Inside Holly Hunter’s Oscar-Worthy ‘Big Sick’ Performance: ‘This Is Totally Different’
The Academy Award-winning actor talks about a rare new “first” in her career: co-starring in Kumail Nanjiani and Judd Apatow’s new Pakistani-American-coma-stand-up-rom-com.
In a career that’s spanned 35 years, 60 projects, an Oscar, a Golden Globe, two Emmys, and one of Pixar’s greatest films, it’s not often that Holly Hunter gets to do something new.
Then she got cast in a Judd Apatow-produced rom-com.
The Big Sick, out this weekend, was written by Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon. Nanjiani stars as himself in the film, which focuses on the harrowing period of his relationship with Gordon just after they’d broken up and she fell into a coma. (The film is charming and uplifting, we swear.)
Zoe Kazan plays Emily in the film and Hunter her mother, Beth. Beth butts head—at least initially—with Kumail, the man who had so recently broken her daughter’s heart, while they hold vigil (alongside Ray Romano, who plays Emily’s dad, Terry) over the girl they all love.
Over her career, Hunter has played a Texas cheerleader-murdering mom, a mute mid-19th century piano player, and one of those politician supporting roles in superhero movies always played by actors of gravitas. But she’s never acted in a film that was written by and starring the same person who the movie’s traumatizing story is about.
“It’s so weird, and you’re the first person to ask me about that,” Hunter says, after offering some tea and raving about the view from the Manhattan Four Seasons hotel where The Big Sick cast was gathered for interviews.
She’s played characters based on real people before, of course. And once had starred in a film co-written by a co-star, 2003’s Thirteen. (A film that, coincidentally, earned her most recent of four Oscar nominations; the “O” word has been whispered about Hunter’s Big Sick performance since its rapturous first screening at the Sundance Film Festival.)
“I’ve done a bunch of true stories before, but this is totally different,” Hunter says.
And when she’s asked to think about any conversations she had with Nanjiani on set about it, she says it never came up. Because it never needed to.
“When you have an actor on set who is playing themselves in a movie that is about the most cathartic, most traumatizing event of their lives, you don’t even have to mention that,” she says. “I never said, ‘This must have been so hard for you, man. That must have been really tough.’ We never did that. We were going, “So what about on page 35…” We were dissecting it in a more clinical way. But we felt that. It permeated the commitment that I think everybody had on the set. It permeated the engagement that everyone came to the project with in a totally unspoken way.”
With that unmistakable Georgia gravel-purr and striking, angular features, Hunter is instantly recognizable not only on first look when she greets us in the Manhattan hotel room, but also on first listen. Yet she has miraculously and masterfully used her indelible voice as a tool to camouflage herself throughout one of the most versatile acting careers ever.
Perhaps a lot of that is owed to the superhero’s job she’s done of keeping her private life and family as secret as possible over the course of her career. As The Telegraph noted during an interview with Hunter promoting 2013’s Top of the Lake, “It is perhaps significant that the film that made Holly Hunter’s name, The Piano, is one in which she didn’t utter a single word.”
It’s telling, too, that Hunter’s initial response is “thank you” when we bring up her legendary withholding, only to say that the relentless oversharing in today’s culture is “worthless.”
But she’s also struck by what emerges as an interesting dichotomy.
Here she is promoting a film that has inspired no shortage of superlatives from a writer-actor she praises near incessantly during our conversation, but a film that emerged from the polar opposite of her own ethos. Nanjiani and Gordon have laid bare the most personal and private moment of their lives for the public to enjoy and dissect.
“That’s an interesting point,” she says. “What they did is more familiar to me. What goes on now with social media is completely foreign. There of course is value, and we see it with the Arab Spring and things that happen with social justice, particularly, that have this life online and can spread globally instantaneously and have this beautiful power.”
While it may not be her modus operandi, she goes on to call Nanjiani and Gordon’s transparency “an incredible...maybe the right word would be sacrifice.”
“There is something sacrificial about that,” she continues. “Giving up something personal to the public, you are surrendering something.” But it’s also in the tradition of great playwrights and novelists who mine their own lives for the greatest works of art, she says. “And it has a place of height and honor to me, that surrender.”
Hunter lives in New York City and has for years—good luck getting her to tell you where—but is intrinsically southern, making her this fantastic combination of steel magnolia and steely New Yorker—a tough, suffers-no-fools city girl with the warm, familial disposition befitting her Peach State roots.
(Characterizing her personality, it might be no surprise to learn that she once roomed in New York City with a kindred spirit: fellow actress Frances McDormand.)
Her demeanor seems to echo a little of what we see in The Big Sick’s Beth: initial skepticism and light armor that is only broken down when it’s earned.
When Kumail and Beth first meet in the film, Beth is terse: “I know who you are.” Emily is a daughter who confided in her mother, and that closeness is present from moment one, with Beth cold and resistant to Kumail until his devotion eventually wins the protective mother’s trust—and even a riotous, boozy, expletive-ridden defense when Kumail, a stand-up comedian, is heckled at a show she attends.
It’s a scene that’s very Judd Apatow-ian, a label that signals a whole host of trademark things: a gleeful penchant for raunchy, stoner humor; the man-child with the heart of gold; and, sure, a running time typically about 30 minutes longer than necessary.
But look at the best of the films he’s produced or directed and you see another running theme: an unexpectedly complex and cleverly drawn female character. There’s Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann, in Knocked Up and This Is 40; Mila Kunis in Forgetting Sarah Marshall; Catherine Keener in The 40-Year-Old-Virgin; and, of course, the women of Bridesmaids and Trainwreck.
In the case of director Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick, we get the less the shaded version of the manic pixie dream girl trope that these Apatow creations sometimes veer too close to—Zoe Kazan’s Emily could certainly be criticized as a version of that but, for plot reasons, is missing for much of the film’s running time—and instead get Hunter’s ferocious mama bear.
Hunter is a spitfire playing the wounded mom, angry at the injustice of the world and brittle at the thought of losing her daughter—baking soda emotions to her vinegar, steely personality that cause her every feeling to bubble out of her uncontrollably. It’s a mess, and a riveting one.
More, it’s a believable one.
When a child of any age goes through a health crisis, it’s not uncommon for the mother to become their fierce advocate, even if that makes her somewhat unlikable to the doctors or makes other people, even those close to them—in Beth’s case, her husband, Terry—uncomfortable.
“It’s a really imaginatively fertile place that Kumail and Emily set up for us, because I didn’t have to go on my experience,” Hunter, a mother of twin boys, says, knocking on the table’s wood. “That has not happened in my life. But that kind of love is known to me. That kind of familial love is totally in the realm of my experience, and I thought it would be so wonderful to get the opportunity to describe the relationship between two women—a grown daughter and a mother—where there’s mutual like. There’s mutual affection, mutual love between them.”
In fact, while Kumail and Emily’s complicated love story is the driving force of the film, it is Beth’s relationships that may be the most interesting. Running parallel to the central rom-com storyline is a narrative centered on the pressure Emily’s health crisis puts on Beth and Terry’s already brittle marriage, giving Hunter and Romano an unexpected and fairly rich showcase in the film’s third act.
“It’s so weird,” Hunter says about her rom-com subplot at age 59. “But it’s so cool. It’s not where this movie was supposed to go. You watch it and it veers off and develops and blossoms in ways that you were simply not even thinking about.”
Before we part ways we discuss the film’s other major significance: Its mere existence.
Hunter is no stranger to bearing witness to the way the Hollywood industry does—or, more often, doesn’t—change, having starred in The Piano, for which Jane Campion became the first and only woman to win Cannes’ Palme d’Or 25 years ago (and just the second woman to ever be nominated for the Best Director Oscar).
Kumail Nanjiani is a Pakistani Muslim who wrote his Pakistani Muslim family and their beliefs and how they play into his own identity into The Big Sick. It’s a cultural story not often greenlit in Hollywood, and yet the response has been rapturous. A bidding war following its Sundance premiere ended with Amazon acquiring it for a staggering $12 million, its Rotten Tomatoes score is at a whopping 97 percent fresh, and audiences are clamoring for it.
What’s the disconnect?
“They led with the private,” Hunter says. “It was a private tale, it was an inside track. And they were like, come to the inside and we’re going to tell you what we experienced. It’s that. Then it has all these political ramifications, where people are like, wow, it’s got a social commentary, but that wasn’t what they were leading with.”
It echoes something that Vulture’s Emily Yoshida pointed out in her review of the film: “The best thing you can say about The Big Sick is that having Kumail Nanjiani as a romantic lead is maybe the 11th most remarkable thing about it.”
“They were leading with a private encounter, and we get to be part of that encounter,” Hunter continues. “Then you go, oh wow, he’s Muslim. What does that mean? What did that mean to Kumail? What did that mean to his parents? But it was all personal.”