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'Arizona's' Holly Hunter Is Small But Getting Big

May 10, 1987|STEPHANIE MANSFIELD | Mansfield writes for the Washington Post. and

WASHINGTON — She breezes into the hotel bar in shades and an oversized tweed coat and sticks out her hand. "Hi Howyrayoo." Then she throws back two OJs, straight up, brushing her brown bangs from her eyes. They won't stay up. She blows upward. They're still in her eyes. She gives up, stabbing the bowl of miniature pretzels, popping those babies in one by one.

Any day now, Holly Hunter is going to be big. Really big. She's not big now. Only 5 feet 2. Sissy Spacek-size before "Coal Miner's Daughter." Sally Field-size before "Norma Rae." She may be the smallest new comic actress in America. And the hottest.

"I think I have a good sense of humor but I'm not a funny. . . . " Her voice trails off. "I'm not like a stand-up comedienne at all. I don't tell a good joke. I don't keep people holding their sides."

She talks in a hoarse, Southern-fried twang. Oh what a twang! Slicker than a dab of Dixie Peach pomade, it could charm the stubble off Don Johnson's chin. She says "May-an" and "ayn't" and "knowatahmean" and "bayhhy-bee." But don't try to imitate her. She is not amused.

"I hate being imitated," she says. "I'm imitated all the time. 'Hiii Holleh howrya doin?' Oooh, that's not how I sound. I know I have an accent. I'm very aware of that."

She has an earnest, scrappy, small-town quality; takes herself pretty seriously; doesn't smile readily, though she does let out an occasional snicker.

"My comedy comes from a very serious place. It's a matter of being in grave circumstances and taking it very seriously or having something truly at stake that I think makes things funny."

At 28, already a veteran of a brace of Broadway plays, she is starring in her first major film, "Raising Arizona"--the new comedy by Joel and Ethan Coen, the folks who brought you the cult hit "Blood Simple."

She plays Edwina, a former police officer who weds ex-con Hi (Nicolas Cage). The honeymoon ends when the couple cannot have what they most desire: a baby. They can't adopt, given Hi's criminal record and all, so they decide to kidnap one of the quintuplets born to Nathan Arizona, an unpainted-furniture mogul.

If it sounds like an unlikely premise for a comedy, it is. But Hunter, with her fierce little eyes and drier-than-the-panhandle wit, transforms the hick heroine into a rich and sympathetic character.

New York magazine praises Hunter's work as "an original comic performance, combining larceny and righteousness, covetousness and love." People magazine calls the young actress "an endearing amalgam of feisty and fragile."

And, of course, everybody's bonkers over the babies.

"We had a couple of baby wranglers that were really great," Hunter says, explaining how the film makers handled the tots. No, she says, it didn't make her yearn to be a mother. "But I certainly did love the baby who was Nathan Jr. He was a fascinating child, and brought a real humane aspect to doing the movie. It wasn't like being on other sets because there was a baby involved and he had no respect for the camera. He had no awareness of meal penalties or overtime. If he didn't feel like doing a scene, then we had to wait and have him take a nap."

She met Joel and Ethel Coen when they were casting for "Blood Simple." They kept in touch and finally sent Hunter the "Raising Arizona" script. The part of Edwina had been written with her in mind. Midway through the first reading, she called them--screaming with delight.

She loves the Coens and their offbeat brand of movie making.

"We were constantly aware we were making a movie. It was not brain surgery. It was not real life. It was a movie. Joel and Ethan are very much that way. This is a movie movie. It's a very self-conscious movie and I think they're very self-conscious movie makers. I love that." She takes a swig of orange juice. " 'Raising Arizona' is not a film. It's a movie. 'Out of Africa' is a film."

She hopes the movie will make money, but she's not sure. "It may not catch on like 'Back to the Future.' " Here, she lets out a cackle, turning side to side and hunkering down at the table. "Let's be serious here. It ain't a middle-of-the-road movie. It's made by extremists."

She comes from a little town outside Atlanta called Conyers. It's right off the main highway, dotted with trailer parks and RV dealerships. Holly, the youngest of seven children, grew up on a farm. Her dad was a manufacturer's rep for sporting goods. When she was 13, she started doing plays in school. Musicals, mostly. "Oklahoma!" "The Boy Friend."

"You name it, I think I've done it." She spent a few summers apprenticing in Upstate New York after a director spotted her in a Georgia state competition. "By the time I was 16, I knew that's what I wanted to do."

She also got into music and drove a Camaro. "I wouldn't say I was bad, but I certainly was a little rougher than some of the girls I was going to school with."

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