Sunday, January 21, 2007

Character Actor Becomes Character Director: Bonnie Hunt Interviewed 03.23.00

Actress Bonnie Hunt has come a long way since her first screen appearance as the waitress who drops the toothpicks idiot savant Raymond counts in Rain Man. Her biggest splash has been with family films like Beethoven, Beethoven’s 2nd, Jumanji, and A Bug’s Life, but Hunt is also known as one of the strongest supporting actors in the business with roles in Jerry Maguire, Dave and The Green Mile.

The Chicago native and Second City alumnus also curried the favor of David Letterman, whose production company Worldwide Pants produced two of her forays into television, The Building and The Bonnie Hunt Show.

Return to Me, a romance starring David Duchovny and Minnie Driver, marks Hunt’s debut as both feature film writer and director. On top of those duties, Hunt also appears in the film opposite Jim Belushi who plays her husband and father to their five kids. We sat down recently to speak about how she juggled wearing several hats, including a terrycloth-lined shower cap.

How difficult was it juggling roles as writer, director and actor?
I don’t know. Most of the time I approached it just as a storyteller, and even when I’m acting in film, I feel like I’m part of the storytelling process. It was nice, you know, to see something from the beginning all the way through to this point--having the thrill of watching it with an audience and seeing them have such a great time. It’s so much fun to have people laughing and applauding in the middle of a movie. Oh my God!

There are several wonderful moments of embarrassment between Grace and Bob. Did you draw on personal experience to capture that embarrassment?
There’s plenty of them in this movie. I use them as they come along, but most of them come to me when I’m writing. I put myself into the character situation; that’s what I write from. (Co-writer) Don Lake and I, we have the exact same style, so the shower cap and all that kind of stuff, it’s the same emotional version of what’s happened to me. Do you know what I mean? How you go to the grocery store and think, “I’m just going to run there. It doesn’t matter if I look like a slob and have sweats on.” And you run into your old boyfriend from high school? That’s life…without the shower cap. But I’ve been caught with that on before. I think I’m the only one who wears one anymore. Am I?

I wear one.
Do you? Well, my mother-in-law always gives me one for Christmas, terrycloth-lined. And I use them. Every year, we get a toothbrush and terrycloth-lined shower cap. And interestingly enough, she gives my husband the exact same thing too.

Did you have to jump through hoops to convince the studio you were the right person to direct this film?
No, it was interesting, because they were asking me to direct a movie for them. They had some concepts in mind, so Don and I said, “We’ll do this one.” So we just took off, and we wrote it with the intention that I would direct so I didn’t have to go through the battle part. Really, all they had was the heart transplant. The other stuff was our version of what we would do with it. I mean it could have gone in any direction. We choose this one kind of an old-fashioned fairytale romance with strong kind of believable characters at the core of it--very acceptable and relatable.

How did David Duchovny come to the project?
David and I met on Beethoven. 1992, I think. We’ve always kept in touch. So, he came into the studio with me, and we sat around with all the executives so they could see that he was funny and charming in real life, instead of dark and moody like Mulder. Once you’re with him in the room, you get it. What a joy it was for me as a director to have my friend that I started with so many years ago be in my first movie and show so many sides of himself and for him to trust me. We worked very, very closely together and he worked very hard, and I think it shows in the movie. Isn’t he great? I think the biggest thrill for me was when David saw the movie--I didn’t go with him at the same time because I was too nervous--but I wanted the actors to be so happy that they did the movie after they saw it. And he called me and said, “I feel like I’ve been on vacation for the last two hours with a group of people that I just love.” That’s how he felt when he saw the movie and said it was just so great to watch it. That was a great day when I got that phone call.

And what about Minnie Driver?
Minnie and I had the same agent at the time. I loved the character of Grace. I thought it was a gift for an actress, because the character was written really funny and really smart and vulnerable. Like all the things you want to play. It was like a dream role. Every part was written as if I was going to play it. You know, “How would I feel as an actor if I played Marty? How would I feel as an actor if I played Angelo?” Because Don Lake and I, most of our careers, we are hired as supporting actors, we pay great attention to them and have great affection for how important they are. You can see in the ensemble writing of this that we took care of everyone. But for Grace, I thought it was such an important role, and Minnie had the right look, and I liked her. So I sent her the script and I can’t imagine an actress reading Grace and going, “I don’t think so” because it’s such a great role. I was lucky, you know, and she said, “Yeah, I want to meet with you.” So we went to lunch, and we hit it off and that was it. And I was grateful to her too. You know you just go, “Wow!” Because people are saying, “I believe you can direct me.”

What about the dog Nell?
That’s very personal. I don’t know if you have pets, but it’s one of those strong, incredible relationships that surpasses all others because they love unconditionally. But there’s so much heartache when you can’t explain something to them. I think that’s so identifiable, and I thought it was a very powerful way to show the loss.

You came out of the Second City, which is like a big family, one where teamwork is one of the basic precepts of the craft. Did you encourage improvisation?
Yeah, we did improvise during rehearsals and the guys improvised on the set, but most of the improvisation came at the end of the scene, and I let the camera run a little bit. I think a lot of the writing feels improvised because that’s the way Don and I write. You know we’re both improvisational actors so we improvise everything and then sit down quickly and write it out. So we’ve played all the characters in the movie at some point at my house in our office where we write. And I think it lends itself to the writing. It feels so natural when you’re watching it.

All the scenes with the kids and you and Belushi seemed that way.
It’s a great compliment when somebody says, “Gee, that whole scene was improvised,” and it’s not. It’s been written. And there’s stuff that’s an added bonus. Like in the script it says, “Belushi in the kitchen--he takes his shirt and Grace and Megan kind of…” That was all scripted, but I didn’t know that Jim could make his stomach turn into Lake Shore Drive. You get a bonus from an actor when they give you that.

There were a lot of Second City actors in this film. Don Lake was hilarious as Bad Hairpiece and Holly Wortell as the Blind Date from Hell…
Yeah. Yeah. I know you’ve followed my career for a long time. It was great. I think my whole cast was in it. Holly, (Dave) Pasquesi, Tim O’Malley, Chris Barnes…

At the Second City, you trained as an actress…
The audience trained me there. Do you know what I mean? I didn’t have any formal training. I don’t have any training as a writer or as an actress, but I was a nursing student and went to nursing school. So most of my training is life experience and I’m grateful for that because as a writer, the more in touch you are with the characters of everyday life and the nuances of it, I think the better writer you are. For me anyway, it helps. So that’s why I stay so average-looking, and I do my own gardening. It’s all part of the master plan.

When did you get bitten by the writing and the directing bugs?
You know, I’ve always liked storytelling, and I’ve written my whole life. I wrote two television series and before I sold one of them, I wrote the whole first season because I wanted to make sure that believed I could write because you have to keep proving yourself and to write a story and to give it up is really, really tough.

With the right director, could you give a script up?
I look forward to someday writing something for somebody else to direct, or directing something somebody else wrote, but for right now it seems most natural to write stories and see them all the way through, because they mean so much to me personally. They just do. That’s where the writing comes from. It comes from my life. So to just give it up and have somebody misunderstand it would be too terrifying. It is a painful process and an emotional process because, when you work so hard at something, these characters become part of your life and you want to protect them.

And once the actor takes on the role, the character becomes theirs, too.
Yeah, already the actors interpret it with their own experience, which is great. Carol O’Connor would say, “My Grandfather always answered the phone before he picked it up when I was a kid.” Which is what he does, when they get the phone call about the heart. He runs over and he yells, “Oh, you got it, you got it.” And he’s talking to the phone before he gets to it. You know little things like that. As a director, I would sit down with everyone and just talk about their lives. I had no one audition because I thought that process of talking about their lives would give me more of an idea about what they would bring to the character. I think it worked in every instance.

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