Helen Hunt Is in the Driver’s Seat: On ‘Ride,’ Sexism, and Ageist Hollywood

The Oscar-winning actress and Mad About You star dishes on her sophomore directorial effort, Ride, and the oft-depressing—but at times encouraging—state of Hollywood.

The parts just weren’t coming. It was just a handful of years after Helen Hunt had won the Best Actress Oscar for As Good as It Gets, and the four-time Emmy winner of Mad About You turned screen star had seemingly aged out of Hollywood—at just a shade over 40.

But Hunt refused to play by the industry’s backward rules. She used her clout to acquire and develop the novel Then She Found Me, a comedy-drama she wrote, produced, directed, and starred in, and like Jodie Foster began directing for television, helming episodes of Revenge and Californication.

In Hunt’s sophomore directorial effort, Ride, now in theaters and VOD, she plays a cynical New Yorker editor who travels across the country to talk sense into her son (Brenton Thwaites) when he chooses to drop out of school and become a surfer. In the process, she falls in love with surfing—and Luke Wilson—which freshens her outlook on life.“I’m being offered a movie for a studio, and I’ve never done that,” Hunt, who spent five years developing Ride, tells me. “I’m wondering if it’s a giant mistake or not. The wonderful thing about these tiny films is that they’re all yours.”

The actress-director is seated next to me at the Mercer Kitchen in New York City for a wide-ranging conversation about her storied career.Let’s talk about Ride. Did you catch the surfing bug after Soul Surfer?

No, I already surfed! I wasn’t supposed to surf in Soul Surfer. It was a scene written where the family plays basketball together and you get to know them before the accident, and the director realized, “Wait, one of them surfs. We should have them be surfing together.” It was good because I got a little taste of what it’s like to shoot in the water.

How long have you been surfing for?

Ten years, but I feel like a fraud because I don’t get in the water that much anymore if it’s less than 85 degrees. I’m not a hard charger at all. I’m a sort of whiny, nervous surfer, but I love it. I surf a little south of Malibu and in Hawaii occasionally. Everyone’s looking for the big wave, and I’m looking for the little wave. If I’ve caught two waves, it’s a good day for me. It was just one of those things where I thought, “Oh, that’ll be a cool thing to do before I die,” and I took a surf lesson which went terribly. But then I thought, “Maybe I should try it again, and maybe I should write about it,” and that’s how Ride happened. Having a big, big dose of Mother Nature in your face is good for you.

You play a high-powered New Yorker editor in the film. Did you pick David Remnick’s brain?

I went to the New Yorker office and was like, “Uh-oh, there are no buzzing phones and it’s the quietest place on earth.” I wanted the idea to be that she’d have that kind of brain—not working for something newer like The Daily Beast, but something older where you think, “I hope it lasts.” We’re all living with our thumbs and our eyes down all the time. It’s killing us.

The craziest thing is New York City cabbies texting while driving. They’re already insane drivers to begin with.

I based this character that I played on a couple of women, and one would get in a cab and say, “Turn off the phone, turn down the music, take the West Side Highway, and don’t fuck with me.” So now when they’re texting, I’m like, “Uh-uh. Not with me.” But the New Yorker, it was like a Zen garden in there. Richard Kind was much more annoying than the editor of the New Yorker, however. [Arianna Huffington] and other female editors helped, too.

I worked for a pretty powerful female editor in Tina Brown for a while. I do feel like there’s a degree of sexism in the way female editors are portrayed versus male editors. They seem to behave in a similar fashion, yet the female editors are the ones who are branded “pushy.”

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Oh, totally. I was just thinking that. I feel it, too. I feel I have to put some extra spin of polite on things because they’re going to rag on it when if it was a man, they wouldn’t give it a second thought.

You see it too with Hillary Clinton. She’s constantly branded “hawkish,” and I think it’s a very gendered criticism.

I completely agree. What’s the matter with people? It’ll be fun if we get a female president. You should see me explain to my daughter why there hasn’t been one yet. She’s like, “Why?” And I’m thinking, “Because the world is fucked.” I don’t know what to say. It’s very hard to watch her get these pieces of truth. She’s going to be 11, and we’ve tried to keep her far from things media-related. We say, “This is our first black president,” and she asks, “Why?” and I’m thinking, “Oh god, she’s about to get a big piece of history here.” I almost supported Hillary in 2008. She blinked on one thing and I didn’t, but I’m ready to come back. Now that they’ve all gotten their heads together on gay marriage, I can at least be in the room with them all. That was hard, these Democratic heroes going, “Yeah, well…” We’re going to be looking at this years later like we did the civil rights movement.

Right. I interviewed Lee Daniels and he called it “the civil rights movement of our time.”

So is the fact that there’s no equal rights amendment. I read something that said it’s the “dirty family secret of the country” because people aren’t talking about it. I haven’t told my daughter that one.

Back to directing. You must have felt a desire to take the reins and control the narrative?

It’s more with writing. But I love acting. People say, “Oh, you’re making a shift into directing,” and I say, “No, I’m not! Give me a job! I’ll take anything!” When I wasn’t getting acting jobs all the time that I liked, I was writing and writing and writing. Ten years of that. That’s how Then She Found Me happened. I was in a mode of writing every day. Ass in chair. I’d won this thing [the Oscar] and had power for 10 minutes, and I had a deal at Sony. Someone gave me the novel Then She Found Me, which I loved, and went down this road to try and get it made. As that was happening, I’d just been in the last big wave of movies about people talking to each other and trying to love each other, so as that was shrinking, I was trying to make one of those movies. So I kept rewriting it subtly.

It’s amazing that you, a Best Actress Oscar winner, had trouble finding good parts. Hollywood is notoriously very shitty to women over a certain age.

But is it worse than what we’ve been talking about? The fact that we haven’t had a female president?

I think it’s the visibility of cinema—we see it playing out in front of our eyes, and the juxtaposition is so striking. We see that Cary Grant can be 70 and romancing a 20-year-old in a film. Plus, women have historically been objectified more than men, especially on film.

Right, and we all think it’s true. George Clooney is sexier and sexier every year, people think, but the same rule doesn’t apply to women.

You’d mentioned you were in the “last big wave of movies about people talking to each other and trying to love each other.” There did use to be more films about people, and not robots and superheroes.

Right! Even if you think about Awakenings. Or those movies that Steve Zaillian wrote and Jim Brooks directed. Those were big movies!

Now studios want to make a $150 million movie that makes $700 million worldwide, not a $40 million movie that makes $150 million worldwide. Plus, banks are involved in financing a lot of these films.

That’s what I don’t get, the economic thing. And [the bankers] famously don’t read them. They’ll say, “Helen Hunt in a romantic comedy, you can have $3.4 million.” It’s an exact number. There’s also “dramedy,” which is my least favorite word—even though I’ve made two of them. People said, “Are you worried about tone with your film?” My life is really funny and really tragic in a two-hour period, all the time. So anything other than that seems forced to me. “Everything’s funny and it’s all great” and “We’re all fucked and there’s no hope”—somewhere in the middle of those two is where I live my life.

You came up with Mad About You during the golden age of network television, when shows like yours were getting huge ratings. How do you feel about the current TV climate? A lot of the more interesting stuff is now on cable.

It’s a very exciting time. I’m developing a show with my partner, Matthew Carnahan, who runs House of Lies. Its something he’s written that we’d make together and I’d be in. It’s weird and wild and like stepping off the planet Earth. It’s a musical—but a hallucinogenic one. It’s totally crazy. We did a little work on it to present it to the network, and I felt completely out of my comfort zone.

A classic is Girls Just Want to Have Fun [the 1985 romantic comedy starring Hunt and Sarah Jessica Parker].

If you’re 100 it is!

No way! That thing replays all the time on TV.

Weren’t they trying to remake it? What happened with that?

You know, I believe they were at one point, but there was a major fan uproar and it was shot down.

[Laughs] They couldn’t replace us! It was a quiet uproar, I’m sure. But they should! Everything’s getting remade. And all it is is a title, really.

And you didn’t even have the Cyndi Lauper song in the movie.

[Laughs] No, we didn’t! Just a sound-alike. I love that it’s this piece of pop culture that has to be preserved, and at the time we were poaching a great song with a sound-alike.

But it is an ’80s classic.

Why is it?

I think it has something to do with the fact that you and Sarah Jessica Parker got big, and it’s also the fact that it’s so unabashedly ’80s.

It is so ’80s. Talk about scrunchies and hair bows! I don’t watch any of my old movies, though. It’s in a part of my brain that’s behind a door that’s in a vault that’s in a box that you need a special key to get into. It’d be creepy if I was sitting there alone watching my own movies!

Very Sunset Boulevard.

I’m very freaked out about being that person. I want to be relevant.

Your last Oscar nomination came for The Sessions, which was an excellent little film. I was at the premiere at Sundance back when it was called The Surrogate, and it received roars of applause.

Oh, that was such a great screening. What we’re talking about with women being objectified, and the inundation of twisted sexual images? I’m over it. I used to not care. But I’m horrified.

That happened with The Sessions?I don’t know when it happened. But you’ll see the new James Bond movie and a girl is tied up, with her shirt open, shot, with her head down, bleeding, and they’ll make a joke and run off. I can’t handle it anymore. I really can’t. So the fact that this movie got made about healthy sex was pretty radical, and not a lot of people knew how to handle it. They didn’t know why no one was winking or downplaying it.

Also, in terms of the sexual power dynamic, it was the woman in the driver’s seat. You rarely see that on film. Sex scenes in movies are usually a guy hammering away at a woman for 20 seconds, and it’s all his perspective, and then he walks off.

That’s true. Totally. In The Sessions, she’s in the driver’s seat only because he couldn’t be. She was trying to put him in the driver’s seat with her. He got to say, “I don’t like how that feels,” and I got to say, “How about this?” It’s something I’m very proud to have out there, and I actually think 15-year-olds should be watching it. It’s a way to talk about sex. Sex is this thing where you do what you want to do and don’t do what you don’t want to do. It’s not this thing where you close your eyes and hope it will be over soon. I was very happy to put this thing out against the 5,000 prostitute movies.

It was, in many ways, a celebration of sexual consent.

It really is. Counterprogramming to porn. I’m so fucking sick of it, all the awful imagery.

Have you ever had to deal with a terrible “casting couch” proposition by a sleazy producer?

I probably have and I was too out of it to know. Not really. I’ve been pretty lucky. I mostly was well-protected, but it’s not a great place to be as a kid. I think I was groped. “Was I just groped?” But it was a fleeting moment, and I didn’t have a good round of it, thankfully.

It is getting better with women in Hollywood, it seems. There are more female filmmakers—an Oscar winner, finally—and we’re having these conversations about the lack of female representation in Hollywood.

It is. I’m seeing it all over the place. I direct episodic television sometimes—with Revenge and Californication—and my husband runs House of Lies, and he’s always saying, “We need to get more women in here,” because there’s a terrible scarcity. They don’t have enough chances so there aren’t a ton of women with a bunch of credits, so you need some good old-fashioned affirmative action to get it done.