It’s a cliché that most actors in Hollywood (and elsewhere) would really rather be directors. In fact, few witness more closely the heartbreak of trying to get movies made than do working actors. That may explain why more of them don’t actually move to the other side of the camera.
Helen Hunt knows the process better than most. She grew up the daughter of a prominent television director and acting coach, Gordon Hunt (who mostly does voice work these days). After labouring for years both as costar and a producer of Mad About You, she has had a sporadic, post-tube life on the big screen, with 1997’s As Good as It Gets the obvious highlight. And almost since then she has been trying to turn Then She Found Me into a movie.
The saga started when she found the 1991 novel, written by Elinor Lipman, and fell in love with the tale of a 39-year-old New Yorker yearning to have a child even as her marriage is falling apart. It took Hunt about a decade to work up a new script with input from Alice Arlen (whose credits include Alamo Bay and Silkwood), and TV veteran Victor Levin, ultimately with the intention of directing herself in the central role.
Eventually—and this is one of the surest advantages of being Helen Hunt—she was able to hire Matthew Broderick as the errant husband,
Colin Firth as the bumbling new love interest, and, most spectacularly, Bette Midler as her adopted character’s long-lost biological mother.
“The movie has had a lot of incarnations,” Hunt tells the Georgia Straight in a call from her office in Los Angeles. “And Bette was the first one cast for this version. I watched The Rose again to get reminded of the size of her talent. Certainly, she was smart enough to get the tone of this thing and smart enough to bring the parts of her that helped tell the story and leave the other parts behind.”
Indeed, Midler is ideally cast as a local chat-show host whose cable-access celebrity can’t quite contain her ebullience.
“I just saw her in Vegas, more recently, and it’s hard to think of anyone with more talent packed into one little body. This is one role where all that baggage really came in handy. I could have hired some wonderful stage actress that nobody ever heard of, which is what I usually would have preferred. But in this case, her Bette Midlerness really helped tell the story.”
The fact that Hunt, now 44, grew up on film and TV sets and has rarely left them for long helped prepare her for directing colleagues in a complicated labour of love. Still, the undertaking was even riskier than she expected.
“I knew I needed good actors, of course, but you don’t quite realize how much you need them until you are there and start thinking, ”˜Oh, my God, what if I didn’t have somebody this smart or prepared or this willing?’ But they all were. They all could feel, ”˜We have no time and very little money but at least we have a story that this woman cares about. A lot. We better really show up.’ ”
No one had to show up more than Hunt did, since she is also on-screen for virtually every scene.
“Yeah, I really started to worry about that,” she admits. “In fact, I asked for some advice from David Duchovny, who’s a friend of mine who has directed himself in the past. And he said that it’s tricky but it does something very interesting to your acting. I know that I was more prepared than ever, and less able than ever, to get help from others. I think I just poured every bit of myself into the role, right or wrong.”
The characters in Then She Found Me certainly have believably human foibles. In fact, Hunt’s mopey April Epner is prone (literally) to reengage her ex-husband at just the wrong moments.
“I don’t know if you really explain why you have chemistry with anyone,” the director says with a sigh, “or why you make mistakes and fall back into relationships that you shouldn’t have, that don’t put integrity into your life. I don’t think I’m the only one who has experienced this. But there isn’t really a why, just a set of circumstances that can end up making a moment that hurts everybody.”
Chemistry is something Hunt knows a lot about even if she can’t articulate it. Intriguingly, the movie, which opens here on Friday (April 25), exactly reverses the Mad About You equation, this time with the lifelong Angeleno as a neurotic, self-obsessed Jewish New Yorker and curly-haired Firth as the more uptight WASP.
“That is interesting,” she admits. “I’d never even thought of that.”