Sam Elliott has made a pretty good living off that voice of his, lending his sturdy baritone to long, poetic monologues hailing the virtues of The Dude. Or Ram Trucks (or Coors). In fact, there’s an apocryphal story about the Coen Brothers having Elliott run through something like 15 takes of his famous speech at the end of The Big Lebowski just to watch him talk (they’d already gotten everything they needed on the third try). Point is, when Elliott speaks, people want to hear what he’s got to say. Whether it’s homespun cowboy wisdom or just naming different types of beef dishes.
And in his new movie The Hero, Elliott puts his trademark voice and silver mustache to work once again as Lee Hayden, an aging Western actor with… a legendary voice and perfect ‘stache. It’s a part Elliott was seemingly born to play – writer/director Brett Haley wrote it specifically for him – and it’s one that’s been earning the character actor some of the best reviews of his lengthy career (and maybe even an Oscar nomination). For once, the man with the golden voice gets a chance to show how much he can say with just a look, and spoiler alert: it’s a lot. With The Hero coming to Toronto theatres this Friday, I spoke to Elliott about the part he calls the pinnacle of his career, what roles he gets recognized for most, and the importance of not being an asshole in a world full of them.
Obviously, being known for your voice is one of the things you have in common with this character. But you also get to convey a lot without saying anything. It’s very understated. Was that something that you and the director had discussed going in?
I don’t remember talking about that to Brett. I think those were just choices that he made in the editorial process. He writes, directs and also edits. And he just thought there was value in some of those big holes where there wasn’t anything being said. That’s really the way people talk, anyway – I mean, seems to me. Unless you’re with somebody that won’t stop talking, and that’s not me. There’s pauses. There’s thoughtful beats in conversations. And Brett decided to go with those.
I know he’s said that he wrote this with you in mind. What’s that like as an actor, hearing that someone has written, not just a part for you, but an entire movie?
Well, it was dumbfounding for me, off the top. I’ve had parts written for me before, but never a screenplay. Never one that I was on every page of. This really came out of our relationship that we established on I’ll See You in My Dreams. We’d spent a lot of time on the road doing press for that film, and really got to know each other and came to love each other on some levels. He and his writing partner Mark Basch got together and crafted this piece. And it’s an amazing gift. I don’t know how better to put it than that. I feel on some level that this is some sort of a pinnacle for me. For a career. And if it comes to a close tomorrow, then I think I’d be good with it. I got an opportunity to do something I’d never done before in this piece. And I’m more than thankful to both Brett and Marc.
It really is a great part, and an amazing performance…
I just wonder, when you hear him say this is a love letter to you, and you get the script, and it’s for this actor with an iconic voice and a famous moustache, but then, on one page, he’s also described as a “sad old pothead” – do you ever take a minute and say, hey, wait, Brett, how exactly do you see me?
We talked specifically about all the pot use. For no other reason than I just thought it was overdone. But – and I’ve talked to some people since then – Brett said that he knew people that when they get out of bed, they start smoking pot to get leveled off and pretty much smoke it all day long. It was unfathomable to me, but I ended up just going with it and embracing it.
There’s a number of things that are very close to me in this thing, and there’s a number of things that are as far afield as can be. I’m happily married to Katharine [Ross, who plays his ex-wife] still, after 33 years. My daughter is the love of my life. I don’t smoke pot. And I don’t have cancer. Apart from that, you know, I get this guy. I haven’t conducted my career the way he has. I’ve had a lot more good fortune than he has, but I think on some level, good fortune is self-made, to a certain degree. That doesn’t discount the fact that I feel like I’ve been very lucky in having the career that I’ve had. I just think, on some level, it’s kind of the residual of hard work.
Hollywood isn’t exactly known for having too many great parts for people over the age of 40, let alone over 65. Does that ever frustrate you when you’re looking for your next job?
It’s not like I’ve got a pile of scripts submitted to me all the time that I’m going through looking for a good part. I think there’s good parts out there to go around. But I think it’s really just the nature of the beast today, what a lot of film production is all about. It’s not really about good parts. It’s not really about good movies, necessarily. It’s about making a buck. I mean, there’s any number of films out there that I wouldn’t even bother to walk through the door to see. But I think there’s still a lot of good stuff out there. I think The Hero is a prime example of it. It’s the nature of the beast, and I’m not going to waste my time being frustrated because something’s not coming my way. I’m a big boy, and I knew when I got into this game that it was not going to be an easy road. And that said, it’s been a great road for me, and I’ve been very, very fortunate. And I’m lucky to have it.
Have you noticed that you’ve started to get more attention or been offered different roles after Sundance, because of this movie?
No, not this year. Or not since Sundance. This film really hasn’t gotten out there yet, to realize any kind of career effect that it may or may not have. But over the last two years, I’d say, kind of starting with Parks and Rec, Justified, Grandma, there’s been some kind of a shift going on, which I’m aware of.
Speaking of which, I saw you’re going to be in the Bradley Cooper-directed remake of A Star is Born, starring Lady Gaga. Is that something you sought out, as a change of pace? That seems pretty different for you.
No, it came to me. I’ll tell you, again, that’s that luck factor coming into play. I don’t remember ever really beating the streets or beating the bushes to get a job. I’ve certainly went in pursuit of them. But most of the work has come to me over the long haul. And A Star is Born came to me as well that way. Bradley wanted me to play this manager character, and I was thrilled at the opportunity to work with him, and Stefani. Bradley is a consummate filmmaker – he’s got a work ethic that mine pales next to, and I’ve got a pretty strong one. To see him come in and be this musician that he is and singer that he is, and at the same time, direct this film the way he’s directing it, that’s something to watch.
Well, I’ve seen a lot of directors and co-stars gushing about working with you too – whether it’s your work ethic or your gentlemanliness – is that something that’s a conscious move on your part, or just an inherent part of your personality?
I’d like to think it’s not an act. [Laughs] It seems like it’s easy to me to work hard and be nice to people. I mean, it’s the way I was raised. It’s certainly a choice. I’ve worked with enough assholes in my life, I don’t want to be counted amongst them. And they’re around in every field. When I say that, I don’t mean just in the movie business, they’re in every walk of life. We all step through it. We all know those guys. There’s plenty of them around, but I’d just as soon be thought of as a decent human being in the end.
I’ve seen this movie described as “90 minutes of Sam Elliott.” You’re in every scene, practically every frame. How much stamina does that take, especially on a lower-budget indie movie? I’m assuming you shot this over a relatively short period of time.
Yeah, relatively. Eighteen days. Eighteen days is very short. On a $1.2 million dollar budget. I’ll tell ya, I think when you go in with a piece that is as well-crafted as this one is, on the page, and you’ve got a director like Brett Haley that knows so specifically what it is he wants, and you’ve got some fairly competent actors that are trying to pull it off, then it all makes fairly easy. The first day, we worked on all the stuff between Nick [Offerman] and I in his apartment, including our last scene together. We shot like 15 pages in eight hours. A day that everybody thought was going to turn into two days. But I think, again, it all goes back to a work ethic of some kind. Nobody’s wasting anybody’s time on a movie like this. You literally don’t have time to waste time.
Right. Everyone needs to be pulling in the same direction.
Absolutely. That’s the nature of independent filmmaking.
Have you been enjoying doing more of these indie movies lately?
I love doing these independent films. I’m going to go do another one in Massachusetts in August. I just absolutely love them. I find the creativity level [goes] way up, and the challenge of working on a tighter budget and a tighter schedule, I just find all of that stuff exhilarating on some level. And therein lies the really great parts, I think, as well. At least, for me. Nobody’s offering me big studio movies to come do or big parts. They’re to be had in these independent films. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s the lead, either. The part that Paul Weitz wrote for me in Grandma was 11 pages long. And it was just such an incredible piece. I’m a lucky boy. That’s all I know.
There’s a moment in this movie where your character says it’s strange to be remembered for one part for so many years. Is there a certain role that most people associate you with?
I think there’s a group of films that people most know me from. But not one part. That was one thing that always seemed a little, I don’t know, unreal. Or a bit of a stretch. That somebody that’s had a long career would be known very well for only film. What happened after he was known well for that one film, you know? It seems to me there might have been other films. But there’s a handful. It’s always Road House or Tombstone, or The Big Lebowski. Mask. Lifeguard.
I guess it depends on the age of the person too.
I think it all depends on the age of the person. The nice thing is, I’ve been at it long enough that there’s a few out there that people remember. There’s also a few stinkers out there that I’d just as soon not remember.
I’m sure that’s the case for everyone though.
I think that’s the nature of the game.