Imagine the luck: A young actress on her way to an audition steps onto the elevator with the playwright herself, and on the way up, the car stalls, trapping the two strangers. That’s how Holly Hunter met Beth Henley, and more than 25 years and a half-dozen collaborations later, it seems fair to say they have both benefited from that long-ago mechanical failure.
“When I got on the elevator,” Henley recalls, “I knew there was something riveting and different about her, something very vibrant.”
At the time, the early 1980s, Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart” was a Broadway hit and a Pulitzer Prize winner. But one of its stars was leaving, and Henley needed a replacement at the same time she was casting for her new play, “The Wake of Jamey Foster.”
Having just met Hunter, the playwright wanted it both ways and cast the actress first in “Crimes” and then in “Wake.” “It was so greedy of me,” Henley says, still relishing the moment.
From there, these fast friends moved to “The Miss Firecracker Contest,” later made into a movie that remains their sole film collaboration.
“I remember that we read ‘Miss Firecracker’ in her dressing room while she was still doing ‘Wake,’ and it was exquisite,” the playwright says. “So there were three plays almost simultaneously — and then four, because there was also ‘The Lucky Spot.'”
For Henley, Hunter’s special appeal was a natural charisma coupled with restraint. “Holly can’t not tell the truth,” she says, “but she does it a totally unexpected way. You can’t deny it’s the truth, but it slices into you in a way you didn’t expect. If she says, ‘I love you,’ she may say it like, ‘I hate you.’ Or she may say it like she’s laughing. It’s never linear-direct when she’s delivering a line. It’s five or six things intermingling to make this extremely nuanced and vivid portrayal.”
Henley also admires Hunter’s “unquenchable curiosity. … It’s exciting and exhilarating to be around someone like that,” the playwright says. “And her original interpretation of reality makes her brilliant. She’s able to hold two things in her hands at the same time without blurring them.
“She doesn’t make things gray; she holds onto both black and white. She can be terribly angry one moment and sweet as an angel the next. And it doesn’t come off as false. It doesn’t get blended when she’s acting. It’s a total vividness and precision. It’s beauty and ugliness together, and that makes it sublime.”
Yet the connection between actress and playwright goes deeper than mere admiration. “She really has been a muse for me,” Henley maintains. “So much of her, I wish I were. I write characters that have those things she has.”
Henley and Hunter continued to work together even after the actress’s fame grew. In the 1990s, Hunter appeared in “Control Freaks” at L.A.’s Met Theater and “Impossible Marriage” at New York’s Roundabout.
Lately, Hunter’s TV show “Saving Grace” has occupied much of her time, so, although she participated in a reading of “Ridiculous Fraud” in Henley’s living room, she didn’t perform the work when it premiered at the McCarter Theater in Princeton two years ago. She did go see it, though.
“She’s been really generous,” says Henley of her friend. “This past fall, I was being honored by New York Stage & Film, and Holly did a monologue from ‘Miss Firecracker.’ She’s just the best. She knows how to read my work — of course, she’s great with everybody’s work.”