Don’t tell Helen Hunt she’s in her third act.
The 47-year-old Oscar, Golden Globe and Emmy-winning multi-hyphenate is too busy playing the Bard’s fiercely independent Beatrice in The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ limited run production of Much Ado About Nothing opening December 12 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Or making Thornton Wilder’s iconic Stage Manager her own this past July in Barrow Street Theatre’s record-breaking David Cromer-helmed revival of Our Town in the West Village.
Not to mention co-starring as Liev Schreiber’s wife in the January release Every Day, directing an episode of her former Mad About You co-star Paul Reiser’s new self-titled NBC series, nailing a long board stunt on Oahu’s North Shore for the upcoming feature Soul Surfer or penning her own surf culture film.
“How many acts [in life] are there?” she inquires dryly while seated in a chilly Brentwood church anteroom following rehearsal on the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving. “Is three the last? Shakespeare has five acts in this play so I’m going to hope that’s what we’re talking about!” she laughs then coughs. Hunt is fighting off something, and LA’s unseasonable cold snap coupled with the room’s low thermostat doesn’t help matters.
Dressed in a grey cowl neck sweater, mid-length black skirt and boots, with a red and black checkered wool coat placed over the chair back behind her, the former child star appears tired but focused. Words matter to her. Those she selects are precise and thoughtful, never frivolous. Sans make-up, long blonde hair scattered about her shoulders and posture erect, she conveys an earnest artist persona despite having just emerged from fine tuning one of theater’s most beloved comedic heroines. Off stage, time is a precious commodity and spending it discussing a project she’s passionate about reveals a director mind trained to make every minute count.
Hunt is certainly no stranger to comedy or those concocted by Shakespeare. In 1990, she played Bianca in Shakespeare in the Park’s staging of Taming of the Shrew starring Tracey Ullman and Morgan Freeman followed by Viola in the 1998 Lincoln Center production of Twelfth Night. In between she won four Emmys and four Golden Globes for the hit sitcom Mad About You plus an Oscar and Golden Globe for 1998’s As Good As it Gets opposite Jack Nicholson. This latest foray would not be happening without her keen interest in exploring the classic role.
“He’s written a brilliant thinker in Beatrice and it’s fun to get to bring that to life,” Hunt explains. “She is at the mercy of her own brilliant mind: it serves her and then it doesn’t serve her, then it serves her again and that’s really the joy of the part. What I’ve discovered more than anything in the rehearsal process is Beatrice and Benedick are not the same–I don’t know exactly what Tom [Irwin her co-star] is doing because that’s not my business–but Beatrice is just a joyous woman who is yes, liberated and outspoken and incredibly quick in her mind, but she is also enjoying her life and that’s really fun to play.”
SCLA celebrates its 25th anniversary with the Much Ado mounting and the Kirk Douglas location, made possible by a special arrangement with the Center Theatre Group, marks the organization’s first traditional proscenium production. Founded by its Executive Artistic Director Ben Donenberg in 1985 with a free production of Twelfth Night in Pershing Square, SCLA has since presented ambitious LA-centric, site-specific and often outdoor performances of Shakespeare alongside its nationally recognized youth outreach program Will Power to Youth, which provides hands-on artistic experience coupled with paid job training and arts education. Among its many honors, the organization was presented the Community Outreach Award from the LA Stage Alliance at the 2005 Ovation Awards ceremonies.
A member of the National Council on the Arts, Donenberg is directing the Douglas production as he did the staged reading Hunt appeared in last April for SCLA’s annual star-studded “Simply Shakespeare” benefit held this year at The Broad Stage. It featured Ewan McGregor as Benedick, Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Martin Sheen, Keanu Reeves, Michael McKean, Dana Carvey, Bronson Pinchot, Nikki Reed and Dule Hill among others, plus music played by Jackson Browne. Her love of that experience is the primary engine behind getting the play fully produced.
“They had asked me before and I’d never been available to do it,” she acknowledges. “I worked on it a little because I know even for a reading, if you don’t put some work into it what’s the point of doing it, you know? I really fell in love with the part and the play as I did that. The reading was great fun and it felt like I was sort of conspicuously right for the role. Ben felt that way, too. He called me and said, “˜Shouldn’t we be doing this play?’ and I said, “˜We should try.’”
Over the next several months, the two talked about what actors and musicians they might obtain, what style the production could take and found it coming together more quickly than either had imagined with quite an accomplished cast.Hunt suggested her former My Life & Times co-star Irwin to play Benedick. Donenberg solicited Dakin Matthews to both dramaturge and play Leonato as the principal players came into place: David Ogden Stiers as Dogberry, Stephen Root as Don John, Geoffrey Lower as Don Pedro, Grace Gummer as Hero, Ramon De Ocampo as Claudio, Chris Butler as Boracio, Dawn-Lyen Gardner as Margaret and Greta Jung as Ursula. Other cast members include Brian Joseph, Anthony Manough, Jared Sakren, Fred Sanders, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins.
The Watkins brother and sister duo are former members of the Grammy winning group Nickel Creek who will perform throughout the play plus act as a pre-show warm-up. Singer/songwriter Lyle Lovett agreed to composer duties and has written new songs to mesh with prior hits like “She’s No Lady, She’s My Wife” alongside tunes by Brian Joseph such as “King of Echo Park” among others. Starting December 10, Lovett joins the cast as Balthasar, the singing attendant to Don Pedro.
“When I heard Lyle was maybe going to do this I just left a message on his voicemail and said, “˜It would mean so much to me if you showed up,’” she says, adding that Lovett appeared in the series finale of Mad About You, which she directed. “And also Sarah and Sean Watkins. They played at the reading and I thought how is this angel voice coming out of that woman? Both of them played so beautifully, I felt very excited when they joined because when your heart is open”¦there’s even a line in the play where Tom says, “˜Is it not strange that sheeps’ guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?’ Starting the play with them rather than people talking I think makes for a really good beginning.”
So how does she temper her own skilled director’s eye when playing Beatrice or watching other cast mates? Hunt’s answer is swift. “Ben is absolutely our fearless leader. If I have any thought, I only ever give it to him and he uses it or throws it away. But that doesn’t happen very often. No, those are really some incredible actors and he’s devoting every bit of himself to this so he’s the boss.”
Donenberg has set the play in a fairy tale vineyard located in “Messina, California.” Hunt believes it illustrates the loving generosity infused in this production’s spirit. “It’s a very loving and generous play. Everything Ben is doing with it is generous — the music, the theme. He’s set it on this vineyard because [Shakespeare and Sicily’s] Messina had them so he took that from the text. I heard an announcement for this show on [public radio] that said, “‘Wine flowing and music playing.’ And that’s really true. It will be a really luscious evening for people to have.”
The actors had an opportunity to explore their inner vintner at the historic San Antonio Winery located in downtown LA where they went for dinner and a winemaking immersion course. Hunt says the “really cool, really fun” evening validated her intuitive acting gut.
“I had a little instinct that maybe she [Beatrice] works at this winery now,” she explains. “The idea that they’re all ladies of leisure. I’ve never been that, so I don’t really have much of a feel for it. But then I worried it was something I was putting on the play. So we went to this winery and the man who runs it says, “‘My father did the negotiating. My mother dealt with the taxes. My mother dealt with the details. My mother.’ So now I’m starting the play dealing with the details of this special vintage they’re bottling. It was nice to get a little impulse and then have it confirmed.”
A special tasting room sponsored by Gallo will be open prior to the Much Ado performance and throughout intermission for VIP ticket holders concurrent with similar selections being offered for purchase in the Kirk Douglas lobby. While Hunt has not been involved in soliciting the show’s promotional partnerships, she believes the varietal offerings will enhance the audience’s experience. “I think there’s going to be a lot of wine, which will make my acting better. If people are drinking, I will be better.Â I hope they drink generously.”
Bi-coastal Theater Roots
Hunt is one of the few actors whose theatrical roots are deeply embedded both in LA and New York. Doing Much Ado at the Kirk Douglas represents a sweet reunion of sorts since she was born in Culver City to famed director/acting coach Gordon Hunt and her photographer mom, Jane. While the future actress spent part of her childhood in New York, most of Hunt’s growing- up years were done in southern California. Her early theatrical memories reflect both locations.
“I remember seeing Godspell when I was very young in its original space,” she recalls. “I think before it was at the Cherry Lane Theater, it was in the basement of a church. There was something about that I really liked. Everybody was singing and passing out wine and the audience was part of it. In terms of Shakespeare, I remember seeing Raul Julia and Meryl Streep in Taming of the Shrew in the park and that made a big impression on me.”
Yet even before seeing Shrew, Hunt admits it was the Shakespeare productions she witnessed at Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon that taught her an early appreciation of the Bard’s work. “I went with my dad a lot. I would see him [Geer] play Lear or Capulet; his daughter Ellen used to play all these beautiful parts. It’s really a transcendental experience to see Shakespeare out there in that setting. So maybe that’s where I first was enchanted by it.
“My father worked with Will Geer a number of times so I had a little connection to him through that. And he [Geer] had such a love of Shakespeare. He planted a garden with every flower and plant named in Shakespeare’s plays and is rumored to have gardened in the nude in the moonlight. I just loved all of that. I loved these productions and how the balcony would be a tree Ellen would be in and just the use of that natural space.”
Gordon Hunt also had a stint as casting director for the Mark Taper Forum during the theater’s formidable 70s heyday, which she says left a deep impression on her adolescent self. “I grew up with my dad right here at the Taper, which was a very cutting-edge experimental place at that time. Zoot Suit. New plays by Michael Cristofer. Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God premiered there. Savages. Even as a really young kid I could tell what an alive place it was.”
When she got older Hunt would alternate between both coasts, appearing in 1985’s Been Taken at Ensemble Studio Theatre in NYC and the Actors’ Gang Methusalem here. Or the Gang’s 2002 mounting of The Guys followed by Yasmina Reza’s Life x3 at Circle in the Square in 2003. So it is no surprise that when asked why she thinks more celebrities seem to choose Broadway or lauded Off-Broadway houses to do stage work over LA’s non-profit theaters, her answer reflects a certain dual loyalty.
“I do theater in both places because I grew up loving seeing theater in both places,” she emphasizes. “When I saw David Cromer’s production of Our Town, I had to be carried out of the theater I loved it so much. Then a friend of mine [Bill Gerber] who was one of the producers said, “˜I think you should be doing this’ and David agreed. I have children now–a stepson who lives here and a daughter who’s now in first grade–so I live here mostly. That combined with my history of going to the theater in Los Angeles makes me all the more want to mount this [Much Ado] production here. I had to jump at the chance to do Our Town where it was and the Barrow Street Theatre was particularly conducive to it. So I guess my answer is I’ve been nourished by theater in both places so my impulse is to work in both places.”
Her four-week stint last July as the Stage Manager in the Thornton Wilder classic marked a joyous return to the piece after having played Emily in the 1988 Broadway revival starring the late Spalding Gray, Eric Stoltz and Frances Conroy. Hunt is not the first woman to undertake the iconic role””Geraldine Fitzgerald had the honor at Williamstown in 1971, while Ellen Geer offered an unsentimental interpretation in 2000 for Theatricum Botanicum. But she is the only one among the seven who performed it during Barrow Street’s critically lauded revival, which ran from February 2009 to September 2010 making it the longest running production in the play’s 72-year history.
“My life view is in that play,” she enthuses. Cromer’s spare mounting — no scenery, no props, house lights up– deeply moved her. The recent MacArthur Genius Grant recipient took his lead from the text, she says, in order to present the revered piece “without the conventions that give us distance. It’s a play that sneaks up on you and so he let the production sneak up on you. When you’re working on it, it is as if there is no other play. The combination of the play, the part and this director made it really hard to leave actually. I texted David when I left and said, “Oh, oh.” And he said, “I know it’s hard to leave, isn’t it?”
The role terrified her at first. “It was a combination of fear and excitement that made me want to do it. I think that for anybody who plays that [Stage Manager] part, it takes a certain amount of faith because it starts so gently. You have to know the third act is coming and I’m going to get you there in my very particular roundabout way. The first night was like jumping out of an airplane. It’s quite a thing to come out and have the house lights on, talk to people like I’m talking to you now and move people through the play.Â But I loved it. I felt really lucky to be part of it.”
Directing & Fifth Acts
Now that Hunt has helmed projects across a variety of genres ranging from television sitcoms to a commercial for Frito-Lay’s True North campaign to making her feature film directorial debut in 2008 with Then She Found Me, a independent movie she co-wrote, co-produced and also starred in, would she consider tackling a legit production?
“I don’t think so,” she says, shaking her head. “It’s so funny. David Cromer and I talked about it. I said, “˜Do you want to direct movies?’ He went, “˜Yeah, maybe. He said, “˜Do you want to direct theater?’ I went, ‘No.’ Like I don’t feel I know how to do that at all. I’ve stood next to a camera for many, many, many years. I don’t know why I imagine that more than I imagine this, but I don’t really think I would know what to do or how to do it. Film is more like a collage you put together. That I understand. I don’t feel called and I don’t think I’m skilled. So those are two reasons to not pursue it!” she laughs.
When asked whether her expanding directing prowess signals a move away from acting or whether there is an ideal mix of one informing the other, the 38-year show business veteran confesses she doesn’t want to choose.
“They’re very different muscles,” she offers. “Personality-wise I’m more of a director than an actress or so I’ve been told. But I’ve had some kind of karmic date with this profession since I was nine years old. So I would hate to ever have to give either of them up. I can’t imagine giving up acting and I find myself now writing and creating stories I want to tell. There’s no better way to be a storyteller on film than to direct.”
Hunt anchors those stories around a central “magic” sentence. “For other writers who write more than I do, they simply go unconscious, start putting something on the page and that sentence emerges. I’m paralyzed without it.” For Then She Found Me the line dealt with betrayal. Her latest script takes a moment to encapsulate. “Let’s see, I have to change my gears pretty intensely,” she says pausing to think.“’It’s not until nothing sustains you that nothing can sustain you.’ And it’s about surfing!” she laughs.
Hunt rode a particularly high wave last January off Oahu’s North Shore during location shooting for a completely separate film entitled Soul Surfer co-starring Dennis Quaid. “I had a team of experts helping me get on it at the right time so I didn’t drown. It was fun.”
So having accomplished a respected multi-disciplinary career and family, what makes Hunt’s priority list now in this third-act stage of a Shakespeare-inspired five-part life?
“It’s the same,” she reflects, throwing on her red and black checkered coat for warmth as the allotted interview time winds down. “I just understand it better. I want to have a family, I want to be with the people I love, work on material and tell stories I care about, and that’s it. I think the only thing that changes as you get older and have children is you see what you give up if you go for something or make a plan that doesn’t feed those things. If you take a job for the wrong reasons, it costs you more than it did when you were 25. There’s a reason I did Our Town and am doing Much Ado About Nothing–I don’t want to fuck around with my time.
“So to get to play these roles and say these words, that is a gift I want to give to myself. Spending time with my family is the other. Those are pretty much the two things I’ve said I wanted to do for a long time and now I’m really doing them.”
Much Ado About Nothing, produced by The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles and presented by special arrangement with Center Theatre Group, opens Dec. 12; plays Tues.-Fri at 8 pm; Sat. 2pm and 8 pm; Sun 1 pm; Sun. Dec. 19, 1pm & 6:30 pm; ends Dec.19. Tickets $35-70. Â Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City 90232. Call 213.628.2772 or visit centertheatregroup.org/MuchAdo