“Hi, it’s Helen,” I heard when I picked up the phone Friday afternoon, her pleasant voice a welcome replacement for a publicist’s typical humdrum introduction. I immediately understood this conversation would be between myself and Ms. Helen Hunt, who could navigate my questions herself, thank you very much.
For over four decades, Hunt has affected audiences with her warm smile and natural charisma, appearing in everything from the late 1970s sci-fi series “The Bionic Woman” to Louis C.K.’s controversial and critically panned “I Love You, Daddy” last year. She won multiple Emmys for her role as Jamie Buchman in the long-running ’90s TV series “Mad About You” and took home an Oscar for “As Good As It Gets” in ’97. She starred in the films “What Women Want,” “Pay It Forward,” “Cast Away” and “Bobby,” to name just a few, before taking a step off screen to focus on writing and directing. Her two projects, “Then She Found Me” and “Ride,” solidified Hunt as a blossoming filmmaker, giving her the opportunity to direct episodes of television series’ like “Revenge,” “House of Lies,” “Feud,” “This Is Us” and “Splitting Up Together.”
But, at 54, Hunt seems eager to get back on our screens and uncover the kinds of roles she’s long been craving. As an actress who’s witnessed decades of Hollywood ups and downs, she has strong opinions about her industry and the parts she wants to inhabit in it.
Currently, she can be seen in “The Miracle Season,” based on the true story of Iowa City’s West High School 2011-12 volleyball team. The squad, after the tragic death of its star player, attempts to conjure up the strength to make it to the state championship alongside tough-love coach Kathy Bresnahan (Hunt). On the phone, sans publicist, we spoke about the movie, the changes she’s experienced in her ever-changing workplace and, of course, those “Mad About You” revival contracts.
You’re a busy woman these days.
I suddenly got busy after not being busy!
I can’t start this conversation off without mentioning the supposed deals you and Paul Reiser closed for a “Mad About You” reboot. Is it a go?
We closed this thing with Sony, who is our studio, which means that’s great, but there’s nowhere to do it yet. I read somewhere, “They’re being coy.” There’s no being coy, nobody’s bought it yet, you know what I’m saying? I mean, at all. [There’s] nothing I’m even hiding. So our enthusiasm is clear, but we don’t have any home for it yet. And we don’t know if we will or if we’ll have one that everybody likes. Seems like it is marching steadily toward “I hope it happens.”
The show is now going to be run by a spectacular writer, Peter Tolan from “Rescue Me” and “Murphy Brown,” with me and Paul by his side. Danny Jacobson (the show’s co-creator) will come back and consult, and that’s great. But we’re really excited that we have Paul and me as the guardians of what it was, and Peter Tolan with new, fresh, smart enthusiasm, who’s going to be doing a lot of the writing. The cocktail of what it was and something brand new is what has made me excited about it. I can’t think of anyone better than Peter Tolan to be that kind of new breath-of-life into it. He’s a big element. His sensibility combined with our comfy-with-each-other thing is exciting to me.
To come back with a different spin on it, a different showrunner and possibly a new network must be thrilling.
Yes. I honestly can’t high-five yet because no one may want to buy it or, more possibly, how ever those deals get made might not ever get made. But the prospect of doing it went from seeming absurd to seeming really exciting. I’ve always been interested with this show: What is it like to love someone over time? That’s been the thing that hooked me into doing it in the first place. It’s one thing to love somebody after a year and it’s another thing to love somebody after seven years. To check in on what’s the grace and the grit of loving someone after 20 years? That’s a pretty terrific prospect, and with a great new writer and my dear friend who I love acting with. If it happens, I’d be super excited, but I don’t know if it’s going to happen.
I really hope it does, especially with the many platforms out there now aside from the networks who could be interested.
Right, right. That’s in the hands of who knows what, but I’m open to any place that’s interested in the things we’re interested in.
You and Paul were, in a way, trailblazers for successful TV stars ― even earning yourself huge pay raises in the final season of “Mad About You.” (They each got a $750k raise, to $1 million an episode.)
Those days are gone [laughs].
But we see these stars now, like Ellen Pompeo, for instance, making a ton of money to remain on hit shows while fighting for what they deserve. Do you see yourself as a pioneer in that world?
It would be hard for me to use that word, but I was very aware that I had, thanks to Paul, been invited into an incredibly generous job in every way. Luckily, I knew enough, even in Season 2 and 3, to say to myself once a day, “This isn’t going to last forever, remember that.” Getting to work on 11-page scenes with a scene partner you love working with about something you care about [is amazing]. We didn’t have jerks on the show. There was nobody that made it a drag. It was a particularly lovely group, and Paul and I have remained really great friends, so coming back to all of that would be like, “You’re kidding?”
“I never want to mention parts I've turned down. The roles I’ve succeeded in, many of them were turned down by other people so I don’t want to put my sticky fingers on someone else’s work.”
Even though we see a lot of solid roles for women and female-led shows and films, they’re still hard to come by. Are you excited to have the chance to maybe reprise Jamie Buchman and then take on even more roles?
Yes. I’m about to go work on something that just so happens would be great. I’m very fired up about my acting at the moment and excited about possibilities that are in front of me and behind me with this movie that’s out, which I’m really proud of.
Yes, let’s talk “The Miracle Season.” After taking a few years to focus on directing, what about this character, coach Kathy Bresnahan, resonated with you?
I had worked with the director Sean McNamara before on “Soul Surfer,” so I knew he was a lovely guy and a terrific filmmaker. That’s step one. And I knew that there was a wonderful part in there and I just went ahead and started working on it, and I had the help of the real woman I played. It wasn’t until I was standing on the volleyball court dressed like her, surrounded by these 20-something-year-old women that I thought, “Oh my God. I’m standing exactly where I should be.” In a circle of women, reminding them and myself what their value is. That they can remind themselves of what that value is rather than looking to somebody else, a man in particular, to give it to them. That I could be encouraging and loving with them and still be a fierce leader.
It wasn’t until I was playing the part that I realized that. And then, when the movie came out, I went, not only am I standing in a circle of women, which is where I like to be, but I’m standing in a circle of women at a time when that’s, I think, the hope of how to work through this. I have never had an experience of partnering with women around my work or in my friendships when there has been anything other than fierce solidarity. Whatever that myth is about women being competitive with each other, I have never experienced it.
We’re now in these Me Too and Time’s Up movements. Do you find that this film fits nicely within this particular moment?
I do. I mean, there’s a lot of other stories to tell: There’s anger to write about and healing ― or the impossibility of healing to write about. A lot is going to come out of this forever. I heard [the writer and activist] Alice Walker speak once and she said the most important thing [she’d] done in [her] life was be in a circle with other women and talk. So when I look at the clips from this movie or watch this movie, there they are; standing in a circle, reminding each other and fortifying each other. There’s no movie I’d rather be in today.
It’s a true story about this slightly unlikeable, tough coach who happens to be a woman. That’s a role we usually see played by men, so what was the experience portraying Kathy like for you?
I love sports movies. I mean, I wanted to be Kurt Russell in “Miracle” then, so this was my chance. It was a dream come true. I made a sports movie called “Ride” and I did “Soul Surfer,” so this is a genre that I adore and this one had this giant piece of heartbreak and soul in the middle of it. It made it the perfect movie for me.
Having a young daughter and being in a movie like “Miracle Season,” are you excited for her to see it. Well, has she seen any of your iconic roles? “Twister,” I hope!
She has not seen “Twister.” I suggested it actually and it hasn’t been on the top of her list. She’s not only seen “Miracle Season,” she’s in “Miracle Season.” She has two scenes at the beginning that I had nothing to do with ― she auditioned and she got the part. She’s the younger sister of Erin Moriarty’s love interest. Being on the set surrounded by these wonderful actors-turned-volleyball-players and volleyball-players-turned-actors, they all just treated her like they were her aunties and it was a pretty amazing summer we spent.
Could you see her getting into the business? You started young, so…
Yeah! It will be utterly and totally up to her.
Over this press cycle, you’ve talked about your fear of “sucking” as an actor.
[Laughs] It’s just more a motivator. I didn’t see how healing the movie might be to be in or what it might mean to people at the time it came out, I was just busy doing my work. There’s a famous line from a play where an actress says, “You have no idea what it feels like to be acting when you know it’s bad.” And I quote that to young actors a lot and say, “That’s what makes you do a lot of homework before you start a film.” Do I know who this person is? Do I know what my part in the story is? Am I serving what the writer wrote? Just to avoid feeling like you’re not doing a good job.
Looking at past roles that maybe could’ve happened for you, I stumbled across a rumor that you were considered for “Basic Instinct” [before Sharon Stone was cast].
I don’t ever remember being talked about for “Basic Instinct” for one second.
Were there any roles you turned down because you felt you couldn’t serve a character or honor the storyteller’s work?
There are. I never want to mention parts I’ve turned down. The roles I’ve succeeded in, many of them were turned down by other people, so I don’t want to put my sticky fingers on someone else’s work. But I certainly turned movies down and regretted it; I turned movies down and said, “Thank God! Why did I agonize for three weeks?” You just make the best decisions you can, you know?
You went on to win Emmys for “Mad About You” and an Oscar for “As Good As It Gets.” Then you appeared in movies like “What Women Want.” When you look back on that movie, for example, do you still feel like it would have the same success today?
I don’t know, they’re remaking it, I think? That’s what I heard. But the movies I look back on that are the most meaningful to me are probably the two that I wrote and directed, just because they came from the very deepest parts of me ― one is called “Then She Found Me” and the other was called “Ride.” And then I was in this movie “The Sessions” a handful of years ago and I feel really proud of that movie. I would like it if younger people saw that movie because in this time of being flooded with sexualized violence and porn, you can’t go anywhere now without seeing it or hearing about it. This was a movie about healthy sex, healthy sexuality and I think it was kind of singular and shocking in a quiet way. I’m very proud to leave that behind ― not that I’m going anywhere soon, but I’m proud that that’s something I was in and helped to make.
A beautiful movie which got an enormous response at Sundance in 2012.
It did, that was wild.
Were you expecting that kind of reception for the movie and your role in it, which earned you an Oscar nomination?
No, no, no. I had no idea, but I did sit down and there were, whatever there are, 2,000 people in that auditorium or something, and I had never been to Sundance and right before it started I was like, “I’m about to be vulnerable in every way in front of all of these people.” It was a very quiet screening but there was laughing, which was good, and when it was over, they stood up and they didn’t stop. And I said, “Whoa, this has made some sort of impact on people.” That was really exciting. I can tell when I read something ― especially when I watch something, even one episode of a show I otherwise like ― it will have that sick, frankly, feel to it that deals with sex. So to have a movie that was this intimate, and only feel its honest approach and desire to show what sex can be, I thought was quite remarkable in front of 2,000 people.
“I’ve never been comfortable saying, “I’m more of a comedic actress than a dramatic actress! I prefer this screen over that screen!” I just want to be a part of telling good stories.”
It was ahead of the curve we’re seeing now with filmmakers taking bigger risks with their female leads. Women not just playing stereotypes. How does it feel now versus a decade or so ago in terms of the treatment of women in Hollywood and the roles you’re being presented with?
It’s never been one thing. I can’t say now’s the time when it’s great. Certainly, there’s great parts on television for women for sure, but I don’t know how to say this time is different from before in terms of parts. It’s just all about writers. You just have to nurture and pay [laughs] writers because everybody, men included, are searching for a story and a good writer, and when it comes along, hope they’re smart enough to grab it.
Is that why you decided to write, direct and produce your own movies? To make the content you wanted to see?
Yeah. Also, writing is step one and discovering the courage to do that was something I wanted to try. When you direct something you wrote, it’s more like getting another chance to rewrite it. You’re rewriting it with the production design, the music and how you’re photographing it. I guess I wanted to experience getting as close to the bone as possible with creating a story.
And starring in it. Do you always have yourself in mind for these characters?
No, I think it’s, in general, a really bad idea [laughs], in terms of people taking the movie seriously and in terms of enjoying the job of writing and directing it. In these cases [“Then She Found Me,” “Ride”], both practically and creatively, it ended up being the right move. But I don’t recommend it necessarily.
I imagine it’s difficult to direct yourself.
It is definitely difficult. It’s also terrific, because on a small movie where time is an issue, you have one person who sees the movie the way you do and is willing to work long hours and change in the van and do whatever it takes to get the movie made. It sets a tone for we’re all going to dig in and get this movie made, even with the amount of time and money that we have. But it’s a very different experience; very immersive, to say the least.
Women directors, in general, have to push even harder to helm projects and fight for budgets. Are you seeing more female directors get a chance to make movies in the men’s club?
It’s all about money. People have to hire women, #JustHire. Hire women, people of color, women of color ― that is how this is changing and it will stop changing if people stop doing that. The pressure that people are feeling to hire not only white men has to remain in order for things to change.
You’ve been directing a lot in the television world with “Feud,” “This Is Us” and “Splitting Up Together,” among other shows. Have you seen a shift there in terms of female directors?
We’ll see at the end of the year when the directors guild tells us how many [there are]. It was a year or two ago we thought it was getting better and it got like 1 percent worse, so let’s hope. That’s my takeaway too; it seems like there’s more diversity in terms of directors on TV. One thing we all can do ― almost every time I direct I have a mentee with me, a woman, usually. Ryan Murphy really has been doing it for a few years now. He has a mentee program where every time you direct you have a woman or a person of color following you around. He really is in it for the long haul in helping to make sure they’re actually hired to direct. He deserves a ton of credit, I think.
He definitely pushed this before anyone else.
And the way he’s pushing it is, again, with money. He’s hiring people.
At the Oscars this year, Frances McDormand brought up the inclusion rider, which requires a certain level of diversity among a film’s cast and crew.
I think it’s fantastic. It comes back to the same thing: hire people.
Are you going to focus on directing as you have been doing or are we going to see you more on screen this year?
At the moment I have some acting and some directing on my plate, so I’m really excited about that. And some writing! I’m working hard and enjoying never having to choose between those things. I’ve never been comfortable saying, “I’m more of a comedic actress than a dramatic actress! I prefer this screen over that screen!” I just want to be a part of telling good stories, and today I’m getting to do that. That’s great news.
“The Miracle Season” is in theaters now.