After starting out as a child actress on '70s television, Helen Hunt steadily built her reputation with audiences and within the industry. Recipient of a Best Actress Oscar for James L. Brooks' As Good as It Gets, Hunt also had a turn as an action star in the 1996 flick Twister, though to many she will always be Jamie Buchman, half of the endearing couple on NBC's long-running sitcom Mad About You (1992-1999). Hunt has worked for Woody Allen (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion), Robert Altman (Dr T and the Women), Francis Ford Coppola (Peggy Sue Got Married), Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away), Nancy Meyers (What Women Want), Mimi Leder (Pay It Forward), Tim Robbins (Bob Roberts), as well as writing and directing her own film, the unjustly neglected Then She Found Me (2007), and appearing on stage, most notably in Shakespearean productions (Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew). In a performance that's generating talk of another Oscar, Hunt plays real-life sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene in The Sessions, opposite John Hawkes as her patient and Adam Arkin as her husband. We discussed the film during Hunt's press-tour stop in San Francisco, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: How you holdin' up?
Helen Hunt: I'm doing okay.
Groucho: So, intellectually—
Helen Hunt: (Chuckles.)
G: Sex therapy makes every kind of sense—
G: Right? And yet, I guess it's a reflection of our cultural hang-ups that there is this thing: it's hard to get past. It's hard to understand. So can you talk a little bit about your journey of getting to that place where you understood it, so you could play the role?
HH: Well, talking to the real person was a real gold mine. I mean, I've played a lot of real people before, and it isn't often very helpful. You create a whole character, and they come in, and it's too late almost. And what fires up your imagination isn't really the same as what they went through, so you have to kind of pretend. In this case, it's what got me excited about the part. What she said, but also how she said it. And her enthusiasm about everything: her granddaughter, and that someone was able to go home and make love to their wife, and recipes, and meeting me, and it was—that positive, enthusiastic outlook, combined with the topic of sex, seemed like a great thing to be able to play.
G: So when you met with her, what kinds of questions was it important for you to ask: what did you need to know from her?
HH: Everything. I mean, I asked about her history, what made her start doing it, what if she wasn't turned on, did she ever feel afraid—just everything. Everything, and she was—as you can imagine—completely willing to talk about all of it!
G: Yeah. An interesting aspect of the film as well—it's handled very subtly in the film, which is nice...her home life and that it's perhaps not entirely fulfilling. And that's happening at the same time that she's having a soulful—
G: Sort of romantic connection with Mark.
G: How did you understand those two relationships relative to each other?
HH: (Pause.) I hope it didn't come off as like an unhappy marriage. I just think it—
G: No, I think it comes off as a real marriage.
HH: Yeah, a real marriage. A good marriage that ebbs and flows, and maybe it's slightly ebbing at this moment. I don't think there's a huge rift between them, but they're in that phase where it's not quite as—whatever. That maybe does or maybe doesn't leave just enough room for this thing to come in and break her heart. That's sort of how I understood it. And, you know, I like very much the scene where they say goodbye to each other. Because I think you're watching two people try to do the right thing for him. Because that was their mandate. And it was to have this be for him. So I like that—I think both of them are heroic to fight for that.
G: Yeah. This whole issue of transference is so dicey.
HH: It sure is.
G: With a psychologist or, I guess, an everyday therapist—
HH: A therapist with her clothes on?
G: It's one thing, but even more sort of dangerous territory here...did you ever experience something like that as an actor, when you spend an intimate process—whether it be a stage process or a film process—
HH: Yeah. All the time. You always have to open up enough, not too much! Have a ritual for when you leave is really good, to leave it behind, y'know. But you can't go in as if it's not gonna happen. I think that's, from what I understand about how therapists work, you don't pretend you're not gonna have stuff come up around your patients; you just know that you are, and you get to know those parts of yourself really well. So that's what I think it's like as an actor; you just don't go in blind. You know? That's why it's easier when you're older than when you're twenty.
G: Yeah. Well, it's funny: you talked about the saying goodbye that Cheryl has, but also as an actor you have to maybe have a certain ritual to say goodbye to a project or to a team that you've been working with.
G: For closure.
G: So I want to talk a little bit about the process of shooting those scenes. I know that, to keep the spontaneity, you didn't rehearse them. And then you also shot in chronological order. Was that—I think normally actors—you do so much preparation so that you can feel confident, but was that sort of scary...?
HH: I don't even know how conscious—it wasn't like we said, "I know, let's not rehearse." It kind of just worked out that way. We didn't have a lot of time before we were gonna start. And none of us said, "Boy, I'd really like to spend three weeks where—". It just—I don't know. I don't remember who was the leader of that exactly, or how much that was—I think if John and I had said, "We want a proper rehearsal period," Ben would have said, "Okay." But since none of us said that—. But what that meant is that I did even more work on my own. And obviously John did too. I did a ton of work...about every part of her: how she would talk and what she would wear and how she would talk and what her history was and at what instant did something change for her with him, and on and on and on and on and on. So that when I walked in, not only was there the nudity and the intimacy, but there was pages and pages and pages and pages of talking. And since we didn't want to over-rehearse it, I had to be really ready. And he did too, obviously.
G: I suppose to some degree you would also want to cultivate a little bit of stepping into the void, being scared, since the character has a degree of that.
HH: Yeah, well, at least—I don't know if you cultivate it, but you definitely use it if it's there. And in this case, I've known Adam Arkin my whole life, so I used that. I didn't know John Hawkes at all, and I used that. You're kind of a predator as an actor: you just take whatever helps. You know, what can you do?
G: I'm sure lots of people focus on the nudity in the film, but...I'm sure there where times when you felt emotionally naked on screen—
HH: All the time, yeah.
G: And maybe at times feeling you were showing more of yourself than you felt comfortable showing. And at the risk of making you feel uncomfortable with the question, what comes to mind in your career: a time when you felt "I was really feeling emotionally vulnerable," and that fed the film?
HH: I think most times. Most times. You know? It's kind of what you try for. You know, I've never—you hear stories about Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now actually having a breakdown, and you can't, you know—. Not so wanting to do that. But that's the goal: to arrange for an out-of-control experience. You know? That's what you try for.
G: With the safety, I trust, of a director...
HH: Sometimes. Sometimes they're not good, and you have to create the safety yourself: put pieces in place, have a friend to make a phone call to, or have a something that is there for you. 'Cause you can't always trust that a director, even a good one, will get—
G: What you're going through.
HH: Because they're predators too. they're like, "Whatever. I want my movie to be good." That's all they care about: that's their job, to only care about that—mostly. Y'know, within reason. So I've learned you kind of have to create that for yourself.
G: Now you had directed for television prior to making your feature...which I loved, by the way.
HH: Thank you. Thank you so much.
G: I hope you get another opportunity—
HH: I'm trying. I've written one. I'm trying to get the money.
G: Yeah, I was going to ask about that: maybe I'll hold that thought. But when you made Then She Found Me, did directing your own film change your perspective on directing, and also on your career?
HH: (Pause.) I think that I already understood that most of the time, with good directors, your feedback is useful, and everybody keeps in mind that one person is the boss: somehow you walk that line, you know? And so I—I mean, maybe a little bit, I feel more now for the guy who's like "Oh my God, come out of your trailer."
HH: Y'know, I was never a not-come-out-of-my-trailer person, but you definitely want to show up for that person. But everybody does. I don't think it changed it radically, but maybe a little. maybe a little.
G: And can you reveal anything about the screenplay you're working on?
HH: Yeah, yeah! It's a mother-son, empty-nest-kind-of-gone-warped-and-crazy story about a me-ish woman and a twenty-year-old son.
G: You've shown a commitment to the stage, an ongoing commitment to the stage, which I always appreciate, and particularly to Shakespeare.
HH: (fondly) Yeah.
G: I wonder if there's a Shakespearean role that you are sort of waiting for: "I want that to come the line."
HH: You know, I'd like to play Lady Macbeth, but I feel so—like even at my best, I'm never going to be one of these people who does three plays a year, you know what I mean? Those repertory people?
HH: So I ache to do it, and I wonder if I can hit the mark.
G: Well, it's been a pleasure talking to you...
HH: You too. Thank you. Nice to meet you.
G: Good luck with the film.
HH: Thank you.