A real pro, and so full of ‘Grace’

Times Staff Writer

At 50, Holly Hunter had the athletic confidence of a movie star enjoying her prime recently as she strode across the patio of a Los Feliz cafe in a sundress and heeled pumps so high they appeared almost vertical.

She raised a small arm with an impressive biceps to shake hands. While other patrons stood in line to order, the waiters, notified in advance of her arrival, brought a menu to her table.

Like many Hollywood stars whose biggest parts once seemed behind them, Hunter might have been doomed to the standard mom or spurned wife roles. But riding the crest of actresses leading television series, she has revitalized her career on the small screen as Grace -- a hard-drinking, promiscuous Southern detective monitored by a crusty angel named Earl.


Unlike, say, Kyra Sedgwick in “The Closer” or Glenn Close in “Damages,” Hunter’s “Saving Grace” role has veered into new territory as that rarely seen character: an explicitly sexual 40-year-old woman. In a titillating mix of pleasure and religion, Grace, a driven detective and kindly aunt, is often shown having sex, sometimes with married men, and then debating her behavior with Earl.

Although some critics complained that her rebel-hero character was “tiresome,” others also allowed that TNT pushed boundaries with her coarse language and semi-nude sexuality.

“Grace is a study of human nature first and foremost,” Hunter said. “The allure of Grace is her complexity. She can often entice conflicts, and she surrenders to her desires, what she feels could be the most fun, intoxicating, seductive, tantalizing, what could be the most cool. So many people slog through the moments to, say, get to Friday. Grace lives fully.”

The Oscar-winning actress was nominated for a Golden Globe for “Saving Grace” and this year received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Now shooting its second season, “Saving Grace” will launch Monday on TNT.

Hunter said she leaped at the chance to play Grace, because “I wanted to have that conversation with myself, with other characters and with an audience. Movies aren’t made about a woman’s whole life.”

Working in television is, in a way, returning to her roots. In the 1980s, Hunter appeared in several TV movies and more recently in “When Billie Beat Bobby” (2001), a TV movie about Billie Jean King; and in “American Experience: Abraham and Mary Lincoln -- A House Divided” (2001) as the voice of Mary Lincoln.


She has won two Emmys for “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom” (1993) and “Roe vs. Wade” (1989).

What she didn’t want to have a conversation about on that particular afternoon was herself. Serious and earnest, Hunter spoke eagerly about the arc of her career, her professional friendships and her intense involvement in the show but turned curt when it came to her own life -- a six-year marriage to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and her 2-year-old twins fathered by partner and actor Gordon MacDonald, who has also appeared in “Saving Grace.”

With a fleeting smile, Hunter said she would neither “confirm or deny” the twins’ existence. She suggested MacDonald not be mentioned at all in the article.

“The world is chock-full of actors and actresses who want to talk about their personal lives. I don’t,” she said. “And I really want that respected.”

Making friends

As AN actress, Hunter is often described as ferocious, fearless, feisty and focused. Her movie roles have varied from funny and offbeat (“Raising Arizona”) to strong and quirky (“Broadcast News”) and intense and dramatic (“The Piano.”)

The youngest of seven children raised on a Georgia farm, she studied at Carnegie Mellon University and later moved to New York, making several auspicious connections by sheer chance.

Hunter had a boyfriend, for instance, who wanted her to join him on a visit to Yale to meet his best friend and his girlfriend -- who turned out to be Frances McDormand. “It was a very dramatic night,” said Hunter, who was unwilling to tell much more of the story. (“It’s a secret.”) “Fran and I bonded over it. We saw each other in the midst of this chaos and we became friends right then.” McDormand eventually moved in with Hunter in New York.

While appearing in “Crimes of the Heart,” a play by Beth Henley (whom she had met in an elevator), Hunter was spotted by Joel and Ethan Coen, who wanted to cast her in “Blood Simple.” Since Hunter was committed to another Henley play, she suggested McDormand, who got the role -- and was married to Joel within a year.

The Coens subsequently cast Hunter in “Raising Arizona” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

Later, the four friends lived together for four months in Silver Lake, not far from the Los Feliz restaurant. These days, when she is not shooting “Grace” in Los Angeles, she said, “We all live in New York. We all hang out.”

Fully absorbed

“Grace” WAS created by Oklahoma native Nancy Miller (“Any Day Now,” “The Closer”), who cast Hunter from a short list of preapproved actresses she received from TNT. “It was a dream come true,” Miller said. Besides acting, Hunter serves as an executive producer, editing shots, suggesting music, story ideas and even marketing. She spends weekends in daylong “tone” meetings, and that’s in addition to workouts and Pilates training to stay fit.

In the first season, Grace was driving drunk when she hit Leon Cooley, played by Bokeem Woodbine (“The Big Hit”), who turned out to be a death row inmate who also converses with Earl, played by Leon Rippy (“Deadwood”). Grace’s friend Rhetta Rodriguez, actress Laura San Giacomo (“Just Shoot Me”) tries to help her figure it all out.

Hunter knows what Grace would and wouldn’t say, would and wouldn’t wear. If she isn’t sure which finger Grace would use to fire her gun, she’ll call the Oklahoma City Police Department, Miller said.

Unlike film characters that actors live with for three or six months, Grace is part of Hunter’s life day in and day out, even during hiatus, Hunter said. Hunter said that she believes firmly in taking time off but that acting is good for her. She said she feels most herself when acting.

Hunter looked around for the waiter and, not seeing him, got up to look for sugar for her latte. Returning to the table, smiling, she shooed off a curious bird.

“Saving Grace” draws about 4.7 million viewers, which is considered a commercial success in the basic cable world. TNT targets viewers with a “real middle American sensibility,” who can relate to real, flawed but genuinely well-meaning characters, according to Michael Wright, senior vice president of content creation for TNT, TBS and TCM.

Miller acknowledges the show isn’t for everyone, meaning those who might be squeamish about explicit sex or nonsectarian religion. Her goal was to write about the themes of God and religion, sin and faith through the eyes of a woman who had no faith -- Grace. Earl, the angel, sometimes sounds like an AA sponsor, but he could also be a minister, a Buddhist, a guru or “a person who practices tai chi,” Hunter said.

Earl didn’t mind when Grace fell for Jack St. Clair, her neighbor’s nephew and an atheist played by MacDonald. The character may be back in Season 2, but there are no plans, Miller said.

This season, viewers can expect more religious push/pull -- Grace confronts a priest who molested her as a child. Grace will have a new partner at work. And there will also be more humor -- especially among the cops, Hunter said.

She said she doesn’t miss doing movies. Her most recent, a British film, “Frost Flowers,” is scheduled for release next year. It also stars Rupert Evans and MacDonald.

Hunter and MacDonald are occasionally pictured in celebrity magazines with their boys, in New York or at the Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony. Living in such a celebrity-driven environment, it must be difficult to . . .

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “I don’t want to talk about how I nurture or don’t nurture my public life. I’m sure you’ll spend half the article talking about it now. But, you know, really, it’s fine.”