The Look: Helen Hunt

In A Different Light

The stylist has the silky Armani suits all lined up on their hangers, the makeup artist has spread out the cosmetics like otherworldly candy in front of the enormous mirror, the photographer and his assistant are strategizing out in the grey morning light that's pouring dimly through the summer "marine layer"-- that pesky cloud cover people outside California don't seem to know about. Everybody is waiting, a little worried Helen Hunt will be late because she's been having her hair colored for a new role since six this morning. And everybody's a little curious about what color the hair will be.

There are other things to think about, of course--for instance, just out the window you can see the old Ambassador Hotel where Robert Kennedy was assassinated--but this is a fashion shoot everybody's thinking about Helen Hunt's hair.

Helen comes in right on time, with her hair looking fine, like it's always been this color. It's uncanny. You can't imagine her with another color, though you've never seen her with this one before. It must be something about actors. Somebody asks her what her real color is. "Who can remember?" she says. "I think it's sort of honey blonde. But in the last year it's been long blonde, then short blonde, now short and darker, and next it's going to be blonde and halfway down my back-- hair extensions." There are a lot of actresses who talk better about hair than about anything else, but it's kind of fun to hear Helen on the subject because she's not one of them.

Since she began in television years ago, then broke into film with Peggy Sue Got Married and Project X, she's worked far more than most actresses her age, but she really hasn't played the kinds of roles actresses her age generally play. She was the one David Lynch had virtually settled on for Blue Velvet before he caught sight of Laura Dern. "I could never get the innocent ingenue parts," she says. And she didn't get the bimbo roles either. Take the part her new hair color is for, in Love Stinks: She's the smart, wacky photographer Andrew McCarthy falls for when he's done with yummy Kelly Preston. But more than that film (as Helen herself points out, "It's not as if no one has ever made this movie before"), the new Waterdance is likely to show the Helen Hunt that's been waiting for an opportunity to emerge. In paraplegic screenwriter and debut director Neal Jimenez's semi-autobiographical story of his time in a rehab hospital, Helen plays Eric Stoltz's lover, who must deal with him as he comes to terms with his paralysis. Apart from the emotional complexity and the unconventional screen sexuality, Helen had to deal with nude scenes--no wonder she's ultra-sleek and not eating the de rigueur photo shoot junk food everyone else is having for breakfast.

When Helen comes back a half hour later with her hair styled for the shoot, she's wearing that new look pioneered by Linda Evangelista-- curls just unleashed from curlers without benefit of a comb. There's a general debate about whether this is unbelievably cool or unbelievably awful. Helen is a study in tact, and not at all proprietary, it seems, about her own hair. "Do some shots this way," she suggests, "and then comb it out." This is the smartest thing anybody's said all morning. It may not seem a very smart thing to be smart about, but it is--it's basic survival for an actress. And anyway, Helen is smart about smart things, too. The actress she most admires is Gena Rowlands (and people have noted the resemblance, too-- she's been up twice for parts as Gena Rowlands' daughter), who, with Meryl Streep, exemplifies "the willingness to get dirt under your fingernails and show it to people."

Five shots later, the morning is long gone, the afternoon is gone, and if things don't get moving the evening light will be gone too. The last rays are coming in at a beautiful slant, striking the mirror that Helen is looking into. The photographer tells her to smile. She smiles at her own image. "Great," she says, tossing her newly colored hair, "this can be a piece about narcissism."