Once you see director Alexander Payne's new film NEBRASKA (and you will, trust me), one of first questions you'll likely have is "Who the hell was that foul-mouthed force of nature playing Bruce Dern's wife?" Believe it or not, you've likely seen June Squibb, the 84-year-old actress playing Kate Grant, in something in the past 23 years, since her film debut in Woody Allen ALICE. Before beginning her film career in her early 60s, Squibb was a successful New York theater actor, getting her first major role off-Broadway in "The Boyfriend" in 1958, followed two years later taking over the role of stripper Electra in the original production of "Gypsy," starring Ethel Merman.
After 30 years of regular stage work in New York, on national tours and regional productions, Squibb thought she'd try her hand a film and television, and the roles were practically waiting for her in such films as SCENT OF A WOMAN, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, IN & OUT, MEET JOE BLACK, FAR FROM HEAVEN, and most to the point, as Jack Nicholson's wife in Payne's ABOUT SCHMIDT in 2002. Since then, she's had featured roles in WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT, THE PERFECT FAMILY, THE BIG YEAR and perhaps most strangely ATLAS SHRUGGED: PART I, as well as series such as "House M.D.," "Ghost Whisperer," "Castle," and "Mike & Molly." She'll also soon be featured on the new HBO series "Getting On" (premiering November 24); her friend Margo Martindale's sitcom "The Millers"; and as Lena Dunham's grandmother in a Season 3 episode of "Girls," which begins January 12.
But when you see Squibb in NEBRASKA, you're going to fall in love with her, her brash way of reacting to the world, and her being the only truly sane person in a family front-loaded with communication-lacking lumps. It's an inspired performance that adds so much color to this (literally) black-and-white world. She has a scene in a cemetery filled with her husband's relatives that is shocking and priceless. It's one of those performances you get excited about the prospect of other people seeing; Squibb is that good and so is the film. Please enjoy my recent phone chat with the great June Squibb…
June Squibb: Hello?
Capone: Hi, June. How are you?
JS: I’m good.
Capone: I’m so happy to talk to you. Right after I saw the movie a few weeks ago, I immediately contacted Paramount said, “Is June available to do interviews?”
JS: Well good. I’m glad we could get together.
Capone: And happy almost-birthday too by the way [her birthday was November 6].
JS: Thank you, thank you.
Capone: When I looked over some of your film credits, you’ve been doing this, relative to the rest of your career, a fairly short time. But you’ve already worked with some of these phenomenal directors.
JS: Yes, I know, from the beginning in New York, it was wild.
Capone: Woody Allen, Scorsese, Frank Oz, Martin Brest a couple of times, and now Alexander Payne twice. Where would you rank Alexander in terms of these experiences?
JS: Oh, I think he’s a wonderful director. I think he knows more about working with actors than an awful lot of people do. He really has a feeling about how an actor works, and I don’t even know how much he actually has studied or knows. I think he worked as an actor for a short time before he started directing, and he really knows how to help. He’s not making the role for you or giving you too much or anything; he really knows what he's doing when it comes to working with actors.
Capone: Were you okay with all the swearing and lifting your dress in the cemetery, which are obviously some of the more memorable scenes in the movie?
JS: Yeah, I always feel that you do what the script says you do, you know? Because whoever has written it thinks this is a part of the character, and I have no qualms about doing almost anything [laughs]. Bruce was kidding me the other night during a question and answer, and they asked me if any of this embarrassed me, and I said, “No, I was never embarrassed by it.” And Bruce said, “Well, what about when you lifted your skirt?” And I said, “That didn’t embarrass me; I was just anxious to know where he was going to shoot it from, that’s all.” [laughs]
Capone: You didn’t want it to turn into a nude scene,.
JS: Right, no. Luckily he was a smart and did it from the back.
Capone: There’s a saying that if there’s one sane person in a sea of insane people, then maybe it’s the sane person that’s insane. Do you feel like maybe you being the voice of reason in this film makes you the crazy one?
JS: The crazy one? Well, I think she is, but never in her mind. I couldn't really think that because I don't think that Kate would. She thinks she’s the sanest one going certainly. But I think you're probably right because she does all of these outrageous things and never stops, never questions them or anything.
Capone: She’s also the one who talks the most. She’s the only one who puts two words together half the time, and in that, way she does stand out in this family. The idea that Woody and Kate were the ones that left this town was a sort of a big deal. They’re treated as outsiders. It’s strange that you just went from one small town to a slightly bigger town, yet you're the city folk now. I though that your background in musical theater might lead you to get up and sing in that scene in the restaurant.
JS: In the karaoke scene, yes.
Capone: Were you jealous that Stacy [Keach] got the singing spotlight in the film?
JS: [Laughs] No. I don't think I would be a very good karaoke singer, I really don't. I’m so used to, you rehearse it and there’s a reason why you do it. So I don't think so. Wasn’t he heaven though? Oh god, when he did that I just loved that.
Capone: Kate is angry for so much of this film. Does that take a toll on you as an actor to just be ramped up like that for so long?
JS: Well, luckily I have an abundance of energy and I always have and I think that's always helped when I worked on stage or film, and what it did, I think it took its toll. I had to rest a lot, I really did. Because when I was shooting it was high powered. Everything was energized, and she was always sort of at the top mentally and physically. She flounced around a lot. So I did feel it in that respect. I don't think that I had a problem, I just made sure that I rested when we were in Nebraska.
Capone: The scenes with you and Will Forte are particularly interesting. Have you ever seen his work before you did this?
JS: Oh yeah, I’d seen some of the "Saturday Night Live" work that he had done. I don't think I’ve seen any of this movies.
Capone: He hasn’t done that many.
JS: No, but like MACGRUBER, which everyone has seen. Everybody talks about that, but I did not see that.
Capone: What did you think of what he did, compared to where he came from especially.
JS: I think it’s amazing. I really do, and he laughs about it, and they ask him about it at all the question and answers, and he becomes very humble, “Well, Bruce and June helped me tremendously,” but he was equipped. I don't think there was any doubt that he was ready to do this role.
Capone: I don't think Alexander would have brought him in if he wasn’t.
JS: Oh no, if he didn’t think that this was the character, that he was David. But he really worked well. Now, I don't know if he had a knowledge before, but he did work well, so there was just no problem.
Capone: Bruce Dern was here a few weeks ago with the Chicago Film Festival with this movie, and he’s just a great storyteller and he loves to talk, and it’s so strange to watch him be so quiet and so out of it. Was that a strange juxtaposition?
JS: Well, it was, because Will and I didn’t know him before, and we’d be sitting there, and the camera would go off, and we’d have time to sit and talk, and he just started talking and telling stories, and we used to laugh about it that we got all the old knowledge of old Hollywood right there. So it is funny that this is the role he gets to play, but he’s such a good actor, he really is.
Capone: You’re the only actor in this film that actually has a working history with Alexander Payne. And I know he uses all the same crew from film to film, so was it nice to come back and see everybody again?
JS: It was, and so many people came up and said, “I remember you from ABOUT SCHMIDT, and we were in Omaha together.” And that was nice. And it also was nice to be working in that atmosphere, because the crew was very involved, and they will do anything for you.
Capone: Did you actually have to audition for this part?
JS: What I did, he wanted to see me. I knew he had seen people for the role, and when you consider ABOUT SCHMIDT and this role, they couldn’t be further apart. And I think he perhaps didn’t know exactly how he was going or what he was going to do, and they called my agent's office and said-, “Alexander wants to see June immediately. He wants to see her right now.” And they told him I was in New York, and I was doing a workshop of a new musical actually and I couldn't see him, and so they called again and asked if they sent a script if I would read some stuff and do some of the scenes so that’s what I did [on tape]. And Alexander called me right away and said he wanted me to do it. But a long time elapsed before it was all settled, because I think there were a lot going on that he had to deal with before this was set.
Capone: When you first read the script, were you concerned at all or did it cross your mind that with Kate yelling at Woody so much and calling each other names, were you afraid that this was a couple that was in a loveless marriage?
JS: No, because in reading it, I think I knew with all the hints in it a that she loved him and I don't think there was a question about that. It never was in my mind anyway. I mean, some people might not see it that way, but that’s how I saw it always.
Capone: And she is certainly his greatest protector. I think we get that sense from very early on. It’s interesting too because I think her version of what Woody and her sons are isn't necessarily the most accurate version of that. She’s seeing them in her way, but in the end I think David sees everybody the most clearly.
JS: I think you’re right. I think that she probably doesn’t have a clear vision of the two boys, of who they really are and what they are, and what’s important to them and what isn't. I think she sees Ross as being very successful. I think the aunt character says that I wrote her or phoned and said that Ross was on television. I think it’s something that pleased her that he had done this, that he had gotten this far.
Capone: Is it strange that the more time goes on, the better things seem to go for you. I don't think there is a doubt in anyone's mind that you are getting many award nominations for this work. It doesn't go this way for most people.
JS: I know, at this age. But the thing is that I’ve been discovered so many times, where everybody is like, “Oh god what is she doing now?” And even on stage, one or two shows that were considered just grand, so I’m thrilled. I could not be more thrilled by all of this that’s going on and talk about the awards. It’s not unreal. I don't feel that at all but I guess at this age and after all the work I’ve done, it just seems, yeah, this might happen, it might not, and it’s in the wind and that’s about it.
Capone: Well, most people only get one chance to get discovered, you’ve had two or three.
JS: [laughs] I know, I’ve had many.
Capone: Did I hear right that you're going to be Lena Dunham's grandmother on "Girls"?
JS: Yeah, I shot that.
Capone: Tell me about that experience.
JS: Well, she’s wonderful. I’m just so impressed with her. Someone that young who has the ability and this sense of herself and composure to be in the position she’s in. She didn't write the one I did, nor did she direct it, but she was in it. And most of it was she and I, so it was I think a good script. I was very pleased to be offered it. But more than anything, I’m just sort of amazed at her. And I liked her, I really liked her.
Capone: So it’s just a single episode?
Capone: Is there a chance you could come back? I don’t want you to have to spoil anything.
JS: Well, I think I would spoil it if I told you.
Capone: Oh my. Okay, I won't ask you to do that. How was the experience of going to Cannes with NEBRASKA for you?
JS: Oh, god that was wonderful. We were at the Carlton, and I had a room that looked over the Mediterranean with all the boats and everything, so it was very mind blowing, it really was. And we were received so beautifully. E,verybody was coming up to us at the hotel all the movie people and anybody that had seen the film. It was just very exciting and we got a 10-minute standing ovation. We didn't know what to do. We truly didn't and we all just looked around and we started hugging each other, and then I started crying and somebody else said they had cried. But it was blew your mind. And you could see people you recognized, actors that you recognized, in the audience. So, it was very exciting.
Capone: Do you have anything else coming up that you can talk about?
JS: I have some television. "Girls," I’m not sure when their season starts.
Capone: I think it’s in January.
JS: I don't think I'm in the first one; I was probably like the third or forth episode. And then a new HBO show called "Getting On."
Capone: Oh, I saw a commercial for that, and I saw you in it. Is that the hospital one?
JS: Yeah! It is wild. I’m in the second segment, and they are talking about my coming. They don’t know if it’s going to go on. HBO I think gave them five episodes, and they're going to show it and look at it and see what the reaction is. That's wild, if you get a chance to see that.
Capone: I pretty much watch all the original stuff on HBO, but I did see that you in the commercial.
JS: I didn’t know that. And then "The Millers," a new TV show and a friend of mine, Margo Martindale, is the lead, and I play her mother.
Capone: I love her.
JS: Yeah, she’s heaven. We were neighbors in New York for 30 years.
Capone: No kidding. I just saw her in an interview where she said she lived on the same block in New York for 30 years.
JS: And I lived right there beside it. [laughs]
Capone: That’s great. Seriously, she is one of my absolute favorite actors.
JS: Oh yeah, she's great.
Capone: It’s funny to see her on a sitcom after all the drama she’s been doing.
JS: Yeah, but I play her mother in one, and they’re talking about my coming back too. So I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Capone: One of the strangest things on your filmography is you were in this ATLAS SHRUGGED movie, which people talk about in notorious terms. But I’m curious about how you got pulled into that.
JS: Well there’s a casting director named Ronnie Yeskel, and she really casts independent films. I had gone up to see her before about something, but all at once, everything she pulled me in for they wanted to use me. I had shot two independent films for her and another one coming up, and they asked me if I would do it, and because it was Ronnie I said yes. I just said yes because she had been so sweet to me and so nice. So that’s how I got in it.
Capone: So, you didn’t have to subscribe to the politics of the story?
JS: No, not at all. None. And I got to walk with the horse in it, so I liked that.
Capone: I’ll admit, I didn’t get to see it but I saw that you were in it.
JS: You weren’t missing much. And I had one scene walking with a horse and talking to the young man and woman.
Capone: One more question about Alexander. The two films were done about 10-11 years apart. Did you notice any differences in his approach to things between the two films?
JS: Oh yes. I think he’s grown, as one would, and also remember he did SIDEWAYS and DESCENDANTS after it. So I saw that in him. And it wasn't just "Oh, he’s gotten older," but he really has a stronger grip on his sets, actors, everything.
Capone: Didn’t he direct that short with Margo?
JS: Yes, he did.
Capone: Yes, the PARIS JE T’AIME short.
JS: I called her when I was out here and she was in New York when he asked me to do NEBRASKA, and she said, “I am so jealous that you two will be together and I wont be there.”
Capone: Yeah, well he wrote that short for her too, I think.
JS: I think so. He was interested in her doing something in ABOUT SCHMIDT, but it didn’t work. The role that he had in mind for her he chose someone else, but he talked to me on set about it. He said, “I know you know Margo.” Because she had told him, and I said, “Yes.” And he said, “I really want to work with her.” And I said, “Well, she wants to work with you too.”
Capone: And then he wrote something for her, which is quite the compliment. June, thank you so much for talking, and I hope I get to meet you some day.