With several wonderful independent movies released this year featuring great performances by older actors, I’m starting to be cautiously optimistic that the film industry is not only concerned about getting 14-year-old boys to the multiplex. Grandma, written and directed by Paul Weitz, features a magnificent starring performance by Lily Tomlin that made me jump for joy. In the poignant and funny film, Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a once-renowned poet whose longtime partner has died and who just broke up with her most recent girlfriend (Judy Greer). When her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up on her doorstep needing $600 by sundown, the two spend the day trying to get their hands on the cash as their unannounced visits to Elle’s old friends and flames end up rattling skeletons and digging up long-buried secrets. Marcia Gay Harden plays Tomlin’s daughter and the cast features Laverne Cox, Nat Wolff, and John Cho. Also making a brief but very powerful and moving appearance is Sam Elliott. The 71-year-old actor has had a great year. He recently appeared as Blythe Danner’s love interest in I’ll See You in My Dreams, one of the films I mentioned that features a predominantly older cast, and he appears in Joe Swanberg’s just-released Digging for Fire, among other projects. I had a great time sitting down with him to talk about his latest film as well as his forty-plus years in the business.
Danny Miller: You don’t have that much screen time in this film, but your scene with Lily Tomlin is one of the most poignant and memorable pairings that I’ve seen in a long time — I can see why people are already talking about a possible Oscar nomination. Did you spend a lot of time thinking about what made Karl tick or did you just “get” him right away?
Sam Elliott: I did spend a lot of time thinking about him. I’m one of those guys who works really hard, I think I have to on some level even though I know people who can just look at the script and it’s there. It’s not really about memorization as much as it is trying to really figure out who the person is. But this piece was so well written and so well defined that it was a real pleasure. By the time I got in there and started working with Lily it just came and grew as the scene progressed. We shot it in sequence which was such a blessing. And Paul Weitz has such a great demeanor on the set, he’s so open to everyone’s ideas.
What a thrill to see Lily Tomlin in a true starring role again. Had you two ever worked together before?
No, before this I had only met Lily once a few years ago at the Daytime Emmys. We were both nominated for the same category and she won the award, she was sitting right in front of me. She’s so wonderful in this film that if she doesn’t get nominated, there really is no justice.
I’m delighted to see you in so many films this year. Is that just a coincidence of timing or have you been busier than ever lately?
It’s funny but when these two little independent movies came to me (I’ll See You in My Dreams and Grandma), I figured I was going to sit tight and wait to see what happened after both came out — I’ve been in this business for 47 years and I’m in no hurry at this point. But even before Grandma was released, I made a commitment to do an arc on the second season of Lily and Jane Fonda’s TV show (Grace and Frankie) and I just committed to doing a new series for Netflix with Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson called The Ranch. We have a 20-episode guarantee.
Whoa, that’s great news!
(Groans.) It’s a three-camera show that’s filmed in front of a live audience. I’m terrified! And a two-hour drive to work every day!
I can’t wait to see that! Seeing the movie you were in with Blythe Danner and now this one with Lily Tomlin, dare I hope that Hollywood is finally catching on that we want to see movies starring people other than 20-year-olds?
Yes, I think things are changing, mainly because those movies are making money. I’ll See You in My Dreams is approaching the $8 million mark and it was made for only $500,000. It seems like people are finally paying attention to older actors.
Thank God. You know, I was at the press day for your last three films and I’ve never seen female journalists and publicists as gaga for anyone as they are for you. Is that something you’ve had to deal with during your entire career?
What? To be honest, I’m not conscious of that at all, I never think about it!
I was going to ask how your wife (Katherine Ross) handles the kind of attention you get, but, of course, every single man my age has been in love with her ever since she played Elaine Robinson in The Graduate.
(Laughs.) I think both of us have a pretty honest and realistic opinion about that kind of attention. Katherine certainly had her day, she was much bigger than I’ve ever been. She’s very supportive of my game now and she’s always the voice of reason when I have to make any decisions about my career. Like this Netflix thing — I was really on the fence about it. I agreed to do it and then I backed off which threw everything into turmoil. In the end, she helped convince me to take the risk.
We have a few times and we always love it. We met on this movie called The Legacy in 1978 — a not very good gothic horror film.
Oh, I remember that one! But for some reason I always thought you two met years earlier on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
No. A lot of people assume that because we’re both in that movie, but Katherine was the leading lady there and I was just a shadow on the wall — literally. I had one line and it was off-camera. The only reason my name made it into the credits is because I was under contract to 20th at the time. I was just a glorified extra.
It seems like you and Katherine have mysteriously been able to avoid a lot of the bullshit that comes with being a movie star.
Oh, there was nothing mysterious about it, we avoided all of that by choice! We rarely come to town to socialize, we never have. There’s an upside to that and a downside. A lot of this world has to do with being out there and rubbing elbows, you know what I mean? And if you’re not doing that, you can be really misunderstood.
And yet I know you still have this reputation in the movie community as being one of the nicest guys in the world.
That’s why I didn’t want to get in and rub elbows because they’d find out the truth! (Laughs.)
Do you think your attitude hurt your overall career in any way?
There was this point early in my career in the mid-70s. I did a movie called Lifeguard at Paramount. I think if that movie was released today and I was that age, I’d never stop working for the next 10 years.
But even back then I remember that Lifeguard was a big deal.
Yeah, it was a big deal but it got nipped in the bud.
By me being honest, opinionated, and not very smart. I’m still that way a little bit but back in those days I was pretty glib and just said what was on my mind.
Possibly. But here’s what happened. The director of that movie was Dan Petrie, a wonderful director who’s passed away. We all took Lifeguard very seriously when we were making it. It’s a coming-of-age story for Kathleen Quinlan and it was also about this guy I played who was doing what he loved to do instead of succumbing to pressure to do something else. It’s a very good movie that I’m proud of. But Paramount sold the film in very specific way. Their catchphrase was “Every girl’s summer dream” and they used this artwork of me in my Speedo with a big-titted girl on either side of me. There weren’t even any big tits in that movie but they sold it like it was about that. I went on the road doing press for six weeks, one city after another. You get into these towns and do interviews and usually the reporters had seen the film the night before. Invariably, every fucking interview started with, “This movie isn’t anything like I expected!” And man, when somebody said that, it just made me start sharing what I thought about the way Paramount was promoting the film.
Oy, I guess the studio wasn’t thrilled with that, as justified as your reaction was.
You know, Danny, my mom died three years ago and she had a box of shit she kept about me from the Lifeguard days and I burned every scrap of it. It was all these fucking newspaper articles, I just couldn’t believe the shit that I said. Such stupidity.
But who could blame you? Why wouldn’t you be frustrated with that awful campaign?
I remember when I got home after that six-week jaunt, they wanted me to go back to Oklahoma City for a shopping center opening. I said, “No way, I can’t do it. I’m whipped, I’ve given you everything I can give you.” And I never worked at Paramount again after that. I still haven’t. They released We Were Soldiers through Paramount but they didn’t produce the film.
It’s a shame that Lifeguard is still perceived in that way by a lot of people. It should be rereleased now!
There was just something from the very beginning on that thing. I remember being at Century City for a screening with my girlfriend at the time and this guy, I probably shouldn’t mention names, but he was a higher-up at Paramount and Gulf & Western. He leaned over to me and said, “Wait until you see the one-sheet. Your balls are bigger than you ever imagined they could be!”
And my girlfriend was right there on my arm. I was like, “Really?” I had to deal with that shit all the way through the campaign.
Did you have to turn down a lot of scripts back then that found reasons to get you back into your Speedo?
No, not really. Luckily for me, that was an incredible time for long-form television series. Remember all those mini-series that were six or seven hours? I did lot of those back then, they were great.
I still think you were smart to call “bullshit” on all that stuff back then.
I think I’ve been fortunate to survive this long. Being honest and opinionated is great, but the part about not being very smart is not a good combination. But you learn!