Holly Hunter finds ‘Grace’

Role latest in career spanning film, TV, theater

For every actress who receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a symbol appears denoting the arena — film, television, theater, etc. — where the majority of her fame was focused. For Holly Hunter, it could be a toss-up.

And though Hunter’s star will show a movie camera (fitting, considering major roles in more than two dozen feature films, ranging from “Raising Arizona” to “The Incredibles”), Emmys outnumber Oscars on the actress’s mantel 2 to 1. What’s more, Hunter’s television career is at an all-time peak, thanks to her role headlining hit TNT procedural “Saving Grace,” which returns for a second season July 14.

“I’ve always gone where the work beckons me,” the Georgia-born thesp is quick to explain. “The first thing I did after getting my Oscar nomination for ‘Broadcast News’ was a TV movie of the week. And it was the same thing after I did ‘The Piano.'”

Hunter, who still retains her Southern accent, has never been one to put on airs. In person she’s smart, funny and in no apparent need of extra attention.

A quick look at her filmography shows a career spent alternating between daring roles in risky indies (such as Jane Campion’s “The Piano” or David Cronenberg’s “Crash”) and challenging real-life portrayals on TV (including tennis star Billie Jean King, strike leader Ruby Kincaid and Texas attempted-murderess Wanda Holloway). And that doesn’t even count the actress’s regular stage appearances in such plays as “Crimes of the Heart,” “A Doll’s House” and “A Lie of the Mind.”

Last year, she took the next step, snagging the lead in her own series. “It was a totally visceral response that didn’t have anything to do with logic,” the actress says. “(The script) came to me, and as I started reading it, I just realized that I didn’t want anyone else to do it.”

Hunter’s initial gut reaction was exclusively because of the writing, she stresses. “Sometimes I’ll go, ‘I’m dying to work with this director, or this amazing cast, or it’s the money! Oh my God! How can I say no?’ So there are various criteria that I base my decisions on. Well, in this case, it couldn’t be about the director as there are five or 10, and the whole animal of TV (series) was completely foreign to me. I didn’t know the executive producers, so I couldn’t get excited about that. And I didn’t know this writer, Nancy Miller (co-executive producer of “The Closer”). I just saw this one piece of writing that she did … (and thought), ‘This is mine! It has to be!'”

Though Hunter reports Miller didn’t write the character with her in mind, she was struck by Grace’s personality, which differed from other female characters she’d read. “She’s a bit feral and extraordinarily instinctual in all ways — physiologically, mentally, emotionally, socially, sexually,” she says.

Ask Hunter how much of herself is in Grace and she laughs but then looks serious. “Well, every character that I explore, I bring a bit of me to,” she says, “and there are different parts of me. But this was something that felt very fresh, and it is and has remained so. Nancy Miller has a real inherent connection with this woman. It’s not thoughtful. It’s also extremely impulsive, how she writes this character, and that impulsiveness is something that I really respond to. And I think that that’s what actors are often looking for.”

Finding her way

Hunter, who recently turned 50, doesn’t deny that the increasing scarcity of juicy film roles also factored into her decision to take on a series. But she adds, “It’s nothing new. I remember doing ‘Broadcast News’ and a couple more movies, and then I didn’t work for almost two years — and I wanted to work, but I couldn’t get a job. That’s to say, I couldn’t get a job I wanted. And I was young! So this starts young with me, because of the kind of actress I am.”

Indeed, Hunter, who began acting in high school plays, has been both leading actress and character actress. “Sometimes it’s tough to place me in movies,” she allows. “I haven’t been wildly castable my whole career, so I’ve gone through major droughts. That first two-year one was kind of scary, but from that I got accustomed to a different rhythm of working that didn’t require that I was employed all the time.”

Ever the realist, Hunter notes, “As any actress gets older, parts are going to dry up in a way that probably isn’t so prevalent for a man. Men can continue to have vibrant, stimulating careers up into their 60s, and that’s not true for women. Once an actress gets to be over 37, say, or 38, then you really begin to see that you’re being offered roles and cast opposite a really big movie star — but you’re playing his wife, and he’s cheating on you with someone else, so that’s your part. Or you’re playing a doctor, or a mom — and you’re definitely not central. The story is not going to live or die by you. The breath of the story doesn’t depend on your thoughts and actions. And over the years I’ve gotten much more used to reading for those kinds of roles.”

A measure of control

Partly as a survival response to this seemingly immutable law of Hollywood, Hunter also has turned her focus to producing projects over the past few years (for the bigscreen, “Thirteen”; for the stage, “Control Freaks” and “Mother’s Son”). But the biggest commitment has been her producing role on “Saving Grace,” which evolves into an executive producer position for the second season.

“It’s the same as last year,” she explains. “Even though I was a producer, the three execs I was working with totally treated me as an executive producer last year. They invited me in and included me as fully as I wanted to be. If I wanted to go to every production or budget meeting or casting session, I was welcome. And I ended up being involved in a tremendous amount … making decisions, collaborating with people and discussing scripts and music and editorial choices.”

As for her decision to produce “Thirteen,” Hunter simply wanted to see the material reach the screen: “I loved that script and felt it was an authentic voice of that young girl. It was a very low-budget film, so every little bit helped.”

Though she enjoys the challenges of producing, Hunter has no intention of letting her acting career fade away. “It feels really healthy,” she says. “I get a great workout as an actress, and I feel very fulfilled being able to do ‘Grace.'”

Ask Hunter if she’d do a third season and she doesn’t hesitate: “Nancy Miller has more of this character that she wants to explore. As long as the fountain’s bubbling, I couldn’t say no.”

As for her film career? “It really all depends on the project and the role,” she says. “Right now, doing ‘Grace’ is just so satisfying for me as I get to explore her in such depth. Now, if they offer me a movie role like that, it’d be perfect.”

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