Holly Hunter Lets Loose

Holly Hunter talks about her new television show, Saving Grace.

By Amy Wilentz; Photographed by Lorenzo Agius

Holly Hunter on Saving Grace

"How could I resist a script that opens with your lead character naked, having sex with a guy and saying she wants to come?" Sitting in an Italian restaurant on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, Los Angeles, playing with her spoon as she talks, Holly Hunter opens her dark brown eyes wide. "That’s the absolute first time you meet Grace. It’s great. So real."

Hunter is describing her new project, a witty, highly unconventional TNT series called Saving Grace, in which she plays Grace Hanadarko, a tough-talking, free-loving Oklahoma City detective. It’s the earthiest show you’ve ever seen on basic cable — until you find out that Grace is being stalked by a tobacco-chewing, last-chance angel named Earl, who wants her to believe in God. "I’m not worried about the angel," Hunter says. "If it were just a story about Grace and an angel, it might be different. But it is really an attempt to examine Grace as a character and as a cop, including all that that entails."

Saving Grace is Hunter’s first TV series. "I’ve been offered various series over the years, but I was never interested," she says. "Not until I read this character." Grace is smart as a whip, driven, unpredictable. She smokes, drinks to excess, and has a trail of rather attractive if down-at-the-heels ex-boyfriends who pop up here and there in her life and still look at her longingly. Let’s put it this way: They did not dump her. To find a character as complex and richly drawn as Grace, Hunter says, you usually have to go to European movies. "That’s why cable television is so interesting now; they’re going far afield. Working in cable is high risk."

High-risk roles have always appealed to Hunter, whose indelible portrayals include a kooky but kindly babynapper in Raising Arizona, an uptight television producer in Broadcast News, a mute bride in The Piano (for which she won an Oscar), and an emotionally racked mother in Thirteen. Hunter makes her characters both tough and vulnerable, and what’s so refreshing about her is that she embodies these two qualities herself: She’s a little bit stern but also immensely warm and girlish. At five foot two, she’s a waif, and when she’s dressed as she is today — in jeans and a lavender jersey pullover, with a diaphanous white-and-rust duster over that — her whole demeanor says "kid." But when she plunks down in a chair, orders up her decaf and starts talking, you know you are in the presence of wisdom.

Acting Her Age

"One thing that really attracted me to Grace," says Hunter, sheltering her coffee cup as if it were a wee cub in danger, "is that she isn’t 30; she’s my age." Hunter is 49. The character as originally conceived by the series’ creator, Nancy Miller (who has also worked on The Closer), was about seven years younger. But in Hunter’s hands, Grace is barreling toward the mid-century mark, in many ways looking and acting every bit her age, and it’s a thrilling sight. And no character has ever made better use of Hunter’s famous voice: a heady mixture of Southern sweet sauce, bourbon, and cigarettes, with a generous splash of Tabasco.

As in all of Hunter’s performances, there is a piercing emotional quality that is riveting. Although in person she seems controlled and very much in control, in front of the camera she’s willing to go over the top and even to fall down on the other side. "There’s all this stuff I wanted to express," the actress says. "Grace is unmarried, for instance — it’s not an exploration of a mother or wife. She’s an unattached woman without the traditional responsibilities of women my age, so she has a whole other bag of yeses and nos, a whole other response to all of the stuff that people end up binding themselves to. Grace keeps herself company — and she uses other means than most people do."

Hunter’s mouth twists in a charming way, and her eyes sparkle. Her laughter starts rough like Janis Joplin’s and ends in a kittenish growl. Hunching her narrow shoulders just a bit around her ears, her strawberry-blond hair falling around her perfect oval of a face, she manages somehow at the end of a joke to be looking up at you, curiously.

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