In the eyes of some, As Good As It Gets was as good as it got for Helen Hunt. Despite starring in a hit NBC sitcom, Mad About You, and a cult disaster movie, Twister, it was the release of the acerbic romcom in 1997 – in which Hunt’s waitress and single mother forms a love-hate relationship with Jack Nicholson’s misanthropic author – that saw her career truly go supernova. As Good As It Gets brought overnight fame and a best actress Oscar. And yet, the decades since have seen if not a disappearance of that fame, at least an erosion, with few of her films bothering the box office or the Academy (although she did land a best supporting actress nomination for 2012 indie film The Sessions).
Helen Hunt isn’t of that mindset, though, because As Good As It Gets gave her exactly what she didn’t want: fame. “There were a couple of years when I was a little spooked,” she admits when asked about paparazzi outside her house. “I was afraid that I could never unring that bell.” So how did she cope with the media assault? “I just became very boring,” she says matter-of-factly.
Hunt is far from boring company, but she does seem incredibly normal; hardly the sort of person you could imagine hovering around some renowned celebrity hotspot. As we chat on Zoom, she sits on her bed in glasses, clutching a bowl and apologising for eating dinner while we talk. “There are some people,” she says, “who will live more exciting lives and keep going at that level – and it’s their whole life, wherever they go, for ever.” She looks stricken at this, as if it’s her worst nightmare, but then laughs. “I think by the 130th picture of me in my khaki pants with my yoga mat, that picture’s worth nothing!”
The 59-year-old actor and film-maker is in London, where she is rehearsing for her star turn in Eureka Day at the Old Vic. Despite first being performed in Berkeley, California, in 2018, it’s a play you’d struggle to believe was written before the pandemic, dealing with misinformation and the entrenched positions that arise in a school community when a mumps outbreak prompts calls for mandatory vaccines. Ringing any bells?
“It’s daring to put its finger on a tricky topic,” Hunt says. “It’s a play about coming apart. [About] what’s happening in so many places, certainly in my country, and I guess your country. And the wish to come together, and the increasing difficulty [in doing so], especially when things get very real.”
Hunt’s love for theatre began when she was around five years old, attending productions with her dad – an acting coach and theatre director. She remembers seeing the original production of Godspell in a church basement. “And that was it,” she says. “I didn’t even know if I wanted to be acting or singing or directing. I just wanted to be in the building.”
Hunt’s father died in 2016. “Every time I see a play I think of him, because he was always so excited when the lights began to go down,” she says. “And I am, too.”
While theatre may be her first love, and film is what she’ll be remembered for – her many credits include What Women Want, Cast Away and Pay It Forward – Hunt has a TV show to thank for giving her a first career bump. Mad About You, in which she and Paul Reiser starred as a pair of newlyweds living in New York City, premiered in 1992, back when TV was still sniffed at – but that would soon change.
“I remember when it was like: ‘You’re on TV, you’re not going to get cast in a movie,’” she says. And while The Sopranos is most often cited as the beginning of TV’s golden age, the moment the medium was elevated, there was undoubtedly something happening in the preceding years on network television, with Seinfeld, Frasier and Friends finding huge success, critically and commercially. Could Hunt feel the ground shifting beneath her on the set of Mad About You? “Yeah,” she says. “Suddenly I got a call to be in this giant action movie! [Twister]. And then when As Good As It Gets came along, rather than being the person the director wanted but the studio wouldn’t back, I was suddenly the person the studio wanted him to see.”
As Good As It Gets brought her not just the Oscar, but into the orbit of Jack. While Nicholson’s magnetism on and off screen is legendary, there were surprises in store when it came to his process and work ethic. The wild man of the film world is actually (whisper it) a detail-oriented grafter.
“My expectation about Jack was that he would be unpredictable and not bother with the mundane things that I bothered with,” she says. “And the truth is he’s an acting-class guy. You know, he came from New York, sitting in those theatres, working on scenes, learning from the best. And so he and I had all the same questions: how many days has it been since they’ve seen each other? Has he ever said anything like this to her before? I felt as if I was with a friend and in acting class rather than an iconic movie star.”
Hunt’s decision to reject Jack Nicholson levels of movie star fame and instead pour equal energy into her private life was – though not without sacrifice – clearly worth it.
“It’s not great for continuing to get every great part but it has allowed me to have a life that I am really in as a parent or a friend. You know, that’s a big priority for me,” she says.
After Hunt had a storming run in 2000 with four films – Dr T & the Women, Pay It Forward, Cast Away and What Women Want – the years that followed were noticeably quieter. Press speculation was rife, as were cries of “What happened to Helen Hunt!” She laughs now: “I wrote and directed two movies and starred in them and had a baby [Makena Lei in 2004]. So yeah, I don’t know what to say when people say: ‘What happened?’ That’s a lot. You know, for me, that’s plenty.”
I ask whether it suggests a lack of perceived value in the work women do raising kids, but she’s not convinced. “I’ve been so in deep, deep love and care of this human being that I’ve gotten to mother that I really haven’t been paying attention to what people think about that.”
Hunt’s two films to date as director were huge undertakings, particularly the first, 2007’s Then She Found Me, which took 10 years to make. Hunt remembers the response when she asked: who does get their movie made? “They said: ‘Whoever doesn’t give up.’ That’s me. So I just hung in there and kept trying.” But even when the film was finished, the offscreen drama rolled on. The day before the film was released (on Mother’s Day), the distributor went bankrupt. It had premiered at Toronto film festival and landed “a good sale”, but there was still no line of producers eager to finance her next film. “I just went back to the drawing board, and started to raise money again” for her follow up, the 2014 surfing drama Ride.
And while there have certainly been highs, there is also this honesty from Hunt in the disappointments and struggles of trying to live a life and have a career she wants, not the one others expect.
She speaks openly about an idea for a Twister sequel that she, Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal (with whom she worked on the 2021 StarzPlay comedy-drama Blindspotting) came up with. All Black and brown storm chasers. The three of them writing; Hunt directing. Not only could they not get it greenlit, they couldn’t even get in the room. “It was literally July 2020,” she says, still seemingly shocked. “The United States was on fire with the beginning of a 400-year overdue racial reckoning; and #MeToo hadn’t been that long ago. There were three of us, each representing a minority of our own, one of us having starred in the [original] movie and we couldn’t get a meeting. It was sobering.”
How much Hollywood is prepared to change is up for debate, though when it comes to #MeToo, Hunt says she has seen improvements of a sort. “I find it funny that people are out of patience with it and it’s only been two to three years … Still, there’s a little wind at the back of people raising their hand and saying this happened or that made me uncomfortable. That’s significant, I think.”
Helen Hunt: quietly getting things done, on her own time, in her own way, a flashing camera nowhere on her block. That really is as good as it gets.
Eureka Day is at the Old Vic, London, from 6 September to 31 October.