Helen Hunt is big on angels. Sheís worked with a few and even claims to have been
Visited by one. In a supermarket, believe it or not.
"auditioned for a million movies"
"When I was 18 or 19, I had already been acting for 10 years," says the
37-year-old Oscar-winning actress, "and I had auditioned for a million movies and
hadnít gotten any of them and heard no, after no, after no and watched this parade of
women get all these parts that I wasnít getting. So I thought, Ďthatís it,
Iím quitting, Iím doneí and I went into this supermarket and there was a
guy who was putting price tags on cans of soup and he said, ĎIíve seen you in
movies, youíre a good actressí, and I said Ďthank youí. And then he
said, Ďyouíre the kind of actress thatís going to be doing this
foreverí. And I suddenly felt like it wasnít a compliment but a command, which
was very strange. So I left that supermarket and thought, ĎI guess Iím not
quittingí and Iím still here. I donít know where my supermarket angel is
today, but he helped me!"
When itís suggested he probably just moved to the produce section, Hunt laughs and
insists; "but I really did feel like if Iíd rounded the corner that day, he
would have really disappeared!"
These days Hunt is beating off those sought-after roles with a soup can. After seven
years and four Emmy awards playing Jamie Buchman in the hit comedy series Mad About You,
she somehow managed to avoid the post-television unemployment malady suffered by many in
her position and instead walked off with the 1997 Best Actress Oscar for her complicated
role as a single mother and waitress who becomes involved with the curmudgeonly Jack
Nicholson character in As Good As It Gets.
"ready to fulfill another dream"
And in case anyone thinks that was a stroke of luck, consider this. As we speak, Hunt
is simultaneously promoting four of her movies being released back-to-back: Pay it
Forward, with Kevin Spacey; Dr T and the Women, with Richard Gere; Castaway, with Tom
Hanks and What Women Want, with Mel Gibson. And the day after our interview in a Park
Avenue hotel suite in New York, Hunt is ready to fulfill another dream, starring in her
first Woody Allen movie. "I mean itís Woody Allen and I grew up with him,"
she says with childlike enthusiasm. "I canít tell you what itís about
because Iím sworn to secrecy but my whole life I have been curious as to what it
would be like to work with him and Iím about to find out!"
So how does it happen that the unassuming and not especially gorgeous hazel-eyed blonde
winds up working with the most sought-after leading actors in Hollywood all in the same
year? "I think itís luck, itís the director feeling I was the right person
for these parts and I guess the Oscar didnít hurt," she says with a sheepish
grin. "It does feel amazing to work with actors like Jack or Kevin or Tom or Richard
because as an actress, unless youíre 19 and drop-dead gorgeous, itís a challenge
to find good parts and Iíve had an embarrassment of riches of good parts. But my hope
next time we talk is that I have a list of women that Iíve worked with too, like
Meryl Streep, Joan Allen, Susan Sarandon and Judi Dench."
"more laid-back and less high-energy"
In person, Hunt is more laid-back and less high-energy than any of the roles sheís
made her own. Her speech pattern seems slower, less emotional and her polite chatter never
really threatens to turn into a session of soul-searching as she studiously avoids any
personal questions that would force her to explain her separation from actor Hank Azaria
after less than a year of marriage. Recently described as Ďdaring yet
introvertedí by one interviewer, Hunt looks almost proud of this label. "I feel
creatively I do better when Iím not in my safety zone, like Iím not in my safety
zone in Pay It Forward," she explains. "Yesterday I did interviews all day and
one person after another came in and went, Ďyou looked horrible in this movie!í
so thatís daring Ė but my personality is pretty introverted at the same
time," she adds.
In Pay It Forward, Hunt plays Arlene McKinney, an alcoholic single mother who becomes
involved with teacher Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey) thanks to a good deed performed by her
son Trevor (Haley Joel Osmont), whose philosophy is to perform good deeds for three people
and ask them to Ďpay it forwardí to three other people in the hope of eventually
changing the world. As Hunt has already mentioned, she has never portrayed anyone with a
harder edge, from the crimped platinum hair and bad eye makeup to a heart breaking well of
anger that erupts into violence against her own son. "The things I loved about this
movie were some of the things I loved about As Good As It Gets," she explains.
"I think a movie where people connect because of their flaws instead of where
everybodyís flaws get covered in makeup and clothes and funny dialogue, thatís
what moves me."
In Dr. T & the Women, Richard Gere plays a gynecologist whose wife has a breakdown
that leads to his affair with a golf pro, played by Hunt. "Iím the guy in the
movie Ė the aggressive sexual predator who doesnít want a commitment," she
says with amusement, "but Iím working with Richard Gere who that same week was
named Sexiest Man Alive and the director says, Ďyou go in there and you are the one
who is sexually confident in this relationshipí. I went, Ďwell thatís
In Castaway, the tale of a man (Tom Hanks) who survives alone on an island for four
years, Hunt appears as his girlfriend. Although the role was originally written as a
cameo, when Hunt lunched with director Robert Zemeckis and heard about the project, she
begged him to let her be in the movie. "I thought it sounded bold but I never thought
there would be a part for me," she adds. Naturally, when Hunt signed on, the part got
bigger. "When you choose to do something based on your instincts, in a way nothing
can hurt you too badly because youíre on your own path," she says
But talk of angels resurfaces when Hunt gets talking about her co-star in What Women
Want, a romantic comedy about a male chauvinist advertising executive (Mel Gibson) who
falls for his chief rival (Hunt) while trying to steal her innermost thoughts. "If
you had special X-ray glasses, you could see little angel wings on the back of Mel
Gibsonís shoulders," she says with genuine admiration. "He is a guy who
does random little acts of kindness for people and then disappears before anybody can
thank him or know heís the guy who did it. I just canít speak highly enough
"heís famous for these practical jokes"
While Gibson did some angelic things for Hunt, including delivering a blended health
drink to her trailer after she told him she had a headache, she also chuckles at the
devilish side of her co-star. "Well heís famous for these practical jokes,"
she adds, "so I just basically had to throw myself at his mercy on the first day and
say, ĎIím the wrong person, I canít handle it, Iím begging youí
and he didnít. He put a stuffed fake dead rat in a bag for the director to find but
somehow I managed to escape!"
Published February 22, 2001