Holly Hunter is known for playing women teetering on the edge — be it the wacky kidnapper in “Raising Arizona,” the high-strung producer in “Broadcast News” or her Oscar-winning role as the mute bride in “The Piano.”
So it’s not surprising she would sign up to play the promiscuous, chain-smoking, pill-popping, booze-swilling, world-weary Oklahoma City detective Grace Hanadrako in TNT’s “Saving Grace,” which debuts tonight.
But for Hunter, the appeal of the character wasn’t just about her proclivities toward self-destruction.
“Just in those 52 pages of the pilot, I got this glimpse of a whole life,” says Hunter, noting she was hooked after reading only 15 pages of the script.
“The fact that the series gets to explore this character as a police officer, as a sibling, as a daughter, as a lover ... that three-dimensionality of the character has been a real treat for me. I haven’t gotten that kind of three-course meal in a long time.”
Hunter’s portrayal of an emotionally and morally conflicted woman — at once brazen and heroic, creative and destructive — is already drawing comparisons to Kyra Sedgwick’s Brenda Johnson on TNT’s “The Closer,” which will precede “Grace” on Monday nights.
In the series, Grace’s life in the fast lane comes to a slow roll one night when, while driving drunk, she plows into a pedestrian. Calling out for help, an angel comes to her rescue — albeit a tobacco-chewing, greasy-haired dude named Earl, who tries to persuade Grace to turn her life around.
Not willing to accept this savior, she approaches him like she does everything else — with her fists.
“He is an adversary,” says Hunter. “But she’s also wrestling with the predatory nature of her community, which are the bad guys. She’s (also) wrestling with lovers. She’s in one gigantic manifestation of a fight, and I think people can relate to that, because so are we all.”
Creator Nancy Miller (“The Closer,” Lifetime’s “Any Day Now”) knew Hunter would be a perfect fit for Grace.
“She’s from Georgia, and there’s something about Southern women, there’s a feistiness, that ‘Steel Magnolia’ thing — I don’t know what it is,” says Miller, herself a Southerner, born in Louisiana and raised in Oklahoma City. “There’s a fearlessness to Holly, (and) Grace would not have been as fearless if it wasn’t for Holly. Just the truth she brings to each moment. It blows my mind every day.”
No stranger to television, Hunter won an Emmy for her impassioned performance in the 1989 NBC movie “Roe vs. Wade,” and another as the over-the-top mother in HBO’s 1993 film “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom.”
This is, however, the first series for the 49-year-old film star who, not unlike many marquee names these days, is finding bigger rewards on the small screen.
“I think if you sat down and talked to Denis Leary or Michael Chiklis or James Gandolfini or Edie Falco or Mary Louise Parker ... you’d be talking to a whole bunch of artists who have a similar response to the opportunity that cable offers,” she says. “Cable offers more risks ... more freedom to tell stories.”
With production wrapping this month on the 13-episode series, Hunter will return to New York where she lives with actor Gordon MacDonald (“The Thin Red Line”) and their 18-month-old twin boys. After a hectic several months of shooting “Grace” in the Los Angeles area, she’s looking forward to some time off — and eagerly awaits reaction to the show.
“It’s going to be so fascinating to have it be out in the world, and have people watch it and see what their relationship is to it as it goes,” she says. “I think that anybody who has struggled with anything, anybody who has wanted to be free, who has wanted to express themselves and to celebrate stuff, I think will really love Grace.”