When it comes to the career trajectories of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Helen Hunt can relate.

Like the two acting icons at the center of FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan, Hunt began her Hollywood career at a young age (in her case, as a child actress) and has enjoyed both widespread popularity – as the Emmy-winning star of the hit sitcom Mad About You – and an acclaimed film career as well: along with starring in blockbuster crowd pleasers like Twister, Hunt earned an Academy Award for Best Actress for her turn in the 1997 dramedy As Good As It Gets.

And as Hunt navigated the complex waters of acting in Hollywood, she also recognized the value of reinvention, following the example set by her father Gordon, a writer, acting coach and voiceover artist who pivoted into a highly regarded career as a director of sitcoms, stage plays and, later, video games.

Like her father, Hunt initiated a successful segue behind the camera as well: writing, directing and starring in 2007’s Then She Found Me and 2014’s Ride, in addition to helming episodes of high profile TV shows including Californication, House of Lies, Revenge, Life in Pieces and This Is Us.

And while she continues to pursue her acting career – she’s currently appearing in Fox’s limited series Shots Fired – Hunt was a natural recruit to direct the penultimate episode of Feud for a variety of reasons, as she tells Mashable; including executive producer Ryan Murphy’s stated commitment to put more female directors to work; her empathy for the hard-fought battles of the actresses who preceded her in Hollywood; and her own understanding of leaving a lasting legacy in the arts.

What resonated with you the most as you were figuring out what your approach to Episode 7 was going to be?

The thing that moved me the most was these two actors – all of the actors, but the two of them [Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon] just made me fall in love with acting all the more. I feel so moved by how good they both are and how different they are. It’s just so much fun.

Image: fx

Alfred Molina as Robert Aldrich, Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis.

Ryan Murphy’s way of doing things works so well that I didn’t need to worry about that part. I feel like I was there just to help the actors have a little more fun if I could, you know what I mean? And that’s what I love the most about directing: to whisper something to a great actor that allows them to feel confident when they work or puts a smile on their face, because they’re going to try something totally perverse and bizarre, and it might just work. And with these actors, who are so good and so prepared, that was the part that moved me the most.

Obviously [there’s] the subject matter [of] the female actor in her early 50s and so I certainly know what it’s like that these two women want to be relevant. They want to be relevant and making work. So to get to make work about two women wanting to make work was pretty great!

They’re trying to craft this second act in their careers. You’ve certainly been doing that successfully as a director. Tell me about relating to that transition. Things are different now – not perfect, but different.

Are they? I’m not sure. One thing I’ll tell you is that I did an interview once and someone asked me about like, “As you enter your third act…” and I said, “In Shakespeare plays there were five acts, so I’ll admit that I’m in my third act as long as we all agree there were five acts.” That’s what keeps me willing to even have that conversation.

In terms of what’s different, I don’t really know, to be honest. I was more struck with what’s the same. And part of the fun was that those actors were so in it. They both invested emotionally in it completely, and at the same time, we’d say “cut,” and we would all look at each other and just laugh because it’s just so absurd.

There’s a scene in my episode where Jessica [as Joan] is forced to get an independent physical exam because she left the set because she says she’s sick. She’s in like a $140,000 sapphire necklace, eating food from Chasen’s in the hospital room. And there’s a young, handsome doctor listening to her, got a stethoscope on her back. She kind of lowers the paper down and looks up at him as if it’s a movie poster. Every time we cut we just started howling. There’s just something so fun and funny about it.

This episode is where the real breakdown starts. We see the comedy of Joan, and we also see the pathos of her.

One hundred percent. Absolutely.

You’re bringing home a lot of these themes that have been playing out through the series. Those actors have lived with it throughout filming, but then you come in and get to hit those big grace note moments. Tell me about working with Susan and Jessica to land those moments.

There’s no comparing them. They’re both at the top of their game. They both have 40,000 hours doing what they’re doing. There’s nothing to replace that. That’s what I have learned directing, is that there is nothing to replace all those hours of doing it. Somebody new and exciting with great instincts can be good in a movie, but to do what they’re doing, you have to have the 40,000 hours that they both have. So you start with that.

Seeing how they’re different: Susan’s instincts are firing all the time. She just kind of comes on the set and goes, “This doesn’t make sense…” Then you give her an explanation she buys, she goes, “Great.” She goes, “That doesn’t make sense…” Jessica has been combing through every piece of it for, God knows, days, weeks, months, a year. And then they both have a sense of play and adventure.

And maybe it’s because they seem to trust me. But when I would give them an idea or suggest they try something, even if it felt a little awkward, they were willing, they were just willing. And the reason they were able to do it is because they were so prepared, and there’s nothing more impressive to me than that.

One of the things I thought was fun about the episode was the behind the scenes, on-location element. You’ve certainly seen your share of that since you were a kid. Did you bring a bit of your own experiences to how you wanted to portray that?

Yeah, there’s one scene in mine where they’re on location. That’s one thing different about the episode I did, is you get to see them in Louisiana on location, and I said, “We’ve really got to get what that’s like.” Everybody in the motel room, one person brings their cat. How do they dress? What’s the 1964 equivalent of sweatpants and a tank top — which everybody would be in now.

I was sort of excited to grab that, and the kind of fellowship that happens, and romance that happens on location – that seemed like a thing I could grab. Also, they had a scene between them that, in the beginning, they both were really challenged by. Then I realized, this is the last — or one of the last — times these two people are going to see each other. So anytime you have two characters feuding like this and such contention, you have to believe there’s some version of love running underneath it, or heartbreak.

The show says it best in the pilot. Catherine Zeta-Jones says, “Feuds aren’t about hate, they’re about pain.” When I read that I went, “That’s the show.” That’s the thing to grab on to. They’re in pain. And each wants the respect of the other. As long as you have something like that to hang on to, you can do anything. You can have the kind of fun that they had. I felt really lucky to get to be in that sandbox with them – and Fred Molina, who I adore.

You logged a lot of hours watching your dad direct, and being directed by your dad. Is there anything in your directorial style that came as a direct influence from him?

Everything. I think having a really positive attitude when you step on the set, when people are despairing — which they tend to do when they haven’t slept. I did the second-to-last episode. That’s kind of the hardest part, as an actor. [Laughs.] You don’t even have the wind at your back of it being the last one. So it’s up to you, who isn’t as exhausted, to come in and go, “No no no no, this is good, no no no, we can make this work. No no no, it’s going to be fun.” So his positive attitude.

I tell every director, every wannabe director, “Get in an acting class.” My time acting and studying acting serves me every time I have to open my mouth and speak to one of these really smart actors, you know what I mean? You don’t want to say something that’s going to mess up what they have, but you do want to give them something new to try, or help them get out of a jam if they’re feeling not good about it.

What was interesting to you about the period, and the level of detail that Ryan’s production allowed you to work with in creating your scenes?

I was completely shocked at the level of, like, the costumes and the production design. Even now, I watch the show and I go, “Look at that turquoise. Look at the peach on the booths in the restaurant. How do they do it?”

And I’m an outsider to Ryan Murphy TV. I’m just now kind of being invited in, and I’m so grateful. I think it’s the same thing: it’s the 10,000 hours. Ryan has stayed with these people, and I’m sure they were all very talented to begin with, but there’s nothing to replace having worked on Glee, and then they work on Nip/Tuck, and then they work on American Horror, and then they do O.J. By the time they get to Feud, they are so experienced that they’re free to be brave, and bold. It’s incredible what he’s done. Incredible.

What does having a legacy in the business of entertainment mean to you at this stage in your career. Having a family history there, not just your own; having been a part of the fabric of Hollywood a couple generations now?

To be honest, for me, it’s the stories you leave behind. So when I look at what I directed – I wrote and directed two movies, I said something in those movies that matter to me. The Sessions, I would say, the fact that that’s about healthy sex, I feel so proud to have been in a movie about that.

I want to be acting above all else. I hope that I’ve got lots more work ahead of me. But it’s the stories. Like, I think about my kids. I would like kids my kids’ age to see those three movies, because they’re saying something that matters to me. So if I could leave something behind, it would probably be that.

What’s the specific creative itch that directing is scratching for you?

I have a good organizational brain, and I’m super prepared, so those things come pretty easy. Then the talking-to-actors part, making them happy, is fun. If I’m directing episodic TV, I’m using those skills. For the movies that I made, these came from the deepest parts of me. They’re comedies, but one’s about betrayal, and one’s about finding a version of loving life, even when it’s brutal.

Directing just means you get to say, Well, what color paint on the walls would tell that story best? What kind of lighting would tell that story best?” You’re kind of in charge. You have all these tools in your toolkit to tell this story that means the world to you.

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