Welcome to Always Great, a new Awards Insider column in which we speak with Hollywood’s greatest undersung actors in career-spanning conversations. To launch the series, Hope Davis reflects on 30-plus years of professional acting—culminating in her richest Emmy season yet, with roles in Your Honor, Perry Mason, and the final season of Succession.
The first time many of us ever saw Hope Davis onscreen, we had no idea who she was. This is typical for an actor just starting out—but it’s less typical, maybe, that the role would wind up being a tiny part of a decade-defining movie. Playing a (very) French airline ticketing agent in Home Alone, Davis announces herself with a haughty Parisian accent and a curtly polite “I’m sorry,” delivered to John Heard and Catherine O’Hara’s anxious parents. She got the job due to her fluency in the language after years of study, an attribute she listed on her résumé under “special skills.” The film came out in 1990, the year Davis made her screen debut; while Home Alone skyrocketed to instant success, the New Jersey–born, French-speaking newcomer was gearing up to play the long game in Hollywood—whether she knew it or not.
Davis’s career has been marked by distinctive eras that, in many ways, reflect the transformation of the industry around her. She broke out in the scrappy, glorious indie scene of the ’90s, from the biting Daytrippers to the swoony Next Stop Wonderland. In the 2000s, she became known for meaty supporting roles opposite massive stars, playing Jack Nicholson’s daughter in About Schmidt, Gwyneth Paltrow’s sister in Proof, and Nicolas Cage’s estranged wife in The Weather Man. She slowly moved to TV, as many indie actors of her caliber and profile did once the medium built in esteem and the indie sphere began contracting. Now with three Emmy nominations under her belt, she’s in the midst of her most prolific screen period yet, showcasing three juicy performances in the last few months alone, between her work in Your Honor, Perry Mason, and Succession.
Davis is an intelligent, empathetic performer with a cunning comic edge. She’s been a critical and filmmaker favorite for a very long time—perhaps a little too interesting, too specific in her choices, for a conventional Hollywood career. “I’ve had ups and downs,” she tells me over Zoom as we prepare to discuss her rich and surprising life as an actor. “I don’t know why, all of a sudden, there are so many interesting characters for me…. I just kind of pinch myself—and I want to keep going.”
Things started taking off for Davis after 1996’s The Daytrippers. She says the film was made for around $60,000; she knew the director, Greg Mottola, from around New York before coming aboard. “We were at a barbecue one night on a roof in SoHo, and he said, ‘I’m going to make this little movie. Do you want to be in it?’” she says. “I was like, ‘Sure!’” Davis’s Eliza embarks on a cross-county—that is, Long Island to Manhattan—journey with her family to confront her husband (Stanley Tucci), whom she suspects of having an affair. The wry dramedy is bookended by scenes of incredibly rich chemistry between Davis and Tucci. “Stanley was, I don’t know, 28 or 29 at the time, and he just kept saying, ‘My career’s over, my career’s just over. I just can’t get anything launched,’” Davis says. “I was like, ‘Oh, Stanley.’ He felt like a has-been, and now when I look back, I’m like, You were in your 20s.” (Tucci’s indie smash Big Night premiered that same year at Sundance.)
Davis would work with Tucci repeatedly after Daytrippers, as well as with costars Campbell Scott, Liev Schreiber, Marcia Gay Harden, and more. “It was a very free time,” she says. “People would pile into cars and go off and shoot.” Her work across the ’90s indie scene is varied and surprising—she makes for a brilliant rom-com lead in Wonderland—but a larger industry breakout took a while. In the early 2000s, not long after she got married and had her first child, “I remember calling my agents and just saying, ‘We are dead broke, and I’ve got to have a job,’” Davis says. “And they were like, ‘Yeah, we’re doing our best.’” She had actually just filmed a slew of movies that would bring her new attention—they just needed to come out first.
Within a year, About Schmidt, American Splendor, and The Secret Lives of Dentists launched as high-profile festival premieres that led to robust theatrical campaigns. In the innovative Splendor, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, Davis plays opposite Paul Giamatti’s comic book artist as his fan turned wife, in a performance that’s at turns silly, sweet, and defiant. In Dentists, she operates in a very different key, as a middle-class matriarch caught by her husband in an affair. For the two movies jointly, she won a New York Film Critics Circle Award for best actress and received a slew of other award nominations. About Schmidt brought about similar attention—and the chance to watch Jack Nicholson work each day. “I felt free to ask him questions about how to handle, like, ‘What do I do in a close-up?’ Because when the camera is a foot away from your face, it can be a little hard to concentrate,” she says. “It was amazing to watch him work on camera. I cried and cried when that ended.”
And so the phone started ringing a little more often—for a bit, anyway. She got Weather Man and Proof; she proved an unhinged delight as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s troubled therapist in Synecdoche, New York. “Then it happened again when I was maybe in my mid-40s—I called my agents and I was like, ‘I’m dead broke.’” Leave it to a play, far from the grind of pilot season and bit film auditions, to reverse her fortunes.