The Contenders: Holly Hunter explores a loud silence again with Jane Campion in ‘Top of the Lake’

Actress Holly Hunter.
(Gerard Julien / AFP / Getty Images)

Two decades after Holly Hunter’s Oscar-winning turn in “The Piano,” the actress reteamed with director Jane Campion for the Sundance Channel’s acclaimed miniseries “Top of the Lake.” Hunter played GJ, an odd oracle who leads a New Age compound for lost women. In a recent video conversation, we spoke with Hunter about working with Campion again and the mysteries surrounding her character.

I’ve read that you said this was a very difficult character for you to get into. How finally did you understand her?

Jane is a director who really loves to approach projects, and also character, improvisationally. She approached “The Piano” in the same way. So we did about a week of improvisational work. I discovered a lot in that period of time, but I was very grateful when we actually started shooting the script, because GJ is such a kind of psychological, metaphysical genius that it was difficult to find my own words to improv with the character.

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There’s such a stillness to the character. Was that something that came out during that week of improvisation and rehearsal?


Yeah. I just intuitively felt that was home base for me, that stillness, because the character says that she does not really approve of or engage in meditation. I felt that she resided somewhere in between animation and death.

She’s an interesting character in the sense that she is kind of this guru, and yet she doesn’t really want a following.

It was such an interesting polarity in the character, to be an anti-guru but nevertheless accept the mantle and the responsibility, in a way, of having all of these followers. And taking room and board, basically. She went, “As long as I do this, I can eat and live for free.” And there was something beautiful about that. The pragmatism that drove the character, I found it quite amusing.

The miniseries plays out over seven hours, so there’s a luxury of time of getting to know the characters and telling the story.

You’re bringing up something that’s kind of near and dear to my heart. When I did “Saving Grace,” I longed for and I asked for — I said, “Can we have a beginning, middle and an end? Would it be possible to create a series where it’s three seasons — from the beginning? So the first season’s the beginning, the second season, and the third season’s the end, and that’s it.” And in a way, the miniseries kind of satisfies something of that desire of mine — the creative luxury of the miniseries, without the obligation of filling up all of this episodic life that may not have an engine underneath it.


And in that exploration, you get to see various shades of all the characters, some of whom initially you would have just put down as evil, yet there are scenes of humanity with each of them.

[Jane] always has incredible complexity with everyone who she touches filmically, so that even the pedophile, who you meet in the first couple of episodes — yes, the fact is that with seven hours, you get to explore a much greater terrain. And if you have the talent — and Jane does, very definitively so—she can explore and breathe so much riveting personality into lots of different characters.

Can you tell while you’re making a film that it’s going to be a classic? Or is it just another day at work and then when you finally see how it’s put together, then you say, “Oh, wow.”

I would say I’ve had the good fortune of working with a handful of directors who I really thought were born to direct. And certainly I think when I was making “Broadcast News,” I thought, “Wow. This is going to be amazing.” And when I was making “The Piano,” I also thought, “This is going to be amazing.” But with “The Piano,” I didn’t think anybody was going to see it. With “Broadcast News,” because it was a studio picture, it had this size and it had an energy around the making of it. That’s the only time in my career I went, “Wow. What is this thing that we’re doing? And this could be something big.” But with “Raising Arizona,” I was such a neophyte. I had no idea what was going on, except that I thought that it was funny as hell. And the Coens were friends. So we were having a blast making it. But the fact is that at this point in my life, when I’m doing something special, I feel it. It’s not a total surprise, like it might have been when I was doing “Raising Arizona.”

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How much of Jane Campion is in GJ?

Well, I’ve read of people saying — and people have said to me — that they thought that GJ is Jane. But actually that’s not true. GJ is based on someone Jane knows, a kind of anti-guru, an Indian man who Jane visited many times and listened to him and felt that he had great wisdom.

People are probably just looking at the gray hair and they think that’s Campion.

But there’s a lot of gray hair in the movie. I mean, Peter Mullan and the woman who plays Elisabeth Moss’ character’s mom. And the fact that the women’s camp is made up of women who are all post-menopausal, I think Jane is making a comment and exploring terrain that is often not explored in film, but doing it with a certain irony. Certainly with a great sense of humor.

Was the wig a kind of transformational moment?

I felt that GJ is one of those people who you get a lot of information about her immediately, visually and also line-wise. When Peter Mullan’s character, early on in the first episode, says, “What is it? He, she, it?” I felt there was a certain fulfillment that I wanted to have visually with this character, so that she could inhabit “he, she, it.” And the wig was, like you said, good transportation. Did you say transformation or transportation?

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Either way it works, right?


At one point, GJ’s past is described as a “calamity.” Do you have any insight into that?

Well, you know, that’s a mystery, the calamity. And it remains a mystery. But it’s a physiological — not really a metaphysical. It was more of a cellular change that the character speaks of. But that really is not covered. It remains an inexplicable passage.

I wonder if Campion could come back to the character and give her her own miniseries.

Well, if Jane does “Top of the Lake: Part Two,” maybe we’ll find out more about what that was.

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