- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2000

CHICAGO When first-time director Bonnie Hunt wanted help filming a movie in her native Chicago, a Hollywood resume didn't get her the star treatment.

Her Wrigley Field roots did.

"It wasn't what movies I've been in. It's, 'What neighborhood did you grow up in?' and 'Don't worry, Bon, we'll take care of it. Block this street off, block that street off. Whatever you need,' " Miss Hunt says.

The quick-witted actress, known best for her supporting roles in movies including "The Green Mile" and "Jerry Maguire," does triple duty as director, co-writer and one of the stars of the new romantic comedy "Return to Me."

For Miss Hunt, the leap from acting to writing and directing was a natural one. She started out as a player with Chicago's legendary Second City comedy improv group, where actors are expected to write their own material.

"The great thing about Second City is you're trained there by the audience," Miss Hunt says. "You kind of develop that sixth sense after years of performing about how to ride that roller coaster when you're telling a story through characters. And I think it shows in this movie."

"Return to Me" stars David Duchovny and Minnie Driver as Bob Rueland and Grace Briggs, two people fumbling through their return to the dating pool. Bob's wife died the year before, and he's not sure he wants to try again. Grace, meanwhile, doesn't quite know how to explain her recent heart transplant to prospective dates.

Miss Hunt's co-writer, Don Lake, says working with Miss Hunt was "a riot." The two met during the launch of a Second City club in Los Angeles he had worked in the Toronto cast and immediately hit it off. They also collaborated on two short-lived television series, "The Building" and "The Bonnie Hunt Show."

"When we write, it kind of feels like we're on stage," Mr. Lake says. "We improv all the parts, and we laugh and we cry."

With Miss Hunt as director too, Mr. Lake says, he knew the film would turn out the way they imagined it when they wrote the script.

"She's a great storyteller," he says. "She's great with actors."

Before "The X-Files" launched him to fame, Mr. Duchovny starred with Miss Hunt in the 1992 film "Beethoven," and they have been friends ever since. Although Miss Driver has been a hot name since "Good Will Hunting," Miss Hunt says it wasn't too tough to land a meeting with her they share an agent.

The hard part, Miss Hunt says, was snagging her own role as Grace's best friend, Megan Dayton.

"I had to audition four times for myself," she deadpanned. "I wasn't even taking my own calls."

Besides Miss Hunt, several other former Second City players including Jim Belushi appear in the film. Having so many friends around helped when she put on her director's cap, Miss Hunt says.

"Because of the fact that I'm an actor, and most of the time I'm a supporting player, I have a great deal of empathy and respect for the whole ensemble," she says. "So the actors knew that they had that protection and somebody who has been in their shoes."

In fact, shooting the movie mostly on location in Chicago, save for a few scenes in Rome "was like a three-month barbecue," Miss Hunt says. Her six brothers and sisters would visit with their children, who often ended up shagging baseballs with Mr. Duchovny.

Mr. Lake says Miss Hunt's reputation as a daughter of Chicago eliminated the usual tension neighbors feel when a movie is being filmed next door. He was amazed at the reaction Miss Hunt and Mr. Belushi, who play a married couple, got when filming their scenes in suburban Oak Park.

"People would come over with home-baked cookies and cakes," Mr. Lake says. "I've never seen that before."

Although the movie conceivably could have been set anywhere, Miss Hunt wanted it filmed in her hometown. She grew up in a neighborhood west of Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, and visits often.

"The city is a great character itself, and it's very believable that these neighborhoods and that sense of community and friendship exist there, because it does," she says.

Miss Hunt squeezed in roles in two other movies "The Green Mile" and "Random Hearts" during pre-production on "Return to Me." But even though she played Tom Hanks' wife in the Academy Award-nominated "Green Mile," she didn't get an invitation to sit next to him at the Oscars.

"Tom Hanks decided to take Rita instead of me, which I couldn't believe," Miss Hunt jokes of Hanks' real-life wife, actress Rita Wilson. "I guess he's just not as Method as I am."

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