Holly Hunter On Creating A Sense Of Intimacy In ‘The Big Sick’

Senior Editor, Sports
06.27.17

Getty Image / Lionsgate

The biggest revelation in The Big Sick is how wonderful Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are together. As the long-married parents of Zoe Kazan’s character, Emily, their characters have their own burdens and baggage, but they love their daughter, and ultimately, one another. They do a huge portion of the “romantic” heavy lifting in this romantic comedy, acting as proxies for Emily, who is in a medically induced coma.

While Romano gets to show off his acting chops, Hunter gets to deliver a truly bravura performance as a Southern firebrand who feels passionately about everything and wears her heart on her sleeve, particularly when it comes to her daughter, her family, and anyone who dares to run afoul of either.

I was able to sit down with Hunter and talk about her chemistry with Romano, and how she was able to deliver one of the all-time great maternal performances in cinema … in a rom-com.

I loved the pairing of you and Ray Romano so much. What was it like to get to discover that clear chemistry that you two have together?

It was rare, because that doesn’t always have to happen. You don’t have to have chemistry with anybody. I mean, hopefully you have chemistry with the character, because you want to play the character. But in this situation, I got lucky. Because I’d never met Ray. We didn’t know each other. We weren’t buddies. We met each other at the read through. And it was just a really easy combination as actors.

Ray is also a really unusual combination, because Ray is an unbelievable stand-up comic. Like unbelievably funny. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen him in a comedy club, but he’s just ridiculous, he’s so funny. I think the thing that makes him rare as a stand-up comic is when you see him on stage, he is using his full self. He’s bringing his soul with him. It’s not like, he is operating on a persona, but I think that’s one of the reasons why Ray is such a beautiful actor as well. Is because even in his stand-up comedy, he brings his full self.

So he can do that as an actor, as well, because he’s used to working with his vulnerability, with his humanity, with his everything. So I utterly found him inspiring to work with. He’s a very hard worker, and at the same time, he’s terribly relaxed and loose.

I was just speaking with Michael Showalter. We were talking about how this isn’t a typical structure for a romantic comedy, and that the romantic female lead is absent for the entire middle portion of the film.

Yeah, so amazing.

So you and Ray have to do so much of the heavy lifting, because you have to serve as proxies for the character of Emily.

Well, you find out more about Emily through us. In a way, she doesn’t disappear because we are her proxies.

The two of you have a unique role in that you’re not only serving as proxies, but you have to, sort of by extension, fall in love with Kumail. You have to also portray parents to this woman, who’s going through this horrible thing.

Well, I think obviously in drama, it’s great, when the stakes are high is when audiences most want to watch. In comedy, it’s the same. If the stakes are high, if it’s life and death, that’s when it’s, in a way, the funniest. This movie is a great testament to that, because the stakes actually, that’s what it literally was. Her life hanging in the balance and all of the characters in the movie, with the exception of the stand-up comics, we were satellites of that tension. I think in a way, it was really clear cut, where I would orient myself, which was around the love of my daughter, and the well-being of my daughter. So everything emanated from that core of protection.

I know that this is an autobiographical movie, but from what I understand, the least autobiographical part of it is the parents, Emily’s parents.

Yeah, I felt that. I think that Ray and I both felt the freedom of that. That you know, I never even met [co-writer] Emily [V. Gordon]’s mother. I never spoke with her on the phone. I kinda didn’t feel the need to do that. I wanted it to be a creation. I wanted to feel my own freedom with the character.

One of the things that I really wanted to express with the movie, really wanted to express, and I got to, was that while Beth can be an incredibly protective mother and a very loving mother, there was also that she had a real true intimacy with her daughter. That they loved each other. You know what I mean? That her daughter confided in her, told her stuff. They were friends. That there was a friendship between the mother and the daughter. But nevertheless, it wasn’t an inappropriate friendship, like some mothers only want to be friends with their kids. There was a real maternal thing, but at the same time that the daughter felt safe enough to be able to confide in her mom.

Then at the end, that her mom goes, “It’s time for us to go. It’s time for you to get on with your life.” You know, and not be a smothering kind of claustrophobic helicoptering parent. I wanted very much to express a really healthy relationship from beginning to end between a parent and a child, and how that relationship can evolve over time. Because she’s an adult. This is an adult daughter now, and I loved having that in the script. That was something that we really worked toward, in a very, only brief little scenes, I wanted to express that kind of future. A really modern relationship between mother and daughter. I felt I wanted to say that.

I’ve observed a lot of relationships between mothers and daughters, and mothers and sons, and there are little things, just like you crawling into bed with her, and you touching Kumail’s face, and you touching Emily’s face when she’s asleep that ring so true. It just felt like a true, maternal relationship that Emily then emulated in her own relationships.

Well, I mean, I feel like intimacy really begins between a parent and a child. That’s where you learn how to be or how not to be intimate. I wanted to have a real manifestation of affection. That affection is so life saving. When people can be physically affectionate with each other, that’s such a well of well-being. It’s a fountain of well-being. Just on a moment to moment basis for your life. If somebody’s affectionate with you, it can tide you over. For like the next hour, you can feel better.

You can just feel, it gives you a goose. So if you get that consistently as a child, and I felt like Emily got that from, I wanted to give that to her, that was one thing I wanted to bring to the character. And to her. And to Kumail. That [my character] Beth had a real generosity of affection and love in that way, a real maternal expression. I felt like Kumail didn’t have any of that in the movie. He had tremendous conflict with his family, who love him deeply. His family loves him so much, but they’re in real conflict. We love him, as the movie goes on, so I wanted to really express that. A character who was kind of starving for that, even though his family has such a depth of love for him.

Your character in the film is so specifically Southern, and there’s the great story you told about smashing the gas station plates. How much rewriting was done specifically for you after you came aboard?

Well, that was something that did come from — I remember being a child of the South, that you could buy, you could earn place settings from the gas station. So I, [said] yes. “Oh, let’s put that in.” So they did, which I just thought would be fun, you know, to have that. Because I don’t know if that was happening elsewhere in the country, but certainly fill-ups, you know, full-service fill-ups earned you a place setting. Or a cup and saucer.

I was talking earlier about how I felt so much affection and love for these characters by the end of the film, and I was jealous of their relationship that these characters were able to have with your characters. I want to know what makes Holly Hunter so likable?

I don’t know, man. You’d have to ask other people.

Is it Southern charm, maybe?

I don’t know. That’s a mystery. I mean, some people, maybe they don’t feel that way. I don’t know. Yeah, that’s a question for somebody else.

Okay. Well, I’ll ask Judd later then.

Yeah, ask those other clowns.

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