LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 08: Holly Hunter attends the 'Incredibles 2' UK premiere at BFI Southbank on July 8, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)
Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images
Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

Conyers native Holly Hunter brings Southern charm, complexity to film, TV roles

Originally posted Thursday, March 7, 2019 by RODNEY HO/ on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

The AJC is running several Women’s History Month profiles this month. This one will run in print on Tuesday, March 12. 

Oscar-winning actress Holly Hunter grew up on a farm in Conyers in the 1960s and 1970s but wasn’t allowed to partake in any of the heavy lifting.

"Boys had chores and girls did not," she said to Jane Pauley of “CBS Sunday Morning” in 2016, "i.e., drive tractors, bale hay, take care of cattle."

Hunter, the youngest of seven children, told the U.K. Metro last year that “I was very jealous of my brothers. I wanted to drive a tractor. I wanted responsibility. I wanted to be able to do a good job. I wished for that.”

Instead, “I was mainly left unattended to play and pretend. Probably that's where I started thinking about acting.'

That career choice has suited her well. 

At age 60, her resume covers verdant territory. TV movies. TV series. Broadway. Prestige films. Quirky indie films. Action films. Animation. She’s worked with A-List actors such as Al Pacino, Tom Cruise, Robin Williams and Sigourney Weaver and legendary producers such as Steven Spielberg, Jonathan Demme and Sydney Pollack. She has garnered four Oscar nominations (“Broadcast News,” “The Firm,” “Thirteen,” “The Piano”), winning for “The Piano.”

Hunter was willing to jump between film and TV long before that became fashionable. She had an Emmy-winning turn in “Roe vs. Wade” for TV after “Broadcast News.” Following her challenging role as a mute in “The Piano,” she went full-on felonious in HBO’s descriptive “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom.” She won an Emmy for that, too. 

“I've always kind of drifted between being a character actress and being a leading lady,” Hunter told NPR last year. “It hasn't been a mainstream kind of thing that I've offered. And at the same time, I've been able to carve my own niche out of the culture.”

And unlike many of her peers such as Sharon Stone and Michelle Pfeiffer, Hunter over the years assiduously stayed out of the tabloids. In interviews, she rarely talks about her kids or her personal life. ''I shall neither confirm nor deny the existence of my children,” Hunter joked to the New York Times last year. 

Holly Hunter in one of her Rockdale High School yearbooks from the mid 1970s.
Holly Hunter in her first musical "The Boyfriend" as a freshman at Rockdale High school in the 1973 yearbook.

Hunter began acting at Rockdale High School in the early 1970s, performing in “Oklahoma,” “Man of La Mancha” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”  

"There were three or four of us who kinda dominated the productions,” she told AJC’s Eleanor Ringel in 1987. “I was certainly one of the regulars, but it was more than just me."

At a State Play Contest in Athens, Fred Chappell, artistic director of the Alliance Theater at the time, spotted her. She spent two summers with his stock company in Cortland, N.Y.  

“Even at that age, she was so impressive,” said Chappell, who now teaches at Florida State University, in an interview today. “Very focused. Had a strong work ethic. She was very serious about her career even then.”

After acting at Carnegie-Mellon University, Hunter broke into Hollywood with a tiny part in a horror film “The Burning.” Then came the Coen brothers, who saw her on Broadway in "Crimes of the Heart" and asked her to read for their film "Blood Simple." The part went instead to future fellow Oscar winner Frances McDormand , but since the two actresses were best friends and roommates, there were no hard feelings. The Coen brothers eventually wrote breakthrough film "Raising Arizona" specifically with Hunter in mind.

"So that film came about in a real family kind of way," Hunter said to the AJC in 1987. "The Coens had been friends for years, and as far as directing me, they'd mostly just say, 'Hey, Holly, go!' "

Early in her career, she worried her size might hold her back but James L. Brooks - seeking someone to play the hard-nosed yet vulnerable news producer Jane Craig on “Broadcast News” - proved her wrong. 

“With ‘Broadcast News’ it became a non-issue, and with ‘The Piano’ it became a non-issue,” Hunter recalled in 2016 at the at the Hamptons International Film Festival. “Both parts were written for more statuesque women. It was nice to change people’s minds about that because that’s neither here nor there.”

Holly Hunter in 1988.
Photo: Louie Favorite

After her Emmy-nominated turn as the complex, morally blurry Grace in TNT’s “Saving Grace” from 2007 to 2010, Hunter sought film roles as she entered her 50s and was sorely disappointed. 

“I just thought that [Grace] was an incredible boundaryless character that I got to stretch out in over the course of ‘Saving Grace,’ “ she said to NPR in 2018. “And when I got back to the feature film world, there was so little opportunity that I was really kind of stunned. I was looking to take a slight break but not exactly a hiatus.”

Fortunately, she received accolades as a protective mom in 2017’s “The Big Sick” and brought fire to Elastigirl in “Incredibles 2” last year. She also recently starred in HBO’s “Here and Now,” playing a mom of adopted kids that was critically panned and quickly cancelled, though blame was not placed on her.

“Now I'm 60, and I'm still acting,” she said to the U.K. Daily Observer last year. “That's pretty good. So in a lot of ways, I defied my own expectations. I think acting has provided me with all these adventures that I never could have really anticipated. It's a great career and it continues to be a great career.”

At this stage in Hunter’s career, she is still seeking fresh challenges.

“Always on the hunt,” she told the New York Times last year. “I live up to my last name but, you know, my last name could also be Drifter. Instead of a Hunter-Gatherer, I'm a Hunter-Drifter. I get stuff and I normally say no to stuff, and at the same time that's a bit of a crap shoot. It's not like you're getting a royal flush very often. You work with what you've got.”

She concluded, “I'm still the little engine that could.”

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.