A Map to Holly Hunter's Hollywood : Her penchant for quirky roles may have paid off with 'The Piano,' but she's realistic: 'My taste is just too odd for me to have a long life on anybody's A-list'

Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar

What you have to remember in the midst of all the talk about Holly Hunter this year is how she went on "Arsenio" last summer to plug a play . Even Hall seemed a bit nonplussed. He had on his couch the newly crowned best actress from the Cannes Film Festival, a likely Oscar nominee and the star of the Palme d'Or winner "The Piano," directed by Jane Campion, a New Zealander and the first woman to win the festival's top prize.

A lot of movie awards, a lot of movie firsts, but Hunter just goes on about this play, Beth Henley's "Control Freaks," and how she loves playing weird Sister Willard, a schizophrenic housewife who talks in strange voices, rips carrots out of the floor and has vaguely incestuous thoughts toward her brother.

Sooooo, Hall says gamely, all you viewers not living in Los Angeles, save your pennies and fly in to catch it.

Yeah, right.

Except what Hall didn't know was that Hunter's performance was, in fact, a hot ticket and that the entire run of "Control Freaks" at the Met Theatre was sold out, playing to Hollywood types eager to catch Hunter in one of her rare stage appearances. Because as everybody knew, even if she didn't often sell out movie theaters, Hunter was one of the best actresses working, one who might turn up anywhere, even a 99-seat theater, if the part were right.

From her first featured film role, playing the baby-snatching policewoman in "Raising Arizona," the Coen brothers' 1987 comedy, Hunter had established herself as the kind of actress who, as one studio head put it, "you wanted to keep your eye on." She won an Oscar nomination with her second major film, playing Jane Craig, the Southern-fried smarty-pants producer in James L. Brooks' "Broadcast News" later that year.

She also earned an Emmy last season for her performance as the vengeful Wanda Holloway in HBO's "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom."

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This year, the 35-year-old Hunter is earning some of the best reviews of her career, as well as speculation about her walking off with the Oscar next spring, for her performance in "The Piano" as a mute 19th-Century Scottish woman who communicates with the world largely through her music and her illegitimate daughter.

They are quirky, off-center, to-die-for roles, particularly if you are a stage-trained 5-foot-2 Georgia-born actress with a syrupy drawl and a stubborn streak when it comes to playing by Hollywood rules. Hunter as much as said it herself at the Emmys this year when she thanked HBO Chief Executive Officer Michael Fuchs for making the kind of movies in which actresses could actually play women and not animated Barbie dolls.

And she is saying as much now, munching a bagel in a Beverly Hills hotel dining room, talking about "The Piano," which opens Friday.

"Whatever happens to my career from this is not going to last for long, because I'm just too odd--my taste is just too odd--for me to have a long life on anybody's A-list," she says, sounding grouchy and pleased at the same time. "I will be in too many movies that won't make a lot of money. It's why I do cable and theater and foreign independent (films) and domestic independent (films). I need that much space to search for good stuff."

As the film industry heads into yet another Oscar handicapping season bemoaning the scarcity of female contenders--Michelle Pfeiffer in "The Age of Innocence" and Emma Thompson in "The Remains of the Day" are other likely candidates--Hunter's performance in a dark-horse foreign film is raising questions about how Hollywood perceives, and treats, talent considered outside the mainstream. As Brooks puts it, "Tell me the type you can cast Holly for. You can't."

In person, Hunter does cut a fairly elusive figure. She is tiny and her face pale, finely etched. But with her rough-edged twang, no-nonsense manner and long, dark hair draped about her shoulders like a nun's veil, she creates the impression of tremendous energy flying out from a tightly coiled core. She seems reluctant to be known except on her own terms. And in conversation she veers from combativeness to garrulous honesty to rigid silence with unsettling ease.

She asks her interviewer to sit to her right "because I'm deaf in my left ear." She unabashedly discusses her love of cigarettes, her hatred of raw vegetables and her "terror" at playing the piano on camera.

Ask her about her screen roles, which one reviewer had blithely labeled "crazy women," Hunter bristles:

"Crazy people are my people? Really? I think that's silly. That's another one of those pigeonhole things. Lay somebody on an ironing board and put a scalding hot iron on them, get that going real good: 'Oh, this is who Holly Hunter is.' "

But press her on more personal topics, her off-screen life, her upbringing on a Georgia farm, and she simply shuts down. Indeed, it is left to her friends, a tight roster that includes playwright Henley and actresses Amy Madigan and Frances McDormand, to flesh out some details: that she recently moved from New York to Los Angeles, that she has never married, that she recently broke up with actor Arliss Howard, that she is a good storyteller. ("I know that she really likes to spend time in her garden working on her rose bushes," Henley offers.)

She becomes animated, however, when conversation turns to the theater, one of the few personal passions she willingly speaks about. It is, she says, "the greatest magic for an actor." Indeed, when told about the pending reassignment of Frank Rich, the powerful New York Times theater critic who has reviewed several of her performances on Broadway--and has panned some of the plays she was in--Hunter bounces forward to the edge of her seat. " What?!!!! " she says, waving her cigarette. "He was so destructive to the state of American theater. . . . I'm so happy. I'm so ecstatic. Please print that."

She puffs contentedly for a few moments, lost in thought. Then she glances across the table with her steady, almost animal-like gaze. "Ever been to Dublin?" she asks, apropos of nothing. "I'm going, for 'The Piano.' "

It will be a work trip, but Hunter seems relieved at the prospect of spending time away from Los Angeles. "The weather here is so deceitful," she says, sounding genuinely wounded. Ireland, on the other hand, "just seems so romantic. Their fierceness," she says, speaking perhaps as much for herself as the country, "it's just so pure."

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While Hunter is one of the more candid actresses to address women's roles in Hollywood, her complaints are mirrored by any number of Hollywood actors who are considered exceptional performers but whose screen appeal is not necessarily mainstream. Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the few actors who has successfully parlayed a reputation in art-house films (most notably his Oscar-winning performance in the 1989 Irish drama "My Left Foot") into a career as a box-office draw (with the 1992 hit "Last of the Mohicans"). That dichotomy is considered more acute for actresses, for whom serious success often comes down to looks.

"If an actress who is really, really pretty shows up in a hot movie, everyone phones," says one female agent, citing Melanie Griffith in "Working Girl," Marisa Tomei in "My Cousin Vinny" and Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct." "But if an actress is only attractive, it's just not the same."

"Women, unfortunately, are all up against each other for the same few roles," says one male studio head. "Holly Hunter is up for the same roles that Jodie Foster is considered for, and because Jodie Foster is a star, well, who would you rather have in your movie?"

Many industry observers compare Hunter's situation to that of Emma Thompson, who gained attention last year for her Oscar-winning performance in "Howards End" but who has continued to work mostly in small, British-produced films like "Much Ado About Nothing," "Peter's Friends" and the current "The Remains of the Day." Even Thompson has conceded that her Oscar has not translated into numerous offers from major Hollywood studios.

But Hollywood's indifference hasn't been a huge impediment for Hunter, who has conjured a career from all corners of the entertainment industry.

"Holly wants a career as an actress," Brooks says. "And she has locked into everything she cares about by doing it all--big movies, small movies, bit parts in big films, TV movies--all choices that are hers. I can't think of another actress of her generation that has her range, and she has done it on her own terms."

Henley agrees. "Holly has a passion for challenging herself as an artist," says the playwright, who has known her since 1982 when the two worked together on Henley's Broadway play "The Wake of Jamey Foster." "She is extremely eclectic in her choice of roles. I think of her as being almost liquid."

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It was one of the best roles out there, even if director Jane Campion was not a household name by Hollywood standards. For one thing, she had made only two films--"Sweetie" in 1989 and "An Angel at My Table," a 1990 made-for-TV movie (later edited for theatrical release), both low-budget Australian releases with limited American distribution. And the film's subjects--a woman with an compulsive eating disorder, and Janet Frame, the New Zealand novelist who was institutionalized--were so unorthodox as to be off-putting to general audiences. When "Sweetie" was shown at Cannes, the overall critical reception was little short of disastrous.

So when the word went out that Campion was looking for a high-profile actress to play Ada, the mute 19th-Century Scottish woman in "The Piano," one might have expected less than a stampede of eligible actresses. That Campion's film became one of the most coveted acting jobs around reveals much about the current state of Hollywood.

"Actresses really want to play good parts," Hunter says. "And this was a good one--it was obvious from the page."

Hunter saw in "The Piano" not only the chance to play a striking protagonist--a mother and an artist of great emotional complexity--but also the opportunity to work with a director she saw as possessing an unusually psychological point of view.

"Jane has the ability to assume the perspective of the lead character so intimately, so myopically," says Hunter, who cites the opening scenes of "The Piano" and "An Angel at My Table," in which the viewer is seeing through the eyes of the character. "That immediacy is a hook into the film, but without judgment."

What Hunter also recognized was that she did not fit the description of Ada, who was characterized as statuesque, enigmatic and strikingly beautiful.

Jan Chapman, producer of "The Piano," adds another reservation: "While we knew and admired her work, we thought of her as a very contemporary actress, and this was a period film."

But Hunter was determined to throw her hat in the ring.

"As an actor, I always like some tension, some distance, between me and the character I'm playing," she says. "And I really felt that I could play Ada." Her piano skills, she felt, would be a major asset: "Jane was ready to go with a double for the piano scenes. But I thought it would be much more potent if you could see the real relationship between Ada and her piano."

Hunter also felt, somewhat presumptuously, that "by casting me, the film would become about a kind of beauty that isn't often explored in movies, where the actress is usually drop-dead gorgeous; this way you had to work a little bit to find her allure and to be intrigued by her."

Hunter kept after Campion until the director agreed to meet with her for a screen test. She hired a piano instructor and a dialogue coach (although the character is mute, the film has a voice-over narration) and made a three-minute videotape as well as a 30-minute audiotape of her piano playing. Those tapes, Chapman says, "were simply mesmerizing." Campion was struck by what she called "Holly's intense gaze--she brings a tenderness and strength to Ada that is totally believable."

Within weeks, Hunter was cast along with Sam Neill, who plays her husband, Stewart, an insensitive New Zealand colonialist. In an equally unorthodox casting decision, Harvey Keitel, best known for playing violent, inarticulate men in such films as "Bad Lieutenant" and "Reservoir Dogs," was chosen to play George Baines, a neighboring settler and Ada's lover.

"Jane's casting choices are kind of impeccable and wild," Hunter says. "With Harvey, there is something very vulnerable about him in this film that is different from the public's perception, a soulfulness that I think is a whole lot of what he is in real life."

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Filming "The Piano" brought its own challenges: rigorous location shooting on New Zealand's mountainous North Island that included scenes on surf-pounded beaches, in remote, muddy forests, and even underwater, while cast and crew struggled with the film's period details, like a cumbersome antique piano (lugged per Hunter's request to each location for practice sessions) and hand-sewn 19th-Century clothes.

"Jane wanted an authentic period feel," Chapman says, "and not some (generic) chocolate-box look."

"Films generally skip this period because the hairstyles and clothing are considered pretty severe and unflattering," says Hunter, whose look suggests a daguerreotype--a cross between Emily Bronte and Mary Todd Lincoln. "But we thought it would be an interesting way to explore a different definition of beauty."

The acting challenge in a period film, Hunter says, "was to successfully inhabit the Victorian world that Ada inhabited: feminine, fragile, graceful and slow-moving. I wanted to achieve a state of elegance and grace in the clothes and not look like I was an actress in 1993 wearing the wrong stuff."

She found Bronte's life to be a useful model, not only for period details, but also as a way into a Victorian female mind.

"I read 'Wuthering Heights' as well as books about her life and her eccentric view of the world," Hunter says. "She was quite an isolationist like Ada, almost a recluse. Some people might think of recluses as misanthropic--that she is angry and is lashing out at the world by her silence--but I think it's more complicated than that. (Ada) had no guilt or shame about having an illegitimate child. She lived in her head, like a writer's life. One of the reasons she isolated herself was to nurture that interior world that would be judged by others as inappropriate."

Hunter spent weeks before filming honing the skills necessary to express her character's internal life: intensive piano training (composer Michael Nyman wrote much of the score to accommodate Hunter's abilities) as well as developing a sign-language system for her scenes with Anna Paquin, a 9-year-old New Zealander, who plays her daughter, Flora.

Although Campion had written the film as a period piece about New Zealand settlers, told as an erotic story from a woman's perspective, Hunter found the relationship between Ada and her daughter to be equally intriguing, "a true complicated intimacy between two females that is rarely shown in films," the actress says.

"The men not only covet her relationship to her piano but also the knowledge that Ada and her daughter have of each other," she says. "The men don't have this, because they haven't been socialized that way, and they want it."

As for the film's eroticism, which called for nude scenes (the first of her career) with Keitel, Hunter found that they were not as intimidating as her extended piano-playing scenes.

"I was absorbed by Harvey," she says. "He is so awake and perceptive as an actor. Without him my job would have been impossible." (For his part, Keitel returns the compliment: "Holly is one of those actresses who can set a standard that we are sorely in need of--I think of her as a role model.")

Indeed, Hunter sees her character's sexuality not unlike her artistry, as components of a richly delineated female life, a marked difference from most feature film roles for women.

"One of the real strong points for me is that this film doesn't end up beautifully, that it has elements of harsh realism," she says. "Ada and Baines acted without a lot of hesitation, and there was a price to pay for that. . . . Ada operated so elegantly on so many levels, all of them superficial and Victorian, but underneath that encasement was an awful lot of freedom and strength of will."

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The themes of strong-willedness and freedom have been something of a constant in Hunter's life, from her upbringing as the youngest of seven children born on her parents' farm in Conyers, Ga., to her current status as Hollywood iconoclast. Although her late father worked as a sporting goods manufacturer's representative, Hunter recalls her parents in more artistic terms. "My mother loved to draw," she says, "and my father had a big love affair with music."

While she was the family tomboy, Hunter also exhibited her own artistic inclinations early on. By age 10, she was an ardent piano student; by 16, she had been invited to attend a professional summer acting program by the artistic director of Atlanta's Alliance Theatre Company. By the time she graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 1980, she was known as one of the school's most accomplished students. She made her Broadway debut a year later, as a replacement in Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning Southern drama "Crimes of the Heart."

"There has never been a minute when people didn't think of Holly as a gifted actress," Brooks says. "By the time she began working in films, she already had a reputation from Broadway."

It was through her friendship with fellow Manhattanites Joel and Ethan Coen that she landed her first major movie role in their second film, "Raising Arizona."

"We had seen a lot of her theater work and we also knew that she was a good comedian," director Joel recalls. "So we just wrote the role of Edwinna for her--the first actor we ever wrote a part for."

Since then Hunter has worked steadily, establishing her credentials as a comic actress with "Raising Arizona" and "Broadcast News." ("She is one of the very few people (to whom) you can actually say, 'Make it funnier' and she can," Brooks says.)

Then came more serious fare, including Steven Spielberg's 1989 drama "Always" and Lasse Halstrom's 1991 romance "Once Around." And then there are the meaty TV roles: "An Uncommon Love," "With Intent to Kill," "Roe vs. Wade" (for which she won her first Emmy) and "Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom." This summer, Hunter played a small but choice role as a tarty secretary with a heart of gold in Sydney Pollack's "The Firm."

"I could never begin to characterize the women I've played," says Hunter, who concedes that her accent has been an occasional hindrance.

"I like the South, Southern literature and that relationship between grotesqueness and living below the Mason-Dixon line," she says. "But I also understand that people view it as a limitation as an actor and as a person--perceptions that are really wrong, that you are ignorant and possibly illiterate or that it's cute. You get categorized, and I have skirted that, in an OK way, for most of my career.

"Somebody once asked Flannery O'Connor, 'Why do Southerners write about freaks?' " Hunter says, musing aloud, before answering herself: "Because they can still recognize one."

That recognition, and the ability to empathize, is perhaps what most propels Hunter's career, playing those women, like Ada in "The Piano" or Sister Willard in "Control Freaks," outside the mainstream.

"People judge the material; they think these women are wacky weirdos," she says. "But in fact they're really about all of us."

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