Linda Hunt is armed with iced tea. It’s a scorching September day on the set of CBS’ popular action series, NCIS: Los Angeles, in which Hunt, 66, plays Operations Manager Henrietta “Hetty” Lange, a tantalizing Rubik’s Cube of a character whose inscrutability is both one of the show’s best weapons and Hetty’s as well. Prone to keeping secrets, Hunt’s Hetty is a polyglot, Olympic medalist (for the small bore rifle), former Hollywood costume designer, mountain climber, and pilot. She’s also deadly, as proven by a recent episode in which she executed several armed men without even leaving her chair, sliding a gun from a hidden compartment in her sleeve and killing the Romanian mobsters around her.
Hunt, who won the Academy Award for supporting actress for her staggering performance as male Australian-Indonesian dwarf Billy Kwan in 1982’s The Year of Living Dangerously, isn’t your typical action star, though she was recently awarded a Teen Choice Award for Choice Actress, Action, beating out Nikita’s Maggie Q and Chuck’s Yvonne Strahovski, among others.
“When I was growing up, particularly during puberty in my teen years, I was so miserable because I elicited so much teasing and meanness from my teenage cohorts,” she said. “These days, there are some teenagers out there who actually think that what Hetty is doing is cool and what Linda Hunt is doing is cool... I love that.”
Standing at four-feet-nine, Hunt makes up for her lack of physical height with a Brobdingnagian presence that fills her trailer on the Paramount Pictures lot, where NCIS: LA shoots. But Hetty’s enigmatic nature and Hunt’s ability to toss off bon mots with the best of them have made her a breakout star. At San Diego Comic-Con, T-shirts bearing Hunt’s face and some of Hetty’s most famous sayings were snapped up in a blink of an eye.
“I think people have always liked in me the combination of being the underdog because I’m a tiny woman but I have enormous authority in myself,” said Hunt. “That dichotomy is intriguing for people: that confidence that Hetty has in herself and in her beloved agents.”
The widespread love for the character came as a surprise to Hunt, who had no intention of signing on to an ongoing television show before she was put up for the role of NCIS: LA’s Hetty Lange.
“I wasn’t looking for anything,” said Hunt, between sips of iced tea. “I’m now 66. At this time in my life, that this has come along, feels just like a gift. The heavens opened up and just handed me a little something to get me into my 70s.”
Which isn’t to say that Hunt hasn’t been working fairly consistently. She regularly lends her voice to documentary narration, commercials (everything from Tylenol and FedEx to the first electric car), and video games. (Yes, that is her voicing narrator Gaia in the popular God of War video game series.) Before NCIS: LA, meaningful film and television work—despite recurring roles on Without a Trace and The Practice and an uncredited role as the voice of Management on HBO’s trippy short-lived Carnivàle—had largely evaporated for Hunt. Comedian Sandra Bernhard once said of her, “You know you’re in trouble when you start resenting Linda Hunt. Oh, they found another project for her? I’m thrilled.” The reality hasn’t quite lived up to that, according to Hunt. (She’s often erroneously thought to be The Incredibles’ Edna Mode; while there’s an uncanny physical similarity, the role was voiced by director Brad Bird.)
“I began to get some pretty boring stuff for a while: children’s films, family films, which I never felt comfortable with,” she said. “I never knew what I was really playing. I was just there for some kind of… ‘Oh, let’s get Linda Hunt. She’ll do anything.’”
On NCIS: LA, however, Hunt is happy to do anything that creator Shane Brennan and the writers throw at her. In various episodes, they’ve had Hetty scaling rock walls (she beat Chris O’Donnell’s Callen in a race), riding a Segway, and firing guns. That’s part of the fun, said Brennan, in his office across the studio lot.
“You can do things with [Hetty] that you wouldn’t normally be able to do, but because of the mythology of the character and what the audience has seen her do, it becomes, well, Hetty can do this because she’s Hetty,” said Brennan. “It makes it very interesting when you’re breaking stories… Nothing is off limits for this character and nothing is off limits for Linda, who is game for anything.” (Of Brennan, Hunt said, “He’s just full of the devil.”)
Costar O’Donnell agreed. “She is truly one of a kind,” he said, between takes. “You look at our cast and you see Todd [LL Cool J], who is this larger-than-life physical presence and Linda is so petite, but she just has this presence about her. She’s so articulate. The way she uses words… I’ll read her lines and the way that they roll off of her tongue is nothing like how I would have done it.”
“It became apparent pretty quickly that Linda was something special and that the audience was responding to her,” Brennan said. “Their expectations for every episode… is what Hetty is going to get up to this time? She’s a mischievous and enigmatic character who sometimes delights in making people squirm on the end of the hook.”
It’s true: Within the mythology of the show, Hetty Lange exerts a magnetic pull towards the agents in her care, as well as a sense of terror. The mere Candyman-like mention of her name sends some running in fear, and the show thrives on teasing elements of Hetty’s heady backstory: dalliances with Frank Sinatra and George Hamilton, multiple aliases, a love of Lady Gaga, an obsessive zeal for tea.
“I knew that Hetty was going to be someone who was incredibly eclectic in her tastes and her sensibility, someone who lived around the world for a while, someone who had a very unusual, very interesting life,” said Hunt. “She always had her shit together, except when she couldn’t possibly. Then you see Hetty under rare circumstances.”
Last week’s episode ended with Hetty being shot by Alexa Comescu (Cristine Rose), the head of a Romanian crime syndicate locked in a blood feud with the family of the orphaned Callen; as the screen faded to black, the unmistakable sound of a body hitting the floor sent fans scurrying online to express shock that Brennan may have killed off Hunt’s character. (Her fate will be revealed in tonight’s episode.)
At times, her discussion of her NCIS: LA character might as well be self- description. “She’s obviously a woman who has grabbed life,” said Hunt. “When something presents itself at your doorstep, you open the door.” That includes her Oscar-winning, cross-gender performance in Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously. (“At this point, the gold is peeling,” she said of her statuette. “It’s already been redipped once.”)
Hunt recounted Weir’s frustration in finding a male actor who could play Billy Kwan and compete with Mel Gibson for the affections of Sigourney Weaver’s Jill with the right balance of physicality and emotion… and a spirituality that he was finding impossible to capture in an actor.
“I didn’t quite understand what I was there for; I talked to the casting director about it and he just said, ‘This would be a part that you would play as a man,’” she said of her first meeting with Weir. “I said, ‘Holy shit,’ and laughed.”
“I felt that Kwan was, more than anything… a very important spiritual compass in the story,” Hunt said.
But ask about her staggering performance in the film, and Hunt displays none of the killer confidence that is Hetty’s hallmark. “I remember standing in the Manila Hotel, any number of days, looking out at the beautiful pool, the beautiful surround of that hotel, after just a wretched day, and I thought, oh my God, I’m going to have to go somewhere when this film opens, just away, as far as I could get. Because I thought [my performance] was so awful.”
“It got better and better as we went on. Oddly enough, as the scenes became more demanding and we got into a more complicated level of Kwan, it got better… It’s a brilliant film, the whole thing.”
Hunt—who, despite playing Kwan, is white—grew up in suburban Connecticut as the daughter of an oil executive and a piano teacher, and attended the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, as well as the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago (now part of DePaul University). Despite her interest in performing, Hunt studied directing when people at the Goodman School looked at her askew upon hearing she wanted to pursue acting. “For a while, I thought, maybe I should direct,” she said. “Until I got to New York and saw the stupidity of that idea. If it’s hard to get into acting, what is it like for a woman to become a director? I stuck to my guns.”
Her parents supported her “most diligently,” even though her father tried to get her to get a teaching degree. She resisted, telling him that she didn’t need anything to fall back on. Both her parents can be seen sitting next to her when she takes the stage to accept her Academy Award. It was, finally, the moment when her father accepted that she was where she was meant to be.
“He lived through the Academy Awards and died about 18 months later of a stroke,” Hunt said. “It now means a great deal that he got to be there. My father was so relieved when I won that award. He was like, ‘You know what? I guess she’s right. She’s going to be okay.’”
At this point in her life, Hunt may be busier than ever, managing 14-hour days on NCIS: LA, but she is looking to enjoy life as well—and catch up on sleep. She’s married to her “lady” of 25 years, psychotherapist Karen Kline. (The two wed in 2008.) In The Year of Living Dangerously, Billy Kwan has a line about obtaining the impossible, “water from the moon.” For Hunt, she said that her dream was simply to embrace life.
“I was a very determined kid,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine any other life for myself. This happens to kids who are different in any way. How am I going to make a life? Who am I going to be when I grow up? Will there be a place for me in the world? Acting gave me a sense of purpose, but it also gave me a sense that I would survive, that I would find my place.”
“I’ve never learned how to do it without a lot of stress or anxiety. For that reason, at this time in my life, I’d rather just not do it… I’d rather be the person who has more time to stretch, more time to think, more time to reach out to other people. I’d rather do that for the rest of my life. I’m not one of those people that wants to die on the stage.”
But, considering Hetty’s enduring popularity, Brennan and CBS won’t likely let the character go gentle into that good night any time soon.
“If she leaves, it’s going to be my fault,” said Brennan. “Everyone can blame me because I haven’t lived up to that, but my hope is that I can keep saying [to Linda], ‘Hey, can you come in here, we’ve got this really cool thing for Hetty to do.’”
Hunt, meanwhile, has ideas of her own. “Hetty has other fish to fry,” said Hunt, mischievously. “I think Hetty wants to travel… I said to Shane, ‘So, when we get to the point where the show’s almost over and I’m down to doing 12 episodes or whatever, maybe we can get into the retirement factor for career women like Hetty...’ He said kindly, ‘Yes, we could probably explore that.’ I’m sure that he’s thinking, Oh, no, 12 episodes? What are you talking about?”