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Oscar-winner and Poultry Judge Holly Hunter

by Tony Phillips

Holly Hunter wants to dish. Before digging into her childhood on a Georgia farm and her win in a high school poultry-judging contest, she launches into a juicy tale from the Broadcast News press tour with director Jim Brooks and co-star Albert Brooks. “We shot for 16 weeks in Washington, D. C.,” the blonde, pint-sized powerhouse recollects, “I had an unmitigated blast. It was joy to do this character,” she remembers of her 1987 Academy-Award nominated turn as harried network news producer Jane Craig. “She was, from beginning to end, incredibly complicated. I spent all this time on the screen and had room to stretch out and explore the character.” Before she’s done reminiscing about a part assumed when Debra Winger dropped out, she’ll also confirm turning down the role of God, and, even more shockingly, the waitress in As Good As It Gets, a part that took Helen Hunt all the way to an Oscar. Of her Jeffersonian lineage, she’s a bit fuzzier, but does allow that they could be first cousins.

“Jim was incredibly amazing and Albert was hysterical,” Hunter continues about her director and co-star, “I couldn’t believe how much I laughed every day. It hurt to be around Albert because he was so funny. So we’re doing press and they say, ‘What was it like doing the movie?’ Albert and I were like, ‘It was a blast, oh my God, we had the best time of our lives. You can’t believe what a great time we had.’ Then it got to Jim and he said, ‘It was the most painful experience I’ve ever been through.’ We were both like, ‘What, buddy? What do you mean it was painful?’” Lesson learned? “For a director, it’s a whole different world,” the black-clad actor explains, “You are carrying the beast. I haven’t directed, so I don’t know, but that was my virginal experience having a director say they were tortured doing the movie. Jim wore his torture very well.”

Torture is probably the best way into her latest film, Levity. The Sundance hit marks the directorial debut of Bill and Ted scribe Ed Solomon and pairs Hunter with Billy Bob Thornton. Morgan Freeman and Kirsten Dunst round out the pedigree cast, but Hunter will only raise her middle finger when asked what it was like working with them. She shares screen time only with Thornton, overlapping with Dunst by a day and never seeing Freeman on set. Director Solomon remembers “looking over at Holly, who was jumping up and down to stay warm” while Hunter recalls “people just trying to stay on their feet, literally, trying to keep from falling down on the ice.” The low budget film — shot over 35 of the bitterest winter nights in Montreal for seven million dollars — chronicles Thornton’s recently paroled murderer who returns to the scene of his crime 23-years later to embark on an uneasy relationship with his victim’s sister played by Hunter. “It’s not even an action film,” Hunter laughs. “This movie seems like it would be easy, hanging out in front of the video screen chatting over hot chocolate.” She takes a beat and emphasizes, “No!”

But degree of difficulty didn’t stop her from launching a full-on campaign for the part. When asked if Solomon didn’t find her perfect for the role immediately, Hunter qualifies, “Kinda, sorta immediately. He wasn’t opposed to meeting me.” Solomon classifies their initial meeting as “sixty seconds of small talk. Then we started work on it.” Hunter adds, “Within a half hour both of us felt like this was going to work.” And work now happens out of New York for Hunter, who offers that she lives “just up the street from the Cinema Village” after ten year of residing in Los Angeles. She also hints that producers are scouting theaters to return her to the New York stage in Marina Karr’s By the Bog of Cats.

Her close association with female playwrights also dates back to her early New York days, beginning when she met frequent collaborator Beth Henley “in a stalled elevator on 49th between Broadway and Eight.” This leads to Hunter’s gay following which she addresses with a nonchalance somewhere between modest and blissfully unaware. “I revel in them,” she says simply when reminded of gay-friendly roles like her Academy Award-winning portrayal in Jane Campion’s The Piano, the most unforgettable lesbian dance number ever committed to celluloid in Living Out Loud, even her Emmy-Nominated take on the legend of Billie Jean in the TV biopic When Billie Beat Bobby. Pressed about her rabid lesbian following, Hunter admits, “I don’t know who my audience is, man. I know they like me in Spain.” When asked to clarify whether or not she’s talking about Spanish lesbians, the actor replies, “Spain! They do like me there. Other than the Spanish, I don’t know who my audience is, but I’m grateful for every one of them.”