In a way, Holly Hunter’s path to film stardom was written by the Coen brothers, and, as such, it’s a bit convoluted. It goes like this: Playwright Beth Henley gave the actress her first big break, but in doing so she cost the thesp her first starring role. Except, ultimately, she didn’t.
It was toward the end of her breakout Broadway debut in Henley’s play “Crimes of the Heart” that Hunter caught the eyes of fledgling filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, who were then in the process of casting their debut, “Blood Simple.” They immediately called Hunter in for an audition.
“She came in and said, right off the bat, ‘I’m not available for this role. I don’t even know why I’m here,'” Joel remembers. “We went, ‘Oh … well, nice to meet you.’ So that’s how we met Holly.”
Her reason for turning it down?
“She was doing another Beth Henley play,” Ethan explains, referring to Hunter’s role as Pixrose Wilson in “The Wake of Jamey Foster,” which she originated on Broadway. “So she went home and told her roommate at the time, Frances McDormand, to come in and audition. So that’s how we met Fran.”
McDormand, of course, was cast in “Blood Simple” and would within the year become Joel’s wife as well as the brothers’ most prominent recurring star, going on to appear in six more of their films. Hunter, meanwhile, managed to phone in a cameo, literally, as the voice on an answering machine. She also remained friends with the Coens, once even sharing an apartment, along with McDormand and director Sam Raimi.
Writing their second feature, the brothers had Hunter in mind.
“‘Raising Arizona’ was written for her,” Ethan recalls. “That’s actually how the movie got started.”
“It was the beginning of the exercise,” Joel concurs. “It was us thinking, ‘What would be fun to have Holly do?’ So we thought: ‘A police officer. Who wants a baby.'”
The resulting role helped trigger Hunter’s Hollywood career, and her first Oscar nomination (for “Broadcast News”) followed soon after.
Asked to define how Hunter suggested the character, Joel can’t give a straight answer.
“It’s hard to quantify,” he says. “It’s very inchoate impressions of a person that these things grow out of. You think about her Southernness, and how the story would grow out of that. Even just that she’s from Georgia and has an accent.”
Thirteen years later, the Coens cast her again in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Ethan recalls: “It was in the middle of writing ‘O Brother’ that we figured, ‘Well, superficially this is a bit like the Odyssey, and so there’s got to be Penelope at the end.’ And then for whatever reason we thought of Holly.”
Though Hunter and the Coens have no plans for a future collaboration in the works, the brothers insist it’s just a matter of time.
“I’m sure we’ll work with her again,” Joel says. “When we’re sitting down and writing, our thinking about her will enter pretty early in the process.”