Holly Hunter has had an incredible career.
Starting out on stage, the actress rose to international fame thanks to the back-to-back successes of the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona and an Oscar-nominated role in Broadcast News, both released in 1987. From there, things only skyrocketed, with Hunter winning an Oscar for Best Actress in The Piano (1993) and being nominated another two times, the last being for the independent drama Thirteen (2003). But then, something happened – Hunter turned 45.
“Once you hit the age of 45, the drop-off is tremendous,” she says. “What I’ve encountered with my career is not unusual. Careers are filled with major ebbs and major lows. There are few exceptions, with Meryl Streep being one. It’s also part of the equation for an actor that you just continue to work over the decades. I’ve been throwing my hat into the ring for decades. I’ve just continued to want to be doing what I’m doing.”
And while Hunter kept working, the pickings were certainly slimmer from the early 2000s onwards. Projects, such as the Robbie Williams’ co-starring The Big White (2005), the star-studded drama Won’t Back Down (2012), and the Diablo Cody-directed Paradise (2013), were all met with critical disdain.
There were, of course, a few saving graces. Literally. The TV show Saving Grace brought Hunter huge attention once more, running for three consecutive seasons between 2007 and 2010, with the actor receiving top billing and also acting as the executive producer. Then, there was last year’s bounce-back performance in The Big Sick (2017), earning her multiple Supporting Actress nominations. And now, at 60 years old, Hunter fronts this summer’s biggest animated movie: Incredibles 2.
This time around, Hunter really is the lead character. The sequel, which follows on from Pixar’s original 2004 movie, sees Elastigirl (Hunter’s stretchy character) tasked with spearheading a new initiative to make being a superhero legal again, while her husband, Mr. Incredible, must stay at home and tend to their children. But oddly enough, Hunter hardly knew she would be the protagonist until months into production.
“It’s funny because there was no script,” she says, having ventured across the Atlantic Ocean for the UK premier of Incredibles 2. “There never was a script. We really just started by recording. Brad [Bird, writer and director] did not really tell me that much about the story, or if he did, I did not really remember. We recorded for about a year and a half, and about three months into the recording I turned to Brad and went ‘my part is great’. Because it was dawning on me, physically dawning on me, that she really was a wonderful part.”
A wonderful part Elastigirl certainly is; a “fully fledged woman, true autonomous heroine and true mum”, as Hunter describes her. And incredibly unique, I point out, because even though superhero movies seem to exist in every crevasse of our culture, there has yet to be a visible, wholesome mum at the centre of one of these monstrous franchises.
“Why wouldn’t you have fully fledged mothers on screen?” she asks. ”It's a shame, a real vacuum that’s not represented or explored on screen. I also love that after Mrs Incredible has been so triumphant in stopping a runaway train, [author’s note: an amazing set-piece worth the ticket admission alone] she’s still willing to drop it all because she might be needed at home.
“These things exist, the duality exists in all women. Just as that duality in all men, of being nurturing but also being the breadwinner. We are capable of all of it, with some compromise. That’s what the movie is saying. That’s what people will identify with.”
Hunter has not always been able to play such great characters before. There have been underwritten roles (Batman v Superman in 2016) and those that have barely been seen at all (Manglehorn in 2014). Does she like being centre stage once more?
“That’s complicated,” she replies, speaking with that thick southern drawl that’s arguably now more famous than her face. She takes a moment: “I love playing lead roles, it’s really fun... if they’re good. If it’s a supporting role that’s really wonderful, that’s great to.” Unfortunately, though, roles –particularly for older women – are not always good.
“And that’s what we’re trying to address, all of us are trying to address, with Time’s Up and Me Too,” she continues. “The movement that’s happening right now is real, and the complaints are bona fide. There is no equality. Women do not get paid the same amount of money as men do. They don’t have as many opportunities as men in any arena, except for strictly female arenas.”
Hunter offers up an example – figure skating: “Male figure skater make as much as female figure skaters, and yet female figure skaters are far more revered. If we can have equality with male figure skaters and gymnasts – two areas that women are much more lauded for – why can we not have equality everywhere?”
Are things changing? “Yes”, she says: “Because there’s a desire. There’s a real need. People are yelling. They’re not saying it loudly. They’re yelling.”
How come this sea of change, which has affected all industries, has not happened before? An immediate answer from Hunter: “We were not ready. There was not enough outrage. And the system is very profoundly embedded in ways that we’re still not fully aware of. I think, together, we are going to become more aware of how we can become more equal.”
And things are going to continue changing: “Women have been going ‘Oh wow, you mean I’m not making as much as my co-star, really?’ when these revelations have come to pass. We need more of those revelations.”
We come back to Incredibles 2. Elastigirl marks one of the few leading female superheroes in recent cinematic history (Wonder Woman the other notable lead), both of which have vastly outdone themselves at the box office and hopefully point to more equality to come.
“It’s emotionally satisfying,” Hunter says. “It’s thrilling. I think people, it’s kinda a gestalt, to be this triumphant action figure, this action hero. It fulfils a certain need people have, cinematically.”
Our time together has quickly come to an end. A quick question then, about the future. What’s next for Holly Hunter? A similarly quick response. “I’m reading,” she says. No doubt, there’s something big on the way.
Incredibles 2 is in UK cinemas now.