HER VOICE, coming to you blind on the telephone, evokes swarms of butterflies or a great storyteller or a grande dame of the British stage, so that -- as she admits -- when people meet her, it is a shock. She can see it, she says, by the expression on their faces.
"I'm always prepared for the great magical difference between what I sound like and what I look like," she says, in the moments between preparation for a new play. "Or if I'm in a restaurant and people don't know how to react to me, don't know how old I am, whether I'm a child or not. It's . . . an expression on their face . . . or you see it through body language."
What she looks like: an androgynous creature, of a size associated with midgets, with straight brown hair, with little makeup, without guile, weighing 80 pounds, in height, 4 foot 9.
What she sounds like: a young man; a woman of great intelligence, trained for the classical stage.
What she does for a living: She is an actress--with her new movie, "The Year of Living Dangerously," perhaps a star.
How she came to be an actress: She saw Mary Martin in "Peter Pan" when she was a distinctly unbeautiful child of 7 or 8. She was "very moved" and "incredibly excited" by what she saw. Which was not a story of pirates and lost boys: "It was the story of transformation."
Linda Hunt is 37 years old and has made her living on the stage nearly her entire life, largely unknown to the public. She worked in the respected Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut, did "Ah, Wilderness!" for PBS, is currently finishing one off-Broadway show and preparing for "Top Girls," a British import, at the end of this month.
But it is her role in "The Year of Living Dangerously" that is catapulting her into public attention. It is, after all, a starring role, opposite Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver. It is film with a wider audience than, say, a Long Wharf production of "Hamlet." It is a part with the quirkiness, the angle, that is a publicist's dream: Linda Hunt, in her role as Billy Kwan, the Australian-Chinese cameraman in revolutionary Indonesia, does not merely play a midget who is doomed by size and race to be an outsider--she plays a man. She plays it so well--at one point appreciatively eyeing Sigourney Weaver--that at the end of the film, when the credits rolls, there is, among the audience, a shock. If you don't know, going in, that she is a woman, you won't guess it during the film.
And, of course, there is that other angle: Linda Hunt is an aberration. A plucky cripple. A freak. Or is she? Medically, is she considered a midget?
There is a lateral approach to the answer.
"Ummmmm . . . ahhhh . . . I don't know . . . I think I'm a small woman."
Were her parents of average size?
She has said one of the reasons she identified with the role of Kwan was his relationship to his size, his sense of being an outsider. Did her own size affect her?
"Yes, it did, but it also was a two-sided thing, it all had its good points about it . . . let me try and stress something, I can't say it strongly enough, I don't want to have anyone represent me as someone who has suffered because of my size . . . there are people who are particularly beautiful or particularly small, our lives are all colored by the fact that we live inside our bodies. That is true of me; I am possibly, because I am very small, a more dramatic example . . ."
Her parents took her to a doctor?
"I don't want to do this number, it's too personal."
The personal/professional, intertwined as a vine: She was born in Morristown, N.J., moving "at the ripe old age of two months" to Westport, Conn. Father was the vice president of an oil company, mother was a "very wonderful mother" who wrote and played and taught the piano. There was an older sister. Hunt, herself, was a "funny-looking little kid, kind of too little, always a little bit behind everybody and then as I got older, 12 or 13, everybody started to sprout, and I wasn't sprouting."
She won't say what the doctor said when they went to see him, only that nobody ever quite knew the answers; that she didn't want to pay any attention to the so-called answers, anyway, and that, as to her height, she made a kind of peace with it, considering herself not marked, but special.
"I was perfectly willing to believe that I had been given this and it was me, I was embracing of it, in a certain way . . ." she says.
Of the love of acting, however, and how it came to be, the arms wave and the voice sings; a singing bird, with the story of "Peter Pan." Many little girls watching that show, she is told, had taken Mary Martin to be a boy.
"Ahhh," says Linda, the voice animated, "I knew she was an actress. I thought, 'That's what I want to do' . . . it was not so much the story of Peter to me as the story of transformation . . . I got the idea at 7 or 8 that there was the possibility of transformation, which was terribly exciting to me . . . then, in the fifth grade, my parents went to see 'My Fair Lady.' I didn't get to see it for about a year but I played that record the entire year, playing out Rex Harrison . . ."
She plays Henry Higgins, with gesture, filling the plankboard stage of the off-Broadway house:
Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter
Doomed by every syllable she utters . . .
"I got the secret from Mary Martin," she says. "Aha, you can do that in your life. From Rexy, I learned that you can make all these wonderful sounds with your lips and tongue."
She determined to be an actress. At the age of 15, she studied voice privately. She does not theorize about it, but she does not deny that if you are bound by fate to the body, you may address yourself to change through the voice. She went away to the Goodman School for Acting. Her parents never discouraged her from the stage, but because of her height, the school suggested a directing major. She was convinced. She returned to New York and tried to work as a stage manager and director.
"I was a good enough actor, at that point, to know I didn't know enough to be a director." Her parents supported her for three years, but she could not make any money, and at 25 she returned to Connecticut to "bury my head in the sand." She stumbled upon an ad for an acting class and found a very fine teacher. He told her she should be working. In a year and a half she was. Small roles in Strindberg, Shakespeare, O'Neill. Her average income was $8,000 a year. She doesn't want to invite your sympathy by telling you what her rent was any more than she wants to invite your sympathy by telling you what happened, as a teen-ager, on the visit to the doctor.
"Oh, no, you don't want to . . . it embarrasses me to get into personal stuff like that; I can't, I don't want to."
The role of Kwan, which brought Linda Hunt out of a working actor's poverty, was born of desperation--that of director Peter Weir's, not Hunt's. His film was to begin pre-production, and he was without an actor for Kwan. Hunt's agent put her name forward. Weir was skeptical. Hunt was skeptical, too. She asked if there were any way the role might be played by a woman. The answer was no. Nonetheless, she wanted the part.
"I related immediately and very strongly to Kwan," she says. "Certainly to his relationship to his size, to his sense of being an outsider; to his passion about Indonesia and injustice; to his feelings for Jill the heroine of the film, whom Kwan offers up to a handsome journalist and his inability to act on them . . . those were all the essential things . . . and I felt that if I could play all those things, the character, it wouldn't matter to me that it was embodied by a woman . . ."
Unlike Dustin Hoffman, intricately padded and made-up for his role in "Tootsie," no elaborate makeup was involved for Hunt: Her loose tropical shirts were padded slightly across the shoulders to give her a wider back, she always wore something in a breast pocket. She wore body and face makeup to give her skin an Oriental cast--her eyes were already quite good for that part--and her brows were shaven. The most difficult part for her was her hair: It was cut to half an inch, the next day rinsed black, the third day, with finality, dyed. Her choice: She might have had a wig, but, she said, "I felt it was terribly important for me to have as much of my physical presence be myself."
The film, she feels, did not change her sexual consciousness, and she she was not involved with anyone, at the time.
Even so, it affected her.
"A waiter came to my room one morning. I was in a little housedress, and he kept saying, 'Yes sir,' 'Yes, sir,' " she says. "I was devastated, because it made me feel that I was being taken over by something I couldn't get away from. One time, I was told to use the gentlemen's room . . . I cried a lot . . . it always felt good to me, when I had time, to get dressed up and have something lovely and soft on and smear on the lipstick . . ."
And when the director instructed the cast to call her by her middle name--Phipps--she drew the line.
"I said you can't do this to me, you must let me be Linda, because I'm beginning to feel separated from myself and myself is the only thing I have to work from."
Three perspectives regarding Linda Hunt in the role of Kwan: A woman playing a man. An actress playing a character. An outsider, mirroring herself.
Three perspectives regarding Linda Hunt, the person: A woman of shorter than average height. A midget actress. The actress in a new movie, large as a tallish elf, with flowers in her voice.