Holly Hunter, a Georgia native, has distinguished herself as an actress on the stage, in Hollywood, and on television by choosing many roles that require her to play intelligent and often unconventional women. While many of her most memorable characters have been southern, Hunter has successfully portrayed women of various backgrounds and circumstances, demonstrating an impressive dramatic and comedic range over the course of her career.
Born to Opal Marguerite and Charles Edwin Hunter on March 20, 1958, in Conyers, Hunter was brought up on a farm and is the youngest of seven children. Her parents encouraged her acting abilities from a young age, and in the fifth grade she landed her first starring role as Helen Keller in a school play. Hunter continued to explore her interest in acting at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and graduated in 1980 with a degree in drama.
Hunter married cinematographer Janus Kaminiski in 1995; the couple divorced six years later. In January 2006 Hunter and her partner, British actor Gordon MacDonald, announced the birth of twins.
Although best known to the public as a film actor, Hunter began her career on the stage and continues to appear in theater productions. In 1981 she moved to New York and that same year made her off-Broadway debut in a play called Battery. In 1982, after a chance meeting with Mississippi playwright Beth Henley, Hunter replaced actress Mary Beth Hurt in Henley’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play Crimes of the Heart. This performance marked not only Hunter’s Broadway debut but also the beginning of her lasting collaboration with the southern playwright. Hunter has since performed in several of Henley’s subsequent productions, including a second Broadway play, The Wake of Jamey Foster; the off-Broadway Miss Firecracker Contest; the Los Angeles, California, production of Control Freaks; and the off-Broadway Impossible Marriage, which is set in Savannah. Speaking in a 1998 interview about Hunter’s consistently successful interpretations of her work, Henley observed that the actress “knows how to walk the line between truth and humor. Holly hears the music of what I write.”
Among Hunter’s other notable stage credits are a 1987 production of Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind in Los Angeles and the Broadway production The Play What I Wrote, directed by Kenneth Branagh, in 2003. In 2004 she made her debut on the West End stage of London, England, starring in Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats. In 1996 Hunter cofounded the Loretta Theatre, a theater company based in Santa Monica, California.
Film and Television Career
Hunter made her onscreen debut in the 1981 horror movie The Burning. After moving to Los Angeles in 1982, she did a variety of film and television work, including a small role in the 1984 movie Swing Shift, starring Goldie Hawn. Her first collaboration with brothers Ethan and Joel Coen, the acclaimed writing and directing team, also came in 1984, when she “appeared” as a voice on an answering-machine recording in their first movie, Blood Simple.
Hunter was soon cast by the Coen brothers in her first major film role, the part of “Ed” in their 1987 comedy Raising Arizona. That same year she received an Academy Award nomination for her performance as a journalist in the satirical film Broadcast News. Hunter garnered critical praise for both of these comic roles. In 1989 she reprised her role as Carnelle in the film adaptation of Henley’s Miss Firecracker and starred opposite Richard Dreyfuss in Steven Spielberg’s romantic drama Always.
In 1993 Hunter found herself nominated for two Academy Awards. Her performance in The Firm, as a secretary in Memphis, Tennessee, earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. But it was for her portrayal of Ada, a mute nineteenth-century pianist in Jane Campion’s film The Piano, that Hunter received the Oscar. She was named Best Actress for her performance, during which Hunter, herself an accomplished musician, played music written specifically to her strengths by Michael Nyman, the film’s composer.
Hunter had also won two Emmys by 1993—one for her performance as Jane Roe in the television movie Roe vs. Wade in 1989, and the other for her work in the 1993 television movie The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleading-Murdering Mom, in which she played the ruthlessly ambitious Wanda. Hunter’s involvement in theRoe v. Wade project reflects two of her longtime commitments: choosing roles that challenge the typical Hollywood portrayal of women and promoting women’s causes in the political arena. She has been involved with the Save Title IX campaign, serving as an honorary chair. Title IX is a federal mandate that ensures equal access to athletic opportunities for girls and women in public schools and colleges.
Hunter’s film career has continued to include roles across a wide array of film genres. In 1995 she starred both in Home for the Holidays, a comedy directed by actress Jodie Foster, and in Copycat, a detective thriller in which Hunter plays a role originally written for a man. In 1996 she again demonstrated her versatility, working with director David Cronenberg in his controversial thriller Crash, and critics praised her 1998 portrayal of a recently divorced New Yorker in Living Out Loud. In 2000 Hunter collaborated once again with the Coen brothers, playing an estranged wife in their critically and commercially successful film O Brother Where Art Thou?, and she both executive produced and starred as the mother of a teenage daughter in the 2003 film Thirteen, for which she received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress. In 2004 Hunter provided the voice for the character Elastigirl in the popular animated film The Incredibles, and the following year she starred in the dark comedy The Big White, opposite Robin Williams.
Saving Grace, a well-received television series helmed by Hunter, premiered in 2007 on the cable network TNT, part of the Turner Broadcasting System. Hunter portrays homicide detective Grace Hanadarko, who receives guidance in her troubled personal life from an angel named Earl. The series also features Georgia native Scott Wilson as the Reverend Potter.