Ray Richmond is an AwardsLine contributor.
By her own admission, Holly Hunter has never been a traditional star. For one thing, she never tried to cash in on her fame and caché by forming her own production company and becoming a creator. That was true even after she earned her first of five Oscar nominations for Broadcast News in 1988, or after winning one for The Piano in 1994. Hunter has also atypically found comfort in shifting between leading lady and character actress, as well as between film and television. In fact, the same year she shot The Piano (1993), she was starring as the lead in HBO’s The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom. That role earned Hunter her second of two Emmy wins, the first having come in 1989 for her work in the NBC telepic Roe vs. Wade.
Hunter’s two worlds came together for her latest project: the moody seven-part Sundance Channel mystery miniseries Top of the Lake that premiered on the channel back in March. Shot, like The Piano, on location in New Zealand, it’s Hunter’s first project with writer-director Jane Campion since starring for her in The Piano 20 years ago. But for the mini, the actress, 55, had to trust Campion that she was right for a part for which she initially thought she was all wrong. She recently spoke about that experience—something of a metaphor for her unconventional career—as well as how she has worked to stay true to her acting impulses.
In Top of the Lake, you play GJ, this sort of ethereal, cultish figure in long gray wig and clothed in earth tones. How long did it take you to agree to take on the role?
It was relatively quick, but there was a hitch, because when I read it…Well, when Jane called and said ‘Look, I want you to do this part, read it,’ I called her back and said, ‘I don’t get why you want me to do it. I don’t understand how you see me in this part.’ (Laughs.)
Why is that? Because the character is so odd?
No, not really that. I just went, ‘I don’t get it.’ I truly didn’t comprehend it. I was like, ‘How come you’re not getting Ben Kingsley to do this?’ On first read, I didn’t understand why it was so important that it be a woman even though it was (set in) a women’s camp. And of course after I read it a second time it was like, a man simply couldn’t play this part. But I still felt that someone else should do it. I just thought, the part is extremely small.
But Jane was insistent?
Well, yes. She sold it by saying that the part has incredible impact. So I didn’t even read it again. The phone conversation lasted 3 minutes. And Jane turned out to be utterly right. It was a fantastic adventure playing her. I absolutely loved the ride. I trust Jane implicitly. That’s why I was such a fool to hesitate in the first place.
Had Jane asked you to do anything for her in the intervening 20 years?
No. Jane has taken years off from working. In fact, in the life of a director—these days in particular—when it really does take so long to do a movie, with a few exceptions, actors may never work with a director again, even if they’re great friends. But I think it’s a different rhythm now that people have in their careers. Maybe television will change that, because it moves at lightning speed.
You seem never to have had a problem switching back and forth between film and TV. Was that a conscious choice that you made, never to differentiate or discriminate between the mediums and just go where the great roles were?
Absolutely. After I did Broadcast News and got an Academy Award nomination, the first thing I did was Roe vs. Wade at NBC. I just have never had a prejudice at all between television and movies. Now I also think that I’m fortunate in the timing of my career. Because when I did Roe vs. Wade in 1988, there was no stigma to doing that kind of thing. Now if you took on a television series, that could be a more difficult thing to navigate, to get back into doing features afterward. But at that time in the late ‘80s, actors could easily go between television movies and feature films. It’s just that most people kind of didn’t.
Now you’re faced with the same issue after starring in Saving Grace for TNT.
Actually, it’s a totally different world now. It’s considered a coup to become a lead on a kind of cutting edge television series. I mean, that’s a plus for your feature film career and for your career in general. There are no walls anymore between the two.
What do you like about doing television?
What’s great about cable is that the ceiling of expectation is lowered, because fewer people have to tune in for it to be a success. You don’t need 23 million people a week like you do in broadcast. But beyond that, I think the humanity and resonance are lacking in so many movies being made. Don’t you think television is bringing that back now? I do. Cable is so expansive. There are stories being made explicitly for adults.
Did you ever think you’d be working with Jane Campion on a seven-hour project for the Sundance Channel?
You never know how things will come together. Sundance wanted to work with Jane, wanted to be a partner with her. That’s when you get original stuff, when there is faith from the money people. They trusted her with casting and with building the project from the ground up.
Are there more and better opportunities now in TV for an actress like yourself who has been around for a while?
It used to be that what you’re saying was true. And when I say ‘Used to be,’ I mean five years ago. (Laughs) But now, I would actually say that actresses who are even in their late 20’s are considering doing television series.
Is that because the powers that be in the film industry believe women that age already are washed up for major features?
No, I don’t think that’s what is motivating it. What’s motivating it is the people who go to see feature films repetitively. That’s who we’re making movies for today.
Specifically meaning teenage males and young men?
Exactly. For every movie that you go see, how many leading male roles are there in any given movie and how many leading female roles are there? There may be 5 or 6 really good roles for guys and maybe one for a woman. And it doesn’t even matter if you’re 25. That’s just the logistics. But in television, they’re making series for a different audience. I think this is old news now.
Was there a time when you noticed you weren’t getting the phone calls for major features anymore?
It wasn’t really quite like that. My career has never really been a vertical kind of thing. I mean, it’s always been a bit difficult for me. I’ve gone through periods where I might not work for two years, and part of that is by choice, and part of that is by the nature of who I am. It’s both a cool thing and a more complicated thing. I’ve kind of vacillated between being a character actress and a leading actress. So the struggle is nothing new for me. Of course, there aren’t as many roles for me to choose from now as there once were. But there’s never been a tremendous amount.
What was the impact on your career of winning an Oscar? Do you feel that it had a real impact, or does that tend to be overblown by the media?
I think first off, there is really no down side to winning an Oscar. It’s a wonderful thing. I suppose my expectations might be a bit different from those of other (actresses), however. I tend to act on impulse, on desire, and on what I want to do. I’ve never had a production company. I’ve never gone, ‘I want to administrate, I want to create projects.’ I’ve kind of had other things going on so my career was always about, ‘Do I want to do this or not?’
You’re unique in not being motivated to use your Hollywood fame to accrue power and greater control.
Just to clarify, it isn’t that I lack ambition. I admire tremendously the kind of business savvy that, say, Lucille Ball had. It’s just not me. Ambition has always come out instead in my roles. I feel a great entitlement to get cast in something if I’m dying to do it. If I love the part I feel a great ambition within that role. So that’s how my competitiveness and ambition has kind of exerted itself in my career. Not necessarily in a business sense. That’s a very long-winded way of answering the question, ‘Did winning the Oscar have an impact?’ Well, yes and no. But I guess I wasn’t really looking for it to have the usual impact.
But did you find that the roles and scripts you were offered immediately after winning the Oscar skyrocket appreciably in terms of quality?
Oh no. Because again, real quality in roles is very hard to come by. Any actor or actress will tell you that. Great movies are hard to come by. It’s almost impossible to make one, and most people have to settle for making something less.
Do you find there are fewer great features being made now in general?
Actually, I think people (making films) are being very creative now. There are just more outlets beyond the feature, because television has made it extremely appealing for writers and directors and of course actors as well. But with things like House of Cards being on Netflix, there’s so many different venues for people to talk about what they want to talk about that don’t have as much to do with features as it did five years ago or even three years ago. Things are changing really quickly, and that’s really good for writers.
Is there anything on your acting “To Do” list that you haven’t yet done and would still like to do?
Yeah, there are some things. But I don’t want to talk about them.
What are you working on now?
I’m just reading stuff. I finished (the miniseries) Bonnie and Clyde a couple of weeks ago and doing my thing in New York.
How do you like being in your mid-50’s? Does life get easier and more comfortable as you go along?
Mid-50’s is good. It gets easier to kind of figure out where you begin and end, where your place is in your own life. I like getting older.