Holly Hunter Discusses Her Creative Process and Role in ‘The Big Sick’

For three decades, Oscar-winning actress Holly Hunter has been lighting up the screen with her portrayal of dynamic female characters. In her latest film “The Big Sick,” she plays Beth, a North Carolina mother who flies to Chicago along with her husband, Terry (Ray Romano), to care for her comatose daughter, Emily (Zoe Kazan). Once there, she has to deal with Emily’s estranged boyfriend, Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani), who still has feelings for her daughter and yearns to right some wrongs. Further complicating the plot is Terry’s recent infidelity, forcing him and Beth to put aside their troubles as they stand vigil by Emily’s bedside with a virtual stranger. “The Big Sick” is based on real events in the life of Nanjiani and his now-wife, Emily V. Gordon, with whom he co-wrote the film’s screenplay.

Hunter recently sat down with “Entertainment Voice” to discuss “The Big Sick” and the connection she felt with her co-stars and director, the creative process, and which film in her canon she feels is more relevant than ever.

What attracted you to this project?

Initially, it was Judd Apatow, who is so masterful and has such great taste, and unusual taste, and is genuinely funny. He and Barry Mendel and the role; I was immediately intrigued by their pedigree. And then I read the script and I thought that it was on to something that I hadn’t really been part of or have seen expressed, really. It’s a very unusual script because of the private nature of the story. I felt that that really emanated from the script, that it came from a truly inside track of Kumail and Emily Gordon. It was easy to say yes to.

You’ve mentioned how you considered every detail, such as props, while filming scenes. Can you talk about that?

That’s just kind of what my general way with working is, the details give me a lot of information as an actor. I like the details. I like working with props. The costumes…. They just give me a lot of inspiration or comfort, or lack of comfort. Whatever the thing is, I tend to exploit it. But this production had tremendous ease, and I think that’s also in the movie. There’s something easy about the movie. There’s something easy to watch about the movie, and I think that comes from Michael Showalter, who directed it. The set felt very free, and at the same time, structured. There was a sense of work. People were working, people were focused, but it was very liberated.

It was evident onscreen how well you all connected. It was almost as if you became a real family.

Really, truly. I felt a real connection with everyone that I was working with. That’s a little bit rare. That feeling of connection with Zoe, and with Ray, and with Kumail, those were the three that I really prominently worked with. It just was great.

You and Ray were especially great together. What was it like working with him?

A delight. These things, in a way, you just can’t fake. It’s a joy to be able to work with someone who I really, really like and really respect as I do Ray. He’s a tremendously hard worker. He knows himself, he has a way with himself, he has a way of working that was very respectful of mine. It was just a good match that you can’t really make or force. It just is or it isn’t. Here’s the funny thing, he’s like a combination of opposites. He’s very loose. He’s very relaxed, but working, thinking, evaluating all the time what works, what doesn’t, what could work better, what’s true, what’s not, and what feels right. I loved that constant evaluation. He was always on it.

Do you guys have much room to change things and perhaps improvise?

Yeah. There was that tremendous freedom on set where we could change things from take to take. It was really fun that way. But that was also coming from Mike. When Judd was around, that was coming from Judd and Mike, but that was a Mike Showalter environment. That was the atmosphere that Mike set up.

You and Kumail were also great together as there was a thawing out between your characters. What was your working relationship like with him? Did you spend a lot of time with him and Emily beforehand to prepare?

Emily and Kumail were around, but I spent a little more time with Kumail because we rehearsed quite a bit. We talked about the script a lot. We talked about the individual scenes, not that we were really putting them on their feet, we just hung around in Brooklyn where Showalter was staying and talked about the scenes. There was a lot of time. We had a luxury in that way, because sometimes you’re not doing that, but this was a group that wanted to do that. If the director wants to work that way, it’s very productive. If the director doesn’t want to that and an actor does, it’s not going to be productive. The whole thing has to come from the comfort level and the sensibility and the desire of the director. In this way, Showalter was very open and desirous of doing a lot of work on the script before we ever hit the set so that a lot of problems could be resolved, a lot of work could be achieved beforehand so you’re not wasting any shooting time, and I thought that really paid off with this movie.

Was there a scene that was particularly hard for you? That scene in which you got into a fight in the comedy club, for example, was very physical.

We talked about that scene an awful lot. That scene was a real evolution on the page. [By the time] we got to the club, we shot that scene really quickly. That was really easy to shoot. Maybe it wasn’t as easy for Mike to shoot, but I got the feeling that it was. I don’t think anyone would disagree with me. It shot itself very easily because we talked about it and figured it out before we ever got there.

Did you meet Emily’s real mother?

I never have met her. I’ve never spoken to her. You know, that was one of the things that I think was really nice for Emily, and for Emily’s parents, is that we were a little fictionalized. We joked, as far as we know, Emily’s father never had an affair on Emily’s mother. There was a lot of freedom in how Ray and I developed the relationship and the characters, much more fictionalized that other parts of the movie, so that was kind of nice.

Did you relate to the character of Beth?

I relate to all of my characters. Any character that I’ve ever done, I relate to them to some great degree. They’re only coming from me. [I am] the vessel, so they are aspects of me, really. And some characters are closer to me than others. I would say this character was closer. This was an easier fit.

You’ve been in such a wide range of films. Do you have a preference for a particular genre? Is there any genre that you haven’t done that you would like to try?

Well, comedy is really fun. This was really a lot of fun to visit this genre in the way that this movie does, which is a beautiful kind of sophisticated combination of comedy and high stakes, which is really the funniest to me, when comedy has great stakes, like life or death. But this movie has a very particular term that’s unusual because of the coma [laughs], “girl in coma.”

Is there any character you have played whom you’d like to revisit?

Yeah. The character that I did with Jane Campion for “Top of the Lake,” that was a really unusual character. She would be a fun person to revisit. There are movies that I felt, “Oh, I’d love to redo that movie. I’d love to do it again.” It was funny, when Jim Brooks finished “Broadcast News” in 1987, he was like, “I would like to do the whole movie all over again. Now I know how to do the movie.” Which, of course, was not true. He knew what he was doing because the movie is so amazing and it continues to kind of be, in a way, almost prescient and very current, so he was on to something. But I think that that’s something that’s common. People feel like, “Oh, now I’d like to start over.” I’ve certainly had that.

Is there any other project coming up that you can talk about?

I’ve got another movie called “Strange Weather” that I really loved doing. It’s a very small movie that’s coming out July 28. I did that around the same period of time that I did this. I had great belief in “Strange Weather,” and had a beautiful time working with Carrie Coon, who was in “The Leftovers” and “Fargo” and she’s a wonderful actress. I think that that was a beautiful story to tell. I played a character who experienced the death of her child seven years before, so it picks up seven years later and shows where she is. I thought that was a really beautiful story that embraced a taboo, suicide.

The Big Sick” opens June 23 in select theaters and July 14 nationwide.