Upon graduation, in 1980, Hunter headed for New York City, where—in a fateful coincidence reminiscent of the angelic interventions in Saving Grace—she met playwright Beth Henley in a stalled elevator. Hunter went on to perform in several of Henley’s Southern Gothic plays, debuting on Broadway in Crimes of the Heart. The karma continued when writer-director brothers Joel and Ethan Coen approached her to star in their first film, Blood Simple; she had another commitment but suggested they talk instead to Frances McDormand, her roommate at the time. McDormand got the role (and ended up marrying Joel), and the Coens handed Hunter her big movie break in their second film, 1987’s Raising Arizona. That raucous baby-napping comedy gave Hunter’s quirky humor maximum exposure, and suddenly she was on Hollywood’s map.
That same year, Hunter was cast at the last minute to replace a pregnant Debra Winger in Broadcast News. The role, written for Winger by James L. Brooks, was that of a news producer whose romantic dilemma—being pursued by both a pretty-boy talking head (William Hurt) and a talented but nerdy reporter (Albert Brooks)—mirrored the network’s competing goals of style and substance.
One week into rehearsals, Hunter remembers, “I broke down—wept!—right as the rehearsal was coming to an end. I made something up, like, ‘I have something in my eye.’ No one believed it. I was crying because I was so afraid. I was devastated after I rehearsed with Bill and realized that I was going to have to play somebody who was smarter than him, who found him on some levels repellent.” Hurt’s character may have been a lightweight, but the brainy actor certainly wasn’t—and it was up to Hunter to make her character’s disdain for him believable. “I was so afraid of not being able to do that,” she says. “It seemed impossible.”
Albert Brooks could feel how much Hunter had riding on Broadcast News. “The way it went down—that it was last-minute, it was such a big part, and Jim Brooks had won all kinds of awards for Terms of Endearment—everything was, ‘Oh my god, this is the female part of the year,’ ” he says. “Intensity was at a peak every moment with Holly."
Now, with almost three decades of experience to draw on, Hunter says she can “laugh a little bit” at daunting circumstances. “After you’ve done it 25 or 50 times, then you’re laughing. And you can approach it with a bit of humility about yourself. That’s a nice dividend to getting older.”
Her longtime friend Amy Madigan, who played a widow in one episode of Saving Grace last season (she and Hunter sang a duet of the pop song “Venus” while standing over a corpse in a morgue), agrees that age has brought an understanding of the need to lighten up. “If you take yourself too damn seriously, it’s annoying,” she says. “And I love that about Holly—she’ll look at you and say, ‘Hey, man!’ and crack up.”
Ego went completely out the window when Hunter was filming Thirteen, which earned her a fourth Oscar nomination in 2004. The low-budget indie film “had a very tight shooting schedule,” says cowriter-director Catherine Hardwicke, and at one point she had to rush Hunter out of the makeup trailer with only the left side of her face finished. “Who else would do that, with just one of her eyes made up? Nobody on the planet,” Hardwicke says. “I promised I’d only shoot her from the left.”
Saving Grace's Wild Woman
Holly Hunter talks about playing the toughest, lustiest cop on TV.
By Amy Wallace