New projects still rat­tle Sam El­liott

Vet­eran ac­tor rid­ing a wave of pop­u­lar­ity on TV and the big screen

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - MICHAEL O’SUL­LI­VAN

There was no need for the film pub­li­cist to an­nounce “I’ve got Sam El­liott on the phone.”

It was ob­vi­ous who was call­ing, as soon as the ac­tor — in New York on a press tour for his new film, “The Hero” — opened his mouth. Over a nearly 50-year ca­reer, the 72year-old Cal­i­for­nia na­tive has made a name for him­self in roles — many of them in Westerns — that take ad­van­tage of his rugged good looks, brushy mous­tache, the abil­ity to har­ness both soul­ful­ness and grit — and that dis­tinc­tive drawl.

In “The Hero,” which was writ­ten for El­liott, he plays a fic­tion­al­ized ver­sion of him­self — a cow­boy ac­tor in his 70s named Lee Hayden, who’s scroung­ing for ever-dwin­dling parts while mak­ing do with com­mer­cial voice-over work. On the eve of a life­time achieve­ment award from the Western Preser­va­tion and Ap­pre­ci­a­tion League — and af­ter re­ceiv­ing some bad news from his doc­tor — Lee is forced to take stock of his re­la­tion­ships: with his drug dealer (Nick Of­fer­man); an es­tranged daugh­ter (Krys­ten Rit­ter); an ex-wife (played by El­liot’s wife, Katharine Ross); and a new young lover (Laura Pre­pon).

In real life, El­liott has had no so such work drought, with juicy roles in re­cent movies such as “Grandma” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams” (on which he met “The Hero’s” di­rec­tor and cowriter, Brett Ha­ley), and on the tele­vi­sion shows “Jus­ti­fied,” “The Ranch” and “Grace and Frankie.” And in first­time di­rec­tor Bradley Cooper’s forth­com­ing re­make of “A Star Is Born,” El­liott will play op­po­site Cooper and Lady Gaga.

Q: Are we in the mid­dle of a Sam El­liott re­nais­sance?

A: I don’t know. I’d rather look at my ca­reer as a con­tin­uum. It’s got peaks and val­leys, and I’m just on one of the peaks right now. It may be the high­est peak I’ve been on since I’ve been in the busi­ness. I truly be­lieve that “The Hero” is my best work, prob­a­bly, and cer­tainly the most fun that I’ve ever been in­volved in.

Q: How much do you re­late to the char­ac­ter of Lee?

A: On some lev­els, I con­nect very deeply to him. There are a cou­ple of ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ences that are con­trived: My wife and I have been mar­ried for 33 years, and have been to­gether 39 years. I have a deeply lov­ing re­la­tion­ship with my daugh­ter (Cleo Cole El­liott), who I see al­most daily. I don’t smoke pot. And I don’t have can­cer. Apart from those four el­e­ments, there’s a lot of me there. One other big dif­fer­ence: Lee has to­tally screwed his life up by his choices.

Q: In “The Hero,” Lee says, “I did one film that I’m proud of,” re­fer­ring to the movie-within-the-movie that lends the film its ti­tle. Aside from your new movie, is there one film — or five — that you’re most proud of ?

A: There may be five: a film that my wife and I did called “Con­agher” (1991), which was a Louis L’Amour novel that we both adapted into a screen­play, and that I pro­duced and we both acted in. “Tomb­stone” (1993), prob­a­bly. “Road House” (1989). “Mask” (1985). “The Big Le­bowski” (1998). On some level, what makes one pic­ture stand out from an­other is not so much even the work as the peo­ple and the jour­ney.

Q: Ageism is a big prob­lem in Hol­ly­wood. Is Brett Ha­ley — who has now cast you in two films, both of which ex­plic­itly ad­dress aging — do­ing some­thing rad­i­cal here?

A: Rev­o­lu­tion­ary. It’s a ter­ri­ble thing that Hol­ly­wood does with older ac­tors, I think, par­tic­u­larly women. It’s al­ways kind of mys­ti­fied me that older peo­ple get short shrift — older peo­ple in gen­eral, what­ever their field is. The way I look at it is, the older guy is the one who has the knowl­edge, the ex­pe­ri­ence, some­thing to pass on, some­thing to teach. We put that aside for younger, more beau­ti­ful mod­els.

Q: Lee be­comes ro­man­ti­cally in­volved with a standup comic in her 30s. Is the movie part of the prob­lem, where older ac­tresses are re­placed by younger, more beau­ti­ful mod­els, or is it com­ment­ing on that prob­lem?

A: I think it’s com­ment­ing on it, for sure. I think we earned that re­la­tion­ship. It’s not a typ­i­cal old­er­guy-and-younger-girl re­la­tion­ship. We deal with how weird it is. Lee says, “What are you do­ing here?” She says, “What do you mean, ‘What am I do­ing here?’ You asked me out.” He says, “Yeah, I know, but this is kind of weird.” There’s a lot more go­ing on in that re­la­tion­ship than some b------- phys­i­cal re­la­tion­ship.

Q: I loved your per­for­mance in “Grandma,” as the ex-hus­band of Lily Tom­lin’s char­ac­ter, who qui­etly un­loads his long-buried re­sent­ment for her past ac­tions. Is it hard to ac­cess these two very dif­fer­ent sides of your on­screen per­sona, as you have done so of­ten: the tough guy and the softy?

A: Not at all. When it feels real, it feels good to deal with it. I truly be­lieve that if it’s on the page, then it’s on the stage. I re­mem­ber Lily say­ing to me — I don’t re­mem­ber how many takes we did of that scene, where he’s talk­ing about her hav­ing the abor­tion and how he didn’t get a voice in it — there was a mo­ment when Lily leaned in close to me and said, “God, you’re mak­ing me feel like a real a------ here,” in true Lily fash­ion. What was her char­ac­ter do­ing in that movie? She was drag­ging her grand­daugh­ter around, look­ing for an abor­tion. My char­ac­ter had an op­por­tu­nity to show the other side of that coin.

Q: Your au­di­tion scene in “The Hero” strikes a sim­i­lar emo­tional tone. When Lee is read­ing for a part in a sci-fi movie, he breaks down over a line that re­minds him of his dam­aged re­la­tion­ship with his daugh­ter.

A: There are two ver­sions of the au­di­tion speech: One, when I’m do­ing it with Of­fer­man, and he’s read­ing the part of my daugh­ter. It’s kind of a joke. Be­cause Lee falls apart in the au­di­tion scene later in the film, it was nec­es­sary that you saw, in the read­ing of it with Nick, that, in fact, Lee Hayden was still a good ac­tor. When he gets in that au­di­tion and falls apart, it’s not about the fact that he can’t act. When he hears him­self say, “You’re my daugh­ter, and I was dead. But I’m here now” — that’s what takes him down.

Q: This is the fifth time you’ve worked with your wife. What is that like?

A: It’s al­ways in­cred­i­ble. It was a lit­tle bizarre play­ing exes.

Q: Like Lee, who does bar­be­cue sauce com­mer­cials, your voice has been used to sell beef and beer. When did you re­al­ize you had some­thing there?

A: My mom put me in a cherub choir, back in Sacra­mento, when I was 5. I was singing bari­tone when I was 15. And then, not long af­ter 17, I started singing bass.

Q: Your 1976 film “Life­guard” made you a sex sym­bol. Can you cop to still be­ing one at 72?

A: It’s a lit­tle late for that. That’s not where I’m think­ing I am in this day and age, for sure. But, yeah, I guess I can cop to it. It’s ge­net­ics, I guess. In “Life­guard,” I’m run­ning around in a Speedo for a lot of the movie.

Q: Dur­ing her char­ac­ter’s standup act, Laura Pre­pon makes fun of Lee’s anatomy and sex­ual per­for­mance. Was that hard to lis­ten to?

A: Easy for me, not easy for Lee. That’s not me up on the screen. It’s what I do.

Q: What’s the hard­est thing about act­ing?

A: I don’t find it hard. I get ner­vous go­ing in — pretty ner­vous — still. Q: Even at 72? A: Yep, be­cause I want to be good. Q: Do you get a kick out of roles that poke fun at your cow­boy im­age?

A: The nar­ra­tor in “The Big Le­bowski” was that. I’m a purist when it comes to the form. When I do a quote-un­quote Western, I take it all se­ri­ously. But pok­ing fun at it? Ab­so­lutely. Q: Is the Western dead? A: It’s strug­gling. The last great Western made in Hol­ly­wood was “True Grit,” the one the Coen brothers did with Jeff Bridges. There’s an au­di­ence for it. Those are the peo­ple that elected Trump pres­i­dent. I’m not say­ing ev­ery Western lover voted for Trump, but Hol­ly­wood dis­misses the peo­ple in what they call the fly­over states.

Q: Speak­ing of Jeff Bridges, what did you think of “Hell or High Wa­ter,” the con­tem­po­rary Western?

A: In­cred­i­ble film. Jeff ’s played that part be­fore. So what? As (vet­eran Western ac­tor) Ben John­son once told me, when we were do­ing “The Sack­etts”: “I may not be a very good ac­tor, but no­body can play Ben John­son bet­ter than I can.” I’ve heard peo­ple say, “There’s Sam El­liott do­ing the same s--- again,” play­ing an­other cow­boy, an­other slow-talk­ing, la­conic what­ever. So what? No­body’s ever go­ing to con­fuse me with John Malkovich. But no­body’s go­ing to play Sam El­liott bet­ter than me.

BETH DUBBER, THE OR­CHARD

A cow­boy ac­tor in his 70s (Sam El­liott) ro­mances a much younger standup comic (Laura Pre­pon) in “The Hero.”

BETH DUBBER, COUR­TESY SUN­DANCE IN­STI­TUTE

Sam El­liott plays an aging cow­boy ac­tor who is forced to take stock of his re­la­tion­ships in “The Hero.”

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