Holly Hunter makes a leading-lady comeback — even if she won’t call it that


The restaurant table was a little wobbly, so Holly Hunter did what every 58-year-old Oscar-winning actress in an elegant outfit would do: she folded up a packet of papers and got down on the floor to fix it.

“Does that work?” she asked in her trademark Lowcountry accent, as she extended her arms and neck to get the balance right. A mischievous smile danced on her lips as she gazed across the room to a team of publicists and assistants — half-expecting, half-seeking their horror.

Satisfied with the furniture equilibrium, she sprang back upright. “Now, where were we?”


Hunter had been in the middle of talking about her new movie, “Strange Weather,” a Toronto International Film Festival premiere in which she gives one more standout performance amid a lifetime of them. The Georgia native headed west, to Mississippi, in Katherine Dieckmann’s film so she could play Darcy — a professor and grieving single mom who embarks on a road trip to track down her late son’s business rival.

Both the role and the performance are so specific they might well be called Hunter-ian: at once strong and human, her signature hybrid of vulnerable and unbreakable.

Where the actress has been more figuratively, however, is less clear.

Long before the recent immigrant wave to television, Hunter led a charge of high-end film actors, particularly women, seeking out more fertile terrain when she began starring as a wild-child detective in “Saving Grace” nearly a decade ago.

But since the TNT show went off the air in 2010, Hunter has been lightly heard from. No big return to cable or a Netflix series; no major film role. Just teasing glimpses, such as the doomed Senator Finch in this spring’s “Batman v. Superman.”

“‘Saving Grace’ was a full stretch-out — literally, physically, spiritually, psychologically,” she said of the 45 hours of television she made from 2007-10. “And I needed to take a year-and-a-half off when it was over.

Then when I decided to go back [to film] again,” she continued, “there was a rude awakening. It was, [darn] there’s a pause in material.”

For a time few actors crafted cinematic characters as rich, subtle and downright rootable as Hunter’s. Her versatility stretched from “Raising Arizona” to “Broadcast News” to “The Firm” to “The Piano” — a range that would be strikingly wide even if she hadn’t covered it in all of just six years. Her blend of resilient and resourceful became not just a calling card but an archetype.

Yet the actress has been more scattershot in the roughly two decades since her Oscar win for “The Piano” in 1994. By virtue of not being named Meryl Streep, Hunter doesn’t land the few lead parts that studios still offer women over 40. Like her contemporary and “Home for the Holidays” director Jodie Foster, she has been forced to become more improvisational as her career has worn on.

After “Grace,” she was able to gather some supporting parts — including in Diablo Cody’s “Paradise” and David Gordon Green’s “Manglehorn” — but nothing of great prominence or meat. The fallow period has even led to a kind of cultural vacuum and public rebuke, like a 2013 piece in the Atlantic that declared “we’ve all failed Holly Hunter.”

If she carries any self-pity, though, she’s not showing it. “That’s just the rhythm of the feature business these days. And not just for women. I mean, even a guy who’s 27 and hot will tell you it’s hard to get great roles. I don’t suffer the decisions the studio world makes.”

She said she remains keen to define success differently at this stage of her life. Hunter starred in a Terrence Malick movie, next year’s star-heavy ensemble “Weightless” (“A completely original experience that wasn’t without rewards — I don’t care if I get cut out of the movie”). She has worked occasionally in theater and alludes to her family life in New York, where she has long made her home with her husband, the British actor Gordon MacDonald, and their twin sons, now 10. “My life,” she said, “has a great degree of dimension without making movies.”

Just the same, she sparked to making a new one when Dieckmann came along. The avant-garde director — credit her for the groundbreaking Nickelodeon series “The Adventures of Pete & Pete”; blame her for the R.E.M. video of “Shiny Happy People” — wanted to craft a story of a woman with a certain earned pluck, someone whose trials had not led to embitterment or cliche.

“Usually a woman over 40 — let alone 50 — is either alcoholic or depressed or sex-starved or nuts. Or they’re totally buttoned up and up and conservative and boring,” Dieckmann said in an interview. “And I wanted — and Holly jumped at the chance to do — something that wasn’t any of that.” Hunter’s eagerness was apparent on the first day of shooting, when she rode to set on a Razor Scooter.

“What I found fascinating was this complicated character going through something completely human; it’s just utterly bathed in humanity,” Hunter said of “Strange Weather’s” Darcy, who lets loose bits of humor, wisdom and toughness with a kind of charm, but also a lack of concern about how it will land with its recipient. “There’s a lack of a filter that I found beautiful. This is a character who is not editing herself.”

Hunter herself has an industry reputation for directness — Southern spunk, would be the diplomatic way to put it. Dieckmann says that “Holly does not suffer fools — she just doesn’t have the time for that.”

“I guess I’m more of a direct person than an indirect one,” Hunter said, directly, when asked about that reputation.

Then, weighing the value of a different, more Hollywood-specific way of communicating, she added, “But there is something about the circuity, if that’s a word, that I appreciate. Sometimes you have to marinate instead of making a quick decision. I appreciate my instincts but my instincts can be dead wrong. Circumspection can give you time.”

Hunter’s fallow period may, unfortunately for fans, continue. Lead roles are still not imminently in the cards. And “Strange Weather,” an indie even by indie standards, currently has no U.S. distributor.

But she said the film world’s realities have not deterred her. “What I keep having to ask myself is ‘Do I still want to act?’ ‘Do I still want to reveal?’ And I do.”

She allows herself an ever-so-slightly frustrated gaze across the pond. “If you look at Isabelle Huppert and Juliette Binoche, you see people who are doing some of the best work of their lives. So much European cinema has open arms to stories carried by women in their 40s, 50s and 60s. And America is a little behind in that.”

But a moment later she returns to a more Zen view.

“When you experience profound things in life, you go across certain thresholds,” she said, referring both to the Darcy character and her own experience.

“And those test you. But they give you a different perspective about yourself and your place in the world. With longevity comes ‘nothing is going to kill me; I cannot irreparably damage my career.’ Those days are over. The most I can sustain are fender benders.”

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