In the 35 years since she landed her first paid gig, Holly Hunter has proven herself an actress of almost unparalleled range. Her versatility was showcased vividly in 1993, when she starred as a mute, 19th-century bride in Jane Campion's "The Piano" (for which she won an Oscar), a sassy secretary in "The Firm" (which earned her an Oscar nomination) and a homicidal housewife in HBO's "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom" (which earned her an Emmy).
This week Hunter, 57, appears opposite Al Pacino as a kindhearted bank teller in David Gordon Green's "Manglehorn." On the horizon are roles in Terrence Malick's "Weightless" and Zack Snyder's "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" as well as a reunion with Anna Paquin, her costar from "The Piano," in the family drama "Breakable You."
Your upcoming projects could not be more different from one another.
Doing all these different kinds of wildly different experiences, it just adds to feeling very alive, and they each make me feel excited in different ways. With "Manglehorn" and "Batman," you have two directors that are comfortable in their milieu, you know? David Gordon Green knows and understands Austin [where the film is set]. He went to college with tons of the guys that he works with, so it's really nice to be on the set where there's that level of comfort and trust. And Zack should be directing giant movies, he flourishes under that pressure.
How was it working with Al Pacino for the first time?
He's lovely. He can still be very vulnerable, very open to another actor. I loved seeing that. As we get older, people close down. We get less adaptive, less flexible — literally. Curiosity can diminish, and you want safety. You want what you know. Familiarity. This is one of the reasons I like to act — it's because acting forces you into situations you don't know. I like the gypsy aspect of [acting] – I feel that it keeps me much more adaptive.
It does seem like you've consciously tried to work with a wide array of filmmakers.
Actually, that's not true. One of the things that I loved so much about [the TNT series] "Saving Grace" is that I got to work with the same people over and over again.… But I also really like to go from stage to television to movies. That's such a normal thing now. When I first started in 1980, that was not the norm, to bounce back and forth in that way. I was doing television, movies and theater all the time. I certainly did my share of bouncing.
The prevailing wisdom these days is that TV is more hospitable to women than film. Do you agree?
Yes. I'm hitting a seam right now where I don't particularly feel that way, but statistically it's true. There are, in terms of numbers, more leading roles for women in television than there are features. That's absolutely certain. And it used to be that women went into television when they got older. Now, women are going into television, period.
Is there a "Holly Hunter part" — a type of role you're offered a lot?
I am often offered roles or women who are very strong, uncompromising. But it's fun to do "Manglehorn," where I'm playing somebody who's very open, very optimistic, very positive. I don't want to bore myself.
G.J., the spiritual leader you played in the Sundance miniseries "Top of the Lake," was a singular creation. How did you and writer-director Jane Campion develop that character?
We rehearsed a lot. Jane loves to rehearse, to play theater games, Simon Says, musical chairs, talent contests, dances, a lot of improv.… I deduced some elements of her that felt like home. And when we started shooting, it kind of fell into place, you know? The character presented herself. It was really a kick to do that and a great group of women at that women's camp, to be hanging out with everybody. And Jane was just a blast. She's so silly and fun.
You've built a long career while mostly avoiding typical leading-lady roles. How do you think you've managed to stay around?
It's something I'm proud of, to have longevity in a career that is as challenging as this one is. There's something mysterious about the whole process of hammering out a career; there's a lot of serendipity. I don't know a whole bunch of people who have the [production] shingles, and they're reeling out great projects for themselves to star in. Generally, actors hang around on the surface of the water waiting for something to hit, and I've always enjoyed that. There's really a lot to be said for sticking around.
Were there moments when you worried about what might come next?
No. I am not built that way. I know brilliant actors who feel they will never work again, and I've never had that. Sometimes I go into a very minor depression about, like, why can't I get better stuff? And then I'll do something kind of great. And my own life is interesting enough where if my career is not galvanizing and riveting, something else is. I have many neuroses, but one of them is not I will never work again.
What do you see as the major break in your career?
[Meeting] casting director Joy Todd. She did that magical thing that you wish as a young actor or actress might happen.... She got me in a horror movie called "The Burning," which Harvey Weinstein produced. It was filming there in North Tonawanda, N.Y., just outside of Buffalo, and I was making like a thousand dollars a week. It was unbelievable money! I was rolling in dough, sleeping in cash. I think I said one sentence.