Bonnie Hunt of ‘Zootopia+’ aims to spread courage, kindness

Before she became a movie star, Bonnie Hunt worked as an oncology nurse at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

What did she learn from the experience?

“Not to fear failure,” the 61-year-old Hunt says in a Zoom interview from her home in Santa Monica, California.

She used to tell jokes on the cancer ward, prompting a patient to ask, “When are you going to Hollywood, Bonnie? When are you going to follow your dreams?’ Hunt recalls. “I would say, ‘There’s a 99 percent failure rate in show business. If I fail, then I’ll have to come back home to Chicago and beg for this wonderful job.’

A terminal patient said to me, ‘All my life, I always feared failure. Promise me that you will go to California and fail many times. It was the best life advice.”

And it put Hunt on a career path that has included roles in “Rain Main,” “Jerry Maguire,” “Cheaper by the Dozen,” “Zootopia,” and now “Zootopia+,” the new spinoff on Disney+.

Hunt returns to the fast-paced mammal metropolis in a series of short-form movies that dive deeper into the lives of some of the Oscar-winning feature film’s biggest (and smallest) residents. This includes bunny mama Bonnie Hopps (voiced by Hunt), who must protect her babies who crave nonstop adventure.

Next up, Hunt will play Mrs. Claus opposite Dwayne Johnson and Chris Evans in the holiday film “Red One.”

Hunt says the good life for her centers on the lessons from her late mother about living kindly. “I still just want my mom to be proud of me,” the Chicago native says.

Make your mom proud (still): It has been a year since Hunt lost her 95-year-old mother, Alice Hunt. A driving force in the lives of her seven children, Alice often appeared on Bonnie Hunt’s daytime talk show alongside her daughter. Twelve months into her grief, Hunt finds solace hearing the words of her mother. Mom always said, ‘Be mindful of the energy you put into the world. It has a ripple effect.’ Hunt recalls, adding. “I always think of my mom. I hope she can see and hear me. I always want to make her proud.” She adds that she did the “Zootopia” shorts as a “way for parents and kids to connect and laugh. Laughter also has a ripple. It’s a wonderful energy. I’m happy to be a part of the ripple.”

Practice kindness: The “Zootopia” shorts as spread a message of kindness, Hunt says, which something she also did in the oncology ward. You never know what burdens someone else is going through in life. If you have issues? Let them go… and go with kindness and acceptance. It’s always the right choice.”

Find your inner action hero: Her research for going maternal in “Zootopia” began at home. “I don’t have any children of my own,” Hunt says. But I do have 15 nieces and nephews. I see my sisters when the 1 year old is at the top of the stairs turn into action heroes to save that child. You do whatever you have to do to protect. … My mom had seven kids under the age of 10 at one time. Somehow, she protected us all at the same time. It’s unbelievable when you think of it.”

Search out the positive: When her beloved mother got sick during the pandemic, Hunt and her six siblings banded together. “I got to be roomies with my mom, and I will always cherish that time,” Hunt says. “The world kind of stopped. … Yes, the pandemic made us miss our freedoms, but you can always find a bright side. I really learned how to slow down and cherish the moments.”

Remember your biggest bonds: Hunt now has a condo in Chicago, as do her six siblings, all on the same floor of the same building. “I think it’s our way of re-creating our youth when our bedrooms were on one floor. Now we have condos on the same floor,” she says, laughing. We’ve remained so close this way. And siblings are so important. They know your history.”

Move it: Hunt also lives in Santa Monica, where she gets her exercise without going to the gym. “I try to be an exercise person,” she admits. What I’ve found is that walking and swimming are two of the best things you can do. It forces you to enjoy nature, you’re outside and you’re getting in some cardio.”

Find your stress relief: “I walk by the lake if I’m in Chicago. I walk by the ocean in California,” Hunt says of her method for coping with stress. “There’s something about seeing a huge body of water that makes you realize what’s important. It gives you real perspective because problems aren’t usually as big as the ocean.”

Take that chance: Hunt got her start in Hollywood during a respite from her nursing duties. “It was my lunch break and I ran to an audition for the role of waitress Sally Dibbs in ‘Rain Man,’” she says. And I won it! Which goes to show that for every time you fail, there are also the times when you win.”