Holly Hunter (‘The Big Sick’): ‘To be human… it’s messy and not black and white; there’s a lot of gray’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

It’s been 14 years since the last time Holly Hunter was nominated at the Academy Awards. She won as Best Actress for the 1993 film “The Piano” and has had nominations for “Broadcast News” (1987), “The Firm” (1993), and “Thirteen” (2003). Her latest role this year in “The Big Sick” as the concerned mother of a young woman in a coma has already brought her bids at Critics’ Choice and at the SAG Awards, where she also competes with her cast for the top prize.

Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery recently chatted with Hunter, and that video can be viewed above. You can also read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Holly Hunter, you co-star in “The Big Sick” as Beth, who bonds with her daughter’s ex-boyfriend while her daughter is in a medically-induced coma for this rare illness, that old story. How did you become involved in this film?

Holly Hunter: Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel, they’re a formidable team of producers. They offered this to me. I had a great conversation with Barry and they’ve been together through many fantastic films, those two, so their reputation preceded them in the greatest way, so I immediately took this offer with a gravitas that it absolutely warranted, and I thought that the script had something that was authentic, not because it was real but because it was other. That peaked my curiosity, that otherness the script had, and that the movie has as well.

GD: What was your impression of Beth when you first read that script that made you the most excited or interested to play this particular role?

HH: Well, I loved her relationship with her daughter. I thought it was really a fantastic opportunity to portray a mother and daughter who had an adult relationship together, who loved each other. It stereotypically could have been the overbearing mother with a daughter. I wanted to describe something absolutely the antithesis of the overbearing mother and the long-weary daughter. I wanted it to be a current friendship between two adult women so that at the end of the movie when I say, “It’s time for us to go,” it’s the mother’s idea, rather than the daughter saying, “Can you please get out of my hair and let me live my own life?” I loved being part of that particular expression. And I thought it was also very interesting to bring forth a relationship with history to it, that my husband and I have a long-going marriage.

GD: Between you and your onscreen daughter, Zoe Kazan, it’s interesting because you have scenes together towards the end of the film but for the most part we’re getting to know your character separately because her character is in a coma for a large part of the film. Was it challenging to establish that bond that you appreciated so much in the script when you don’t actually have her to play off of for a lot of the time?

HH: Well I chose to have, for example, when Ray [Romano]’s character and my character are in the waiting room and Kumail comes up, and I say, “Listen, it’s time for you to go. I’m sewing.” Even that, it was mainly a choice for my own selfish reasons. I was mending a piece of clothing that she wears, or that she wore to the hospital, even though we never see what she wears to the hospital, it was something that she wore to the hospital and I was mending it. I just wanted to keep her present in the picture, with me. I wanted to carry her with me in really pragmatic ways, just the fact that she and I both wore the same necklace and that I was mending her clothes, I wanted to keep her in the physical life of Beth.

GD: And that relationship with Ray Romano as your husband in the film is also very lived-in. By the time we meet your characters, of course, you have these years and years and years of life experience and this bond and these conflicts between those characters that have developed over time. What was it like working with Ray Romano with developing that rapport?

HH: It was so much fun to work with Ray and it really truly was, I thought these two characters had almost a habitual way of negotiating. They habitually negotiated with each other effortlessly, which is something that I think Ray and I both understand about having long-term relationships, that’s something that you can do. That’s a way that you can move through the world with each other, through conflicts, and I thought that that was a great opportunity for Ray and I to express that about people who have been together for a long time. Ray is intensely prepared, really improvisational but also has a great respect for script and I found Ray’s seriousness of purpose inspiring, for me. He made me want to come to the scenes more prepared than ever because Ray was. I respect him tremendously.

GD: The film being based on a true story, and not just a true story but you’re actually a playing a version of the mother of the writer of the film, Emily Gordon and you’re playing opposite Kumail Nanjiani, who actually experienced this in his own life. What kind of guidance did you get from those two about this character, even though its not necessarily based strictly off of Emily’s real-life mother? What kind of guidance did you get from them?

HH: Well, I kind of thought of Kumail as, in a way, the actor whisperer. I exploited Kumail. When we would be rolling or right before we would roll I would have him tell me things, like, “Tell me about that moment, what was that moment like?” And he would tell me right before we would roll and it would just be this sensorial… it was very enlivening in a fun way for one actor to be able to do that for another actor. Kumail was incredibly generous that way, and really fun. That’s something, you don’t get to have that. I knew that. I knew it was really special and this might be a once in a lifetime kind of opportunity so I really played it.

GD: And him having this close relationship to this material and playing opposite him, did that make it almost easier to inhabit those scenes with him or was their more pressure involved?

HH: You mean with Kumail? Not really. I didn’t think there was more pressure involved. For me there was something fictional always about the movie. When I’m doing a movie, it’s always a movie. For me, in a way, it’s always fiction, so I don’t really make that translation of. “Oh wow, we gotta guard, we gotta protect what really happened.” I’m already several steps removed from that concern. It wasn’t a priority for me, “Is this real?”

GD: In the scenes that you do have with Zoe Kazan later on in the film, when she is awake and recovering, after getting to know these characters so much apart from each other and their relationship separately, was it even more satisfying to get those two characters together and be able to work opposite her?

HH: It was so fulfilling. It was so rewarding when she woke up and Zoe is such a fabulous actress, has so many prisms to her, and is so relaxed and comfortable as an actress that I felt that was kind of contagious, her availability. She’s a very available, accessible woman and I love that. She’s an effortless person to love, so that was really beautiful. It was beautiful shooting those scenes with her.

GD: Another very memorable scene that you have in the film is early on when you’ve arrived and your daughter is in the hospital and you go see Kumail at the comedy show and you confront the heckler who’s yelling racist, Islamaphobic slurs at him. It seems like it must have been an especially satisfying scene to shoot, especially in this day and age. How was it filming that?

HH: That was a gestalt, it’s like a fantasy. You wanna do that (laughs). That’s something that you wanna do, especially now, like you said. Look, racism has always been something, having been brought up in the South, I can’t stand. I can’t abide by it, and nor do I actually believe that people should stand by and allow racism to go unremarked upon. We get to express dissent and express outrage at all those kinds of gestures that people make in casual ways with that kind of entitlement so politically I felt the way, but it was amazing to have a character get to express that.

GD: The film generally is a romantic comedy and there’s a lot of humor in it for all the characters but it, of course, deals with very emotional subject matter. How was it balancing those tones as an actor?

HH: Well that’s a really interesting observation. I think the tone of the movie is a really particular thing, because it does embrace extreme comedy, jokes, where in a way you feel like the structure of the movie supports jokes every 45 seconds, let’s say. There’s gonna be a laugh. But that kind of comedy has to be supported by what’s real. The movie is called “The Big Sick” because it is about a girl in a coma. That automatically gave the movie balance to the high highs. There was so much at stake because of Emily, ‘cause she was in a coma and the audience always knew that. So in a way there was something simple about the stakes being always ever-present. That was helpful to us as the characters in establishing this tone that you’re talking about.

GD: What do you most hope that viewers will take away form this film and from your character, Beth, in particular?

HH: What do I hope people will take? First of all, I think people have had a good time watching this movie and I think there’s a complexity about what it means to be human. It’s messy. It’s not black and white. There’s a lot of gray. It’s rewarding to have relationships. But I couldn’t say that there’s any one particular message, but I loved how complicated the table is for all of these characters, because that is life. Life is not knowing 100% for sure, yes or no. It’s a lot of negotiation. It’s a lot of not knowing. It’s a lot of mess. I think that the movie expresses that beautifully.

GD: You have another film coming up soon that I know a lot of people are looking forward to. You’re reprising your role as Elastigirl in “The Incredibles 2,” coming out next year. And I think that’s the Pixar film that had most people clamoring the most for a sequel to finally see and now 14 years later. Were you excited to get to return to that character?

HH: So excited. I’m just having the greatest time working with Brad Bird, who was the mastermind behind the first “Incredibles,” so I feel so blessed that “The Incredibles Part 2” is Brad’s again. He’s helming this one, he’s the head creator, the head writer. It’s coming from his imagination and what an imagination it is. I think it’s gonna be a great movie (laughs).

GD: Without giving away too much, of course, is there anything you can say about “The Incredibles 2” that you especially enjoyed?

HH: I just think I have a great part (laughs). Mrs. Incredible is really amazing in the movie. It’s always a mystery to work on the animated movies because you don’t see them. You’re only laying down the vocal tracks with no picture, or at least that’s how we do “The Incredibles,” that’s how Brad puts it together. So the actual finished project is always a revelation, a total revelation, but I have a lot of faith that this movie is gonna be extraordinary.

GD: We at Gold Derby love awards history, and you’ve had an impressive career that I’d like to talk a bit about, a couple of things going back to, for instance, your first Oscar nomination for “Broadcast News,” and that’s an interesting film in particular because it kind of predicted some of the conflicts and developments that we’ve seen take place in the news media since then. What do you think about that film, looking back on it now?

HH: Let me say, in a way, it was portrayed in “Broadcast News,” now I feel that media is so much threatened. I just feel that the environment that journalists live under, the relentlessness of the attacks creates an environment that I think is really dangerous. “Broadcast News,” it was not a look into the future in that way, and I think we’re really surrounded by that kind of toxic environment for journalists. That’s a high concern for me. But the erosion of how news is presented to us and what the priorities are was very much a concern of “Broadcast News.”

GD: Thank you so much for taking to me today and congratulations on “The Big Sick” and everything else.

HH: Thanks Daniel, ciao.

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