Helen Hunt's Hiatus Pays Off

She won an Oscar for As Good as It Gets and then — poof! — disappeared from the big screen. Now, three years later, it's practically Helen Hunt-ing season.

The actress can currently be seen opposite Richard Gere in Dr. T and the Women and opposite Kevin Spacey in Pay It Forward. Come holiday season, Hunt is both Tom Hanks’ left-behind girlfriend while he’s Cast Away and Mel Gibson’s leading lady in What Women Want. The girl’s been busy.

Careful Choices Still, it took Hunt an eternity — well, two years, which can be an eternity in make-or-break Los Angeles — before she used her Best Actress Oscar clout to get busy in the movies. “I was tired and didn’t find something till Pay It Forward got me excited. Seven years on a show you love and a beautiful part to play,” Hunt says, referring to Mad About You, “and it took me a while. You want to rest and refuel. And then this came along.”

But wasn’t Hunt warned that if she didn’t come back to work soon, people might forget her? “Yes, they did [warn me]. You think you’ve gotten somewhere and then they keep moving that carrot until you’re exhausted. I was nervous to stop, but I’m glad I did.”

Interestingly, winning an Oscar for Hunt was more a moment in time than a yardstick for more money, bigger parts, or top billing. “You have that dream-come-true moment,” she admits — and then she puts ol’ Oscar back on the bookshelf.

Does she ever dream of two Oscars? “Only for balance,” she jokes.

Tabloid Adventures Recently separated from husband Hank Azaria, Hunt dismisses last month’s reports that she is dating Pay It Forward co-star Spacey, with whom she was photographed at a sporting event. She laughs off the idea that they have created something resembling a media frenzy. “Hardly a ‘frenzy,’” she points out. “One picture in a rag?”

Hunt says she doesn’t even follow her tabloid adventures. “I honestly don’t, I almost never read them,” she says. “I’m not at the point of caring at all, but my best defense is not to have those images in my head.”

As for working with Mel Gibson, well known for his on-set pranks, on What Women Want, Hunt declares that director Nancy Meyer’s battle-of-the-sexes comedy was “the most fun of any set I’ve ever been on.” Still, she avoided Gibson’s notorious practical jokes (he gifted Julia Roberts with a stuffed rat on the set of Conspiracy Theory). “I threw myself at Mel’s mercy and said, ‘I’m the wrong guy, I can’t handle it.’ I literally begged him.”

Who got the rat then? Hunt smiles, “The director got the rat.”