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Toronto: Holly Hunter Just Gave One of the Best Performances of Her Career

Holly Hunter is worried you can’t hear her.

“The reception in the place I’m staying is really terrible, so we’ll just have to figure this out together,” says the Oscar-winner (“The Piano”).

But her voice — slightly flinty, a little smokey, distinctly Southern, and so uniquely her own — comes through strong. This is a woman who will not be undone by spotty signals or dropped calls.

And her indomitability is deserved. After all, Hunter has just delivered one of her richest, most lived-in performances, playing a mother struggling to come to terms with her son’s suicide in “Strange Weather,” which premieres next week at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival. In it, she’s sexy, willful, and admirably, at times, infuriatingly self-possessed. The kind of woman who pulls on a Marlboro while sitting next to a no smoking sign. It was a part she jumped at and one that will hopefully remind casting agents and directors of her prodigious talents.

“It was a situation where I got offered a lead role, and I was like, ‘shit, really,'” said Hunter. “Immediately that’s exciting because there’s not a lot of lead roles for 58-year-old actresses. It’s like what brave soul put this one out there.”

It’s been a varied career, one that has taken Hunter from period dramas such as “The Piano,” to television procedurals such as TNT’s “Saving Grace,” to blockbusters like last spring’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

“Sometimes it’s the script or an opportunity to work with an incredible director,” she says. “Sometimes it’s the lead, but there are not always leads out there, so then it’s an interesting supporting character or there’s a lot of dough, although that happens less and less. Let’s have a good laugh about that one.”

Though never a conventional leading lady — she may have been too diminutive for that — Hunter has been a fixture on screen since 1987’s hits “Raising Arizona” and “Broadcast News,” where she played the role of a hard-charging producer. She copped an Oscar nom for that film. That film turns 30 next year, and its critique of the television news business as an industry obsesses with sizzle at the expense of substance still rings true today, Hunter says.

“It’s perfectly primed for right at this moment,” said Hunter, referencing NBC’s widely-derided presidential candidate’s forum last week. “Just look at the news in the last 48 hours with the Matt Lauer debacle. It’s proving itself true over and over again. Even 30 years later, it’s still taking place almost on a daily basis.”

In the case of “Strange Weather,” Hunter appreciated how writer and director Katherine Dieckmann’s script navigated the cinematic cliches associated with grieving. Her character, Darcy, outwardly has her life together after finding her son’s body some eight years earlier, but the realization that his college friend has stolen his idea for a restaurant chain sends her on a backroads odyssey. She’s hellbent on exacting revenge or finding closure, or perhaps both.

“It’s a taboo subject that’s not often discussed in movies and when it is, it’s often in a morose way,” said Hunter.

“The whole idea of death is something that we tend to kind of really not deal with at all,” she added. “I think suicide multiplies that by thousands. But we’re also living in a time when we talk about a lot of different things that we didn’t talk about a generation ago. So much progress has been made with topics like mental illness and drug abuse and sexual identity. It feels like a great time to talk about this kind of transition too.”

Darcy may not be living on the margins of society, but she’s definitely working class, and Dieckmann’s film marinates in the details of her blue-collar community. It’s a neighborhood where friends make coffee for each and carpool, try to escape the summer heat by leaning up against the rows of refrigerators in the frozen food aisles of local supermarkets, engage in late-night drinking sessions, keep secrets and spill intimacies. For Darcy, these details, her shambling house, beat up truck, and aging dog serve as reminders of her son’s loss and a grief she cannot get out from under.

“So much of the spirit of the story was about texture and minutiae of her life,” said Hunter. “I wanted to be sure not to play her as an emotional wreck. Her life on the surface is really together.”

That’s the kind of excavation Hunter clearly relishes. It’s work that often requires charting her character’s backstories, she said.

“It’s nice to put together a history, so you understand the past, because in some ways the past is everything,” said Hunter.

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