Acting in Shakespeare makes you feel young," says Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning star Helen Hunt backstage at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, where she is appearing as Viola in Twelfth Night.
"No matter how much acting you've done, the amount of discovering and investigating that lies ahead of you in a Shakespeare play is so great. I'm endlessly moved and surprised by how the play is at once greater than everyday reality and at the same time totally reflective of it."
Hunt's co-stars include Brian Murray, Kyra Sedgwick, Paul Rudd, Philip Bosco and Max Wright. The director is Nicholas Hytner, known on Broadway for Miss Saigon and the Tony Award-winning 1994 revival of Carousel, and on the movie screen for The Crucible and The Madness of King George.
"It's a dream part," Hunt says of Viola, a beautiful young woman shipwrecked on the seacoast of Illyria who dons male garb and disguises herself as an adolescent boy in the romantic comedy of gender confusion and mistaken identity. "I've always wanted to play her. And I love Nick Hytner's work. I got the part once in another theatre and couldn't do it because of a scheduling conflict. I was heartbroken. Viola has a sense of humor about herself. She is poetic and loving and funny, and she is perhaps more able to look at the world and her situation through clearer eyes than many of the other characters. I love exploring the role. You can spend an infinite amount of time exploring a Shakespearean character."
Hunt is known to television audiences as the sweet and smart Jamie Buchman, Paul Reiser's wife in the NBC sit-com "Mad About You," and to movie fans as the tornado-chasing Jo Harding in Twister and the wisecracking waitress Carol Connelly, her Oscar-winning role opposite Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets. But what many of her fans do not realize is that she is devoted to Shakespeare. And as she smoothes back her honey-colored hair and talks passionately about her favorite playwright, her direct, down-to-earth and deeply intelligent voice makes it clear that behind the popular and successful film and television star is a serious, strongly committed actress.
This is not the first summer Hunt has spent doing Shakespeare in New York. In 1990, before "Mad About You" and way before Twister and As Good As It Gets, she appeared with Tracey Ullman and Morgan Freeman at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in a Wild West version of The Taming of the Shrew. Hunt played Bianca, sister to Ullman's shrewish Katherine.
Two years ago in New York, Hunt took part in a two-day workshop with Cicely Berry, voice director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, that included eight RSC actors and 13 Americans, among them Cherry Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Blythe Danner, Robert Sean Leonard and Claire Danes. And this spring, during rehearsals for Twelfth Night, she spent Sundays, her day off, in a workshop with John Barton of the RSC's "Playing Shakespeare" television series.
"With Cicely we explored the way she works with Shakespeare's text, the way she puts it into your body, the way the sound of the words and the meter can feed rather than constrict the performer," Hunt says. "And doing a workshop with John Barton is a dream come true. I watched his television series, and it was a real bridge for me from what I knew about acting Shakespeare to what I wanted to be. He seems committed to finding a way to marry the two Shakespeare traditions -- the modern, immediate, emotional, alive sensibility and the traditional approach to the verse and the meter and the text. When I found out there were people in the world doing work like that, I wanted to spend as much time with them as I could."
Hunt, who was born in California but grew up in New York, comes from a theatrical family. Her father, Gordon Hunt, an acting teacher and director, has directed many "Mad About You" episodes; her uncle, Peter Hunt, directed the original Tony-winning 1776 and the current Scarlet Pimpernel on Broadway.
"As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be involved in the theatre," she says. "I went to the theatre two or three times a week with my father and mother and was captivated by the experience. I was just drawn to the theatre. I wanted to be part of that ritual." She made her first major TV appearance in 1973 at age 9 in a TV movie called Pioneer Woman, the first of many television and movie roles in the last 25 years. But she is no stranger to Broadway. In 1989 she portrayed Emily in the Lincoln Center Theater production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town..
Winning the Oscar, she says, has not changed her life. "If it has affected me, it's in a very subtle way. The coming of that prize went hand in hand with my making the shift to being able to choose with great care where I'll put my energy. Because you start to learn that if you don't spend it wisely, it's not there for you when you really want it."
Her ability to be selective is closely connected to the seventh and final season of "Mad About You" -- 22 episodes beginning in the fall for which she will earn a reported $22 million. She is looking forward to those episodes, she says, in part because she has been producing, directing and participating in the writing process.
But after "Mad About You," her plans are intentionally vague. "I may do two Shakespeare plays in repertory in Los Angeles," she says. "But that's just a maybe. I have a production company, and we're developing three films. I don't feel a burning need to act, but I do feel a deep desire to work on material that inspires me."
Sometimes, especially after the long hours and years of a successful and financially rewarding TV series, less can be more. "If the amount of work diminishes," she says with the same air of earnestness that characterizes everything this immensely talented actress does, "but the breadth of experience grows, that would be great."