She played Electra, a stripper in the original Broadway production of “Gypsy,” opposite Ethel Merman in 1959. Her rťsumť includes roles in “Scent of a Woman,” “The Age of Innocence,” “Meet Joe Black” and “In & Out.”
June Squibb, 84, has been acting on stage and screen for more than 60 years. But it was only last week that she came to the attention of millions of people when she snagged a supporting-actress Oscar nomination for her role in “Nebraska.”
She had already earned Screen Actors Guild, Golden Globe, Broadcast Film Critic and Independent Spirit Award nominations for the role. Kate Grant is a caustic, angry wife with a sharp, salty tongue, and Squibb played her with obvious relish.
She had worked with director Alexander Payne once before, playing Jack Nicholson's wife in “About Schmidt,” which filmed in Omaha back in 2001. In a recent phone interview with The World-Herald, Squibb talked about what it feels like to be “discovered” by many, late in her career, as a talented film actress.
Q. Congrats on all the Oscar buzz. What's it like to get all this attention after so many years as a working actress?
A. (Laughter.) It's great. I'm thrilled. Mostly it's just so rewarding people think my performance warrants this, for one thing. I've met a lot of people, Academy and SAG (Screen Actors Guild) people, doing screenings. So it's all been a plus. It's a surprise, and I'm a little in awe of it.
Q. When you were at Cannes (the movie's world premiere) last May, what did you think of the response to your performance and the movie?
A. I was amazed. When the film was over, we got a 10-minute standing ovation. Bruce (Dern, who plays her husband, Woody, in “Nebraska”) timed it, and it was forever, and we didn't know what to do. We all started hugging each other, and I started crying. It was phenomenal. We had no idea. It just blew all our minds.
Q. I read in the Chicago Tribune that when you saw Kate Grant up on the screen for the first time, it made you think of your mother.
A. Yes, it did. I was born and grew up in Vandalia, Ill., a small town of about 6,000. It was farm country, and this was the little county seat. When I was reading the script, I didn't think about it. But it was a bit of my mother, who used to play piano for the silent movies, and her two crazy sisters.
Q. When you read the script, what did you think of Kate and the salty way she talks?
A. Well, I thought she was great. I loved the script. I really felt I knew this woman. A lot of it is just frustration when all these words come out of her mouth. She has no filter.
Q. I love the moment when Kate leans down and kisses Woody on the forehead. Kind of lets the audience know she loves the old coot after all, right?
A. Yeah, and I felt she always did. I never, ever felt she did not love him. They were married so long, and she was so young when they first started going together. Her way of being involved was taking care of him. She's so loyal to him and their two boys.
Q. You've been quoted that you'd love to make “Nebraska” all over again because it was such a good experience.
A. Well, it was so relaxing. Probably the most relaxing shoot I've ever done, either in television or film. And that was because of the company I kept. Bruce is wonderful. He and I work very much the same way. It was a joy to work with him. We knew what each other was about. Will (Forte, who played their son) was a surprise and a delight, and I love working with Alexander.
Q. You've worked with some pretty great directors: Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen. What made you want to work for Alexander Payne a second time?
A. Well, he knows more about how an actor works than most directors do. He knows what you need to go through to get to where you and he both know this is it, that you've accomplished what you want to. He uses the same crew over and over, and it's like a family. I felt that on “About Schmidt,” but even more so this time. People came up to me on the first day and said, “Hi, June, I worked on 'About Schmidt.' ” So they know who you are and what you're about. Alexander is phenomenal. He's probably the best director working right now.
Q. Payne said your audition tape gave two takes on Kate, and he knew instantly you were his girl. Is offering two versions of the character something you often do in auditions?
A. No, I don't, really. In fact, I think it's the only time. If the director is in the room, he may ask you to do it differently or give it a whole new take. I just felt, “He's not here. I don't really know what he's after, how he sees her.” So I thought, “I'll give him two ways to do that.” Pieces of both versions ended up in the movie. One take was a little spicier. But that last moment of kissing her husband and letting the audience know she cares, that's a combo of the two.
Q. So you and Bruce Dern got along really great. How were your approaches to acting for this movie similar or different?
A. I had three influential teachers. The first was Uta Hagen. The second two, Bobby Lewis and my late husband, Charles Kakatsakis, were both from the Actors Studio. I got, through both those teachers, what Bruce was taught by (Actors Studio director Elia) Kazan. I know how he works because when you're trained by these people, they know what they're talking about. They tear you down. They take a lot away before they build you up again.
Q. You've also had kind words for Will Forte. He says you were very supportive and helpful to him on set. Do you recall a particular moment when you were able to be there for him?
A. Well, I think Bruce and I both were. One of the first moments I remember with him was the scene in the karaoke restaurant. Once he looked at Bruce and me and said, “What am I doing here?” We patted him and said, “Will, you're great, you're fine, you're doing good.” We cooled him down a little bit. When you consider he'd never done this kind of work, I'm amazed at what he accomplished. He kept right there with Bruce every minute. He didn't let anyone down. I think he was worried he didn't have the background, but I felt he was wonderful.
Q. You're a Midwestern small-town girl. Is that one reason you wanted to be in this movie about rural Midwestern life?
A. Well, no. If Alexander asked me to say one line in a film, I'd do it. I just think he's so great. But I think the Midwestern background helped. This lady was kind of in my genes. I grew up with these people. It had a lot to do with how I approached the role and what you see on screen.
Q. I was surprised to read up on your career and realize I've seen you many times on-screen. I particularly loved the faculty woman you played in “Scent of a Woman.” Do you have favorites among your movie characters?
A. She's one. I loved the director, Martin Brest, and I liked her, what I was doing and who she was. “In & Out” was fun, when I got to say, “My husband has three testicles.” That was a favorite. And Frank Oz directed that, he's so dear. He was the voice of the original Miss Piggy with Jim Henson, and he did the voice of Yoda in the “Star Wars” films.
Q. What's next for June Squibb? Has “Nebraska” led to any more movie work for you?
A. Well, not yet, but I have a feeling it will. I've got four TV shows coming. One is called “Getting On.” It's on HBO. I did an episode of “The Millers” on CBS. I play Margo Martindale's mother in the sitcom. Margo is an old friend from New York. I did “The Neighbors” on ABC. Then I did Lena Dunham's “Girls.” That's on HBO, too. It's filming again in January. I play her grandmother.