"I've been fired a lot. I'm very proud of it," says Darlene Hunt as she sips a decaf coffee, her red ringlet hair poking out from underneath a conductor's hat. "I was [a writer on 90210] for half the first season and they brought in a new showrunner and I just got a call--along with several other people--that I was fired."
On a warm October day, Hunt and I are finishing up lunch at Ford's Fueling Station, around the corner from the Culver City office where Hunt, the creator of Showtime's The Big C, is due to return in a few minutes to begin fleshing out the hit show's second season with Jenny Bicks, the program's showrunner.
"It's funny because the woman who fired me I saw at a dinner hosted by People magazine for visionaries or whatever and she was in the valet line. The thing is, I've never been that passionate about writing on other peoples' shows anyway because I feel like my voice is pretty strong. That's the [voice] I want to write to, so believe me, I was happy to go. So, anyway I saw her in the valet line and I said, '[Hey!] You fired me!' She was a little unnerved. She threw out a few excuses--contradictory excuses--about why she fired me but the truth is, I truly, truly was not bitter or angry at all. It was the best thing for me at the time."
Hunt sets down her cup, her piercing blue eyes looking through me. "But for the record, when you fire someone, you should look them in the eye."
Like Cathy, the lead character (played insuperably by Laura Linney) on The Big C, Hunt's voice has a humorous midwestern frankness about it. Candid about her career and all of the stops along the way, the Northwestern University theatre graduate is remarkably open about all of the many hats she wears and how they all fit into an increasingly busy life: in addition to working on The Big C, Hunt is developing a pilot for Fox about a gay and straight best friend who are running a charity organization, a film with Grey's Anatomy star Sandra Oh and Julianne Robinson attached--and there are her two daughters, the second of which was born shortly after the writer's room for The Big C was opened.
"I mean, thank God my show got picked up in cable because I can do anything for five months," which is about the time it takes to produce a full season. Time is an important factor in Hunt's life, not least because the character she's created only has so long left to live and Hunt must weave together her life in a way that is compelling for viewers. Even now, about to begin concepting the second season, Hunt is dismayed by critics who were upset that Cathy spends most of the first season hiding the fact of her terminal cancer from her family.
"I had a lunch with a cancer survivor early on, when I was just starting to write the pilot, and he shared with me that he first got the news he didn't want to tell anybody because he had to overcome these feelings of embarrassment and shame that he'd gotten cancer," Hunt explains. "And just as far as storytelling goes, I like that idea to just give a little conflict for us to write against something, that she's going through something that no one knows about. And on top of that, this particular person, Cathy, you know I think she wants to [keep it secret] because she feels that she's given a lot of things away, rightly or wrongly, and I think she just wants to hold onto it for herself, like "I'm gonna keep this."
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Hunt moved to Los Angeles in 1997 as to pursue a career as an actor. However, her work as a stand up comedian while studying at Northwestern led her to performing stand-up in Los Angeles, working days at Yankee Doodle's on the Santa Monica Promenade, and later, at Starbucks.
"I've had many, many crappy jobs," she says dryly. "The thing about a crappy job is that you meet people. I mean, a guy I was working at Starbucks with was like, 'Do you wanna be my improv partner for this TV show I've been asked to do?' Like, sure! And also by having a crappy job, then you're always inspired so that [in the future] you don't have to have that crappy job."
At night, she would perform as a stand-up comic, which brought her to both the Aspen and Chicago Comedy Festivals, and while it increased her profile, Hunt eventually found that stand-up to be less than rewarding. "I don't think I ever got comfortable with the back and forth with the audience," she explains. "I would memorize my script or performance and I would be a little nervous if I got heckled--like 'Don't heckle me, I'm not good at comebacks!'"
Still, she credits the experience for honing her writing and skills, as well as developing the point of view that would come across in her later work, like her first break into writing for television. "I did a promo for NBC and they called me and were like, 'You're really funny improvising, would you come in and write promos for us?'"
It was a story arch that would lead Hunt to write for Will & Grace, Good Morning, Miami, and 90210, while also working as an actress with credits on TV's Greek and Hung, and in the films I Heart Huckabees and Idiocracy.
"I am [still an actor] as I am available," Hunt says. "I mean, [to act on The Big C] would be a dream to just combine everything that I do. But the reality is that once you get a show up and running, it's so exhausting and time-consuming that I'm not desperate to be on it. It would be hard wearing both those hats at the same time."
Instead Hunt, and the team of six writers who work on The Big C, focus on creating the sharpest lines they can, "monitor[ing] the light and dark [moments] to make [the audience] laugh and cry in every episode."
"From now on, I'm only having desserts and liquor," Cathy announces, a line from the first episode oft repeated in promos and cocktail bars. "It was actually a different line in the pilot and one of our network executives, I think at a table read, said 'I think we can come up with something funnier, Darlene,' and I was like, 'Oh! I love my line.'" And we came up with a line that gets quoted a lot more often."
That refined frankness is something Hunt identifies with herself. "A lot of my mother-angst I sort of poured into [Cathy]," she explains. "For better or worse, I am trying to get better about saying what I think instead of writing about it later so there's a lot of me.
There is also a lot of her in another of the show's unique, and slightly controversial, characters: Sean, Cathy's homeless-by-choice, non-consumer brother (played by John Benjamin Hickey).
"I tried to convince my husband at one point to be a non-consumer at one point and buy nothing new because I saw some families on the news who'd done that. And then I was like, 'Well, maybe we can just do it for a month.' And then I just forgot about it," Hunt says. "I am concerned about the environment and I feel that his arguments are so valid and real and if we could just stop producing and tearing things up it'd be great. But then, you know, on the flip side I just go into Cathy-mode and think 'whatever, who has the time [to be a non-consumer]?'"
"But the homeless thing really bugged people for a long time," Hunt muses. "But I think because I knew somebody that who had a brother [who was non-consumer] it just wasn't that strange to me that someone would choose to live on the streets."
Reflecting on one's life and choices, is at the end of the day, the major theme of The Big C, and that is bound to court controversy in a 24-hour infotainment culture such as ours, but for Hunt that is part of what makes it also rewarding.
"I love going to The Big C's Facebook page because the only people who go there love the show and, by and large, say nice things," she jokes. But some of my favorite things that people said on there were, 'I'm inspired.' 'It made me think about my life and I'm gonna make some changes.'"
I had a hand in that," she says sincerely. "A little hand in somebody having a little light bulb moment."
The season finale ofThe Big C airs tonight at 10:30 PT/9:30 CT on Showtime.