​Holly Hunter: Portraying lives less ordinary

Holly Hunter convincingly played a hard-driving TV producer in the 1987 movie "Broadcast News" -- "convincingly" being just about the only way Holly Hunter knows how to play a role. Jane Pauley has our Sunday Profile:

Holly Hunter is only 5-foot-2, but on screen she packs a powerful punch, whether playing a scene-stealing secretary or a detective battling inner demons.

"Even very ordinary people, upon closer examination, can often look extraordinary," Hunter said. "And I've played a lot of everyday kind of people who normally might not have a lens trained on them."

Hunter digs deep into her characters. Consider "The Piano," which won her an Oscar in the role of a 19th century woman who is mute.

"There were no words in 'The Piano,' but there was a lot of communication with your hands," said Pauley. "And you made up that language?"

"I hired somebody who was a sign language interpreter. And then we kind of created one that would look good with my hands, and something that I felt comfortable with that would be creative."

Family photo

But when Hunter DOES speak, there's no mistaking that distinctive accent. It comes straight from Conyers, Georgia, where she grew up, the youngest of seven kids.

"I was born and raised on a farm, where boys had chores and girls did not," she said, "i.e., drive tractors, bale hay, take care of cattle."

"And you were free to be in the drama club," said Pauley.

"And to, like, make things up!" Hunter laughed. "Yeah, so I spent a lot of my time kind of doing that."

School plays led to drama school, to theater in New York.

Six years after her film debut came the breakout role: the Coen Brothers' "Raising Arizona" in 1987. And later that same year, an actress became a star in "Broadcast News," opposite Albert Brooks and William Hurt.

She said at the time of "Broadcast News," "I don't know if I can do this. I'm not sure I can do this."

Hunter brought that self-doubt to the part of a young TV news producer swinging wildly between under- and over-confidence -- a role modeled on a real-life CBS News producer, Susan Zirinsky.

They're still friends. Today, Zirinsky is senior executive producer of "48 Hours." Twenty-nine years ago, she was a driven young producer in the CBS Washington bureau.

Hunter studied her for weeks: "I was tailing her."

"She took notes," said Zirinsky.

20th Century Fox

"I took copious notes because, you know, it's a daunting thing to have to, one, be smarter than Bill Hurt, and two, pretend to do something that you don't do," Hunter said. "The camaraderie that Susan had with her team, this is where I could pick it up. You know, the physical relationship that Susan had was something that I really wanted to capture in the movie. I like to do research. It gives me a sense of ownership. That's very powerful for me as an actor to just own it. And so I have to go through a series of steps to own it."

"This is who she is," Zirinsky said. "But you don't learn that. That's just who she is. I mean, you know, it's in your DNA."

"But it's kind of in your DNA, too," said Pauley.

"Yes, so, you know, like, obsessive compulsive is an attractive quality to me!" Zirinsky replied.

Reunited in the CBS Newsroom, Zirinsky and Hunter attracted some attention, like Bob Schieffer: "You know, it's so nice to talk to someone who doesn't have an accent."

Bob Schieffer, Holly Hunter, Jane Pauley and Susan Zirinsky in CBS News' broadcast center in New York.
CBS News

"Broadcast News" was the first of four Oscar nominations for Hunter. But as hard as Hunter works, she's also fine not working.

"I can very much enjoy taking a year off," she said. "Whereas some people would feel crippled by that, I can feel enlarged by it. And then I also like to work nonstop, maybe for a year-and-a-half, and then take a year off."

And ten years ago, at 47, she became the mother of twins, after playing a super-mom in "The Incredibles." Holly Hunter is the voice of Elastigirl!

Pauley asked, "Are you a fan of the action genre?"