Globe and Mail
April 23, 2008
A labour of love
Then She Found Me is Helen Hunt’s baby. On this day, the Oscar winner is tired and hungry, but still keen to talk about the movie she stars in, directs, and also helped write and produce. James Adams reports
It’s a late Saturday afternoon and Helen Hunt is looking tired. She’s hungry too, as she forages among the buns, salad and cold cuts left on a hallway table at the Park Hyatt Hotel during last year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Weariness begets wariness when it comes to a Helen Hunt interview. At 44, she is the only female actor to have won four consecutive Emmys (for Mad About You). Then there’s the Oscar she earned in 1998 playing opposite Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets. Yet for all that fame, all that success, all that, well . . . love, she’s known to the media as a bit of a hard slog. Read some previous profiles and words such as “aloof,” “curt,” “officious” and “condescending” stud the prose.
This day, however, her tired is a good tired. She had arrived in Toronto just a day or two earlier, bringing with her perhaps the riskiest project of her illustrious career. It’s a movie, of course, called Then She Found Me, and it stars her, perhaps equally “of course,” along with Bette Midler, Colin Firth and Matthew Broderick. But it also boasts Hunt as its director, co-writer and co-producer. About the only thing it lacked upon her arrival in Toronto was the all-important distribution deal.
Hence, the decision to have Then She Found Me’s world premiere at TIFF, where hungry distributors are as plentiful (almost) as hungry stars.
The gambit worked. “It sold last night at 2:30 in the morning,” a smiling Hunt reports between nibbles on a bun. True, the film was out of focus for roughly the first 10 of its 100-minute screening. But the audience reaction was enthusiastic, with the result that THINKFilm in association with Canada’s TVA agreed to pay an estimated $3-million for Canada and U.S. rights. Seven months later, the film is set for commercial release, starting Friday in Vancouver and Toronto.
Then She Found Me was a 10-year labour of love for Hunt, sparked by her reading of the 1990 Elinor Lipman novel of the same name. The movie keeps the book’s core conceit – a schoolteacher, now in her late 30s (played by Hunt who, while she has always flirted with the skinny side of slender, verges on the wraith-like here), learns that she is adopted and is unwillingly reconnected with her long-absent, larger-than-life birth mother (Midler as a sort of Oprah-ish TV star). Otherwise, it’s a very free-and-loose adaptation. “There’s 30 per cent of her book in there, maybe,” says Hunt, including the movie’s other big conceit, the desire of Hunt’s character to have a baby with her feckless husband (Broderick).
It was the writing and the financing that took Hunt the longest time to pull together. “Directing, I always knew I wanted to do that,” she says, having previously cut her teeth in several Mad About You episodes. But acting in it? “That was the toughest decision. I was pretty tortured as to be in it and, in my head, I’d come up with a good long list of reasons not to be in it.” However, as Hunt mulled over other actors for the part – no names were mentioned – “I felt like I’d seen ‘it’ a bit, y’know? Whereas I hadn’t acted in a while [a cameo in 2006’s Bobby], so I wasn’t bored with myself. I felt, too, that I understood the part better than I’d ever be able to communicate it to another person.”
Being the director also informed the decision to self-cast. “I only had 27 days to shoot. That’s not very long and there was a fair amount to get through. The only way to do it is if the one actress in virtually every scene would be willing to work 23 hours a day. I didn’t think I could necessarily ask someone else to make that commitment, but I could of myself.”
Hunt confesses that she found the screenwriting “utterly terrifying.” But “as scary as it is, it is something you can show up to everyday, even if the work is pushed forward only an inch.” With acting, unless you’re taking lessons or communing with an acting coach, “you’re waiting for that script to come in, or the rehearsal to begin.”
A lot happens in Then She Found Me and while there are a few laughs along the way as well as a surprise ending (“Don’t give it away,” she pleads), it’s largely a measured, modulated, restrained piece of work.
“Bette Midler” and “restrained,” however, are not words usually seen in each other’s proximity. How did that bit of casting happen? “Well, I needed someone a bit infamous in that part,” Hunt explains. At the same time, she acknowledges that she was concerned that Midler’s inherent ebullience might prove overpowering. “I urged her at first to have faith in the tone of the piece, in the material and in doing less.
“Then,” she laughs, “I realized, ‘This is Bette Midler.’ I had to be careful not to take what is magical and original about her and put a damper on that. I had to let her do her thing.” Part of the fun of Midler’s character, Hunt adds, is that “while she’s not as famous as Bette, she thinks she’s as famous as Bette.”
Another intriguing casting choice is that of Salman Rushdie – yes, that Salman Rushdie – as Hunt’s gynecologist. Hunt mentions that she “wanted an Indian doctor” in that role because, well… she gave no specific reason this day but later, with another interviewer, she said “there’s a point where some of the characters [including Rushdie] pray” for the health of Hunt’s unborn child “and it was important to me that it not be some Judeo-Christian version of God they’re praying to.”
Hunt, in fact, auditioned real Indian doctors, but none appealed to her. Then Rushdie showed up, uninvited – somehow he had gotten a hold of the script and the audition schedule – and, “really, he was the best of the bunch.”
For all the headaches, the experience of doing almost everything on Then She Found Me seems to have been salutary rather than dissuasive for Hunt. “I’m writing something now that has a big part for me. And I’m going to direct.”
Then She Found Me opens in Toronto and Vancouver on Friday, in Montreal on May 2 and in other cities on May 9.