Top of the Lake: Jane Campion and Holly Hunter on reuniting 20 years after The Piano

"We had a blast. The women’s camp was like a giant slumber party"

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Call it alchemy, call it some kind of artist/muse complex, but some actors and directors just click: Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorese, Laura Dern and David Lynch… Twenty years ago, and the New Zealand director Jane Campion cast actress Holly Hunter in The Piano as the mute Scottish woman, Ada. Both women’s careers were changed for ever: Hunter won the best actress Oscar, Campion won best screenplay, and The Piano took the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

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Hunter and Campion reunited to make Top of the Lake, which is set on New Zealand’s South Island. Hunter plays GJ, an androgynous guru who arrives with her female followers to the bemusement – and anger – of the locals.

How did you come to work together again?

Jane Campion: I wanted Holly to play GJ – this enlightened character who is kind of wild and fierce and crazy and astute. I thought Holly would be perfect because she’s got an unusual strength of character. She likes to take a risk.

Holly Hunter: Ha! I gotta say, I read it and I was like, “I don’t get it. Why do you want me to do this part? Why don’t you get Ben Kingsley?”

JC: I said, “We can’t have him, he’s not a woman.” I said, “You’ll be absolutely terrific. No one else can do it.” Holly got off the phone and said to her partner, “I seem to be doing it.” I was really happy to hear that because I’d never talked an actor into doing any role.

What was the hesitation?

HH: GJ is like this guru. And I’ve never really done that kind of religious, spiritual exploration for my own self. And Jane has.

JC: I guess one of the reasons for doing it was as a tribute to my friend, who died a few years ago, called UG [UG Krishnamurti, an Indian thinker and guru]. So we looked UG up on YouTube and then Holly got confident because she could do his gestures better than he could.

HH: In many parts I start from the outside and then it triggers things within. For The Piano I went, “I’m going to learn these piano pieces. I’m going to learn this sign language and I’m going to do them all day every day, five days
a week.” It was a totally physical thing.

The Piano must have had a profound influence on you both?

HH: Oh yeah. In every way that you can think of and other ways that you wouldn’t. And the Oscar – I’m really glad I won it for a film that I loved. I had a blast on The Firm and I was nominated for that too [as best supporting actress] in the same year. But it would’ve been really weird to have won for The Firm and not for The Piano, because in only one of those films was I was in love with the experience of doing it.

What was it like for you both, being in New Zealand together?

JC: Holly had her twins with her, so I had a chance to meet her little boys. We’d take them to mountain-fed creeks and have a swim. That was really fun, wasn’t it?

HH: We had a blast. The women’s camp was like a giant slumber party. After rehearsals we’d all jump in the lake, Jane included. We played Simon Says, musical chairs, we had talent contests. We all did impressions of characters in the cast. OK… maybe I played Elisabeth’s [Moss] character for a couple of seconds!

What do you think of The Piano now?

JC: I thought some of it was really good, but I thought [of the ending, in which Ada ties herself to her sinking piano, but then kicks free and surfaces], ‘For freaking hell’s sake, she should have stayed under there.’ It would be more real, wouldn’t it, it would be better? I didn’t have the nerve at the time. What if Ada just went down, she went down with her piano, that’s it.

HH: That was something Jane toyed with when we shot the movie, to end it there – and she’s still thinking about it! Me, I love that it’s a reverie for Ada, not a nightmare or something that haunts her. It soothes her.

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Top of the Lake starts on Saturday at 9:10pm on BBC2.