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Talk About Connected Four films with four heavyweight actors. Sounds like clout, but to Helen Hunt, it's about bonds--to her characters, to the world.

September 10, 2000|AMY WALLACE | Amy Wallace is a Times staff writer

Imagine it: Helen Hunt, blond mane crunched under a dorky hat, haggling with a teenager she's never seen before. The setting: the Olympic Games in Atlanta. The topic at hand: one of those little enamel pins that geeky people affix to their hats and neckties and lapels at big events like the Olympics. Among the geeks and proud of it, it may surprise you to learn, is Helen Hunt.

"At the Olympics, it's all about these pins--for Hungarian team handball or Fuji film. I was obsessed with them," she says, enjoying telling the story. "I had this experience over and over where a kid would come and ask for my autograph. And I'd say, 'OK, but give me your Swatch pin.' And he'd go, 'No way!' So I'd say, 'All right, I'll give you my Motorola pin and an autograph for your Swatch pin.' And suddenly, you've poked a hole in the 'You're playing the part of the guy who wants my autograph and I'm playing the famous person' thing. Once in a while, you can poke through and actually connect with somebody."

Hunt says this one day in early August, several weeks before heading off to the Olympics again, this time in Australia. Sitting in her comfy West Hollywood office in Sunset Plaza, she explains that she's such a fan of the Games that in 1998, during contract negotiations for her final season of the long-lived TV series "Mad About You," she made tickets to the Olympics a part of her deal with NBC, which broadcasts the Games. As much as the athletics, though, what makes Hunt's gray-green eyes flash is the overwhelming vastness of the event.

"It makes you feel connected to the world," she says emphatically. "That's so rare. So rare. This is a global thing, and you just want to die, you're so happy to be there. It's like during Oscar time [this year], people asked [director] Sam Mendes why people liked 'American Beauty.' He said, 'I don't know what to say.' But I said, 'I do. It makes people feel less lonely.' The Olympics are like Sam Mendes' movie: You're less lonely."

Geeky. Lonely. Oscar-winning. At first, the three don't seem to mesh, especially since they describe an actress whose beauty--though frequently underestimated as merely "accessible"--can be ravishing in its strength and authenticity. Someone once said of Hunt that she was never an ingenue, and it's true. Her looks--the high forehead, the long hair--have always been more Meryl Streep than Winona Ryder. And in more than one movie, including "As Good as It Gets," for which she won an Academy Award for best actress in 1998, she's appeared downright plain.

Lately, it seems the 37-year-old has grown into herself, appearing not just at home in her own skin, but reveling in its golden glow. But it is her eagerness to explore what she calls the "unglamorous" or "messy" facets of life that fuel her acting. And in four upcoming movies, she's about to prove just how messy she can be.

Next month, Hunt stars opposite Kevin Spacey and Haley Joel Osment in "Pay It Forward," about a boy who thinks up a simple idea that just might change the world: Do three big favors for three people, and ask them to pass it on. Sources say Hunt was paid $8 million to play the boy's single mom, a Las Vegas cocktail waitress with an alcohol problem. She has never portrayed anyone with a harder edge. Hunt's crimped platinum hair, acrylic nails and bad eye makeup only lay the foundation for a performance so fierce that one key scene had to be re-choreographed to make sure Hunt didn't hurt anyone.

"When I met Helen, I said to her, 'I want this character to lead with her breasts.' She jumped right in," director Mimi Leder said of Hunt's low-cut, midriff-baring wardrobe in the film. (Both her clothes and her performance are likely to remind audiences of Julia Roberts' sexy working-class heroine, Erin Brockovich.) "We tried to tell these people's stories in a very unconventional way, and Helen didn't hold anything back."

Also in October, Hunt plays a golf pro who is Richard Gere's love interest in director Robert Altman's "Dr. T & the Women"--an ensemble piece that lets Hunt try on a role usually reserved for men: sexually aggressive, aloof and wary of commitment. ("I'm the guy who blows him off," Hunt says, referring to the gender-bending part. Gere, she recalls, "was [People magazine's] 'the Sexiest Man Alive' the week I was doing those love scenes with him. I was like, 'I'm the one who's supposed to be sexually confident? Help!' ")

In December, Hunt appears as Tom Hanks' girlfriend (a woman, she says, "who hasn't quite found her voice yet") in director Robert Zemeckis' "Castaway"--the tale of a Federal Express executive who survives alone on an island for four years. The same month, Hunt shifts gears in "What Women Want," a romantic comedy about a male chauvinist advertising executive (Mel Gibson) who suddenly can read women's minds. Hunt plays Gibson's chief rival, a sexy, smart ad whiz whom he inadvertently falls for while trying to steal her innermost thoughts.

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