Festival opening is ‘As Good As It Gets’

Helen Hunt, the Oscar winning actress, spoke candidly about the joys and challenges of her career during the keynote event of the 2009 St. Louis Jewish Book Festival. More than 1,100 people filled the gymnasium of the Jewish Community Center’s Staenberg Family Complex last Sunday, Nov. 1.

Hunt’s keynote was actually a question-and-answer session with KMOX radio host Charles Brennan. Then she took questions from the audience.


Hunt explained that her father was a director of plays and that she grew up, first in Los Angeles, then in New York, attending many shows on Broadway. “I went to the theater all the time, and I knew that I felt very happy in the magic that happens when a group gathers to perform. I didn’t have an agenda about being an actor necessarily. I certainly didn’t have an agenda about being in movies,” she said.

Then she saw actress Tatum O’Neal receive an Oscar at the age of 10 for her supporting role in the film Paper Moon and thought, “that looks like fun. I can get up there and do that. But I didn’t feel particularly married to the idea of acting — I just wanted to be in the theater and was in dance class because my cousin was. I was in an acting class because it’s what we did on Saturdays.”

Hunt, 46, who is Jewish from her paternal grandmother, began working in the 1970s as a child actress. Her early roles included an appearance as Murray Slaughter’s daughter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and a regular role in the television series Swiss Family Robinson. When asked by Brennan about the obstacles she encountered as a young actress, she said, “I didn’t have that struggling artist thing until later.”

“There have been spaces in my life where I’ve worked a lot, and then the work dried up,” she continued. “So when the work dries up is really when your craft comes in and you’re facing yourself, having a whole life outside of work. You really hope you have that when you face leaner times.”

Hunt said she survived being a child actor by not being very successful at it. “None of my shows were big hits, and I think that was probably a blessing that I was not taken out of my real life. I was in school every year, had normal friends, and took part in some extracurricular activities,” she said.

Her father, Gordon Hunt, was one of several acting teachers under which she studied, and she credits him for building her self-confidence. She also said that her father’s love of theater was “contagious” and that both of her parents inspired her. “They both were happy for me to work in film and plays as long as my grades were good and I didn’t seem like a crazy person. Those two things were OK, so I continued to work,” she added.

Hunt, who in addition to acting is a film writer, director and producer, starred in the sitcom Mad About You for seven years with Paul Reiser, who was the keynote speaker at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival two years ago. Her role on the series earned her four Emmy Awards (and seven nominations), three Golden Globes (and six nominations), a Screen Actors Guild Award and three American comedy awards.

She was then cast in the romantic comedy As Good As It Gets, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Other Hollywood credits include Twister, Cast Away, What Women Want and Pay It Forward. She made her directorial debut in 2008 with Then She Found Me.

Despite all her success, Hunt confided that sometimes between assignments she worries that she won’t find another acting or directing job, and that she’ll be out of work for a long time.

“I’ve read interviews of Meryl Streep and of Dustin Hoffman, and anyone’s life can change when you’re out of work for a long time,” she said. “It can be trying, and you just have to have faith that I have worked up until now and the right job will come.”

In the course of Brennan’s interview, and in response to audience questions, Hunt said she is able to balance her acting career with being a mom to her young daughter and stepson.

Hunt, who appeared in Woody Allen’s The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, described the legendary director as “enigmatic,” adding that she admires him “for just continuing to make films every year or so and not caring what the reviews say.” She said Jack Nicholson, her co-star in As Good As It Gets, is “highly professional, and like me is a product of acting school, so he was good to work with.”

Tom Hanks, with whom she worked in Castaway, “is just like you would think he would be. He is a mensch, he always shows up on the set on time, and is a pleasure to work with.”

Hunt said she enjoys working in live theater as much as she does in film or TV, but the demands of being on the road take too much time away from her family. She hopes to be able to direct more small independent films that are “moving, funny and disturbing at the same time.”

Before Hunt’s appearance, a handful of protestors held placards at the corner of Schuetz Road and Lindbergh Boulevard with signs reading “The Jews Killed Jesus,” “God hates Jews,” “Some Jews Will Repent,” “Israel is Doomed” and “God Hates Fags,” among others.

Around 50 people — largely teens from Parkway North and Parkway West — held a counterprotest across the street at the same time, with placards stating messages of unity, peace and love.