Helen Hunt has been very, very busy of late. She's been so busy that it's resulted in her having four films open in theatres during the last year, including the $400 million world-wide comedy hit, WHAT WOMEN WANT (2000), co-starring Mel Gibson.
But now, in Robert Altman's predictably arty and wonderfully hip DR. T AND THE WOMEN (2000), Hunt gets to play the kind of independent-minded woman that audiences saw her play to Oscar-winning perfection in AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997). In DR. T, Hunt plays a professional golfer who meets a philanering Dallas gynecologist (Richard Gere) and proceeds to give him his come-uppance.
Coming on the heels of her previous films, including PAY IT FORWARD (2000) and CAST AWAY (2000), Hunt has put together an astonishing hot streak as an actress, having worked with actors like Kevin Spacey, Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, and now Richard Gere in back-to-back performances.
"It is a blessing to get to work with those kinds of actors, but it's not something that I planned," admits Hunt. "I had taken two years off after AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997) and then I had all these offers on the table. For years I dreamed of having the kind of career where I could work with the best in the business, and now that I had the opportunity, I didn't have the guts to turn any of the films down. I told myself that I could always rest later."
Helen Hunt has been working as an actress almost non-stop since she was 9 years old.
First, she played Murray's daughter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, then came the series The Swiss Family Robinson, followed by scores of TV movies, series, and various feature films up to the beginning of Mad About You, one of American television's most successful series the last few years.
The series starred Hunt as Jamie Buchman, a successful publicist who lives in ultimate bourgeois comfort in her Fifth Avenue Manhattan apartment with husband Paul, played by Paul Reiser. Not only did Mad About You take on cult status as emblematic of the problems of being a modern post-yuppie couple, it also gave Hunt the chance to endear herself to audiences all over the world.
That led to roles first in Twister (1996), and of course, As Good As It Gets (1997), which earned her the coveted Oscar. Having worked so many years in the business, it's almost a miracle that Helen has survived with her generosity and good nature still intact. She's never done the party scene, never partied till dawn, and never been anything but who she is - a good, intelligent, and optimistic human being.
I spoke to Helen Hunt in Los Angeles recently where she arrived at the hip Il Crocodilo resto wearing a glorious white Armani dress. She's funnier and warmer in conversation that she often plays in her movies, and she gives the impression of being a quietly confident woman who is finally getting the chance to lead a serious career after years of self-doubt.
In Dr. T, you get to play a woman who turns the tables on a serial philanderer played by Richard Gere.
(Laughs) Well, it is kind of interesting to see a woman turn the tables on a man in that respect. In almost every film, the guy is always cheating on the girl and the woman is always the victim. In Dr. T, my character is a successful women who has never wanted to be dependent on a man, so when Dr. T comes courting her, she doesn't just drop dead over him. I think Altman does a good job at reversing the normal expectations that audiences have.
Oh, they were fine. Robert likes to give the impression that he's a very tough character and doesn't really give a damn, but he's a very attentive director who's incredibly sensitive to the way you say a line. He gives you all the time you need and he runs an extremely laid-back and comfortable set. Richard was also very pleasant to work with except that he was fairly nervous about the birth of his child and Altman shut the production down for six weeks to let Richard be around for the birth of his child. .. Other than that, it was a very smooth working experience.
Your character, a golf pro, is someone who apparently isn't interested in long-term relationships. ..
I would put it differently. I would say she's a woman who allows herself to be impulsive about her choices in men. She can have an affair with a guy for a weekend and still be in love with another man in another city or whatever and not think twice about it. She doesn't make any promises, she doesn't ask for love and devotion, and she's happy with being a sexually free and confident woman. She likes her freedom.
Is Altman's directing style different from what you've experienced with other directors?
I liked the fact that Robert is willing to trust your intelligence and instincts as an actor. He doesn't want to shackle you into a particular idea he has of your interpretation of your character, he wants you to show him something he didn't expect. He gives you the freedom to be as creative and daring as you see fit within the confines of the script, and that's a terrific and at times frightening amount of freedom to have. Because it makes you worry about not going too far or deviating too much from what you think the director might really want. But it was a good experience for me.
You play a fairly sexy woman in Dr. T. But many of your roles tend not to be very glamorous even though you're an attractive woman.
It's probably because I'm not very sexy or glamorous! (Laughs) I have this girl next door kind of look and I have to do the best I can with that. I don't think I qualify for the glamorous category and that's fine with me. Most roles aren't glamorous, and I never have to worry about the director finding me too sexy to play a part. (Laughs)
In one of your recent films, PAY IT FORWARD (2000), Haley Joel Osment plays your son. You were also a child actor. Do you appreciate how good he is?
Yes, very much. He's an exceptionally gifted actor with an almost adult awareness of what he does. When I was acting at his age, I was like a baby. I didn't have his depth of awareness or his ability to analyse scenes or understand everything that goes on in order to make a good film.
One day he was doing a difficult scene with Kevin, and the camera was on Kevin while he was supposed to be talking to Haley. After they did the first take, Haley asked the director to do another one because he felt that he hadn't reacted properly when Kevin Spacey was acting. Haley said "I wasn't really there for Kevin. But now I'm ready, can we do another one. " I couldn't believe it. The kid was only 11 when we were making the movie and his level of professionalism is greater than a lot of adult actors. He's truly an amazing young man.
Do you worry about young kids like Haley whose lives are so different from normal kids growing up?
Yes, but you have to respect that Haley has a unique gift and he's made a choice to pursue acting. I've met his father who's also an actor and he's a considerate man who is trying to ensure that Haley has a normal life away from the set. That's the best you can do.
Some children are simply destined to live life differently, whether they're actors or gymnasts or violinists or whatever. It's not a normal childhood, and there are disadvantages to working so hard and not being able to have as much play or purely fun time as other kids have. But Haley loves acting as much as I did when I was his age. And when his scenes are finished, he rides around the set on his bike or plays games like any other kid.
They're completely opposite personalites. Mel is very easy-going and self-confident and doesn't take things too seriously. Making that movie with him was the most relaxed and enjoyable experience I've ever had on a set.
Tom is actually much more serious than you would imagine from his work. He has a deep, dark side that takes some time to understand. He can be very funny, too, but I was more interested in getting to know his serious side.
It's the level of professionalism and self-confidence he exudes. Jack and people like Tom Hanks and Mel can go on set and get a scene right on the first take time after time. They don't like to waste time because they've reached a level of their craft where they expect others to be just as professional and be just as on the money as they are. And you find that you rise to their level. You don't want Jack to give you a nasty look if you blow your lines when you're doing a scene with him!
Your marriage to actor Hank Azaria (Birdcage, the (1996) The Simpsons) recently collapsed. How tough a time has this been for you?
It's been very tough and very unpleasant to read about certain things that have been printed in the press. So I'm afraid I'm not going to say anything about what has happened between us. It's a private matter that I'm going to keep private.
You tend to play strong, independent women in your movies. Are you that way in real life?
Over the years, I've learnt to become a very self-reliant individual. I still feel that I have too many insecurities and I wish I could be tougher sometimes, but that's probably not in my nature.
As an actress, it's not the easiest or most natural thing for me to play the cool, blonde stereotype, but I have no problem putting myself into the headspace of women who can handle themeselves in a crisis, or can deal with a lot of pain. I also think I could play sophisticated women who have an erotic undercurrent, whose sexuality is just below the surface.
That's what makes acting interesting, you can throw yourself into characters that you might have phantasised about being like. That's the escapist side of acting which is part of the thrill about the work.
You've stated in previous interviews that you have a tendency to keep your emotions hidden?
That's true. I don't show my emotions that easily, especially with people I don't know. I have to feel very comfortable with friends to be able to let my defences down and open up. A lot of that comes from having to present a serious side when I was growing up and going to auditions all the time. I feel that I need to work hard to recapture more of a childish spirit. I am too serious about my life. I worry too much when I should just relax. But I've recently taken up dancing again which is something I did for almost ten years before I started working on Mad About You. Now that I have a bit more time for myself, I'm trying to get back in shape again.
You've said you were very shy as a child. Did acting help you overcome that?
It helped a little bit. I've always had to force myself to make friends and speak to people. My parents were quiet, and it took me a while to get used to the fact that people talk about their feelings, their problems. So it wasn't until my early twenties that I really started to come out of my shell. I was very shy and I still am in many ways. I'm afraid of meeting people. I'm still not the kind of person who can go up and talk to people at a party. I just don't feel that comfortable in social situations unless I'm surrounded by friends.
Are you happy with how your life as an actress turned out?
Yes. I've made a lot of good friends through my work. There's this great closeness that you feel working on a film set, you feel this intense sense of family where you're thrown together for five or six weeks. For someone who spent so many years worrying about making friends when I was growing up, being on a film set and finding yourself surrounded by this kind of instant family is a wonderful feeling for me. It makes me feel very reassured. I don't have to worry about being shy!
What made you interested in acting?
My father, Gordon, was a theater and television director and so I grew up in show business. But I loved the process. There was something magical about watching TV series like Bewitched, and I loved Elizabeth Montgomery. It was hilarious how they treated the poor husband Darrin, and I always thought that I would love to play this role in a series and play the part of the good witch Samantha. I thought about acting and that it would be a good job.
Did winning the Oscar change your life?
Yes. On a professional level, an Oscar means that your salary suddenly increases by a few million and you get offered a lot more movies which in the past you had to beg to have a chance to read for.
But I turned down a lot of films after As Good As It Gets (1997) because I didn't want to follow up a great movie and a great role with something not at that level. That's why I decided to wait a few years until Mad About You was over and now things are pretty much the way you can only dream about!
Did you ever doubt your chance at this kind of a career when you were in your twenties struggling to find good work?
Oh, I had given up. There were moments in the eighties when I was disgusted with the kind of bad TV-movies and bad series I was working on. Those were pretty sad few years for me but then I said to myself, 'OK, you're not going to be a big star, so what? You make good money, you live very well, and you only have to work a few times a year. It's not a bad life. ' Then came Mad About You and my life changed.
Did you feel any qualms about the hard negotiating that went on before you finally got the $22 million for doing the last year of Mad About You?
No. The producers were earning hundreds of millions on that show which Paul and I each gave six years of our lives to turn into a success. So we both felt that we deserved a fair share of the profits. The money gave me the freedom that I have now: to be able to work only on movies that truly mean something to me. After all those years doing a lot of horrible stuff, that kind of freedom is something every actor cherishes more than anything else.
When you make that kind of money, does it tempt you to spend it something crazy like a private jet or something?
To tell you the truth, I don't have any expensive tastes. I'm just as happy going to beach and sitting in the sun today as I was ten years ago. I wouldn't feel comfortable if I drove there in a Bentley convertible.