ACADEMY AWARD-WINNING actress Holly Hunter grew up on a farm in Conyers, Ga., the youngest of seven children.
In addition to being one of the Peach State’s proudest exports, she has become the virtual embodiment of the notion of the independent, truth-telling woman.
She first came to the world’s attention with her breakthrough role alongside another future Oscar winner, Nicolas Cage, in 1987’s Raising Arizona.
In 1993 she was nominated for two Academy Awards the same year—quite a feat in and of itself—one for Best Supporting Actress in The Firm, and another as Best Actress in The Piano, the latter of which she won.
From 2007-2010 Hunter produced and starred in the groundbreaking cable TV series Saving Grace.
She is in Savannah Oct. 28 to receive an Icon Award at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival. We spoke to her last week.
I bet you’ve been to Savannah a million times.
No, believe it or not I’ve only been there a couple of times. It’s kind of exotic! I really like it.
And now our native state has quietly become a massive player in the global film and TV industry, some say second only to Hollywood itself. Did you ever think you’d see it happen?
I’m always interested in the staying power of all these things. We’ve seen this phenomenon before plenty of times in plenty of other places. It’s a very powerful phenomenon, but it can go away quickly.
Way back in the ‘80s it was Toronto that had the big boom. Then North Carolina was that way for many years, and isn’t anymore. New Orleans had a very powerful film industry presence for awhile. And now it’s Atlanta’s turn.
I’m always amazed at these governors who say they’ve finally had enough of all the economic success, and take away the incentives.
It’s hard to figure out.
It seems to me it’s such a boon for local workers and local economies. Everything from hotels, to restaurants, to car rentals, to nail salons, to dry cleaning. You name it, all kinds of local industries benefit from the film and TV industry coming to an area.
It’s always fascinating that a state would say no to that, after they’ve seen the positive effects. And they usually say no after the soundstage has been built, after the infrastructure has been more or less completed, after the investment has already been made.
Everyone insists this time it’s going to be different, that Georgia is in it for the long haul.
That’s cool. I mean, I imagine some communities do resent the film business coming in. A small town might experience lots of stresses from the inconveniences caused. But a city like Atlanta can easily handle it.
Do you like having the option of being able to work in Atlanta instead of New York or L.A.?
I’ve never actually had the opportunity. I’d love to work in Atlanta. That would be awesome!
We're all aware of the renaissance of high-quality TV programming, with top-tier writing and acting talent now moving to the TV world. Seems like Saving Grace was very much part of the first wave of the phenomenon of top-shelf cable TV drama.
You're kind to say that. I'd say the real precursor to that kind of TV show actually started with Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect. That was a British series, but it really broke ground. Its effect reached across the pond and impacted TV over here.
The American show that led the way was of course The Sopranos. That broke the template. When it first came out, The Sopranos absolutely blew people’s minds with its involvement with character, and its sheer character development.
At the center of it you had this compromised guy, a true anti-hero. Except this time he was born from TV and not the movies.
For women, I guess you’d have to say Saving Grace featured one of the first anti-heroic females. Nancy Miller’s creation of that character was just a thing of wonder.
It was great for me to be able to play a character so fun, and so funny, and just so screwed up!
You’ve already made a statement on the Harvey Weinstein situation. I’m most curious about what’s next. What can all of us, women and men, do to root out this kind of systemic abuse?
One thing we know is this is the time to speak up.
These kinds of things were happening to me from the beginning, way back in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
I had to quit a play because a man was harassing me. I had to quit a play in drama school because a man was harassing me.
Now, I would bring attention to it. Now, I would speak out, and say he’s the one that’s got to leave.
I’m not doing anything wrong—why should I be the one to quit? I was cast in this role, and he’s interfering with the production, so he’s the one who should have to leave!
But that’s been the dynamic forever—women quietly skulk off, when it really should be the opposite.
There’s a real paradigm shift now because women can respond in real time. Now they will be believed when they say this is happening to them. The culture has changed, and they will not be ignored or denied anymore.
This story has legs, as they say.
Men bear responsibility too, in speaking up. They need to do their part.
Seeing all these women come forward with #MeToo, it’s almost impossible for men in this society to conceive of feeling so threatened and so on the defensive all the time, just while trying to go about their business.
Oh yes they can. There’s harassment towards men, too, it’s just not as prevalent. But it happens to men all the time as well.
People in power do that. It’s traumatizing to anyone that’s a target.
And it’s way more than Harvey Weinstein.Because this is absolutely a daily occurrence. It has been a cultural thing in the industry. Even an incremental change would be a huge improvement.
One assumes that winning an Oscar would be your career highlight, but maybe not. So what is your career highlight?
Oh, winning an Oscar totally is one of the greatest things that can happen, without question! It’s an absolutely unforgettable thing, that is all the more special because you’re being honored by your peers.
A lot of actors and directors have a soft spot for a lesser-known project of theirs, that maybe didn’t have as much commercial success but which is really close to their heart. Do you have one of those?
The thing about that is, with movies that don’t make it into the light of day, generally there’s something troubled about the film. There are very few shining jewels hidden in a drawer!
One favorite film I’ve done is Woman Wanted. It’s a beautiful work, with a lovely script. Kiefer Sutherland directed it, and I really enjoyed working with him, he’s really fun. I play a housekeeper hired by a father. I end up having an affair with both the father and his son.
What are you working on now?
I’m shooting an ambitious series for HBO called Here, Now. It's written by Alan Ball, who created Six Feet Under. That show was also one of the first to really raise the bar for writing on TV.
Alan works such magic with characters and characterization. Each character is utterly original to him, and that’s one reason it’s so much fun and so satisfying to work on this project.
We’re shooting ten episodes, and right now we’re on number eight. It’s about a very multicultural family. I’m married to a character played by Tim Robbins. We have three adopted children from various countries and cultures, and one natural born child.
One of the children has a special gift. And honestly, exactly what that gift is remains a mystery to me!
That’s maybe a wonderful thing about working from a TV series script as opposed to a movie script. Even you can be surprised by what happens to your character.
A great thing about being an actor is you are always learning. You learn on the job every day.
The SCAD Savannah Film Festival is sort of unique on the festival circuit in that it is presented by an educational institution. What do you hope to see and explore while you’re here?
It’s always exciting to find intersections between the professional world and the educational world. I wish when I was going to school at Carnegie Mellon we’d have had more interaction and more of a partnership with the City Players there, for example.
The dynamics in a school like SCAD are incredible. You’re surrounded by people with the desire to do what they want. You’re close to that kind of energy, and it’s irreplaceable.
Also you have that collegial professionalism, as opposed to the mythology of packing up the station wagon and driving to L.A. to be discovered.
That can work too! That’s not what I did, but boy did that work for a few people. It can be the magic bullet that gets you noticed by the right people.
The importance of timing can’t be underestimated. That, and the timing of the culture and of the era. What are people looking for? Am I the one they want right now? And then you have some actors who work, and then get into their 40s and then really work.