The Oscar Nominee Who Puts Some Joy Into Bleak America

June Squibb talks to Haaretz about providing some comic relief in Alexander Payne's somewhat depressing 'Nebraska.'

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NEW YORK – American actress June Squibb is closing out an especially intense year. Since Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” premiered at Cannes in May, the 84-year-old has hardly been off the red carpet.

Her role as Kate Grant, the sober, cynical and loudmouthed wife of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an old man with a fondness for the bottle who’s convinced he’s won a million-dollar prize, has reaped her 16 acting nominations.

On Sunday, for the first time, she’ll be marching down the red carpet at the Academy Awards, where she’s up for best supporting actress against stars like Jennifer Lawrence (“American Hustle”), Julia Roberts (“August: Osage County”) and Sally Hawkins (“Blue Jasmine”). Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”) is the odds-on favorite.

If Squibb wins, she’ll be the oldest actress ever to nab an Oscar, an honor currently held by Jessica Tandy, who won best actress at 80 for “Driving Miss Daisy.” With a guest role in the third season of TV comedy “Girls” – Squibb will soon appear in two new episodes – and a top role in a new play by a Texas theater group, she’s busier than ever.

One might think her late blooming – Squibb was a theater actress and acting teacher who started making movies only in her 60s – shatters a few myths about women in Hollywood. But as Squibb told Haaretz in a phone interview, she’s the exception.

“I feel that there’s work, you know, now for older people,” she says from her home in Los Angeles. “But I think a lot of it is in television. When a film like ‘Nebraska’ comes along, it’s a great opportunity, both for Bruce and me. I think we still have an awful lot of action films, and films where there’s no place for an older actor in it. But television has produced a lot of shows where the older character is very comfortable and very much a part of the cast.”

“Nebraska” focuses on the trek of a father and son, but Squibb appears in many scenes, providing comic relief to a story about aging and parenthood in a society that doesn’t hesitate to sell illusions to people on the margins.

Though Squibb’s performance has won her both Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, her road to Payne’s heart was long and winding. Payne, who had cast Squibb as Jack Nicholson’s wife in “About Schmidt” (2002), first offered the part to Squibb’s good friend and longtime neighbor Margo Martindale, who didn’t take it.

“I had worked with Alexander in ‘About Schmidt’ about 10 years ago. And I loved working with him, and I recognized what a really brilliant filmmaker he is, so when I heard that he was doing a new film my ears pricked up, and my agent started throwing my name into his office,” Squibb recalls.

“And the answer was always, ‘We love June, but she’s not right for this at all.’ And they kept throwing my name in every few months, so they asked me to read the script and do some taping, which I did. And he did call me right away and said he wanted me to do the role.”

The Walmart effect

So how does she explain the movie’s extreme success?

“I have met quite a few people that have just seen it, and to a person they all say, ‘it’s my family.’ They truly see their family in there. Different members, I’m sure, but they relate to it because it reminds them of their family,” she says.

Squibb notes how small towns, especially in the Midwest, have suffered. She remembers how, growing up in a small town in Illinois, she saw Walmart come in and drive mom-and-pop stores in the downtown area out of business.

In what could be a nod to nostalgia for pre-Walmart America, Payne shot the film in black and white.

“The script is very sparse, there’s something very black and white about that script. There’s no word that’s not necessary in there, there’s nothing extraneous,” Squibb says. “And when you’re there – we were there in October, November, December – everything is black and white! When you look out on all this land it’s very bleak.”

Squibb adds that in “Nebraska” there’s a conscious dialogue with the films of Frank Capra; she thinks Payne was asking what had changed in America since those movies were made. She says that Vandalia, Illinois, where she grew up, always reminded her of Bedford Falls, the town in Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946).

Squibb was an only child who inherited her love of acting from her mother, a pianist who played at screenings of silent movies. Squibb started acting at 19. Her Broadway debut was as the stripper Electra in “Gypsy” in 1960. “They called me ‘the dirtiest mouth on Broadway,’” she recalls.

After nearly 40 years in the theater, Squibb tried her luck in the movies. She auditioned for three films, Woody Allen’s “Alice” (1990), Martin Brest’s “Scent of a Woman” (1992) and Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence” (1993). To her shock, all three directors made her offers. In interviews, Squibb often credits her success to her late husband Charles Kakatsakis, a legendary acting teacher.

Her first husband Edward Sostek, whom she later divorced, helped her fall in love with Judaism, and Squibb, who converted when they married, still considers herself Jewish.

“We were married in a Reform temple and we had a life of our own in Cleveland, and we would go back to his family for a lot of the holidays,” she says. “I have a friend now that I spend the holidays with here, in Los Angeles. But religion wasn’t a huge part of my life. It’s just that I’m Jewish, and I relate to that.”

She also relates to the fun she had playing Lena Dunham’s grandmother in “Girls.”

“It was great! I have great respect for her. I think that Lena is just amazing – that she’s at any age doing what she’s doing,” Squibb says. “Writing, directing, acting, and it’s her idea, this all comes out of her. I just think it’s wonderful. And she is just as charming as can be.”

June Squibb in LA this week. 'There’s nothing extraneous' in 'Nebraska,' she says. Credit: Reuters
This image released by Paramount Pictures shows Will Forte as David Grant, left, and Bruce Dern as Woody Grant in a scene from the film "Nebraska."Credit: AP

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