Thursday, June 16, 2005


Helen Hunt will receive the Maui Film Festival's Stella Award for her intelligent portrayals of women.

A tribute to
Helen Hunt

The Oscar winner is a Maui Film
Festival award recipient for
positively influencing the status
of women in the industry

WAILEA, MAUI » Helen Hunt calls 30 minutes before her interview, apologizing because she wants to get work out of the way before heading to the beach, "my favorite place on earth.

In honor

Maui Film Festival Stella Award presentation:

Where: Wailea Marriott Ballroom

When: 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday, preceded by an 8 p.m. reception

Admission: $40

Call: (808) 572-3456

"I've been coming (to Hawaii) since I was 14, and I think of it as my home," she said. "It's where I feel right. I can write here, think, chill, get a clear head."

This June trip marks the first time the Oscar- and Emmy-award winning actor has made her visit so public. On Saturday night, Hunt is scheduled to receive the sixth annual Maui Film Festival's Stella award for "positively influencing the status of women in the film industry by breathing life into characters that empower, enlighten and entertain."

"Cool," Hunt says, laughing. "I didn't really know the specifics until now.

"I've always been drawn to women who struggle with one part of herself or another. My best guess is that everybody feels better about some part of themselves and struggles with other parts, and those are the acting parts that interest me.

"I guess these woman viewers relate to imperfection. I know I go to the movies to watch characters struggle with parts of themselves that are not perfect."

Hunt co-starred in the award-winning, long-running TV sitcom "Mad About You," then struck box-office gold with "Twister," an adventure film that placed a woman at the center of the action. But it was her performance as a blue-collar waitress and single mother who finds romance with an oddball writer (Jack Nicholson) in "As Good as It Gets" that won her an Academy Award in 1998.

"It was a dream come true," Hunt says. "You can't not have that dream if you're an actor. But you only have five seconds to enjoy it, and then you remember who you didn't thank."

She remembers being in a "bit of a trance" when her name was called at the Oscar ceremony.

"I had no thoughts; it was all surreal," she said. "By the time you get to that day, it's like you've been playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey for weeks.

"You keep getting spun around then pushed toward the donkey. I didn't fall down and that was good."

She calls the birth, at age 40, of her child Makena Lei her biggest production."Getting pregnant was a big deal for me, and it wasn't easy," she says.

"I wanted to have the baby on Maui so she would be a real kamaaina," Hunt said, "but my doctor and boyfriend -- writing partner Matthew Carnahan -- were in L.A., so I flew home and three days later I gave birth."

Her daughter was not named after a Hawaii place.

"I got some help from a friend who had a dream," Hunt said. "It means 'many flowers of heaven.'"

Hunt starred with Paul Reiser in the TV sitcom "Mad About You."

HUNT HASN'T been on the big screen lately, but she says it's "not fair" to say the slowdown was due to motherhood.

"It's a cycle that careers take," she said. "Nobody could have kept working as much as I was working -- six movies in a row and a TV show and a play on Broadway. After a while you get bored with yourself."

Her next project is to star, write and direct "Then She Found Me," a Killer Films-produced drama that Hunt adapted from an Elinor Lipman novel. Negotiations are under way for Diane Keaton and Woody Harrelson to join her.

"I've got my fingers crossed that I'll get the green light during the Maui festival," she said. "It's a story about betrayal and the surprising, funny and redemptive things that are borne out of that."

Hunt has worked on the script on and off for seven years and wrote the first draft on Maui. Screenwriting and feature directing are new to Hunt, who said that years of helping develop stories and directing episodes of "Mad About You" served as "a kind of boot camp, the best possible way to go to film school."

In the film, Hunt would play a teacher hitting midlife crisis. Her husband leaves, her adoptive mother dies and her real one, an eccentric talk-show host, materializes to turns her life upside down just as she begins a romance with one of her students' dad (Harrelson).

"Even though it uses the lens of betrayal as a theme, the ambition is for it to be a comedy, even though the subjects are deep and fierce," Hunt said.

Hunt acknowledged that writers are the least appreciated talent in Hollywood.

"Writing is something you have to want to do," she says. "You find yourself sitting there compelled to do it."

Hunt playing opposite Mel Gibson in the film "What Women Want."

THE DAUGHTER of acting coach Gordon Hunt, Helen started her career at age 12. After a string of supporting roles in movies like "Miles from Home" and "The Waterdance," Hunt began to map out her own territory in film. She was the frosty golf pro who seduces Richard Gere in "Dr. T and the Women," Tom Hanks' girlfriend in "Cast Away" and Mel Gibson's love interest in "What Women Want."

Her latest film, Lions Gate's "A Good Woman" -- with co-stars Scarlett Johansson, Tom Wilkinson and Stephen Campbell Moore -- is set in the 1930s on the Italian Riviera. The elegant, witty romantic comedy is based on Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan."

Hunt kept her pregnancy secret on the set last year and remains amazed that no one guessed her condition.

"I thought everyone would guess in part because I couldn't socialize in smoky bars with the cast and crew and was growing ever bigger throughout the shoot," she said. "I would say good night and leave. But no one guessed -- not even the costume designer."

In a scene in which she wears the same close-fitting dress as co-star Johansson, cast and crew were still oblivious.

"Scarlett kept saying, 'I feel pregnant in this dress,' because it was so tight, and I'd say, 'I do, too!'" Hunt says. "But I wasn't showing, and I didn't complain how nauseous I was to anyone."

Hunt, who occasionally enjoys longboard surfing, is considering taking lessons while at the festival, from Tide and Kiva Rivers' surf school. The instructors are the sons of film festival director Barry Rivers.

"I can sorta stand up but I need some tips," she said. "Are these guys mellow and not going to yell at me?"

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