So despite the fact that I started off the interview by accidentally insulting her, Academy Award winner Helen Hunt—who wrote, directed and stars in the new film “Ride,” in theaters now—was charmingly candid about her accidental journal to eco activism.
You’ve directed before, but “Ride” is the first movie that you wrote and and starred in. What was it about this story that captured you?
I actually wrote and directed a movie called “Then She Found Me” with Colin Firth and Bette Midler that came out a few years ago. But “Ride” was born out of a number of things. My life as a mother is just endlessly interesting to me. And I had learned to surf—or learned how to try to surf—later in life. A lot of my friends are going through empty nest syndrome; my nest is not empty yet but it will be. And I grew up in New York and Los Angeles so the tug of war between the two was something that I was familiar with. So a lot of those things got forwarded into “Ride.” And then it sort of began to write itself.
How did you choose Luke Wilson to co-star—he seems perfect as a surfer!
He does seem perfect, but as it turned out he’s a major athlete and a brilliant swimmer but he hadn’t ever surfed! I thought that I had made a terrible mistake—forget surfing, just learning how to handle the board is something you have to have done for years. But he just did it. I don’t know how he did it, but he did. So on top of him being so talented and sexy and funny he just got the guy totally. When you write or direct something and somebody walks in and completely gets it, it’s just a relief and a joy.
A lot of “Ride” was shot on beaches here in Los Angeles, where so many surfers are involved in the fight against environmental pollution through organizations like Surfrider and Heal the Bay. Did that message weave into the film at all?
Yes! I’ve been a Heal the Bay and Surfrider supporter forever, just because it’s my own back yard. It was my father’s back yard, first—he’s been body surfing in the Santa Monica bay for 80 years. And my daughter loves the ocean.
One of the many things that go into this character that I play, part of the ride—pardon the expression—that she takes, is that she’s so arrogant it takes something as big as the ocean to pummel humility into her. And I just have this huge gratitude for the ocean. As I’m releasing the film, I’m trying to align with Surfrider and Heal the Bay and bring more attention to them and to the movie.
You seem to weave eco activism into your personal and professional life—I was so impressed with the H&M Conscious gown that you wore to the Academy Awards in 2013. Was that an intentional sustainable fashion statement?
Sure. What was really fun was being on the red carpet and having people say, “Who did your dress.” And I’d say, “H&M.” And they’d laugh. And then they’d look at me and I wasn’t laughing. They really thought I was playing a joke on them. But it was a chance to partner with this company and make a statement and wear a pretty dress. It was a win-win. There’s so much money and attention poured into that evening. Any time you can put it on its side a little bit, that’s really great.
You talked about your daughter. Has parenthood affected the way you live your life, in terms of eco-consciousness? We go out and do our beach clean ups. I don’t want to overstate what we do. There are people who are doing so much more. But I do my little part when I can. It has. But you know, one downside of the eco movement is that young kids are taught so early about how fragile the planet is and how we have to save it. They’re not getting to enjoy that great faith that the planet will sustain them—that it’s sound. My heart breaks when really young kids are handed this burden as if they’re supposed to fix it, at ages five and 10. I think it’s our job to do it, and then as they get older to pass along the message. It can happen too young. I’m trying not to do that.
It’s a sense of doom, right?
Yes, it is. And I can’t stand it. I have to shake it off because it’s paralyzing. I try to give a positive message to her. We go out and do our beach clean ups. I don’t want to overstate what we do. There are people who are doing so much more. But I do my little part when I can.
One thing I’ve really gotten behind is solar leasing. There’s a company called Sungevity that I’ve partnered with. It’s been incredible. The only problem is that it seems too good to be true. You don’t pay for the panels—they pay for themselves and your electric bill will absolutely go down through the course of the lease. If you sell the house you sell the lease right along with it—it actually increases the value of your house. Solar energy is so simple. The sun hits the roof and that makes the icebox cold. It’s not complicated. But people are slow to change.
Speaking of the icebox, do you choose organic foods? Solar energy is so simple. The sun hits the roof and that makes the icebox cold. It’s not complicated. But people are slow to change. It’s a little bit similar in that I’m not trying to burden my daughter too much. We buy organic when we can. We eat well but sometimes we don’t. I just don’t want to choose food as a thing that’s rigid. I just don’t want to be rigid about anything ever again in my life. So I try to carry that into the way we do food, as well.
We try to have healthy food in our house. When I put food on the table—which is not every night—it’s healthy most of the time and organic almost all of the time and then there are those times when we go out and get a dumb cheeseburger. I just don’t want to be rigid about it. I’ve seen kids who get so freaked out by what they’re eating because their parents are so freaked out about what they’re eating.
Don’t ban the birthday cake.
Exactly. There’s the joy that we all had—going out for ice cream. You can’t outsmart that.
Although there is organic ice cream now.
There is! I just had a dairy free organic chocolate something from Grom in Malibu and it was incredible.
Do you have an opinion about the fight for GMO labeling or against fracking? What are you thinking about these sort of big picture issues?
I am pro labeling and anti fracking. But again when you know people like Martin Sheen and Ed Begley it’s hard to tout yourself as a serious activist. These are people who have put their money where their mouths are for decades. So I do my small part, but I can always do more. I really bow to people like them.
Who’s your eco hero? The cups just haunt me at night. When I get it together I bring my personal cup but I don’t often get it together. So that would be my eco shame. Ed Begley. Absolutely. He is my hero, period. I’ve known him forever. We were on “St. Elsewhere” together in 10 BC or whenever that show was on. And he used to ride his bike to work before anybody did. But he’s never been a guy who puts pressure on anybody or makes anybody feel badly. Any time you do any little thing he’s like, “Great! Way to go!” Meanwhile he stands up for the march for migrant workers and the beach clean up and the soup kitchen and he doesn’t overly talk about it. He’s just the real deal. I really look up to him.
Okay, so what’s your biggest eco sin?
Oh, Starbucks. I’m a horrible slave to the green tea lemonade. The cups just haunt me at night. When I get it together I bring my personal cup but I don’t often get it together. So that would be my eco shame.
Hopefully one day Starbucks will offer biodegradable plastic cups!
If that ever happened that would be so good.
If there was one thing you could change about our world today, what would it be?
A clean ocean forever. I don’t want to worry about it any more.
Helen Hunt’s headshot is by Jack Guy; the photo of her wearing H&M Conscious is from Ecouterre.
Will you go see “Ride”? Why or why not? Tell me about it, in comments please. Thanks!