“I’ve had many comebacks,” Helen Hunt says of her 40-plus-year career, which has been marked by trophies of all types (sans an MTV Movie Award, but more on that later), box-office hits, television triumphs… and the occasional break from the screen. After winning an Oscar in 1998 for As Good as It Gets, Hunt took time off to act on stage. She took another pause in the early 2000s before the birth of her daughter. And over the past decade, she has been more focused on directing than acting, which made her return to the Academy Awards in 2013 for The Sessions being lableled, well, a comeback.
“Hopefully this is another,” the 54-year-old says of The Miracle Season, an inspirational new sports drama based on the true story of a high school girls’ volleyball team that persevered after the tragic death of its top star. Hunt plays coach Kathy Bresnahan, who leads West High School in Iowa City, Iowa, on an odds-defying run.
Hunt claims she did “almost no mentoring” for her young castmates. But surely the squad can look at her career, which started around the time the Culver, Calif., native hit double digits, for goals. In our latest Role Recall interview (watch above), Hunt talked about starting off on Swiss Family Robinson, doubting that Mad About You would succeed, watching As Good as It Gets turn into an accidental romantic comedy, and more.
Swiss Family Robinson (1975-76)
Before landing guest spots on Mary Tyler Moore (1977), The Bionic Woman (1978), and The Facts of Life (1980), the child actor’s first major gig came at age 12 on this TV movie turned series, where she played the Robinsons’ adopted daughter Helga Wagner. Hunt learned early how to separate her show-biz family from her real kin. “It’s hard as a kid, because then one day you don’t come back,” she said. “I’ve been directing some episodes of a family show lately [Life in Pieces] and look at these kids and feel really protective. ‘Cause it isn’t your family. It’s a place of work [for the older actors]. So I take special care when I work with young actors now.”
Girls Just Want to Have Fun (1985)
Hunt played the footloose BFF to Sarah Jessica Parker in this definitely ’80s teen comedy. “We had a lot of fun together,” Hunt recalled. “A lot of it was about hair. I had hair that went straight up, I had hair clips that we made from scratch.” She remembers all of her dance moves … fondly: “I think they were pretty awesome. I mean, there’s no reason to go back and look. But let’s just assume that they were awesome.”
Mad About You (1992-99)
The genesis of this beloved sitcom about married New Yorkers dates back to a dinner party where Hunt met co-creator (and future co-star) Paul Reiser while he was writing the series. Hunt initially balked at the offer. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to be in a sitcom playing someone’s wife, that’s just not what I want to do.’”
Reiser’s script won her over, but even after filming the pilot, the actress was skeptical of its long-term prospects. “I thought ‘This show’s never gonna go, it’s not about enough, it’s not [high concept] like a dad with seven kids. It was just these two people. And I thought, ‘This is gonna be good, but this is probably it. And then it wasn’t it.” Sure wasn’t. The series not only went, it went for seven seasons, earning Hunt four consecutive Emmys and the distinction (along with Reiser) of becoming the first actor paid $1 million per episode.
The actress’s biggest box-office hit to date came with this disaster flick about a pair of storm chasers (Hunt and the late Bill Paxton) dodging flying cows and the like. It was not an easy shoot, especially given the number of practical effects employed by director Jan de Bont. “It was terrifying every day,” she said. “It was just at the beginning of everything being done on the computer, so it wasn’t done on the computer. Every day it was like, ‘What fresh hell is this? Oh. A hail machine. Fantastic.’” (See also Paxton’s recollection of an injury Hunt suffered while shooting the film’s cornfield sequence.)
As Good as It Gets (1997)
Hunt won a Best Actress Oscar for her poignant turn as a single mother who has a chronically ill son and who falls for Jack Nicholson’s seemingly insufferable curmudgeon. The film, co-written and directed by James L. Brooks, is considered one of the great contemporary rom-coms, but that wasn’t initially the plan: “I don’t believe [Brooks] saw it as a romantic comedy until halfway through the movie, and the genius of this particular director is that he allowed the movie to speak to him,” Hunt said. “He literally called Jack and I in to watch dallies and said, ‘Look, it’s a romantic comedy.’ And we went, ‘OK.’”
Pay It Forward (2000)
This is a classic example of a film you’d think would’ve been more successful, given the prominence of the phrase popularized by its title. But the drama, co-starring the now-disgraced Kevin Spacey and young Haley Joel Osment, fresh off The Sixth Sense, earned a modest $33 million — and subpar reviews. “I think a lot of people hated it,” she said. “But I hear the phrase a lot.”
What Women Want (2000)
December 2000 was a very good month for Hunt at the box office, with What Women Want (her second biggest hit) and Cast Away (her third) opening on back-to-back weekends. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to do [What Women Want],” Hunt said of the Mel Gibson vehicle. “But Jim Brooks was friends with [co-writer and director] Nancy Meyers and said, ‘The possibility exists that you’ll be best friends.’”
As for the recent news that What Women Want is the latest film getting a gender-reversed remake (with Taraji P. Henson starring as a woman who hears men’s thoughts), Hunt has a great casting idea: “Who’s gonna play me? Can I play me? She falls in love with an older woman? Don’t blow it off!”
Cast Away (2000)
Robert Zemeckis’s stranded island drama is best remembered for the one-man (plus volleyball) theatrics of Tom Hanks, but don’t forget about the main reason Chuck Noland wanted to get home: Hunt’s Kelly Frears. And wow did they have a wet reunion kiss. “There was a lot of rain, and a lot of kissing, that’s what I remember,” she said. “And maybe, unless I’m dreaming, an award for the kissing.” (Hunt and Hanks actually lost their bid for Best Kiss at the 2001 MTV Movie Awards, much to her newfound dismay.)
The Sessions (2012)
Hunt earned her second Oscar nomination for this indie drama in which she played a married sex surrogate tending to a paralyzed poet (John Hawkes) intent on losing his virginity. “I didn’t know that would happen,” Hunt said of the acclaim for the Sundance premiere. “I knew it wasn’t going to be nothing, as I sat on the set without a stitch of clothing on, doing wildly intimate scenes that were not at all creepy. They were loving, and gentle, and the movie turned into something I’m as proud of as anything.”
The Miracle Season opens Friday. Watch Hunt talk about why it appealed to her as the mother of a 13-year-old girl:
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