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Helen Hunt: The Spotlight Isn't Enough This Time

Oscar-winning actress stepped behind the camera to direct the new dramedy Then She Found Me. She helped adapt the script as well, from the novel by Elinor Lipman. And Hunt stars in the film alongside Bette Midler — who plays her birth mother.

32:49

Other segments from the episode on April 24, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 24, 2008: Interview with Helen Hunt; Interview with Charles Barber.

Transcript

DATE April 24, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Helen Hunt on her new film "Then She Found Me," and
her career and goals
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

My guest, actress Helen Hunt, has been appearing in movies and on television
since she was nine. She won an actress for Best Actress for her performance
in "As Good As It Gets," and a string of Emmys for the hit TV series "Mad
About You." Among her other films are "The Waterdance," "Twister," "What Women
Want," "Cast Away," "Pay It Forward," and the made-for-TV movie "Empire
Falls."

Now, at age 44, Hunt has directed her first feature film. It's called "Then
She Found Me" and it's adapted from a novel by Elinor Lipman. Hunt also
co-wrote the screenplay and stars in the film along with Bette Midler, Colin
Firth and Matthew Broderick. The story involves a schoolteacher played by
Hunt, who grew up as an adopted child. At a difficult time in her personal
life, she's contacted by her birth mother, who turns out to be an overbearing
daytime TV talk show host, played by Bette Midler. Their first meeting at a
restaurant goes badly, and Hunt's character leaves. In this scene, her mom
catches up with her on the street and gets her to stop walking by promising to
tell her about her father, who she says is a famous man, now dead.

(Soundbite of "Then She Found Me")

Ms. BETTE MIDLER: (As Bernice Graves) I met him when I was 15. I worked in
perfume.

Ms. HELEN HUNT: (As April Epner) Where, exactly?

Ms. MIDLER: (As Bernice Graves) Well, four blocks that way, as it happens.
Used to be...(unintelligible). You can look it up. Since I wasn't rich I
earned extra money working in their perfume department.

Ms. HUNT: (As April Epner) So this was a customer?

Ms. MIDLER: (As Bernice Graves) Oh, a very special customer. He came in to
buy a gift for his mother. He was very close to his mother. Probably too
close because no woman could ever measure up.

Ms. HUNT: (As April Epner) Who was it?

Ms. MIDLER: (As Bernice Grave) He was immediately flirtatious, but not in a
boorish way. He was, and I saw this in all humility, enchanted.

Ms. HUNT: (As April Epner) Who was it?

Ms. MIDLER: (As Bernice Graves) Steve McQueen.

Ms. HUNT: (As April Epner) How dare you?

Ms. MIDLER: (As Bernice Graves) We were deeply in love.

Ms. HUNT: (As April Epner) Well, what went wrong?

Ms. MIDLER: (As Bernice Graves) Well, he was single when I met
him--separated, anyway. I never would have gotten involved with him had his
relationship been viable, but I sensed that they weren't through.

Ms. HUNT: (As April Epner) They would be Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw?

Ms. MIDLER: (As Bernice Graves) If you watch "The Getaway," you'll sense a
certain closeness. I do feel very good about that. By the way, do you have
any children?

Ms. HUNT: (As April Epner) Was it a one-night stand?

Ms. MIDLER: (As Bernice Graves) Oh, the memory lasted a lifetime.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Well, Helen Hunt, welcome to FRESH AIR. I read that you said that
`all of the characters in this film are me.' And I should note that two of
these are men and one of them is your character's mother. What did you mean
by they're all you?

Ms. HUNT: Well, people, if you write a movie, will often ask, especially if
you're in it, `is it autobiographical?' And the movie is partly about
adoption. I'm not adopted, my daughter isn't adopted. It looks like it's
about mothering and family and divorce and newfound love, but all of those
things aren't exactly me, but if you just go one-quarter inch below the
surface, it's totally me. It's a very intimate snapshot of the things I care
about.

And Colin Firth plays a single father, and I'm not a single parent, but the
way that he loves his kids, the amount of worry he manages in himself about
their being OK, that's me. Matthew Broderick plays the man who leaves my
character at the beginning of the movie who loves her but it's just not right
and he doesn't know how to say it and he doesn't know what to say. That's me.
Bette Midler plays a wildly articulate, unpredictable, shape-shifting pretty
hilarious character. Huge parts of that are me. A wonderful actor, Ben
Shenkman, who was in "Angels in America" on HBO, he plays my brother. He's
me. So I feel like it's autobiographical except that I'm sort of everybody.

DAVIES: There's a whole lot wrapped up in that Helen Hunt package there,
yeah.

Ms. HUNT: Yes.

DAVIES: There's a moment in the film where your character, April Epner, you
know, her husband has walked out on her, she's a school teacher and there's a
scene where she's in the school and she's just a mess from this, you know,
world-shattering event in her life. And then she meets Colin Firth, who is a
dad at the school, and he immediately recognizes what's happened to her, and
what's the thing that he says to her, do you recall?

Ms. HUNT: "Have you slept?"

DAVIES: Yeah.

Ms. HUNT: That's how he introduces himself. `Have you slept? Don't do
anything till you've slept. Don't think anything till you've slept.'

DAVIES: Right. There's this instant recognition between two people who have
had their spouse leave them.

Ms. HUNT: Yeah. The image I gave him was that he's on his way back from the
battlefield and she's on the way in, and there's that thing that two people
know who've been through something devastating and they both see it in each
other. And, you know, I hired smart actors. The smartest thing I did was
hire smart actors. I wrote for him a part that is not the knight in shining
armor. He is a deeply damaged guy, and in a movie about betrayal his
character has devoted his whole life to never again being betrayed, and I
guess what I'm trying to say--hopefully, in a funny way--in the movie is
that's not love. You know, like, being perfect so that no one will ever hurt
you again is not the same as loving somebody.

DAVIES: And he was a creation of your re-writing, right? That's...

Ms. HUNT: He was.

DAVIES: He's a very different character in the novel, right?

Ms. HUNT: He was. The mother-daughter, Bette Midler and me, relationship is
in the novel, but Matthew Broderick's character, Colin's character, the wish
for a baby, all of that came later from me.

DAVIES: Now, one of the decisions a director makes is who to cast in the
lead. And was casting yourself as April an inevitable decision?

Ms. HUNT: No, it was a long, agonizing process. It started as a good part
that I tried to get somebody to make. And when it turned out that I had a
long road ahead of me to turn it into this movie, as I got deeper and deeper
into the writing, it became clear to me that it was a movie I needed to
direct. I wouldn't know how to tell somebody what I wanted. I became so
deeply enmeshed with this story that it would actually be easier to direct the
movie myself than try to impart what I wanted to someone else. So I became
very clear that I wanted to direct it, and then I had to cast it. And I
thought that it was every actor's rookie mistake that when they direct their
first movie, they're in it, and I have seen movies, with huge notable
exceptions, where I somehow feel it. The actor is directing and I don't know
what I'm feeling or if I'm just imagining it, but it--something doesn't quite
happen that's supposed to happen. I'd also directed myself in "Mad About
You"...

DAVIES: Right.

Ms. HUNT: ...and I loved directing the other actors, and every time I had to
step into a scene I hated it. And I said, OK, so now I know. If I ever make
a movie, I'm not going to be in it. And now here was this thing. And I
thought about other actresses who would have been at least as good, but I
tried to be really objective as a director, and the sort of last-minute
decision for me to be in it came from two places. One was logistical. I had
27 days to make this movie, and for anybody listening who's ever made a movie,
they know that that's just an impossible number of days. And I had Colin for
three weeks. I had Bette for 10 minutes over here and then four weeks over
here. I had Matthew whenever he could--like, I couldn't ask the person that
was in every scene to be available 24 hours a day. I could only ask myself to
do that. So that was the first reason.

And the second was that I had never seen myself play a part like this, so when
I go to the movies, I love to see actors I love play something new. This was
new for me. And I also hadn't been acting a lot so I wasn't bored of myself.
So in this sort of crazy way that I tried to be objective, I seemed like the
right person for the job in the end.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, you've been acting so many years and have worked
with so many directors. And as you approached directing a film, were there
certain mistakes that you'd seen directors make that you were sure you didn't
want to, or certain, I don't know, approaches that you really wanted to
emulate?

Ms. HUNT: Both. In terms of the not-so-good ones, I have a very specific
memory of going on a set and a director trying to figure out a shot and the
camera operator, the guy who's eye is actually on the lens, who arguably knows
more than all of us, very respectfully offered up a suggestion and he was shot
down, and I watched not only him but everyone in the crew make this little
decision, `OK, not that kind of movie.' And it's such a grand mistake. It's a
mistake just as a decent human being. It's a mistake because it's much more
fun to work in a collaborative way, and it's a mistake because someone's going
to come up with either a good suggestion that you use and will get credit for,
or a bad suggestion that makes you all the more sure that you're doing it the
way you believe in. So I sat the entire crew down at our production meeting,
which is usually about logistics, and I started it by saying, `This is 10
years of my life, and just about everything I care about is in this story.
Please take it personally.' And they did. I watched them do it.

DAVIES: You know, this is a film that has all of this serious,
heart-wrenching drama...

Ms. HUNT: We're talking about it so seriously.

DAVIES: And, well...

Ms. HUNT: It's actually kind of a stupid comedy.

DAVIES: Well, that's what I was getting to. But it's still funny. And...

Ms. HUNT: Yeah, it's a comedy. I mean people...

DAVIES: Yeah. No--it--right.

Ms. HUNT: And I told this--all of us, this the theme of the movie. It's
this dark, painful subject called betrayal.

DAVIES: Right.

Ms. HUNT: We are making a comedy, and anything other than that has to fight
its way through what, God willing, is funny. And, you know, I have eight
pages of lightning-fast dialogue with one of the funniest actresses in the
world so it's, you know...

DAVIES: Yeah. That's what I was going to ask you. Sort of how you managed
something that's, you know, all this, you know, big, sometimes painful stuff
in people's lives and yet, you know, don't tip over that side. On the other
hand, you don't want it to be silly either. Or do you?

Ms. HUNT: Of all the things I was nervous about, the tone of the movie never
concerned me. My life is hilarious and upsetting, often three or four times a
day, and totally unexpectedly. You know, one sentence out of someone can take
a moment from being incredibly painful to being illuminated and hilarious, and
the other way around. So movies that try to do that are my favorite movies
because they feel like my life.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Helen Hunt. Her new film is "Then She Found Me."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Helen Hunt. She has directed
and stars in the new film with Bette Midler and Colin Firth. It's called
"Then She Found Me."

Well, Helen Hunt, you're one of those actresses who, when we're channel
surfing late at night, we'll sometimes come upon an old movie and see a face
like you, if it's a teen or a kid...

Ms. HUNT: That's a big roll of the dice for me...

DAVIES: Yeah.

Ms. HUNT: ...what you'd come up with.

DAVIES: Yeah, we say, hey, that's Helen Hunt.

Ms. HUNT: Could go well, it could go badly.

DAVIES: Right. You know, and I know your dad, Gordon Hunt, was a film
director...

Ms. HUNT: Yeah.

DAVIES: And you got into acting very early.

Ms. HUNT: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: "Pioneer Family" and "Swiss"...

Ms. HUNT: "Pioneer Woman," if you want...

DAVIES: "Pioneer Woman." OK. OK.

Ms. HUNT: ...to really get it right. For all the thousands of "Pioneer
Woman" fans.

DAVIES: And "Swiss Family Robinson," then a bunch of teen films. And it's
funny because, most of us, our adolescence is chronicled in school yearbooks
and probably younger people in videos, and you have this odd record of your
professional work. Do you look back on that, and does it say anything to you
about who you were then?

Ms. HUNT: I absolutely never look back on it. That is my coping technique.
I absolutely never look back. I think I'm lucky as an actress because I was
not a big successful show business kid. I wasn't, you know, one of the kids
on one of those TV shows that's identified with that. I wasn't a big Disney
movie kid, you know. It was like my extracurricular activity. Some kids
played the cello; I went and did a part in a movie or a TV show. So it was
wonderful training, but it wasn't who I was.

DAVIES: Yeah. I heard you...

Ms. HUNT: Until later.

DAVIES: Right. You could work in movies as long as you got Bs, is that
right?

Ms. HUNT: Yeah. Well, you know, if I suddenly had lousy grades and turned
into a freak, my parents would have said `no more.'

DAVIES: Right. You did "Mad About You," the series, for seven years with
Paul Reiser as the young married couple in New York and, I mean, I knew this
was a hit show. I didn't realize you had won four straight Emmys for Best
Actress in a Comedy Series, which kind of puts you in the company with Lucy
and Mary Tyler Moore, I guess.

Ms. HUNT: God. Well, if I'm in company with Lucy and Mary Tyler Moore, I'm
in heaven.

DAVIES: Well, I thought we'd hear a clip from it. And this is well into the
series when you have decided to have a baby, and this is a scene where you're
in delivery, and here you are with Paul Reiser in "Mad About You."

(Soundbite of "Mad About You")

Mr. PAUL REISER: (As Paul Buchman) Don't even pay attention to them. You
just...

Ms. HUNT: (As Jamie Stemple Buchman) Sh!

Mr. REISER: (As Paul Buchman) You just focus on...

Ms. HUNT: (As Jamie Stemple Buchman) Don't talk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REISER: (As Paul Buchman) Why not?

Ms. HUNT: (As Jamie Stemple Buchman) Just don't.

Unidentified Actress: (In character) Keep breathing, Jamie. You're doing
great.

Mr. REISER: (As Paul Buchman) You really are. You are doing just...

Ms. HUNT: (As Jamie Stemple Buchman) Don't talk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REISER: (As Paul Buchman) Just me?

Ms. HUNT: (As Jamie Stemple Buchman) Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REISER: (As Paul Buchman) I'm not allowed to talk...

Ms. HUNT: (As Jamie Stemple Buchman) Please.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REISER: (As Paul Buchman) The woman just talked.

Ms. HUNT: (As Jamie Stemple Buchman) Anybody can talk. Just not you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REISER: (As Paul Buchman) I just don't understand why I'm the only
one...

Ms. HUNT: (As Jamie Stemple Buchman) What, are you kidding me now? You
going to pick a fight with me now?

Mr. REISER: (As Paul Buchman) No, no, no, no, no, no, no...

Ms. HUNT: (As Jamie Stemple Buchman) You're going to start with me now?

Mr. REISER: (As Paul Buchman) No, no, no, no, no...

(Soundbite of scream)

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: And that's Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser in "Mad About You." Quite a
chemistry you two had.

Ms. HUNT: Yeah, it was a dream job. I was working with not only, you know,
one of the funniest comedians around, but he's the real deal. He's an actor,
a wonderful actor. And you know, I really did land into a big pot of jam with
that job. And the only thing I can say is that I was smart enough to know it.
I really remember, every day I would walk from where we would rehearse into my
dressing room and I had this little ritual of saying `Thank you' to something
up there because I knew it was a pretty unique, it's kind of an actor's dream
kind of job.

DAVIES: Yeah, I think a lot of people aren't sure whether their movie or TV
show is good while they're doing it. It was just the quality of the stuff and
the people you were working with.

Ms. HUNT: Much like this movie. I don't think any of us anticipated it
would do as well as it did, because what was the big concept?

DAVIES: Right.

Ms. HUNT: There wasn't a newsroom and there wasn't a hospital and there
wasn't a lawyer's office. You know, it was two people sitting on a bed, and I
knew when we did the first episode that I thought it was interesting, but I
didn't know that anybody else would. And our idea for the show, really, Paul
said this to me when I was trying to decide if I really wanted to sign up
close to a decade of my life to one job that what he wanted was, rather than
the show to get bigger and bigger as the years went by, instead for it to get
smaller and smaller until, I think, the last or second to the last season we
did an episode that was one shot, the two of us sitting against a door talking
the entire time, a 22-minute shot. And that's what became interesting to us.

I think also, for me, the reason not to do a TV series is, you know, year
after year you may feel like you're repeating yourself. This is one of the
few subject matters I can think of that's better handled over seven years than
in two hours on a stage or in a movie. How many times can you watch two
people meet in some cute way, or a married couple, you have to catch them at a
certain moment in their life. Over seven years, you know, year one of a
relationship is different than year five of a relationship, so I felt like the
form did a better job of a telling the story than any other I could think of.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, you were on the series for seven years. I'm
wondering how you grew professionally in those seven years. I mean, you did
some directing and writing on the show too.

Ms. HUNT: I did some directing and writing. They were generous enough to
give me a shot at that, and I felt very safe and very supportive, and it was
nice when I made this movie to not have it be the very first time I was in
charge of the thing. Also, you know, we did 50 pages a week, and both Paul
and I talked so fast--particularly me--you know, I think most sitcoms, the
scripts are, I don't know, somewhere like 35 or 40. We did 50 pages a week,
often 90 percent the two of us. That just made me a better actress. That
just sort of got my chops stronger, you know what I mean? And I think I'm
still benefiting from that.

DAVIES: Because the timing had to be just right, and you had to leave room
for the laugh track, too, right? I mean...

Ms. HUNT: It was more of a dance that I--you know, Paul and I used to joke
about this word "chemistry," and we got sick of people talking about it, but
the truth is, we had chemistry. We had comic chemistry, and, you know, I
still meet him for coffee every few months, and he's just been a big part of
my--you know, I have so much gratitude that he gave me this job, and when it
happened I had been acting mostly in TV shows, and at that time if you were in
a TV show you did not get to be in a movie. I remember Robert Redford put
Mary Tyler Moore in "Ordinary People" and like all of show business gasped in
horror that someone would put someone from a TV show in a movie.

And slowly that began to change, you know, other actors began to kind of cross
over, but I really feel like I owe so much to Paul for giving me this big
juicy part. And when he sent it to me, I had just started to make movies. I
had made an independent film called "The Waterdance" I was very proud of. I
had done another part in a bigger movie, and I thought, I don't want to be
somebody's wife in some sitcom, and I read it and I thought, I don't care what
the form is. I don't care if we're doing it, you know, on the street corner
or on a big screen or with four cameras on a soundstage, this is an
interesting thing. This is two people trying to love each other and how hard
that is, and I said yes.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting that you kind of had a sense from reading
that script, because when I was preparing for this interview, one of the
things that struck me was that usually when you read about an actor who's had
a career of your length, there are some duds and some stinkers and some bad
reviews, and some bad mistakes.

Ms. HUNT: Oh, you're not looking carefully enough.

DAVIES: Well, maybe I'm not.

Ms. HUNT: You haven't really done your homework.

DAVIES: But it does seem to me more often...

Ms. HUNT: Google me again. They're there.

DAVIES: Well, maybe there are things that you didn't feel great about. But I
tell you, I mean, in the profiles of Helen Hunt, you don't hear people talking
about, you know, `the bad period,' and I wondered, you seem to wait for the
right spots and use your intuition about what to take.

Ms. HUNT: That's true. And I think, you know mostly--and I don't always do
this, sometimes you just want to go to work because of something in your life
or for whatever reason--but mostly I have, you know, I have a cellular memory
of how bad it feels the few times I've taken a job for the wrong reason. It
takes about one second to say OK and three months to sit on the set of a movie
you don't believe in. And I have done that before, and so I have a real
muscle memory of how bad that feels. And I think that has helped fortify me
to take a pass on the ones that aren't quite right for me.

And, you know, over the last 10 years I've certainly been in the public much
less than I was right before that, but this thing happened where I started to
really look at my life and say, What do I want to do? I probably got to that
age where everybody says, `All right. Enough kidding around. What do I want
my life to be?' And what I said to my closet people was I want to be with my
family and make movies or, more accurately, tell stories that I care about.
When I really reduced it down, that's what I wanted.

And then these things conspired to make that happen. I had a baby, and it did
not feel right to me to walk out the door and do a lot of work. I found being
with her more interesting than anything. I was not offered dozens of
irresistible parts by the best directors in the world. And so what happened
was I had time to write this movie.

And, you know, the end of the road, I had to turn around and say, `Oh, I have
the life I said I wanted. I'm with my family and I'm telling a story I care
about.' So as long as I'm smart enough to enjoy it and not think that I should
be like every other actress that I see ads for in the paper all the time--and
I do have days where I go, what am I doing? I should be out there making
three movies a year--as long as I can resist that devil, I come back to the
truth, which is I'm living the life I want to live.

DAVIES: Helen Hunt directed, co-wrote, and stars in the new film "Then She
Found Me." She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies,
and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.
We're talking with actress Helen Hunt, who's made her feature film directing
debut with "Then She Found Me." She co-wrote the screenplay and stars in the
movie with Bette Midler, Colin Firth and Matthew Broderick. In 1998 Hunt won
an Oscar for her leading role in "As Good As It Gets." Her co-star was Jack
Nicholson.

Were you at all nervous about working with Jack Nicholson?

Ms. HUNT: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I mean, there's everybody else and then
there's Jack Nicholson. And Jim Brooks, one of the first things he said to me
is, `You know, you're going to have to find a way to work with that because
everybody has it. But there are times in this movie where you have to stand
up and be more powerful than him.' So, you know, I was nervous, but what I
found very quickly into the making of the movie is that the secret behind the
curtain is that he's like--he does everything I just described. He is an
acting student. He's studied acting forever. He's not--even Jack Nicholson
isn't Jack Nicholson. He is an actor's actor. He will risk embarrassments.
He will do something he's unsure about because it's the director's movie and
he serves at the feet of the director. He's, you know, on top of being some
magical presence that we all have, you know, watched and admired. He's also a
journeyman actor, so that's like the best combination you could possibly have.

DAVIES: How important was getting an Oscar?

Ms. HUNT: I don't know. I really don't know. I don't know what it meant,
if anything. I know that it's, you know, one of those things that you can't
help but dream about if you're acting in movies, and you sit home when you're
a kid and you watch them and you say--and then you imagine that it happens and
then it happens. So I'm very happy that it happened, very grateful that it
happened. It was, you know, it was totally thrilling, and how important it
is, that I just don't even know.

DAVIES: I guess one of the things I'm wondering is, the next time you get
cast with somebody of Jack Nicholson's stature, will you bring kind of a
different carriage into it, I mean, like, hey, I...

Ms. HUNT: A swagger?

DAVIES: Yeah.

Ms. HUNT: Will I swagger in?

DAVIES: Exactly. `I belong here.'

Ms. HUNT: I don't think there's a lot of swaggering in my way of showing up
on a set, and most actors, I have to say, even those who swagger, it's a
cover. Acting is embarrassing. If you do it right, you're embarrassed. Do
you know what I mean?

DAVIES: Yeah.

Ms. HUNT: If there's not some version of embarrassed, you're not really
doing it. So I don't know a lot of people who swagger in unless they're
covering up the fear that the rest of us feel.

DAVIES: So you're still plain old Helen, huh?

Ms. HUNT: I'm still plain old Helen.

DAVIES: You know, after "As Good As It Gets," there was a little bit of a
pause and then you did several films, and one of them was "Pay It Forward"
with Kevin Spacey and the child actor Haley Joel Osment, where you played this
tough single mom with a drinking problem. You want to say a little bit about
that role, how you got that, what appealed to you about it?

Ms. HUNT: The relationship with the Kevin Spacey character, that was
something I hadn't seen before. I mean...

DAVIES: He was the school teacher, right? Yeah

Ms. HUNT: Yeah, just both--one very damaged on the outside, one very damaged
on the inside and they love each other. I was just moved by that. And he's
such a good actor that, you know, those two things made me want to do it. I
also thought, I'm a big fan of "not cool," do you know what I mean? My
boyfriend gave me the highest compliment he could about "Then She Found Me,"
which is, `You know, it's not cool.' It's an independent movie. It's an
indy...

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

Ms. HUNT: ...but it's not cool. It's just kind of nakedly what it is. And
that movie wasn't cool. There are people who hated it, people who loved it,
but it was, I thought, you know, it was based on a really lovely novel, and it
was about--it dared to be about being kind in the world, and that's not very
sexy and it's not very edgy, but I liked that. I liked that it wasn't trying
to be cool.

DAVIES: Right, and, you know, there's one really dramatic moment in this film
where--what's happened is that your son, who's played by Haley Joel Osment,
kind of forged a letter on your behalf to get the teacher, Kevin Spacey, over
to dinner, and then you tell him afterwards this was just awful. And this
descends into an argument in which he reveals how much he dislikes a lot of
your character's lifestyle: the drinking, the husband that she won't let go
of who's bad for both of them. And I read that you really wanted to take this
scene a different way. Maybe we should hear it and then you can talk a little
bit about it. This is Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment from the film "Pay It
Forward."

(Soundbite of "Pay It Forward")

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of door opening and closing)

(Soundbite of sigh)

Ms. HUNT: (As Arlene McKinney) How could you do that to me? Write a letter
to him? Sign my name?

Mr. HALEY JOEL OSMENT: (As Trevor McKinney) Why'd you have to mess
everything up?

Ms. HUNT: (As Arlene McKinney) Oh no. I didn't mess this up. What were you
doing, just standing at the door listening to everything? What happened to
your stomachache?

Mr. OSMENT: (As Trevor McKinney) Why do you care? You always lie.

Ms. HUNT: (As Arlene McKinney) Trevor, this wasn't my fault. This whole
thing was embarrassing.

Mr. OSMENT: (As Trevor McKinney) I did something good and you don't even
know it.

Ms. HUNT: (As Arlene McKinney) Honey, listen. You can't just put two people
together and make them like each other. It doesn't work that way.

Mr. OSMENT: (As Trevor McKinney) You only like people you can get drunk
with.

(Soundbite of crickets)

Mr. OSMENT: (As Trevor McKinney) You're just waiting for him to come back.

Ms. HUNT: (As Arlene McKinney) No, I'm not.

Mr. OSMENT: (As Trevor McKinney) Yes, you are!

Ms. HUNT: (As Arlene McKinney) No, I'm not!

Mr. OSMENT: (As Trevor McKinney) Yes, you are!

Ms. HUNT: (As Arlene McKinney) No, I'm not. Your father's not getting his
foot through that...

Mr. OSMENT: (As Trevor McKinney) That's what you always say.

Ms. HUNT: (As Arlene McKinney) Well, I mean it now.

Mr. OSMENT: (As Trevor McKinney) You always mean it.

Ms. HUNT: (As Arlene McKinney) What do you want me to say? I say it, I mean
it. I mean it now.

Mr. OSMENT: (As Trevor McKinney) Not when he's around. When he's around,
you don't care what happens to me! You only--you don't even know I'm in the
same house.

Ms. HUNT: (As Arlene McKinney) That's not true.

Mr. OSMENT: (As Trevor McKinney) It is true.

Ms. HUNT: (As Arlene McKinney) You know that's not true.

Mr. OSMENT: (As Trevor McKinney) It's true!

Ms. HUNT: (As Arlene McKinney) Listen. I love you. I love you. I'm doing
the best I can. If that's not good enough...

Mr. OSMENT: (As Trevor McKinney) I don't want you to love me. I hate the
way you look.

Ms. HUNT: (As Arlene McKinney) Trevor, you need to stop...

Mr. OSMENT: (As Trevor McKinney) I hate the way you smell. I hate the way
you are. I hate that you're my mother.

(Soundbite of slap)

(Soundbite of sob)

(Soundbite of crickets)

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Wow, that's a tough moment.

Ms. HUNT: Oy vey.

DAVIES: Even to hear, without seeing it.

Ms. HUNT: Yes. What I remember is that I was supposed to slap this kid,
and, you know, when you're an actor sometimes you play a nice guy. Sometimes
you play a dictator. Sometimes you play a prison guard. Sometimes you play
an ingenue. You're supposed to be able to do it all, and I hit some wall
where I was supposed to slap this kid, and I, you know, maybe--I just couldn't
do it. And so I half did it and went back to my dressing room and sat there
and said, `I just blew it.' And I had to come back out and say, `Uh, I think
we have to do this again.' So, you know, once in a while--you keep your work
separate from your real life or whatever, it's only a job--and then once in a
while the two crash into each other, and you find something you're asked to do
that makes you just want to crumble. and it was a very challenging thing for
me to do.

DAVIES: Well, just to be clear, you're saying a stage slap wouldn't do? You
were actually supposed to strike...

Ms. HUNT: Yes, it had nothing to do--I wasn't, you know, actually bruising
Haley Joel Osment. It was a fake thing, but you know, you do--as indulgent as
it sounds--sometimes get very close to feelings that are your own, and it
turns out I don't like slapping children. I'd never done it before or since,
and, yes, it's only acting, but for some reason for me, I did not feel that I
was able to throw myself into it. And then later I thought, you know what?
We all lose if we don't do the movie properly, so I think we have to do this
again. And that, you know, that young actor, I remember seeing him in his
debut and thinking, `He's Meryl Streep, what's happening? Who is this kid?'
So I felt like I was, you know, getting to play a scene with a wonderful actor
and I'd let him down.

DAVIES: You know, you've just finished "Then She Found Me," which was such a
personal project. Do you want to do stuff now that doesn't require you to put
your whole heart and soul into it, or do you crave that experience again?

Ms. HUNT: No, I'd rather be home than that. That's the thing. That's what
I've come to. I mean, yes. If a lighter, more whimsical job came along, and
it was someone else's job to direct it and I could be in my dressing room
bouncing my daughter on my knee and then go act a little bit, I would be in
heaven. The problem is, I can't know if or when that's going to happen. So
in the meantime, I've written another movie. I have to now face the utterly
humbling experience of re-writing it, which, from where I'm sitting this
morning feels like I'll never be able to do, but it always feels that way.
This would be something I would direct and act in. So, you know, while I'm
waiting for--God willing--one of the directors I admire to want to put me in a
movie, that's my work.

DAVIES: Well, good luck with "Then She Found Me." Helen Hunt, thanks so much
for speaking with us.

Ms. HUNT: Thank you.

DAVIES: Helen Hunt co-wrote, directed, and stars in the new film "Then She
Found Me."

Coming up, Charles Barber says psychiatrists are overmedicating America. His
new book is called "Comfortably Numb." This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Charles Barber, author of "Comfortably Numb," on the
overmedication of America
DAVE DAVIES, host:

A 2004 study by the Centers for Disease Control found that 10 percent of
American women and 4 percent of men were taking antidepressants. Thirty-three
million Americans that year were prescribed at least one psychiatric drug.
Our guest, Charles Barber, believes that's far too many. Barber says while
medications are essential in treating serious psychiatric illnesses, including
clinical depression, aggressive marketing by drug companies has resulted in
too many prescriptions for people with symptoms of mild depression. Barber
says research shows drugs are far less effective than advertised for mild
depression, and new talk therapies show better and more long lasting results.

Barber isn't a psychiatrist, but he's spent years working with the mentally
ill homeless, and he's now a lecturer in psychiatry at the Yale School of
Medicine. In an earlier book, "Songs from the Black Chair," Barber described
his own battle with obsessive and compulsive disorder. His new book is
"Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry Is Medicating a Nation."

Well, Charles Barber, in this book you give us a little thumbnail history of
psychiatry, how it's gone from folks who cared for severely mentally ill
people in asylums to periods when Freudian psychoanalysis was in vogue, but
you say what we now see is the triumph of biological psychiatry. What do you
mean?

Mr. CHARLES BARBER: In biological and corporate psychiatry, just going back
to the roots, psychiatry was conducted for many years in the asylums, and they
were often horrific and ill-advised treatments, although many of them were
well-intentioned, and I think it's sort of interesting to note that a lot of
the asylums of the 19th century were established on beautiful, serene,
valuable pieces of land, where people thought that nature would help people
recover. So a lot of it was well-intentioned, but a lot of the methods were
horrendous--lobotomies and so on.

Psychiatry then moved into the community really when, on the strength of
Freudian psychoanalysis, and particularly after World War I and World War II,
where a lot of European analysts came to the United States and started
conducting office practice. And sort of the procedure of the field in
particularly the '50s and '60s went into sort of starting to treat the worried
well in office-based practices. Psychiatry now--really, Prozac is the one
drug that made it happen this way--is really a sort of a corporate phenomenon
based on the biological understanding of mental illness. And so, you know,
it's permeated the pop culture on the strength of the biological understanding
of psychiatry in the sense of the technology that the corporate world of these
big drug industries has embraced.

DAVIES: And you're arguing that what we're seeing is a lot of
overprescription of medications which might be very effective for serious
conditions, not so effective for less serious conditions.

Mr. BARBER: Yeah, my book is largely a critique of cosmetic
psychopharmacology. You shouldn't take drugs, I argue, unless you have a
medical condition, or a serious condition. There are times, I grant you, that
the drugs seem to be effective for these milder conditions, but there should
be other things looked at first, or certainly in the context of medication
that we've completely overlooked in this sort of, you know, the huge marketing
and the huge hype around this very high-tech solution. Not to say--and I
never argue in the book that drugs can't be terribly effective for severe and
persistent mental illness. I've worked with people who have killed themselves
because of depression. I've worked with people, you know, who wouldn't speak
to me when they're depressed and when they were well, we had a wonderful
relationship. People with terribly disabling conditions, I saw over and over
again. The lifesaving implications of anti-psychotics, or lithium, for
bipolar disorder, for example.

What I argue for in the book is, the farther you get away from severe and
persistent mental illness, which is an obvious biological condition and you
start prescribing these serious agents, these powerful agents for very mild
conditions, or even no conditions at all, for really what are life problems,
for divorces, for the stress of divorce, then the--for example--then the
risk/benefit ratio of the drugs becomes far more dubious.

DAVIES: OK. Fair enough. But are you saying that someone who is feeling
unhappy and thinks that they might benefit from improving their relationship
with their spouse, or thinking about their life or career choices differently,
or exploring maybe the ways that their family background has sort of given
them some debilitating emotional habits, are you saying that they should not
seek help, or that they should simply not so quickly run to a chemical
antidepressant?

Mr. BARBER: They absolutely should seek help. I'm a great believer in
treatment, in psychiatric treatment in all of its forms. What I think makes a
lot of sense is the British guidelines for mild to moderate depression, and
they suggested counsel--you know, very simple things for--again, I'm talking
about mild depression: exercise; diet; counseling, particularly cognitive
behavioral therapy, very focused, structured type of therapy. And then if
those things don't work, then going to the antidepressants. I think that
that's a wise way of looking at it.

DAVIES: And in America we find that a lot of the antidepressants are actually
dispensed by family physicians, right, who...

Mr. BARBER: Absolutely.

DAVIES: ...use them as a quick way to help somebody get better.

Mr. BARBER: Right. That's something that's really changed, again, with
Prozac sort of being the main drug that changed the whole landscape. It used
to be that psychiatric drugs were prescribed by psychiatrists, and now the
majority of antidepressants, for example, are prescribed by family doctors,
PCPs. And so I think doctors, you know, who are very under pressure in the
managed-care environment, have these patients coming in. They're harried.
They got to see people quickly. And people are asking for drugs, and they
seem to know a little something about them. And I think doctors have felt
under tremendous pressure to prescribe even when they feel ambivalent about
it.

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Charles Barber. He is a
lecturer in psychiatry at the Yale Medical School. He has a new book about
the overprescription of antidepressants in America. It's called "Comfortably
Numb: How Psychiatry Is Medicating a Nation."

DAVIES: Well, the second half of your book is really about alternatives to
antidepressants and other medications that are being prescribed so widely, and
I thought we would just focus on one, cognitive behavioral therapy, which you
suggest has developed techniques that are so successful that if it could be
bottled and marketed like Prozac, we would know all about it. In a nutshell,
just describe the technique, if you can briefly. What makes it so effective?

Mr. BARBER: When I talk about cognitive behavior therapy, which is called
CBT, I'm not talking about it as a panacea, and I think part of our maturing
in our understanding of these illnesses--and severe psychiatric illnesses are
chronic and disabling--is understanding that nothing takes them away
magically. However, having said that, CBT is the most validated psychotherapy
treatment in history. There have been something like 400 outcome studies for
depression and increasingly a broad range of conditions--PTSD, panic disorder
and so on. And CBT is a focused, short, very targeted practical therapy,
usually 12 sessions, that sets very specific goals, and it targets the
thoughts, beliefs and attitudes that lie behind particular behaviors.

So, for example, there will be homework assignments given on a particular
situation that makes one depressed or anxious, and the patient, with the
collaboration of the therapist, and it's a very--unlike, you know,
psychoanalysis, where everything's sort of hidden and murky--this is very
open. Set the goals right up front, very practical. And the patient will
come back with the homework and say, `You know, when my boss talked to me like
this, it brought up all these feelings that I was worthless'--and those sort
of feelings, by the way, are associated with depression--`and I think that
that's based on, you know, my core belief that I'm worthless and let's
look'--and then the therapist and the patient will look together at ways--of
skills to maybe avoid those situations or do things differently in those
situation, which lead to concrete changes and a sort of a tool kit to avoid
the situations or master the situations that get someone into trouble.

And the outcomes for CBT for milder depression--not for major depression but
for milder depression--are extremely strong, have been shown to be equal, at
times stronger than the drugs. But the critical factor, though, is the
relapse rates. The relapse rates--in other words, getting depressed
again--and that's a big risk with depression because it's a chronic
illness--are significantly lower for people that have underwent CBT. They
know what to do in certain situations. They know how to mitigate against
those things, and they have the confidence and the awareness, and they feel
like they're in charge.

DAVIES: Our guest is Charles Barber. His new book is "Comfortably Numb."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Charles Barber. He is a
lecturer in psychiatry at the Yale Medical School. His new book is
"Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry Is Medicating a Nation."

Well, you know, Charles Barber, as I was preparing for the interview, I'd
discovered you'd written an earlier book, a memoir called "Songs from the
Black Chair" and decided I'd take a quick look at it.

Mr. BARBER: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: And I picked it and found I just couldn't put it down. It is a truly
absorbing and beautifully written story which involves--begins with your kind
of just revisiting the suicide of a boyhood friend.

Mr. BARBER: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: But in this we learn that you yourself suffer from a mental illness:
obsessive-compulsive disorder. I wonder if you could describe a moment when
the symptoms of this illness really overtook you. Tell us how you experienced
it, what it was like.

Mr. BARBER: Well, I experienced it, you know, from age five or six. Just
kind of disturbing thoughts or thoughts that I needed to do something that I
didn't want to do. You know, silly things like, you know, you got to wear
this red shirt to school tomorrow or you'll die when you're age 18. And, you
know, I had little thoughts like that throughout, you know, elementary school
and stuff. Really, it fully manifested itself late teens, freshman year in
college--which is when, by the way, most mental illnesses--probably having to
do with the maturation of the brain--manifest themselves.

And so I became very, you know, overwhelmed, particularly my freshman year in
college, with very classic OCD symptoms--I had no idea what I was experiencing
at the time, by the way--but repeating words, repeated thoughts that I
couldn't get out of my mind, certain compulsions and then, in my case, very
crippling ideas that I had hurt other people. You know, driving, feeling
that, you know, you hit someone when you were out driving and you can't
quite--you know, you got to go check the car that you didn't hit them, that
there wasn't a gash on the car and things like that. So I was very disabled
for a period of my life, during college in particular.

DAVIES: You know, when I read your new book, "Comfortably Numb," which is
really about treatment practices and mental health policy issues, it is
written with a very strong sense of conviction, and I wondered, after I read
the second book and saw your own experience, that it seemed to me maybe that
your, you know, that your opinions were informed in a different way--I mean,
not just, you know, clinical trials and anecdotes, but your own...

Mr. BARBER: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: ...palpable connection to mental illness.

Mr. BARBER: Yeah. You know, first I say--you know, my issues are extremely
well controlled these days, but I think that--I underwent a recovery process,
and things--social choices that I made were essential to that recovery
process, so I dropped out of Harvard at the sort of the worst of some of this
stuff and I decided to work at a group home for people with developmental
disabilities, formerly the term was mentally retarded. And I did that for two
or three years--it was extremely unpopular with my family and so on--but that
really the beginning in many ways of my recovery and sort of the path that I
suppose has led to the writing of these books and my career.

DAVIES: You know, it is interesting that, I mean, you described how, you
know, your work with the mentally ill homeless was an important and meaningful
thing, and yet, you know, you also got treatments. You had some cognitive
behavioral therapy...

Mr. BARBER: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: ...which you said was helpful, and you took Prozac, which is ironic
given that so much of the new book deals with the overuse of Prozac. Was
Prozac helpful to you?

Mr. BARBER: It was helpful, particularly initially, and I think part of that
might have been the--I actually took it right when it came out and, you know,
my expectations for the drugs and perhaps a placebo effect of my own, but it
was very effective. Again, I feel that this sort of informs the writing of
this book where, for a time in my life, I really did suffer from serious
psychiatric stuff. However, the things that stuck, the things that really
made me want to get better in the first place, had to do with a social
context. In my case I found a connection with people with disabilities, I
found I was very good at the work, and it was a way that I found meaning. And
so to the degree that I had symptoms, in the future, I was able to say,
there's sort of a reason and a structure for this.

I think the other critical component is that I was the activist. I
decided--and it was very unpopular--you know, to drop out of Harvard and work
for $5 an hour, but it was my choice, and what you find again in talking to
people that get better, that they do better when they feel in control and they
are managing their treatment, even if it includes medical and medicinal
treatment. And the new paradigm for psychiatric treatment that I argue for in
the book is more of a collaboration between a doctor or a therapist and the
patient. Traditional psychiatry, it's extremely hierarchical.

DAVIES: Do you still take Prozac?

Mr. BARBER: Yes, I do.

DAVIES: Uh-huh. So you still find it helpful?

Mr. BARBER: I do, but, again, the things that make me happy are my writing,
my role as a father, my role as a husband, my vocation as a writer. And so
I...

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. BARBER: Those are the things that matter to me.

DAVIES: Yeah, well, you know, the symptoms that you described your first year
at Harvard seemed very serious as I read them. I mean, you know...

Mr. BARBER: Yep.

DAVIES: You would be up all night, and these phrases would repeat through
your mind--black, black, black, black, black, black, black. I mean, truly
debilitating. Can you recall what it was like to be there? Can you connect
to what that felt like?

Mr. BARBER: It seems like another person, you know? It was harrowing. It
was absolutely harrowing. And again, that's why I think I can make the
distinction between serious conditions...

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. BARBER: ...that are truly horrific and, unless you've experienced them
you don't really know vs., you know, `it's February, I'm depressed.' And so I
think that, you know, the second book, "Comfortably Numb," is informed by that
sort of understanding that I think I can contend that I have, that, what's the
difference between severe and not a medical condition?

DAVIES: Well, Charles Barber, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BARBER: Thank you.

DAVIES: Charles Barber is a lecturer in psychiatry at the Yale Medical
School. He recounts his battle with obsessive and compulsive disorder in
"Songs from the Black Chair." His new book is "Comfortably Numb: How
Psychiatry Is Medicating a Nation."

(Credits)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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