sitting there on the wooden floor of her loft, listening to my idol, watching her act out these new scenes, which were very beautiful and simple. I thought, 'If I die now, at least Holly Hunter gave a personal performance for me!'"

Laura San Giacomo
(actress, TNT's "Saving Grace")
"She's very thoughtful and instinctual, as well as intellectual. She can see the story from many different perspectives, not just her character's, which is why a project like this is great for her: It allows her to use all of her talents."