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Helen Hunt On Movement, Motherhood And The Long Road To Loving Yourself

In this signature espnW column, Allison Glock sits down for a candid Q&A with a remarkable person. The aim is to cover topics high and low, deep and less so, to present a fresh look at folks we think we know and meet some others we wish we'd known all along. Welcome to The Conversation.

Caution: Some language ahead.

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Who: Helen Hunt

Where: Beachside in Santa Monica, California

When: March 28, a few weeks before the release of the movie "Ride," which Hunt wrote, directed and stars in.

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Allison Glock: I watched "Ride" and cried through the whole thing.

Helen Hunt: Oh good! Then my job is done, excellent.

AG: Then I read it was a comedy...

HH: Yes, that was the goal. [Laughs.] But your reaction is also good. [She orders hot water with lemon; yogurt with granola; water, no ice.] I believe any movie is a Rorschach test for the moment you're in when you see it.

AG: "Ride" is being marketed as a surfing movie, but it's also a coming-of-age story for not just the child, but also the mother. Through surfing, your character discovers the woman and parent she is meant to be. When you wrote it, were you talking to yourself?

HH: It's all me. I wanted to write about something I cared about, something that made me laugh, something that made me cry, something that made me nervous, and this movie is all those things. This character represents many women I know. And men, too. There's plenty of multitasking men who are miles and miles away from Mother Nature, who are all f-----d up about that, and could really stand to be humbled by something bigger than them. So it's not really just about being a woman. It's about a human being.

AG: Tell me about the surfing.

HH: When I started writing, my daughter was very young, and I kept hearing these terms -- "soccer mom" or "surf mom." And I was like, these moms, what? They're just sitting there? Their job is just to sit there and watch their sons and daughters play? And I began to think about how vitally important it might be for the moms to get off the beach and get into the water, or whatever their version of getting into the water is.

AG: To actually participate in the sport alongside their kids?

HH: Yes. This writer, James Hillman, is a big influence on me. ... He wrote an essay saying that as a parent, you better get out there. When you become a mother and father, you better get out the surfboard or the boogie board or the roller skates or whatever it is and play along with your children. Because if you don't, you get into this polarized thing where the kid is in charge of playing and you are in charge of timekeeping and yes-ing and no-ing and that makes for not-so-good relationships.

AG: How did that philosophical parenting lesson become a movie about an uptight New Yorker uprooting to Venice Beach, California?

HH: I asked myself who would be the funniest person on earth I could imagine taking a surf lesson. And there was a woman I grew up with, who sadly passed away this year, but she was brilliant, a very articulate, well-read person for whom higher education meant the world. If one of her sons dropped out of school to move to California, of all places, that would've made her crazy. And then I imagined what would happen if that woman met a surf teacher on Venice Beach. And that idea just made me laugh.

AG: So it wasn't necessarily based on you.

HH: Every character in the movie is probably me some because that's the only person I know. I did grow up on both of these coasts. I was born and raised in California, but I also spent ages 3 to 9 and 18 to 24 in New York City. So I am pretty well-versed in all the things New Yorkers and Californians love and hate about each other.

AG: And like your heroine, you learned how to surf later in life.

HH: The first time was at age 40. I'm 51 now. And I found it so deeply humiliating and demoralizing that I got out of the water and said, "Never again." I was in tears.

AG: Why?

HH: I felt ashamed or ... I don't know. It messed me up pretty bad. But I also thought, Well, anything that's creating this strong of a reaction in me is probably something I should do again.

AG: What made it go so horribly wrong?

HH: I took a surf lesson in Hawaii with someone that a friend of a friend told me would be great. They took me to a beach that was like the 405 Freeway at 5 o'clock in the afternoon. It was packed. None of us knew what we were doing. And the instructor screamed at me the whole time. I was a nursing mother at this point. And I was like, Really? I'm gonna get screamed at by this f---ing a--h---? [Laughs.] So I told myself a big, fat never-again. And then somehow I went back in.

AG: How soon after the surf-tastrophe?

HH: Months, not that long. I had a friend who was a surf teacher who said, "I'll take you back out there."

AG: And he was gentler?

HH: He could be harsh too, but not like that. It's hard not to be harsh when you're teaching surfing because you really don't want the person you're teaching to drown. When you're learning you have so much going on and you're so scared that you can't pay attention. Then you get out there and the wave comes and you have water brain and you can't think.

AG: Despite that, or maybe because of it, were you able to get into the whole spiritual vibe of surfing?

HH: Yes, but not because I understand the Zen of surfing. I am a multitasker and a fast thinker and it's horrible, often, to be those things. So maybe the fact that I'm only a mediocre surfer helps because I have to pay attention out there. If I want to catch a wave and I don't want to get pummeled, even I can't worry about five other things while I'm getting myself in and out of the ocean. Putting all that on hold while I surf is a great pleasure.

AG: Why do you think it's so hard for women to quiet their brains, to stay still?

HH: It seems like the culture is really conspiring against staying still. I meditate. But I basically have to lock myself down. The other day I was meeting someone for lunch on the pier and as I was riding my bike there I had this awful thought about the drivers all around me: My God, what if they're texting? If they're texting, I'm dead. It really made me wonder about the blinking red lights, the screens on our phones, what it will take to stop our addiction to them. That's a big theme in this movie. All that scattered attention, it can be torturous. I don't think it's possible to have perspective if you never stand still.

AG: To that end, have you taught anyone else to surf?

HH: Oh no. [Laughs.] But last summer I rediscovered boogie boarding, and I thought, This is like surfing without 10 feet of fiberglass. It's not so stressful. What I've learned about any kind of athletics is to not be too precious about it. If I have time to ride a bike, I ride a bike. If I have time to take half a yoga class even when I have to leave early to pick up my kid, I do. If I can get in the water, I know that will probably make my day better. Having a light touch about all of it is the key.

AG: Have you always been athletic?

HH: I was a dancer from age 8 to 16. And then again when I was in my late twenties. I started with ballet and then did a lot of jazz stuff. And then I started working and there just wasn't time to be in the class so it kind of faded away. I missed it. I was so used to moving my body around five times a week.

AG: Did you want to be a professional dancer?

HH: I didn't care. I just had so much fun doing it, you know? It was the same thing with acting classes when I was young. I wasn't doing it so I could be on a TV show or be in a movie. I just liked it. It was never a premeditated thing.

AG: Did you play organized sports as well?

HH: I didn't. And my daughter is now at an age [11] where people around me are saying team sports are good for kids. I'm really confused as to whether to push that or not. She wants to play for fun. I like to play basketball for fun. I like to play soccer for fun. How can I say to her, "No, you have to do it for not fun?" [Laughs.] How do you say, "No it's good for someone to lose?" I have no idea. I don't know how much to be strict, like, "We're doing this, no discussion," and how much to say, "I'm really hearing you and you don't want to do it." So we'll see.

AG: It's a mothering quandary. Being active is great. But competition isn't for every kid.

HH: Yeah. There are some things, like piano, where I just go into this dead robot thing where I'm like, "You're playing piano." [Assumes young girl voice.] "But I don't wanna." [Switches to dead robot voice.] "I know, but you're playing piano." I can't quite get to the dead robot place with team sports, but we'll see. By next year I hope to be on one side or the other.

AG: What was your mother like?

HH: I think she wanted me to be happy and healthy and get good grades, and making sure I exercised wasn't an issue because I was dancing. I don't know that I would say she was strict. I was a pretty good kid. I was like my daughter. I wasn't this big handful that you had to punish.

AG: Never?

HH: [Laughs.] I was secretly maybe not so good as they thought. I was the best one in a group of bad kids who were getting in trouble. I was with everybody, but I was outside of it, observing at the same time.

AG: Tucking stuff away for later.

HH: Yeah. And I was lucky that I wasn't an addict. Any experimenting with anything that everybody was doing, I was like, "Meh, I think I'm good." All the other parents would feel happy if I was coming along because they thought I had a level head.

AG: You do seem to have one.

HH: Yes, I do seem to.

AG: I mean, you've made a career playing really smart, strong, together women. Including 1983's "Quarterback Princess," a role that was seminal in my youth because you played the QB of the boy's high school football team and not only led the school to win state but were also crowned Homecoming queen!

HH: [Laughs.]

AG: Since then, you've stayed the course choosing roles that are women-positive. I can't recall ever seeing you tied up to a basement radiator or flipping your hair around as the vacant ingénue. How have you been able to avoid those clichéd, reductive parts?

HH: Years ago I worked a lot, so I was able to save money. And I don't spend money on a lot of things, so I'm able to make little movies that I love, instead of playing parts I don't love, in movies I don't love. That's a huge luxury as an actor.

AG: And now you're writing and directing, too.

HH: Which helps. It's one thing to turn a movie down when you've got nothing to do all day and you're like, "What did I just do?" But if you're turning a movie down in order to try to make something that's a worthy artistic venture? That's different.

AG: Tell me how the writing came into your life. Is that something you've always done?

HH: I wouldn't say always but for the last 15 years I've been in a group of writers who meet once a week. All that matters is that your ass is in the chair and you're writing something, even if it's, "I don't know what to write, I'm never going to write anything again, I'm the worst writer in the world." That's a decent writing day as far as I'm concerned. We finally got a pot in the middle of the room and if you rag on your own work you have to put $5 in it because it's enough already. Like, stop tearing yourself down.

AG: But that's the identifying characteristic of a writer, that intrinsic self-loathing and doubt.

HH: Yeah. [Laughs.] That's true.

AG: Wearing so many hats with this film -- writing, acting, directing -- what was the most challenging?

HH: The most challenging-slash-fun was being out in the water. We had Sonny Miller, a world-class water cameraman. [The surf veteran shot, among other films, "Riding Giants," and passed away last year as "Ride" wrapped.] Sonny was the first person I sent the script to and asked, "Can I do this?" And he said, "Oh yeah, we'll do it, we'll do it!" There is an underwater shot that took forever to get. We shot it in four different places. And the guys were saying things like, "What if we give her a weight belt to help her stay down?" I got very scared when they talked about it. Plus I kept worrying about Sonny, who had a tank on. And I don't scuba dive. I hope to never. I aspire to never. Anyway, I was the codependent surfer/director worried about him. And then it occurred to me, right, he has a whole tank of air down there, he is really going to be fine. I should worry about myself.

AG: There is a scene when you get caught in the whitewash and are violently thrashed.

HH: That was me! It was mostly fun. I'm not some spectacular surfer, but I know how important it is to not get hurt, to pay attention and to say when waves look bigger than I can handle.

AG: I think it's hard for some women to ask for help. Was it hard for you?

HH: I do not have that problem. That is my best quality as a director. "Help me right now! I don't know what I'm doing!" I don't have the feeling where I've got to let people know I'm in charge. I am too opportunistic for that. I just want it to be good and I think the best way to have it be good is to be very, very, very prepared, be very clear what you want and then listen with big ears if somebody sees something you don't, because they might be right.

AG: I noticed when you were filming all of these photographs came out heralding your "bikini body."

HH: I just went on a paddle the other day with my dog. I misjudged a wave and we both went flying. I lost my hat, yanked the dog up from underwater, surfaced, and the final insult is some guy is there with a big lens taking my picture. [Sighs.] What are you going to do? I try to relax about the whole thing.

AG: Do you think it's peculiar that no matter what your accomplishments, you're still judged by your physicality?

HH: Ah, yeah. I have a giant problem with the whole culture around that so, yes, yes, yes, I do think it's weird. I take alternate routes around town so as not to drive my daughter past inappropriate signage and storefronts.

AG: Really?

HH: Yes. I hope that we as a society can dial back on it. For example, I think any movie that comes out that avoids the sexualized violence of women is a really good thing. You can say, "It's just a movie," but it all adds up. Culturally, we get so used to it that we don't notice it's a problem anymore. All we can do is put good images out there and not pay for the bad ones. Your movie ticket is your vote in a way. So buy the ticket for the movie that doesn't have the bleeding woman in her bra tied up in the corner.

AG: Do you allow your daughter to use social media?

HH: No. She is nowhere near a computer unless I'm sitting next to her like a hawk. She doesn't have a phone, none of that.

AG: When did you first feel like a grown-up?

HH: That's a very complicated question for me because I've been working since I was 9, so I guess I've gone in and out of feeling like a grown-up from that age 'til today. I feel like a grown-up when I'm with my daughter. That is kind of a wake-up call, to be my best self when I'm with her.

AG: Have you ever hated the fact that you were a girl?

HH: No, never.

AG: Have you pretty much always had your s--- together?

HH: I don't know if I have my s--- together. But I think I'm waking up late to how I've gotten to reap the benefit of the women who came before us, you know? I kind of lived in a bubble. And lately I'm looking around -- maybe it's because I have a daughter -- going, "Wait a minute, the ERA, no equal pay, what?" Again, you can dwell on how out of whack it is, or you can notice and then do something. That's what I've tried to do. Make movies about women that I would want to see.

AG: Of the characters that you've played, who did you feel was most like you?

HH: I used to have this thing when people insisted that the character on "Mad About You" was just like me, I'd say, "No way. Uh-uh." And then later I figured out that she is kinda like me. [Laughs.] In a way, the character I played in "As Good As It Gets," even though she didn't look like me or talk like me or walk like me or live where I live, there is something right at the center of her sensitivity that I think is very close to me.

AG: What's been the best gift you've been given in your life?

HH: Well, it's in this movie. There's a line that my co-star Luke Wilson says [as he surveys the surf break]: "We're so lucky, aren't we?"

AG: Where did that thought originate?

HH: My dad. The movie is dedicated to him. I wrote "For Gordon Hunt, who loves the world anyway." He has gone through some of the hardest things a person can, and recently he's had real health challenges. But he'll find a moment where a nurse is sweet or I'm reading a book to him or he gazes out at the ocean for a minute and he'll say, "We're so lucky, aren't we?"

AG: Is that something you had to work on, having gratitude and being present?

HH: Yes and no. I mean, if I'm really aggravated about a stupid thing then I'd better work on gratitude. But I also, because of my dad, have it as a pretty steady part of my diet. That's what I find about a lot of people who surf, actually. Not all of them but the really, really good ones, they're not worrying about how big the waves are. They're just saying, "Look where we get to be."

AG: What else have you learned about yourself this year?

HH: I learned that I'm better when I meditate more. I've learned that I really like making movies. I learned that it's all about your health. I've learned that time is speeding up. That people-pleasing is fruitless. I've stopped telling myself it matters what other people think, that if other people are mad at me the world is going to end.

AG: You've stopped worrying about that stuff?

HH: Yeah. But it's a daily practice.

AG: When do you feel your strongest?

HH: When I'm moving my body. When I'm on a bike or in the water or walking up a hill.

AG: Who inspires or speaks to you?

HH: Maggie Smith. Ed Begley. Martin Sheen is one of my heroes. They just show up. They show up for workers' rights and they show up for environmental stuff and they show up for feeding the homeless. They just show up.

AG: Do you feel like you show up?

HH: I show up some. More lately.

AG: What's the quality you most value in yourself?

HH: I'm good at saying, "I'm sorry, I blew it."

AG: I read that you cried through "Into the Woods"?

HH: I've cried through "Into the Woods" dozens of times.

AG: It's devastating.

HH: Devastating! It's just so beautiful. No one is alone. All the messages about how life doesn't turn out like the fairy tale but there is something meaningful there, anyway. Can you love the world even though it hurts? As you get older, you see more challenging things around you or in your own life. And if you can you love the world anyway, it's a vital lesson.

AG: What do you want your daughter to learn from you the most?

HH: Self-care, self-love, which is a work in progress for me. The other day, my daughter said to me about this conflict at school, "I don't care what they think. I'm not ashamed." And I said, "Oy, if you can just hang onto that for your whole life."

AG: Did she listen?

HH: I hope so. She asked me after that, "What if I did something really bad, then I should be ashamed?" And I said, "You know what? I don't think shame helps ever. So as far as I'm concerned, you could let that one go."

AG: What dreams do you have left for yourself?

HH: I want to have more fun. This movie is basically saying you better get out there and have fun, even in the middle of very, very hard things. And I have. I've been out there on my boogie board at the worst of times. Even if I don't feel like it, I get my ass in the ocean. Even if I don't feel it, I get on a bicycle. It is just better than if I don't.

AG: Do you surf with your daughter?

HH: I boogie board with my daughter right out here (nods toward the ocean). And we'll be at that pier this afternoon, on the roller coaster after school.

AG: Loving the ride.

HH: Every minute I can.