Thirteen

Holly Hunter was struck by how Melanie, mother to an out-of-control preteen (Evan Rachel Wood) in the drama “Thirteen,” was relegated to the sidelines of her daughter’s life by force, not choice.

“It was a full expression of helplessness and being overwhelmed,” says the 45-year-old actress, who is gaining heat for a possible supporting actress nomination for her heart-wrenching portrayal.

“Often your heroine is someone whose competence you’re not worried about in confronting challenge. In this situation you’re dealing with somebody who is filled with love, but missing some big ingredients in how to confront their problems.”

First-time director Catherine Hardwicke, wooed the Academy Award winner (1993′s “The Piano”) to appear in her low-budget indie by agreeing to add shading to Melanie so that an actress of Hunter’s proven ability could explore the push-and-pull of a recovering alcoholic used to being her daughter’s best friend, not her antagonist.

Says Hardwicke: “Sometimes her eyes were saying one thing, her mouth another, her body language something else. It was expressing all these layers of emotion the mother was going through. ‘What’s going on? How do I relate to her?’ She captured all that.”

Because it was a short, quick shoot, Hunter and Wood had to make do with only a week of rehearsal to get comfortable with each other. But the rapid pace of filming also had its strengths.

“There’s an undeniable momentum the day can take on, a great rhythm where you get into an unselfconscious groove,” says Hunter, who admits that on big, slow, expensive shoots sustaining a performance in one scene over several days can be difficult. “We did not have that challenge on ‘Thirteen,’ ” she says, laughing. “We were going to do that scene for two hours and move on.”

“Thirteen” may not be a conventional role for thesp of Hunter’s stature but it meets her criteria as time passes: A great supporting part is better than the lead in a bad movie. She adds, “That’s one of the challenges of getting older in the movie business.”

Coming attractions: “Little Black Book,” “The Incredibles”

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