'The Piano' struck a chord with Hunter

November 20, 1993|By Ian Spelling | Ian Spelling,New York Times Syndicate

Holly Hunter saw the part of Ada in Jane Campion's film "The Piano" as the role of a lifetime.

That's why she decided to fight for it.

Ada is a mute Scottish single mother who arrives in the wilds of 19th-century New Zealand with her 9-year-old daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) to enter into a mail-order marriage with Stewart (Sam Neill).

To safely journey from the beach where her boat lands to her new home in the bush, Ada must leave behind her most prized possession: her piano.

Eventually, the piano winds up in the hands of an illiterate neighbor, Baines (Harvey Keitel), who offers to let Ada earn it back, one key at a time, in exchange for brief, passionate encounters.

Though Ms. Hunter, a one-time Academy Award nominee, was eager to play Ada, Australian director Ms. Campion had other ideas.

Ms. Campion, who wrote the script for "The Piano," envisioned a taller actress. She was looking for someone with a dark, eerie sort of beauty -- someone like Sean Young, who was an early candidate.

But the 5-foot-2 Ms. Hunter was not to be denied.

"It's probably the most remarkable script I've ever read," Ms. Hunter says during an interview in a suite at New York's Rihga Royal Hotel.

"I immediately wanted to meet with Jane. I thought there were possibilities for my doing Ada creatively.

"I thought I could see myself doing the part. So my agent contacted Jane -- repeatedly."

Ms. Hunter smiles slyly.

"Much to her credit, Jane said she'd be glad to meet me, even though she wasn't thinking of me."

Ms. Hunter was pleasantly surprised to hear Ms. Campion's reaction, she says, because many directors will not even see an actress whom they feel is not right for a particular role.

"It's like, 'Oh, she's a lovely actress. Some other time,' " Ms. Hunter says, her Southern accent assuming moderately caustic tones. "That's too bad. You cut yourself off at the knees.

"Jane said, 'I don't see you for this, but I'd like to hear what you have to say about it.' I said, 'What I have to say about it is I'd like to audition.' "

Three days later Ms. Hunter and Ms. Campion met in Los Angeles. The two talked and Ms. Campion videotaped Ms. Hunter's audition.

When it was over the director thanked Ms. Hunter but decided to continue her international search to find her Ada.

"En route somewhere," Ms. Hunter says, smiling broadly, "Jane faxed me a note saying she was suddenly thinking of me in the part. Then they offered it to me."

Ms. Hunter describes "The Piano," for which she had to hone her piano-playing skills and learn sign language, as a story about a woman venturing into love and eroticism in a way rarely seen on film.

As the story unfolds, Ada falls madly in love with Baines, while Stewart, well-meaning and desperate for affection, grows jealous.

Attracted to the role

Ms. Hunter was attracted to the film's notion of a woman -- especially one living in the 19th century -- having the ability to identify her own needs and desires and the courage to pursue them.

"Even now, as a modern woman living in 1993, living an independent life like I do, sometimes I have a really tough time figuring out what I want," she says.

"What do I want? What are my needs? What do I need to do now?

"We're so barraged with information and other people's desires and needs -- what people want us to do for them -- that it becomes very confusing to distill it down to what you want. Ada has this uncanny ability to get to the core of her instincts. There's something shocking about that."

"The Piano" -- which opened at theaters yesterday -- has won prizes at international film festivals, most notably the Palme d'Or (Best Picture) and Best Actress awards at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. Oscar talk has already begun.

Though the awards and the acclaim are nice, Ms. Hunter says she is more impressed with the film's power to touch people.

"I'm just so thrilled people respond to the movie. It seems to happen all over the world," the Los Angeles-based actress says.

"There doesn't seem to be a country where part of the populace doesn't respond to this movie."

Ms. Hunter, who is 35 and single, was born in Conyers, Ga., the youngest of seven children.

After graduating from Carnegie-Mellon University, she moved to New York to pursue theater work.

Work with Beth Henley

While in Manhattan she hooked up with playwright Beth Henley and subsequently appeared in many of her works, including "Crimes of the Heart."

Ms. Hunter made her film debut in 1987 in the Coen brothers' quirky comedy, "Raising Arizona." That same year she earned an Oscar nomination as news producer Jane Craig in "Broadcast News."

Since then, Ms. Hunter has followed her heart to such films as "Miss Firecracker" (1989), "Always" (1989) and 'Once Around" (1991).

This past year she won an Emmy for her role as obsessive mother Wanda Holloway in the HBO movie "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom" and played Gary Busey's wacky secretary in the box-office hit "The Firm."

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