Opening scene for this story may be a grandmother in her 1983 white Cadillac gliding through the streets of Houston with a ten-year-old boy in the passenger’s seat. She was driving the car, but the boy, her grandson Hunter Lee Hughes, was driving his own career from the very start. He always loved acting and felt at home on a movie set in a way not like in school; he loved the other child actors, the make-up people, the creative energy, and he felt alive, important and needed. It was, he says, in a world, “invigorating.” His first film entitled Haunted was, he says, “shot in 3D and technically complicated for a kid’s headset toy, but they ran out of money.” He remembers telling his mom that it was going to be “shot in 3D like Jaws 2 so it would be very big.” Hunter laughs as he says that, to date, he has still not seen it.
Somehow the vibrancy and nerve he had as a child was a little diminished with the awkwardness of puberty. Nevertheless, with what was still a healthy enough ego from his foray into what he says was the “almost Jaws 3” behind him, he jumped right in to audition for a school play. He did not get the part for which he read. He did not get any part at all, and his confidence slipped yet another notch. Happily, confidence defunct is not confidence gone. College performing arts brought it back when he created a sitcom for the university closed-circuit television system. He wrote for, acted in, and earned the validation of a very cool chick in his school but not in his social circle. It was a powerful reminder that he was good, and he got re-focused as strongly as he was in his boyhood.
Hunter’s decision to leave Texas held within in it a doleful message for his close-knit family. They did not want Hunter to set a precedent for other children to follow by leaving. But his father, a successful mechanical engineer who builds environmentally friendly plants worldwide, understood and encouraged Hunter to follow his first choice, and off they took, together, U-Haul in tow.
He enrolled in an acting class, which he says he needed and got an internship that led to a job as a story analyst for a studio. Hunter worked as an extra, did all kinds of odd jobs, and then got what you would have to call a well-deserved break when an acting teacher cast him in his first Los Angeles play, a work in which he went through the entire arc of a character in two hours.
His mother’s mother was his first touchstone for films. In 2007 when she passed away, he went with his mother and brother to walk through her house and, in a not unusual attempt to keep the departed ever in our hearts, they each took parts of what she left behind. Hunter took her poetry collection that, unknown to him at the time, held mysteriously important seeds of creativity. What made him go for those books? What spoke to him as he walked through that house after she died? To be determined, as they say, because he let that collection sit on the shelf for about two years. When he cracked open those books she read, he found the treasure of not just the poetry, but a distinct echo of his grandmother’s presence on every page. In her own handwriting. She had circled some poems, starred others, and wrote in the margins about the people in her life.
Hunter had struck gold; he had only to get beyond the joy of reading the poems to solving the puzzle of her emotional life that these verses had become. He always related to her as grandson to grandmother, but as he read these, he knew her experience had to have been much larger. She was never just his grandma; for a large part of her life she had never so much as heard of Hunter Lee Hughes. She was her own person, so he asked himself, “Who was that person?” He thought more and more about the markings in the poetry books and about her penmanship and says, “We forget that with all the marvelous technology we have lost things,” and he notes that his grandparents’ penmanship is better than people have today.
Hunter’s latest work of art, the neo-noir movie “Guys Reading Poems” in which an all-male literary society intervenes in the life of a troubled, avant-garde, creative Los Angeles family, will premier soon. Hunter is a man very much in tune with the natural twining of life’s mystery and memory, of love and beauty. He is a master of solving puzzles where others might not have even seen them. He is not so sure his grandma would like the film, but he knows he is honoring her with this work about which he says he is more proud than anything he has done so far.
What about Hunter and love letters? Yes, he has written them. Because his parents were divorced, he lived with his father for most of the year and, in a different state, with his mother in the summers, so he wrote letters to friends. He says his mother, “is a very big letter writer. She writes so many that it is a struggle which to keep.” He has lots of them. She is very big on thank you letters and sometimes he answers those by letter in return. He long ago wrote a Christmas card to a young man, a close friend from a family too rigid to accept this son as gay. He recalls the effect this hand-written letter had in this age of texting and email. To listen to Hunter Lee Hughes talk about his life, his family and his work is not only pure joy in its own right but a wonderful look at what the loving influence of grandmothers can deliver.
How about a love letter to his grandmother right now to let her know how her influence worked out for him? He did, after all, find clues to who his grandmother was because she left notes in the margins of her poetry books. Would Hunter be leaving clues about this own life in his letters? Of course, and what a gift it will be someday to the person who finds them. It would be not just a fabulous piece family narrative and of written affection to this woman with pride in her long legs who did 200 sit-ups a day but a nice reliable work of film history from one of the creative luminaries of today and documented in his own hand.