She's a former farm girl from Atlanta - the youngest of seven children - and has kept the accent to prove it, despite having gone north 18 years ago ('I love being from the South; I like people who have a sense of place about them, they're the people I'm most attracted to in my personal life'). No entourage of minions and minders flaps in the background.
She agrees to be photographed talking (if this sounds unremarkable, it's not true of many stars, who demand picture approval or want you to use their own artfully staged publicity shots). She asks our permission to smoke, and gives hers to be snapped in the act (rare, too, this, in health- and image- conscious Hollywood). And when our photographer slips off, she calls over, ' 'Bye, Glynn, see ya,' as if to an old mate.
Stars don't say things like 'I'm not a classically beautiful person' or 'I'm kind of bored with myself,' (even with, as here, a mischievous grin) and, in that never-never land of Hollywood hype, where every actor is always the 'first choice' for a movie, the person the director 'always dreamed' of working with, stars aren't fond of confessing that they had to battle for a role.
But that's what it took for Hunter to be cast in Jane Campion's acclaimed film The Piano, in which she plays Ada, a mute Scottish woman caught in a violent erotic triangle in 19th-century New Zealand. 'I pursued the part, because I wouldn't even be among the first 10 actresses that you would think of,' Hunter says. 'I'm not a natural Ada - you don't see me and say, 'Oh my God, she'd be perfect.' A lot of people would not have thought of either myself or Harvey Keitel in the parts we both play.'
Keitel is probably the more bizarre choice: jaws collectively hit the floor at the thought of the tough guy from Reservoir Dogs, Bad Lieutenant and Young Americans playing the film's sensuous, tender, Heathcliffian romantic lead. But Hunter wasn't an obvious contender either: The Piano is her first non-American movie, and her first role in period. And she hardly fits Campion's initial vision of a 'tall woman with a strong, dark, eerie Frida Kahlo sort of beauty'. Her characters tend to be fierce-willed, fast-talking, independent, like the cop who kidnaps a baby in Raising Arizona, the energetic producer of Broadcast News, or the firefighter of Always.
'Jane met me and had the imagination to see me as Ada. She gives her actors a tremendous amount of freedom, and I think she trusts the people she casts. She saw the possibilities of my acting the part rather than my bringing my own life experience to it - which is more interesting for myself as an actor. I like moving away from myself to approach a character; I'm kind of bored with myself.'
Pure stars, like Cruise, Schwarzenegger, Roberts, build their appeal on the recycling of an established persona in minutely calibrated variations. Actors will often wander off into left field - Hunter played the title role recently in an HBO movie called The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom and at the moment she can be sighted as the bottle- blonde, white-trash secretary lending Tom Cruise a helping hand in The Firm.
'I'm not a classically beautiful person, but hopefully it increases my longevity as an actress that my career isn't dependent on my great, great good looks. Instead of there being this incredible cut-off when I turn 40, which does happen so often with a woman who was a great beauty in her twenties and early thirties: suddenly there's no longer any interest because now that's gone, or it's perceived to be gone . . . '
And here comes more evidence of non- starriness: stars will gush on tap about their collaborators (it happens more or less by tacit mutual agreement), but are unlikely to praise other actors unbidden, for no other reason than that they admire their work. 'Y'know, Helen Mirren is, I think, one of the fascinating actresses. Period. She captivates people, and has tremendous power and charisma, because she has never cashed in on being an exquisite beauty, even though I think she is. I can't say I'm anything like her, but I hope something similar will happen with me.'
You could hardly call Hunter plain - and, like all intensely animated people, her energy gives her an added glow - but she can look deeply unglamorous. In The Piano she's shot in a harsh blue-ish light, and coiffed with greasy, severely central-parted hair. 'I love to look at physically beautiful people, and obviously others do too. But there's such a narrow definition of what that is; the people who are my friends in life, the more I get to know them over the years, the more beautiful they are to me. I think Jane Campion is interested in exploring other kinds of beauty, of which there are many. Ada's one of those people whose beauty you come to see as you know her. I personally always thought that it was quite lovely with a bend in it, y'know?'
Hunter won a clutch of critics' awards and an Academy nomination in 1987 for Broadcast News. She was named Best Actress in Cannes in May for The Piano and looks almost certain to be Oscar-shortlisted for that film too: it has been another lean year for juicy female roles, and Hollywood has a track-record of sympathy-voting for actors playing disability (in the last seven years alone, Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God, Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man have all won Oscars, and Robert De Niro and Tom Cruise were nominated for Awakenings and Born on the Fourth of July).
And there's no doubt that holding down a complex central role for two hours without speaking (there are two brief snatches of voice-over) is an impressive feat on technical grounds alone. 'There were lots and lots of vehicles I could use to be articulate. I had Ada's sign language, and you can glean information about her through how I dealt with the costumes - going up hills and tripping over vines, and running through the bush in the most elegant way that I possibly knew how to do, because she was a rather feminine creature.
'And the communion with the piano offered her a wonderful opportunity to commune, to be creative. I do think she had a spiritual connection, and almost a lover-like one, with her piano.' This was one thing that did make Hunter an ideal candidate for the role: she was an accomplished pianist. 'Once I read the script and started thinking I wanted to audition, because Jane wasn't going to just offer me the part, I started practising a little more.
'I didn't want them to replace my playing with a concert pianist who would come in because I wasn't good enough; that was a real fear of mine.' Michael Nyman, the composer, tailored the music to her ability and hand-span (small - at just over five foot, she's knee-high to a grasshopper) and, to dispel doubt, the end credits proudly proclaim: 'Solo piano by Holly Hunter'.
But the key factor in her performance is that Ada's muteness has nothing to do with physical disability; it's a deliberate decision. 'Many people who are deaf, for example, are quite demonstrative because they want to communicate, but Ada is a secretive, withholding character, so I thought there would be a lot of stillness: she wouldn't give away what was going on inside. I saw her as a purist and a romantic. Once she had made a choice she was married to it. For example, her not-speaking. The reasons for it are myriad; it's not just one traumatic event that happened in childhood, I didn't want it to be that boring. There were some things about her that I left a bit mysterious, even for myself.'
It is Campion's technique to leave important areas of her characters' psyches uncharted - you see it in Sweetie and An Angel At My Table and, in the new film, you never learn much about the father of Ada's illegitimate daughter, or Keitel's colourful past. 'It's so respectful to the audience - people don't need an incredible amount of exposition to become engaged with the characters. Jane gives you a bare minimum and leaves you a lot to fantasise about.'
Perhaps the principal reason why Hunter isn't a star is that she has never bothered much with a high public profile. After Broadcast News she lit off for six weeks' holiday, then did a TV movie, Roe vs Wade (about a keynote case in America's abortion debate), and two independent films, Lasse Hallstrom's Once Around, which was never released in Britain, and Miss Firecracker. She has constantly returned to stage work, and has just produced and starred in the LA production of Beth Henley's Control Freaks. During all this time Steven Spielberg's Always was really the only biggie.
'People think I disappear sporadically but I just do projects that don't get international acclaim. I wasn't interested in concentrating my next efforts on a big Hollywood hit. 'Cause why? First and foremost you can't predict success. The Piano was a great thing to happen to me; it's a benchmark, something I will have, always. But I really thought it was going to be an extremely small movie, seen by few and loved by those few. We're amazed and pleased that so many people have access to it.'
'The Piano' opens next Friday
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