Holly Hunter is talking about sex, and who wouldn’t want to listen? During her nearly three-decade career, after all, the Academy Award–winning actress has often plumbed the murky depths of the erotic. In 1987, playing the neurotic and conflicted producer in Broadcast News, Hunter moaned, “I am beginning to repel people I’m trying to seduce!” Six years later, as The Piano’s mute and unhappy bride, she made a tiny hole in her dirty black stocking more alluring than any Victoria’s Secret teddy—and won an Oscar for her work. In 2003, playing an emotionally insecure mom in the coming-of-age film Thirteen, Hunter emerged from a shower completely nude. (To do otherwise, she says, would have been to break a cardinal rule: Never step out of character while the cameras are rolling.)
But as Hunter’s TNT series Saving Grace begins its third season on June 16, the 51-year-old star isn’t just naked (a lot). Her character, Oklahoma City major crimes detective Grace Hanadarko, is lusty. Hungry. Foulmouthed. “Feral,” as Hunter puts it. Oh, and she’s got a guardian angel—the kind who sometimes flashes big white wings and has a direct line to God. Grace is complicated, to say the least. Which is why playing her demands a lot more from Hunter than merely stripping off her clothes.
“There was an episode last season where I was tied up for the entire first act,” Hunter says, laughing as she describes the scene: Grace, buck naked and handcuffed, facedown, to her fourposter by a frisky one-night stand, gets stranded for hours after her new lover flees the house. The situation was at once steamy and hilarious.
“It was just such a gas,” she says, recalling how—before his abrupt exit—her paramour signs his name on her butt with red lipstick. Usually on TV, she adds, such a story line would resolve with a tasteful fade-out, if it got filmed at all. On Saving Grace, however, the camera lingered. And Hunter couldn’t have been happier.
“That’s something that I love—the iconic female in the act of surrender,” she says, sipping a cup of tea in a corner booth at Art’s, an old-school San Fernando Valley deli favored by Hollywood’s creative set. As she sees it, surrender is part of sex “for any female, unless you are a dominatrix. What’s interesting is to see someone go, god, I want to go off the cliff. Grace says yes to situations that are not about being a control freak. It’s the primitive versus the civilized. The raw versus the polished.”
As Hunter talks, her slim shoulders get narrower, making her seem even tinier than her five feet two inches. But the way her brown eyes flash gives her a forcefulness that transcends size. “Grace loves dealing with chaos,” she continues. “She thrives on it. There’s an enjoyment of walking into the center of maelstroms."
As for Hunter . . . “How do I feel about chaos?” she says, her mouth going a little crooked as she repeats my question. “Well, you know, I’ve got plenty.” Her famous Georgia twang gets almost growly, and when she laughs, it’s a low, mischievous chuckle. “I’m at home in it. I could weep with how at home I am in it.”
She declines to get more specific, but some of the tumult may arise from relocating the family—her partner, actor Gordon MacDonald (The Thin Red Line, The Brave One), and their three-year-old twins—from New York to Los Angeles for six months of the year while she works on Saving Grace. Add to that a rigorous production schedule, made all the more so by Hunter’s unflagging devotion to all aspects of the show, from casting to wardrobe to sitting in the editing room. During the months of filming, Hunter—who is an executive producer of Saving Grace as well as its star—typically works 16-hour days, as many as six days a week.
“She really is doing a huge job,” says Laura San Giacomo, who plays Rhetta, the OCPD criminalist and Grace’s best friend. “She’s like Atlas with the world on her shoulders—but dressed really cool.”
Nancy Miller, the creator of Saving Grace, notes that “Holly’s contributions are in every frame of our show. There is no shallow end of the pool for her. She dives into the very bottom and then digs through it in order to get to the truth of this moment, this scene, this emotion.”
One way Hunter likes to go deep is in “tone meetings,” where she, Miller and other members of the team convene to “go through the script line by line,” Hunter says. “We talk about everything: What are we going for? What’s the super-objective? Maybe it’s to forgive, or to surrender. It’s fascinating what we discover in these epic tone meetings. Our longest was 13 hours— we just extended it to the next day.”
Hunter’s attention to detail is legendary. For example, in the second season, it was her idea to try some braiding in Grace’s hair, adding a hint of Medusa to her character’s usual tight-blue-jeaned promiscuity. “I saw Grace in the act of braiding,” she says. “It’s a very old female gesture, an ancient decorative ritual.” Miller liked the concept and pretty soon, after contributions from Hunter’s hairdresser and the show’s costume designer, “I was discussing a case with feathers and 15 pairs of earrings in my hair. I love that; that’s my adventure.”
The youngest of seven children, Hunter was born in Conyers, Georgia, outside Atlanta. She loved growing up on a 250-acre farm (and regularly visits family still living there), but she has made no secret of the fact that her desire to essentially pretend for a living began with her feeling separate and apart from her roots. Her parents encouraged her penchant for performing, enrolling her in piano lessons. (Years later she would do her own playing in The Piano.) She appeared onstage for the first time in a fifth grade production, portraying Helen Keller, and in high school she got hooked on musicals. When it came time for college, she left the South, attending Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and majoring in drama. “I carry my Southernness with me,” she told the New York Times in 1993. “God knows, it’s a great place to come from. It’s also a place I had to get away from. It is just an endless world for me, so much culture and eccentricity.”
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.”
Hardwicke is also impressed with Hunter’s “childlike nature. She’s never lost touch with being a kid, being crazy and having fun.” The actress had a great rapport with her teenage costars (Evan Rachel Wood and Nikki Reed), encouraging them but also learning from them, Hardwicke adds. “She wasn’t a mom yet; I had no idea that she was even planning to be a mom, really. Except for one time somebody asked her that question: ‘How can you play a mother when you’re not one?’ and she said, ‘Well, I might be.’ ” At the time, Hunter was recently divorced from Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, a relationship she does not discuss; she became involved with MacDonald and three years later, at the age of 47, she gave birth to their twins.
“I could never have had the career I’ve had if I were starting out now,” Hunter says. “Never, ever. Those movies I made would not be made or financed. Those scripts would not be nurtured. It’s a much narrower environment; that’s what I’m seeing.”
We are talking about how so many women over the age of 40—Glenn Close, Kyra Sedgwick, Mary-Louise Parker—have found success on the smaller screen. When I bring it up, Hunter crows, “Oh, the old-women-in-Hollywood thing! Bring out the old broads!” But she acknowledges that because teenagers make up the biggest audience for movies on opening weekend, mature actors—men too, but especially women, who are less likely to be cast as romantic leads in films—see their big-screen options dwindling. “TV is serving a broader audience, because it’s a different experience. And I’m totally a beneficiary of that,” says Hunter, who has often noted that she was never a box office name because her taste in projects is too odd.
Madigan explains the preponderance of women in meaty TV roles this way: “They’re not getting offers for features I mean, do you want to sugarcoat it? Or the offers they’re getting are crappy offers. Thank goodness for cable.”
Along with more and better roles, a TV series offers actors one thing a movie does not: the chance to develop a character over time, to understand his or her psyche more completely. “I feel that Grace is filled with a certain amount of rage,” Hunter says, “and I didn’t know that when we started out.” In many ways, Hunter’s first foray into episodic television has been an adventure in shaking off expectations—about what it is to be a woman, what it is to get older, what it is to have faith (and lose it), what it is to be in charge (and yet to yearn, sometimes, to surrender). To hear her talk about Saving Grace is to realize that TV has given Hunter something that for years was associated more with film: creative freedom.
“My idea of entertainment is also a lot about provocation,” Hunter says. “We live in highly moralistic times, and I revel in the glory of Grace—somebody who’s exercising an elemental muscle that is not politically correct. Grace feels like a release culturally for me, and I want to express that!”
Speaking of exercise and muscle, let’s get superficial for a moment. Hunter, in person, appears just as sinewy and strong as she does on TV. But I have to ask: Does she ever fret about how her body looks in nude scenes? Does she work out harder beforehand? These questions dissolve her into giggles, and she rolls back in the restaurant booth, simulating the moves she does with her Pilates instructor Jillian Hessel, and squeals with mock desperation, “More weight, Jillian! Add some springs!”
Joking aside, however, Hunter is much less concerned about how her butt looks than with how life’s big issues are reflected in the flawed woman she now portrays. “Grace has made a lot of errors—some that she’s paid dearly for,” she says. “The struggle of how to forgive one’s self, how to forgive other people, how to ask for forgiveness—these are things I can certainly relate to. That remains an active, volcanic process that we all—that I—go through.
“Here is the central question,” she adds, leaning in conspiratorially. “What are the possibilities of being alive? I think we are all born with an original impulse, and then we attempt to manage it or tamp it down. Grace has cherished and protected this force. That’s why it’s fascinating for me to play her right now in my life. There’s so much more at stake for her.” And, by extension, for Hunter as well.
Amy Wallace has written for More, Los Angeles magazine, Esquire and The New Yorker.