"I’m not inherently a rebel," Holly Hunter says with a smile as she talks about her teen years. The petite 45-year-old actress is at the London Film Festival to promote her controversial new film Thirteen. She gives a powerhouse performance as Mel, a mother pushed to distraction by her rebellious teenage daughter, which has generated serious talk of a future Oscar nomination.

"Adolescence is a startling time for any kid. I was no different. But my more experimental years happened later," Hunter explains in her unmistakable Georgian drawl. "When I was a teenager I was involved with music, I played brass instruments in the band and had six hours each day of extra curricular activities involving that. I actually believe that that is the major contributor to me not rebelling."

Hunter’s statement is particularly surprising given that she has effectively "rebelled" against the studio system by shunning mainstream movies, building a highly successful career as arguably the most celebrated actress working in independent cinema today. She famously turned down the lead in As Good As It Gets and also the role of God in Dogma. But she has also been open in past interviews about the fact that she may have lost out on roles because she is not considered a box office draw in the industry. "I guess I’ve got used to that stuff. Now if I want to do a script and someone doesn’t want me in their movie I just don’t sweat it out like maybe I used to. Why bother?"

Her role as a neurotic workaholic television producer in Jim Brook’s Broadcast News put Hunter on the map, but working on independent films has also given the actress some of her biggest hits. Raising Arizona, O Brother Where Art Thou? and The Piano – for which she won a Best Actress Oscar – have given Hunter artistic credibility as well as box office success. She has also moved seamlessly between film, TV and stage, winning further plaudits including Golden Globe nominations and Emmy Awards for her roles on the small screen.

It is hard to think of many other Hollywood actresses who would be willing to take on a film by a first-time director, written by a 13-year-old (co-star Nikki Reed) and shot on a tiny budget. Thirteen’s raw subject matter meant that the film struggled to get finance until Hunter came on board. Director Catherine Hardwicke flew straight to New York with an invitation for Hunter to join Reed and her family for a sleepover in California when she heard the actress was interested. The invitation seemed to work – within 48 hours after Hardwicke had made a number of changes to the role, Hunter had signed. "I think this rite of passage has always been something worth remarking on in an artful way. We just know it as adolescence, but it’s been a time of tremendous upheaval in all sorts of different ways."

Hunter’s character Mel is a struggling but well-meaning mother who makes her living styling hair and is unable to cope with the escalating barrage of teen hostility. Hunter has no children of her own but was the youngest of seven siblings growing up on a farm outside Atlanta. "Neither one of us [Hunter and Hardwicke] are mothers so in a way I think that afforded us a certain amount of freedom in just making the story personal. In any role that I’ve ever done the only thing I’ve really had to draw on is my own life experience and what I’ve observed."

Thirteen charts Tracy’s (Evan Rachel Wood) seemingly overnight transformation as she swaps Barbies and teddy bears for drugs, sex and petty crime under the wayward influence of her new best friend, the cool and popular Evie (played by Reed). Caught up in the conflicting emotions of adolescence Tracy lacks a dependable role model in her life. Mel is a recovering alcoholic who keeps herself together with regular AA meetings and her boyfriend is an ex-drug addict. Tracy’s father is too busy at work to spend any time with his troubled daughter who resorts to self-harm. Despite its moralistic undertone as a cautionary tale to parents, the film depicts its characters with a compassion which never borders on sentimentality.

"I was particularly drawn to the fact that the movie doesn’t stand in judgement on any of its characters. Even my character’s boyfriend, played by Jeremy Sisto. You kind of like the guy even though he’s very damaged and an addict. You see that he has a desire to love, and I think that’s true of all the characters." The film’s portrayal of teen life is enough to make viewers drop down on their knees the moment they leave the cinema and give thanks to the fact that they no longer have to endure the horrors of adolescence. Hunter, though, would relish the opportunity to relive her youth. "I would love to be 13. If you’re 13 that means you’re alive."