Why Holly Hunter Accepted a Role in This Summer’s Indie Comedy Hit; and Why The Big Sick Tells Such an Important Story


Oscar-winner Holly Hunter is no stranger to fierce, comedic female roles. Some of her most memorable roles have showcased how comedically gifted she is when she allowed to let loose. And her role as the mother of a seriously ill daughter (played by Zoe Kazan) in the based on a true love story The Big Sick is right up there with some of her best comic performances. As Beth, the protective yet loving mother no one would want to get on the wrong-side of, she is a total scene stealer. When not being as scary as she can be on screen (including a brilliant scene she has against a heckler in a comedy club) her warmth and humor comes through when discussing her character, her costars, and the value of this feel good film.

The Interrobang: I read that you were sent a letter by the producers Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel begging you to play the role.

Holly Hunter: And Kumail. But it’s funny because I don’t really remember what was in the letter. And Kumail especially heard that and said “you don’t remember the letter, we were so careful about what to write.” But it was the people who wrote the letter that made me say yes. Judd and Barry have been associated with such ridiculously great movies. Judd directed This is 40, which is unbelievably funny. He produced Bridesmaids which is a redefinition of a movie, I don’t know what you’d even call it but I loved it. So as soon as I got the letter I knew I would take their offer seriously.

The Interrobang: Besides the people involved, what was it about the script that made you think, I get this character?

It was an excellent opportunity for me and Zoe to portray two women on screen who were cool and have a powerful connection

Holly Hunter: Familial love is always interesting, but only if it feels real and complicated. Whenever you ask someone “what’s your relationship like with your family” a lot will flash across their face in a few seconds. And I thought we had an opportunity to do something multi-dimensional with this mother; show something new in her relationship with her daughter and her relationship with her husband. This marriage is complicated, but also everything really is pretty good. I don’t think of their story as being about a couple whose relationship is in jeopardy. I don’t really think my relationship with Ray’s character is in jeopardy. It’s just complicated, and I like that. Things just need to be mended, they need to talk. But I also felt they’re good, they have such a strong bond and they have real intimacy.

I also felt that when she says to Kumail, “I know who you are, our daughter’s told us all about you” I thought that was gold. That means that daughter feels safe with her parents, she likes her parents. Not just loves them, but genuinely likes being with and talking to her parents. It was an excellent opportunity for me and Zoe to portray two women on screen who were cool and have a powerful connection. And I don’t see that on screen very often. The stereotypical mother-daughter relationship is of a daughter who wants her mother to go away or stop smothering her. But in this film I felt that there was a real intimacy between them as mother and daughter and as friends.

The Interrobang: Because her character is in a coma for a big chunk of the film’s running time, we learn about that relationship through your character before we get to see the two of you interact. Did you and Zoe discuss your relationship to build a common history? 

That’s the kind of dialogue I can effortlessly have with Zoe, because that’s the type of person Zoe is. I just fell in love with her immediately.

Holly Hunter: Zoe is incredibly perceptive, she has an intellectual keenness when she approaches a script that I really admire. And as a cast, we were given the luxury of having a lot of time to work on the script together. Zoe and I didn’t spend specific time working out a history, but there was a tremendous amount of attention paid to each relationship in the film, including ours. And I really wanted to protect the integrity of the relationship between these two women. I felt that we were able to show an uncategorizable relationship between a mother and a daughter. It had to be complicated and positive, and I know Zoe wanted that too.

The Interrobang: And you have that sweet scene between the two of you in bed together that demonstrates how close the relationship is Beth’s been telling Kumail about.

Yeah, that scene says so much. Just the way I crawl into the bed with her and lay down. That’s the kind of dialogue I can effortlessly have with Zoe, because that’s the type of person Zoe is. I just fell in love with her immediately.

The Interrobang: You’ve been great in plenty of comedies, but in this film, most of your scenes are with two actors who came up through stand-up. Were you ever concerned that your methods as performances would be dramatically different?

Holly Hunter:  When I first took the job I was very intimidated about that, but when I actually got there I wasn’t intimidated at all. Kumail and Ray are both great actors, who happen to also be really great stand-ups. And they both happen to be incredibly generous actors. But I never tried to be as funny as they are, I didn’t feel competitive and knew I never could.

The Interrobang: This is Kumail and Emily’s story, but plenty has been made about how timely and necessary a story about this type of relationship is at this time. Was that a motivating factor for you to be a part of the film?

I absolutely think the broader message is something that is crucial for people to hear, but they hear it best when it comes from the most human of conduits, the private.

Holly Hunter: It’s an essential element of the movie of course, but one of the reasons it works is it doesn’t lead with that. I never thought that was on Kumail and Emily’s shopping list when they wrote the movie. They wrote it as a private catharsis for them that they decided to share with the public. It’s a private expression that comes with plenty of pain and complications for them. I absolutely think the broader message is something that is crucial for people to hear, but they hear it best when it comes from the most human of conduits, the private.

 

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Lesley Coffin is the Features/Interviews Editor for the movie site Filmoria. She has also written the books Lew Ayres: Hollywood Conscientious Objector (2012) and Hitchcock's Stars (2014), and currently writing a third book. Look for her brand new podcast, "Lake Shore Drive to Hollywood" part of the Second Wind Collective podcast network. Follow on twitter @filmbiographer for thoughts on movies and cat pictures.