When people talk about an actress making a gutsy choice, they usually mean she made herself look ugly. In Holly Hunter's case, the gutsy choice was doing ''Thirteen'' at all. It was director Catherine Hardwicke's first film, there was no distributor, and, oh yes, Hunter, 45, would be a supporting player to two teenage girls.
Still, when Hardwicke was daydreaming about her ideal person to play Melanie -- a recovering addict who watches, impotently, as her 13-year-old daughter, Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), spirals deep down into drug use, promiscuity, and rage -- Hunter kept popping into her head. ''I've just been a sucker for her,'' Hardwicke says. ''She can [be] hilarious and touching and heartbreaking. I just thought Holly would go all the way with this character and be brave and not worry that sometimes Mel is not the perfect mother.''
Indeed, the four-time Oscar nominee (who won for 1993's ''The Piano'') plays Melanie as a potent mix of caring mom, sexual woman, and self-absorbed recoverer -- in varying stages of denial, fear, bewilderment, and outrage at what's happening to her daughter. All done in a quickie 24-day shoot. In preparation, Hunter speed-bonded with Wood and her teen costar Nikki Reed (who cowrote the script based on her own life) during a girls' sleepover at the actual Los Angeles home in which they shot the film.
The actress also kept watch for moments that felt genuine. It was Hunter's idea to film a nude scene (with on-screen beau Jeremy Sisto) that's so subtle you almost don't register that she's naked. ''Nudity in movies is almost always sexualized, and this was nudity from a completely skewed place, which is one of reality -- and it's banal,'' says Hunter. ''It's nudity in a way that normally isn't used in movies. I thought, 'What a great opportunity.''' And yet another gutsy choice.