01.12.11

Helen Hunt Plays Mom

After winning an Oscar for 1997's As Good as It Gets, Hunt was a prolific movie and TV star. Then she dropped out. With a new movie opening, she tells Gina Piccalo where she went.

Ten years ago, Helen Hunt was one of Hollywood’s most sought after leading ladies, the classic California blonde with brains, a sexy self-assurance, and a penchant for tart one-liners that could believably humble big-screen titans like Jack Nicholson, Mel Gibson, and Richard Gere.

Since 2001, she has made a mere five films, all relatively modest projects, released to often critically mixed reviews. And aside from a few forays into theater in Los Angeles (in the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ December production of Much Ado About Nothing) and New York (the Off Broadway revival of Our Town), she seems content to slip back into her personal life.

Now comes Every Day, a quiet relationship drama opening theatrically in L.A. and New York on Friday. Here, Hunt plays another tightly wound woman, this time struggling to care for her two sons and her ailing father (Brian Dennehy) while putting off worries that her TV writer husband (Liev Schreiber) is having an affair with his sexy co-worker (Carla Gugino). In April, she co-stars opposite Dennis Quaid and AnnaSophia Robb in Soul Surfer, the story of teenage surfer Bethany Hamilton, who lost an arm in a shark attack. And by late summer, Hunt hopes to begin directing a script she wrote about a mother's fierce, yet comic struggle when her son leaves for college.

Tucked into a puffy down vest and knee-high boots more suited to a canyon hike than a movie junket, Hunt bristled slightly at the suggestion that her latest film is evidence of a modest return to starring roles. She was, she said, simply drawn to the prospect of working with Schreiber and the intimacy in writer-director Richard Levine’s script, based on his own experiences as a writer on the edgy FX drama Nip/Tuck.

“I didn’t look at it like coming back,” she says breaking eye contact and adjusting her jacket. “Because I had made my movie and [Emilio Estevez’s period ensemble drama] Bobby. And there was another one in there…” Her thought trails off before she continues.

“I know you’re always supposed to want more of everything,” she said, her voice quiet. “But in truth, I’m having a nice ebb and flow of being in my daughter’s life every day and getting to keep my work life alive. I’m not nominated for ten thousand everythings every minute, but I am acting and telling stories I love. I actually have a life I said I wanted to have. I wanted to tell stories I want and be with my family.” She paused again. Then, smiling, she said, “I’m whispering it, because I’m a quarter Jewish and afraid it’s all going to be taken away.”

Hunt was everywhere in 2000, a critical darling and newly minted Academy Award winner (for 1997’s As Good as It Gets), who had just ended a long-term relationship with actor Hank Azaria and a seven-year stint as the lovably neurotic publicist on NBC’s Mad About You, leaving with the $22 million she earned in the last season and a string of high-profile movie roles. That year alone, Hunt starred in Robert Altman’s Dr. T and the Women, the Kevin Spacey tearjerker Pay It Forward, the Tom Hanks vehicle Cast Away, and the Mel Gibson comedy What Women Want.

It all seemed to signal a new era for the actress. And it was. But not in the way most fans might have predicted. Not long after that, Hunt, a child actor who learned early on how to cultivate privacy, dropped off the red-carpet rotation.

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Years later, her 2007 directorial debut Then She Found Me, a dramatic comedy she starred in, produced and spent a decade adapting from the 1990 novel, garnered a headline-grabbing acquisition from the Toronto Film Festival and briefly launched Hunt back onto the talk-show circuit. But that sort of celebrity never seemed to suit Hunt. She’s shy and has often come across in interviews as prickly and uncomfortable, a self-serious trait she has said developed as a child actor.

“I actually have a life I said I wanted to have,” says Hunt.

“I've always had to force myself to make friends and speak to people,” she told one interviewer at the height of her fame. “My parents were quiet, and it took me a while to get used to the fact that people talk about their feelings, their problems.”

Hunt reportedly struggled to get pregnant with boyfriend Matthew Carnahan. She was 40 when she eventually conceived and became an especially involved parent, reluctant to accept projects that would take her away from her family. Indeed, she opened our conversation with an apology for checking the time on her BlackBerry. Hunt didn’t want to be late picking up her daughter from school.

“I worked before I had my daughter, enough for three actresses,” she says with that wry smile. “And even so, got so lucky that I can afford now to be with her, do plays, do this movie, which didn’t pay me anything. Once in a while, I take a job because they’ll actually pay me. And that’s great. But I’m in these precious moments with my daughter that I don’t want to miss. So I’m really spending my money on that.”

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Gina Piccalo is a senior writer at The Daily Beast. She spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood and is also a former contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine. Her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.