Taking Care of Business

Nurse-turned-actor-turned-director Bonnie Hunt brings her benevolent touch to Return to Me

It's clear from the outset that Bonnie Hunt is used to taking care of people. "Cream or sugar?" she asks, fetching coffee from a side table before we begin the interview. After stirring the cup's contents a bit, she pauses for moment and leans in close. "I don't know," she says, appearing genuinely concerned. "Usually, when the cream is breaking up like that, it means it's not good. Are you sure it's all right? Do you want another cup?"

In an industry where a walk-on part in a USA Network movie inspires diva-scale demands, Hunt--who announces that the "makeup artist to the stars" who's fussing with her lipstick is slumming today--seems uncommonly, well, Midwestern in her demeanor. This is, after all, the nurse-turned-actor whose husband made her fire her first personal assistant the day she picked up the assistant's dry cleaning. Hunt's second personal assistant was hired during the shooting of her directorial debut, Return to Me, a similarly Midwestern romantic comedy in which blue-collar widower Bob Rueland (David Duchovny) falls in love with Grace (Minnie Driver), the sheltered transplant patient who receives his late wife's heart.

"I got the budget, and there was money allotted for a PA," explains Hunt. "So I hired my friend Holly [Wortell], because she was going through a divorce. I told her to think of it as a free paycheck." Wortell, an old friend from Hunt's stint with Second City in the mid-Eighties, also has a small role in the film as an annoying blind date. "She has been in everything I've done," says Hunt. "That's her work--me."

If Hunt's demeanor is out of the ordinary by Tinseltown standards, so is her movie, which she wrote with another old Second City friend, Don Lake. Set in Chicago, in the bosom of an Irish-Italian extended family and the sort of old neighborhood that seems to have gone the way of the streetcar, Return to Me features characters who are unabashedly religious without being unbalanced or fanatical; a dating couple that never hops into bed; and a God who moves characters like chess pieces. And yet such an old-fashioned approach seems perfectly in keeping with a woman who credits her mother as her greatest directorial influence, and who claims she modeled her respectful interactions with the crew after the working methods of her father, an electrician for the local board of education. Keeping it all in the family, Hunt shot the film in Chicago and stocked the cast with relatives--a considerable population, given that she was born the sixth of seven children in a small Irish Catholic constellation on the northwest side of Chicago. Likewise, the old neighborhood itself gets ample screen time: The Irish-Italian eatery that serves as home base for Grace's family and friends is an actual restaurant owned by folks Hunt grew up with. "At the end of the day, if [Return to Me] doesn't work out, if it doesn't make much money, it can be my home movie," she says.

It's a quaint notion. Most home movies, though, aren't bankrolled by MGM, nor do they feature, say, Carroll O'Connor's first appearance on the big screen in a quarter-century. Such a down-home approach also belies the long odds against Hunt's position at the helm of a boat this size. Always a supporting character, never a star, she has appeared as the mom, the friend, or the sister in studio movies such as Beethoven, Random Hearts, and Jerry Maguire. Two forays into TV were truncated, "politically exhausting" enterprises. In both cases--The Building in 1993, and The Bonnie Hunt Show (co-produced by David Letterman) in 1995--she wrote, produced, and starred in a CBS series set in Chicago, stocked with old Second City friends and based loosely on events from her actual life. In both cases, she fought execs who wanted to replace her friends with better-known TV actors--and in both cases, her shows were summarily canceled.

Many of the same elements are back in Return to Me, from the cameos by old friends to the plots borrowed from real life (Hunt's parents also met by coincidence). But one difference seems to be that Hunt has learned to stand her ground at the beginning of the process rather than at the end. In shopping her latest script to studios, she took an uncompromising approach, having learned the hard way from her TV shows. "I would say [to execs], 'Here's what you get with me,'" she recalls. "I made it very clear that I would be doing this story with these characters in this way--fantastical elements and all. And MGM really responded to that."

If Return to Me's tale of transplanted love is improbable, it's also executed with a full-on faith that borders on naiveté. Such faith can be as disarming as a Hollywood director who pours your coffee and asks about your marriage--and Return to Me demands a similar level of commitment from its audience. Unlike Moonstruck (from which it borrows), Return to Me features romantic tribulations created by divine intervention rather than character flaws, meaning that the protagonists are mostly required to adjust to obstacles imposed upon them.

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