Actor/writer/director Helen Hunt stopped by Ringling College of Art and Design on Tuesday night for a tour of the school and cocktail reception and Q& A with students and local fans. Her visit was arranged as part of Ringling's Studio Lab, a collaboration between the college and David Shapiro's Semkhor Productions.
Hunt, who won an Academy Award for Best Actress for As Good As It Gets, also starred on the long-running TV series Mad About You and has appeared in films like Cast Away, Twister and The Sessions. Most recently, she wrote, directed and starred in Ride, a film about a mother who learns to surf in an effort to reconnect with her college-age son.
In this exclusive interview, we chatted with Hunt about her thoughts on Ringling College and Sarasota, her advice for young women and the project that she loved the most.
Have you ever been to Sarasota before?
I haven’t—but it’s a beautiful day, and I just can’t believe what a rich environment this seems to be. You must be proud, all you people.
What are your thoughts on Ringling College and the students here?
It just seems like paradise to me. You’d have to feel like you won the lottery if you got to go here; it’s a beautiful place. And it seems like everyone has a really good understanding that there’s more and more and more to learn, but that it all [begins with] story and character. That makes me feel at home.
What’s your advice for young people who want to get into the film industry?
Make sure you love it, because the rest is a complete wild card—it might not happen [for you], or it might happen and not feel the way you imagined it, so just make sure you love the doing of it. And make your own work. Have readings in your living room, have a writing group, have a play-reading circle. Don’t wait for someone to give you a job.
Also, I have an 11 ½-year-old-daughter, and my great wish is that she opens her mouth and keeps her hand raised and doesn't let the subtle ways that women step back take over. I have this great agent who I think of as being a feminist pioneer, and I was trying to get considered to direct an upcoming pilot, and she said, “I think [the producers] would consider it; it’s not like it’s a show where a lot of stuff gets blown up.” And I realized that even she had that [stereotype] in her mind where [she thought], “It’s going to be hard to get Helen considered for this because it’s a big action show.” So it’s [also] about not falling asleep at the wheel and not drinking the Kool Aid [and thinking] that you can only do certain kinds of things.
How do you choose a project?
It’s weeded out by what I’m offered—that’s the first criteria, they have to want me! And then after that, it’s all about story, even more than about character. I would rather play a small part in a story that I love than a big part in a story that I didn’t care about. And that brings it all back to the basics of drama; what makes someone not want to get up to get popcorn [during a movie] because they’ll miss one thing and they just can’t stand to do it. That’s what makes me want to take a part.
What’s been your favorite project to date?
Our Town. It’s a perfect play, and it was uplifting and devastating every night. I did it in New York and L.A., and if someone asked me to do it a third time, I would happily do it. It changes as you get older; it changes as your life changes.
Would you do another TV series?
If the story was right, for sure. The best thing that’s happened [to the entertainment industry] is that the whole deck has been thrown up in the air and it’s not cooler to do a big movie than a TV show, which is very good for art. [Today we’re] leaving cool at the door. And it means there’s more work.
What do you like to do for fun?
I write—writing is always patiently waiting for me. I like to move; I walk and I ride my bike. I like to be with my kids.
Last movie you saw?
I saw Star Wars three times—it sort of made my kids freak out. That’s all about story, too—it’s also brilliant technology, but it’s story. And it stars a woman, a black man and three 70-year-olds, which I really like.
How about the last great book you read?
The New Jim Crowe, which is about mass incarceration and what we’re doing to our black citizens. It’s an incredible piece of work.
And, finally, do you have any projects you’d like to work on here?
I don’t have one in my pocket, but the night is young! [Laughs.]