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For Samuel D. Hunter, author of ‘The Whale,’ Idaho ‘looms so large in my life.’

A man sits in the center focal point of the picture. He's wearing a blue shirt and black glasses and behind him are brown auditorium seats.
John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

The Idaho Humanities Council is celebrating its golden anniversary in 2023; and as part of its 50th anniversary gala, they’ll host native Idahoan Samuel D. Hunter, McArthur Genius Grant Fellow and playwright/screenwriter of the Oscar-winning “The Whale.”

Hunter currently lives in New York where his work has won Drama Desk and Obie awards. But he readily admits that when he returns to the Gem State, it inspires countless memories.

“I just feel so connected to it in such a deep way. It just looms so large in my life and I come back to it a lot,” said Hunter. Yeah, it's still very, very present in my life.”

Following a whirlwind year since ‘The Whale’ opened to critical acclaim in theater and is now streaming on home media, Hunter visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about his Idaho roots, the experience of traveling the globe with “The Whale,” and how his work is inspiring new generations of writers.

My mother-in-law texted me last night and she was like, 'The Whale is on Showtime,' right? Which is never a sentence that I thought would be coming out of anyone's mouth.”
Samuel D. Hunter

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. It has been quite a year for Samuel D Hunter, already an Obie and Drama Desk Award winner and recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant Fellowship. And then… well, it was just about this time last year when the film adaptation The Whale, premiered in Venice and Toronto at their film festivals. And then, oh my goodness, what a year. Of course, earlier this year, Brendan Fraser takes home the Oscar for his portrayal of Charlie in The Whale. We want to talk about all of that, but most importantly… of what's going on today and tomorrow. So, let's say welcome to Sam Hunter welcoming him back to the program. Sam, good morning to you. Good morning.

SAMUEL D HUNTER: It's so nice to be back.

PRENTICE: You bet. The Whale. Can I assume that this story has been much more than a play, much more than a film? I'm curious about the conversations that you're having because it is truly open doors and windows for us who say, “I know Charlie or I am Charlie or Charlie is my friend, my teacher, my relative,” and those conversations keep coming, right?

HUNTER: Yeah, it all ended with the Oscars. But, you know, in between, like you said about exactly a year ago when we premiered the film in Venice, you know, between that and, you know, eight months later or however long it was during those eight months, I was traveling a lot and doing a lot of Q and A's, a lot of screenings. I've seen the play many times. I've interacted with people around the play. But the level at which this story is now being told is just so much bigger than the play, which at this point has been performed around the world. But it's still it's accessing so many more people than the play could ever access.

PRENTICE: After we see it on the big screen, now it's also streaming and in our living rooms and it becomes even more, more, more intimate.

HUNTER: Yeah. No, I mean, my mother-in-law texted me last night and she was like, “The Whale is on Showtime,” right? Which is never a sentence that I thought would be coming out of anyone's mouth. But really the most gratifying part of traveling around with a movie and interacting with people was just like meeting people and hugging strangers who, you know, maybe found a direct connection to the material or maybe just had, you know, to your point, somebody in their life whose struggle really resonated with the characters in the in the story and actually, you know, somebody I just had that conversation with somebody in Sun Valley a few weeks ago when we were there screening it. This woman came to the talkback and just tearfully recounted, you know, the way in which the characters sort of intersected with her own family. And it was an incredibly moving… and it's what I always hoped for the play, that there would be some utility to it, that it's not just a diversion, it's not just a night out in the cinema, that it's like it does something useful for people.

PRENTICE: And The Whale is about so much. But for many of us, it is about parenthood. And I'm wondering if your own parenthood is a creative lens that you're looking through lately.

HUNTER: Yeah. Oh, definitely. So, my husband and I adopted a baby at birth six years ago. She's about to turn six. It changed everything. I mean, I you know, I wrote a play pretty, pretty immediately thereafter about fatherhood, about directly, about fatherhood, a play called The Case of the Existence of God. That was here in New York a couple a couple of years ago. And it was all about fatherhood and struggling to, you know, usher in a new life into a deeply complicated present moment. And, you know, it was also I got I wrote the play The Whale well before I was a dad, but I was able to work on the screenplay, you know, ten years later as a parent. And it really changed the way that I connected to the story, you know, And it changed the writing a little bit.

PRENTICE: The one thing we can't change for the good or the not so good is where we come from. Does Idaho still trigger or inspire new ideas for you?

HUNTER: Oh, yeah, yeah. I think like, you know, look, I would say there's nothing quintessentially Idahoan about, about my I don't think like somebody would see the whale and be like, that can only happen in Idaho. And that's kind of the point. You know, there's so many stories about New York. There's so many stories about Los Angeles. Even, you know, Seattle, Chicago, like we have tons of stories about these places. But, you know, a small fraction of the country lives in these places that that most of our stories seem to to occupy. And so there's something I think even though it's this tiny, fetid two bedroom apartment in kind of unspecified Idaho, in that way, it can be about so many more places in the country, in the world, frankly. But I think locating them all in Idaho brings a real sense of specificity to me. And it also just allows me to feel like the plays are interconnected, that the plays are in conversation with one another, that they dovetail off one another, that they're, you know, that it's about a body of work and not any one play.

PRENTICE: Later this month, the Idaho Humanities Council celebrates its 50th anniversary and you will be there. It should be quite an evening, September 29th. I'm curious about conversations you're having lately with writers or writers to be, you know, for one generation it may have been, I don't know, our town or for someone else. It may have been Raisin in the Sun or Fences or Angels in America that triggered that writer id in us. And for this new generation it is The Whale. So, I'm curious about young folks who are approaching you saying, I want to do what you do.

HUNTER: I mean, I was just at a play. I was at this very, very intimate staging of Uncle Vanya that was down in near Union Square just a few days ago. And I was sitting next to somebody who ended up being an MFA playwriting student at Columbia. And so we got to talking and beautiful person like just and like so wonderful to like, meet somebody 15 years younger than what am I saying? Maybe even 20 years younger than I am, who is now interested in making theater? And there's a common thing that I sense from a lot of new playwrights coming up that they're. So I think like when I was coming up, I came from a sense of like fear and trepidation of like, Oh my God, I'm going to fail at this. It's going to be really hard. And not that there is, of course, anxieties with these younger writers, but I think there's like this sense of maybe something about the pandemic kind of wiped the slate clean for people. And I think that's not just young playwrights. I think that's playwrights my age, too. I was just having a conversation not long ago with Martina Majok, wonderful prize-winning writer, and we were both saying that over the last few years we've done the least amount of playwriting that we've done in years. I mean, it's like it's like we all went into this, this silent period. And so I think it's going to be exciting as we come out of it. I mean, I think it's going to be hard. I mean, a lot the pandemic hit the theater really, really, really, really hard, even harder than, I would say the housing crisis in 2008, which is when I was coming out of grad school. And, you know, so many of the new play development organizations are just gone now because they just could not survive. And theaters are shuttering and they're laying off people. And so I think we're seeing a kind of reset happen. You know, I think it also, you know, has to do with sorry, I could talk your ear about this. Obviously, I could talk way too much about this. But, you know, I could listen all day. The, you know, the model that most regional theaters have in place, a subscription model where you buy a subscription to an entire season of plays that's really falling out of fashion. Like younger people don't want to buy tickets like that anymore. They want to know what they're about to see and they want to buy a ticket to it. They don't want to just like carte blanche, buy a ticket to five plays. And so that model needs to kind of shift. And as a result, audiences are, you know, tend to be quite not to be ageist, but audiences tend to be quite old. And I'm not saying that that's a problem. It is a problem just because, like we need to usher in younger theater, you know? And so I think my hope is that part of this great reset is that we find a way to usher in younger people, more diverse audiences. You know, we just we have to it's not a question of like, let's do it because it's the right thing. It's a question of like, we the theater can only survive if we do that.

PRENTICE: I'd be remiss if I didn't ask about the Screenwriters Guild and the strike. And as audiences, sometimes it feels as if it's at arm's length. But what can we understand better about this tension that has brought everything to a standstill?

HUNTER: There's a few different ways to understand it. I mean, it's funny that ever since the movie came out, a lot of people in my life suddenly assumed Now I'm rich, when in reality that is pretty far from the truth. It's, you know, and if you really did the numbers, I'm probably in the hole on The Whale. If you're talking if you look at like the amount of you know, because those eight months that I was traveling around, I wasn't getting paid for that. They were flying me and putting me in hotels, but I wasn't getting paid. And so I essentially didn't make money for eight months, you know, minus all the taxes and this and that. And what I had to pay for a publicist. Yeah.

PRENTICE: The rent is still due.

HUNTER: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I mean it's, I mean very when it really comes down to it, I made very little, if maybe not even any money at all off the movie. And I kind of knew that going in more or less, because, because that's just the fact of the matter these days is that, you know, these, these companies I'm not including A24 in this. They're actually the exception to the rule in many ways. But you know, these big streamers and big studios for years now have just been getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and programed more made more. And now it's at this tipping point where Wall Street, you know, which is really where the bucks I mean, these executives of these film companies, they're not artists. They're business people. They serve the bottom line. And for them, it's like they don't want to pay writers because they don't have to. And especially right now when they need to be scaling back, they don't want to spend any more money, but it's hurting everybody. I mean, I know I recently heard about a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and screenwriter who lost his health insurance. I mean, this is not this is it's ridiculous. I mean, I know that this country is not good at supporting artists, but that's ridiculous that that one of the more noted, you know, playwrights of our era can't have health insurance. And. And I think it's something that it's hard for people to understand when they see somebody like me in a photo standing next to Brendan Fraser wearing a tux. But it's the reality is that we're just not paying our writers.

PRENTICE: And the reckoning, I guess as audiences, we're not feeling it yet, but we will feel it right a year from now.

HUNTER: Yeah, I mean, I'm not an expert in all of it, but I do know that, you know, there's a lot that was already in the can and it's not like post-production halted so they couldn't shoot anymore. Um, but, you know, there's a lot of work that gets done after you wrap, after a production wraps. There's all the editing, all the, you know, and it basically, it gets remade again in the edit room. It takes months and months and months. And, and so we're still seeing new things come out because there has been stuff that got shot a year ago or six months ago that they can still you know, they can still release, but that's going to run out. You know, and if you notice, there's already a lot more game shows and like, you know, it's yeah, yeah, it's going to shift and I think people are going to start to feel it. I think it's hard for people now. It's kind of theoretical now, but they're going to see it sooner rather than later.

PRENTICE: Let's talk a little bit about the Idaho Humanities Council. And it's stunning that it is their 50th anniversary and you are their special guest later this month. But it is organizations like the Idaho Humanities Council that nourish the artist. Right. And as well as audiences.

HUNTER: Yeah. You know, there's I think there's been a lot of smarter people who've written articles about this. But, you know, I think we're in kind of a crisis right now in this country with the humanities that I think that increasingly people are seeing things like the arts literature as disposable. And, you know, it's the first thing that we get that get gets cut in when public schools need to shave some dollars off their budget, because I think the arts are seen as expendable. But there's a real danger in that because I think humanities are not just important in terms of like, Oh, I saw a play and I liked it. Humanities like teach us how to be more empathetic. They teach us what it means to be humans. There's no value in a society that is functioning only like a Rube Goldberg machine that just like, well, it's moving. And I guess it's, you know, like we need to give meaning to things like economics and, and, you know, our daily lives and our relationships and our work. They have to be contextualized in some way. And if we lose sight of that, then I think it's going to rot the country from the core.

PRENTICE: Wasn't it John Kennedy who reminded us that at the end of most of our days we will not be measured by our fortunes of war, but by the artists who measure the human experience.

HUNTER: That's exactly right. Yeah. And especially now that like, you know, I think wealthy people 100 years ago were building railroads. Now wealthy people move around money. You know, it's and we need to bring meaning to our culture. So I'm firmly up on a soapbox at this moment. Forgive me, but it's just it's the soul of the nation is going to get lost if we're just talking about capitalism in the bottom line.

PRENTICE: Well, welcome to public broadcasting.

HUNTER: That's right.

PRENTICE: What is it like when… you're I know New York is where you are planted right now and raising your little one… but what's it like when you're visiting Idaho?

HUNTER: And it's there's such a familiarity to it. I mean, it's like when I was just in Sun Valley the other day and I got off the plane, you know, I didn't grow up in Sun Valley. I grew up in Moscow. But it's like…the smell of the air or something. It might just be like some part of my psychology that's creating it. But I just feel so connected to it in such a deep way. Even though I haven't lived in Moscow since I was, I guess I left when I was 18, 19. But yeah, it just looms so large in my life and I come back to it a lot, you know, I mean, I was in Idaho for almost two weeks back in June visiting my family. And then another five days we were in in Ketchum. And yeah, so it's it's still very, very present in my life.

PRENTICE: And the conflict has never been greater, right? Whether it's cultural, political… just the way we move, the way we debate and the way we try to figure things out for the better.

HUNTER: That's right. And I actually really appreciate the… I mean, look, Moscow is not, you know, huge. Moscow is, you know, not a hugely conservative area. But I grew up around a lot of conservatives. I went to a religious school that was very deeply conservative. And I actually am very grateful for the time that I've spent in a very in very ruby red areas. And now the time I'm spending in a deep blue area, because I think it it just gives me greater context for what America is thinking right now. And I think it enriches my writing, if I'm being honest.

PRENTICE: September 29th, the Idaho Humanities Council celebrates its 50th anniversary with an appearance from Samuel D Hunter. It will be quite an evening, but for now, Sam Hunter, thanks for giving me some time this morning.

HUNTER: Thanks so much for having me back.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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