Helen Hunt rose to stardom in NBC’s hit sitcom “Mad About You,” but these days her priority is spending more time behind the camera. This season, she helmed episodes of NBC’s family dramedy “This is Us,” CBS’ comedy “Life in Pieces” — and FX’s old-Hollywood flashback “Feud,” from executive producer Ryan Murphy. (Of course, she also starred in Fox’s limited series crime drama “Shots Fired.”)
Here, she tells Variety about moving from acting to directing, lessons learned from her famous father, and the deeper meaning behind “Feud.”
You started directing when you were on “Mad About You.” Was that an important switch for you?
I always knew that if I wanted to build up mileage [as a director], this would be the place to do it. The crew was on my team and Paul [Reiser] was on my team. And I had great mentors who worked with me: my dad, [director Gordon Hunt], who won a DGA award for directing the show, and David Steinberg and Michael Lembeck.
The first episode I directed, the guest star was Sydney Pollack. It was sort of funny to have one of the best directors on the show, and I was supposed to tell him where to stand.
Did your dad have any words of encouragement when you started directing?
He passed away this year, but life with him was just a constant stream of “way to go.” He passed away while I was directing an episode of “Feud.” As I watch that episode, I know exactly where I was [when it happened]. The crew of that show was very sweet and I had a picture of him up at the monitor. I felt like he’s very much on my shoulder.
How did you get involved with “Feud”? Did you get to pick the episode you directed, which is about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford reteaming with “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” director Robert Aldrich for what would be the disastrous filming of “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte”?
[Co-creator] Ryan Murphy and I share an agent [at CAA], and he told my agent that they want me and my agent said “do this.” I didn’t even know what I was saying yes to, really. I hadn’t read it. But like everything Ryan does, it’s totally fun to watch and then there’s layer after layer after layer underneath of things he’s saying that I desperately want to be part of saying. Here, it was what it’s like to be a woman who is an artist and wants to stay relevant after the people around you feel like they’re done with you.
What he has to say about diversity and violence against women all wrapped in these incredibly entertaining packages — I feel so lucky to have gotten to do the show, but also to do the particular episode that I did. “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” is the first wave of the show and when I heard I was doing the next time they (stars Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford) teamed up together, I thought is that going to be somehow less than the earlier episodes. But I feel like I got an episode that allows them and me to really dig deep into the pain they shared and, I think, some kind of weird love they had for each other.
Was there a specific scene you liked in that episode?
There’s a scene with Susan and Alfred Molina [who plays Robert Aldrich] where she talks about not feeling sexy. Just getting Susan Sarandon to convincingly say she feels unsexy is the first work of the day.
But then there’s another scene, which is between Jessica and Susan in a doorway. It’s the last scene they have together actually, which I pointed out to them. The characters ask each other what it was like to be the prettiest girl in the room or what it was like to be the best actor in the room and they kind of bond over the fact that they were great, but it was never enough. I always think it’s fun to play scenes of battling characters who secretly just want to fall into each other’s arms.
That last scene must resonate with you so much as an actress.
It did, for sure. When I direct, I suddenly become very protective of the actors I’m working with – even if I’m only working with them for a few weeks. I’m keenly aware, more keenly than when I’m acting, of how vulnerable you are when you put on these clothes and walk in there and pour your heart into something.
So many actors go into directing. Do you have any advice for them?
Go to acting class to learn how to talk to actors. I can tell you that, being on various TV shows and working on episodic TV, the actors are always shocked that I can speak the language that they speak. Whether they like me as a director or not, I can talk to them in a way that they can do something with the direction I give them. And I think a lot of people are raised learning how to put the camera in a certain place or about drama, but they don’t quite know how to talk to actors.