I’ve been fortunate enough to interview Sam Elliott twice in my life, and both times it surprised me. I certainly didn’t expect him to be difficult, but I thought he’d be very serious and perhaps a man of few words about his work. In fact, he’s easy going, quick to laugh, and has become quite introspective about this new, busier-than-ever time in his career.
Even forgetting Elliott’s near-iconic status as a character actor, beginning with a small role in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and continuing in such films as THE LEGACY, MASK, ROAD HOUSE, RUSH, TOMBSTONE, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, WE WERE SOLDIERS, THE CONTENDER, HULK, GHOST RIDER, and DRAFT DAY, he’s been a part of a magnificent resurgence that started in 2015, with three films at Sundance that year (GRANDMA, DIGGING FOR FIRE, and I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS). He also had fantastic runs on “Parks and Recreation” as Ron Swanson’s mustache guru Ron Dunn; as big-bad Avery Markham (with no mustache) on the final season of “Justified;” and the second season of his Netflix series “The Ranch” just kicked off last week. There are actors half his age who are asking him how he keeps up the pace.
While working on I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS, writer-director Brett Haley got to know Elliott with the ulterior motive of building an entire film around a character whose career mirrors Elliott’s in some ways but with far less success (his deep, penetrating voice and lush mustache are still valued in this version of the entertainment world). The character he plays in THE HERO, Lee Hayden, if far more desperate for work, estranged from his daughter (Krysten Ritter) and divorced from ex-wife Valerie (Elliott’s real-life wife Katharine Ross). He’s also been diagnosed with a scary disease. Did I mention this film is mostly a comedy? The humor comes mostly from Lee’s best friend and pot dealer Jeremy (Nick Offerman) and his new, much younger girlfriend Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a stand-up comic and woman of some intrigue. It’s a fascinating, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I version of Elliott’s life that he identifies with, in part.
I had the chance to chat with Elliott again recently via phone, and he was as wonderfully talkative and enjoyable as I’d remembered. Please enjoy my talk with Sam Elliott…
Capone: Hi, Sam. How are you?
Sam Elliott: I’m well, Steve. How are you doing?
Capone: Very good. We met when you were in Chicago with, I think it was GRANDMA. You were with [writer-director] Paul Wietz.
SE: That sounds right. I was in Chicago with that.
Capone: And just so you know, I help program a film festival here in Chicago that just happened last week, and THE HERO was one of the films that we had in the festival, Brett came out for it, and it was tremendous.
SE: Did it play well there?
Capone: It played very well, yes.
SE: I’m glad to here it. I did hear Brett went there. I haven’t spoken to him about it since, but I’m glad it played well.
Capone: I first saw it at SXSW. I interviewed Brett and Nick, who were tremendous together and gave me some very choice quotes about you using emojis on your phone, which I was shocked to hear.
SE: [laughs] Did they say which emojis?
Capone: It’s funny, Nick was being very protective and said maybe we don’t want to let that information out there unless we said that you only use the cactus and the tumbleweed emojis.
SE: [laughs] That is very funny. He lied, though.
Capone: Brett said you always end your texts to him with a heart.
SE: I don’t use too many emojis, but there are a few. And yes, I use the heart a lot.
Capone: So at what point after making I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS did Brett tell you not only that he wanted you in his next movie but that he was writing it for you and about a version of you to a certain degree?
SE: I’m not sure in terms of timeframe exactly when it would have been, Steve. What happened was, we were on DREAMS and we ended up going on the road in the marketing end of the game, traveling a lot, just the two of us. Had a lot of meals, took a lot of plane rides back and forth across the country, had a few drinks along the way and talked about each other’s lives. Brett got home and sat down with Mark Basch [Haley’s co-writer], and they came up with this presentation.
The first time I looked at it it was called ICEBERG, and it had some really interesting storyline thoughts in it and some interesting photographs in it and it was very provocative on some level for me personally to look at it. And I said “Hey, where’s the script?” And here came the script, and it was unbelievable. Time-wise, I don’t remember the timeline, but you know I knew that it was coming.
Capone: What was your reaction to actually reading it?
SE: I’ve had people write parts for me, or with me in mind, over the years, but I’ve never had anyone write a screenplay for me, and that in itself was pretty mind boggling, that somebody would give me a script. This character was literally on every page. It’s pretty incredible.
Capone: This is not your life story, but there are certainly moments that graze your career—the voiceover work comes to mind.
SE: Yeah, right off the top, the first scene, the first line of the film.
Capone: And for a while, you were known primarily for Westerns. Did any of the details of Lee’s life make you cringe or make you a little uncomfortable?
SE: No, not really. They took great license. There are certain things that are very, very close to me. I think how Lee feels about things in general is very close to me, but there are other aspects of it that are as far afield as they can get—the addiction to pot is for starters, the relationship with the daughter, the divorced wife scenario. Those are all contrived, but it’s all great stuff for an actor to play.
Capone: You’re at a career peak right now. You seem like you’re busier than ever; you’re doing things that are not Westerns; you’re being looked at as a romantic lead. No one is limiting you in terms of the choices you could make and the variety of roles you could pick from. Are you astonished by this?
SE: I’m dumbfounded. I’m totally dumbfounded by it. It’s like, wow, 72 years old and I’m here at Cannes. Who knew? Better now than earlier, probably. That’s the truth of it. I’ve got a total different set of—I don’t know—not values. My values haven't changed at all, I don't think. I think my perspective on the business is certainly more educated now, if nothing else, than it was in the early days.
Capone: Were there moments earlier in your career where you were fearful that you’d be pigeonholed as a particular type of actor?
SE: There were definitely those moments where I thought I was never going to get out of this Western box. I’ve had a couple of opportunities to do that. One of them was Rod Lurie in a movie called THE CONTENDER. He wrote and directed it. I got to cut my mustache, cut my hair off, wear a three piece suit, and advise the President. There’s been a lot of opportunities since then where I got to get rid of the hat and the horse.
I got off of thinking bad about that or regretting being boxed into the Western thing, because I went after that. I went after the Western genre early on because of my heritage more than anything else. All my family is from southwest Texas since forever, for like seven generations. I went after it.
When I did THE BIG LEBOWSKI, before I read it and I had the script in my hand, I thought “Wow, this is going to be an opportunity to play some wacky fucking character that has nothing to do with a Western.” And I open it up, and there’s this Western character [laughs]. But they came to me because of that body of work. They didn’t come to me because I was some brilliant actor. They came to me because I was the guy that does a lot of Westerns. People know me for doing those Westerns. The same thing happened on THE GOLDEN COMPASS with Chris Weitz. He hired me because of a body of work, and it was in the Western game. I stopped thinking bad about that and now I just look at it as, I’m just thankful, number one, that I’ve had a career, but really thankful that I’ve pursued the Western game early on.
Capone: I did not realize until I was doing research for this that your first film was BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID.
SE: Yeah. I almost wasn’t in it. I was like a shadow on the wall. I got one line. It was in a card game, right at the beginning. “I’ll take two” was my line. The best part about that is I ended up with the leading lady. That’s the upside of that.
Capone: As much as there’s this love story at the core of THE HERO, I actually was gravitating a little bit more to the scenes with you and Nick, because I think there’s a history there that we’re picking up on with each new interaction. When you guys are running lines together, that scene floors me, because you see the respect and the trust between Lee and Jeremy. Tell me just about that scene and your relationship with Nick now that you’ve worked with him on a couple of different things.
SE: Yeah. It’s one of those magic things that happens every once in a while on a movie set. Sometimes, the stars line up, and things are falling in the right spot. The one thing I knew, because of the fact that Lee was going to go and blow the audition, as an actor, I wanted to in that scene [where I’m running line], it wouldn’t have mattered if I read it with a kid, my wife, Offerman, anyone—I wanted to be as good as I could be playing that stupid part. It was pretty hokey.
Capone: Brett admits it’s one of the worst things he’s ever written.
SE: It is the worst thing he’s ever written that I’ve ever read. Thanks a lot, Brett, for trying to make that real, but that was the goal. So we’re at the house and we start doing it and we ran one take, and it went really good, and I just stuck my head as deep as I could into it and played it as honest as I could play it and it worked. Nick picked up on it, everybody on the set that was watching it saw it, and it affected everybody and everybody just thought “What the fuck just happened?”
When we were done with it, everybody knew that it was not what they expected it was going to be. It was what I wanted to do. As I said, I wanted you to know that this guy could act, and I didn’t want him to be some guy that was just pursuing a career that he was never going to have because he couldn’t deliver. It was important that he delivered in that scene. It worked. That’s a scene that everybody looks at and talks about it. Not everybody, but you know what I mean.
Capone: It’s one of the best scenes in the movie, without a doubt. And like I said it reveals a lot about that relationship too.
SE: It does. It’s a long, deep relationship, and I haven’t known Nick for that many years, but I have the deepest love and respect for Offerman. That’s why he gets the heart emoji. Even if he gave it away, the bastard.
Capone: Brett says that in his next film that Nick’s going to be the star, so do you get to be in that one then? Do you know?
SE: Brett’s very cagey. He gets to meet these actors…he did the same thing to me on DREAMS, then he picks their brain while they’re on the fucking set, then he goes away and he writes some brilliant fucking script that speaks to us, so how are we going to turn him down? He’s a very cagey cat, Brett Haley. Bulldog. My wife calls Brett “Bulldog.” There’s a part in it, but I don’t know that I’m going to be able to do it because at exactly the time they’re going to be filming that, I’m going to be in Massachusetts doing another film. So it’s going to be really difficult to be there.
Capone: In the mean time, you’re in A STAR IS BORN that Bradley Cooper’s making. I’m curious, who do you play in that?
SE: I play Bradley’s manager. It’s a long history with this manager, and it’s an amazing opportunity to see Bradley in action, not only as an actor but as a director. He’s singing, he’s playing a guitar, he’s directing, he’s tireless, he’s totally driven, he has the most amazing work ethic. He just wants to be honest in what he’s doing, and that speaks volumes to me. And I’m a huge Lady Gaga fan. Stephanie is just knocking this thing out of the park every day.
Capone: I’m excited to see her do it. I think that’s a great part for her.
SE: She’s going to be incredible. It’s the right part at the right time for her. She’s the right person for it.
Capone: Sam, thank you. It was great to talk to you again, best of luck with this. Hopefully we’ll get to do it again soon.