June Squibb was locked and loaded when she rang up The Huffington Post on Wednesday. Squibb had a sesame bagel and cream cheese in front of her, and that's all she needed to survive a morning of phone interviews for her latest film, "Love the Coopers." Oscar nominees, they're just like us.
In the new ensemble holiday dramedy, Squibb plays the uncouth Aunt Fishy, a warmhearted dementia patient spending Christmas with her nephew (John Goodman) and his wife (Diane Keaton) and family (Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, Marisa Tomei, Ed Helms, the list goes on). It's the latest on a lengthy list of film and television bit parts that Squibb has done since her 2014 accolades for "Nebraska," which made her one of the oldest Oscar nominees in history.
Now 86, Squibb has been in the business for decades, starting out on Broadway and later establishing herself with movies like "Scent of a Woman" and "About Schmidt," as well as guest roles on such shows as "Ghost Whisperer" and "The Young and the Restless." This weekend brings another rite of passage for the affectionate actress: a Christmas movie. Every star has to be in one at some point or another; it's practically written into the SAG bylaws. So we chatted with Squibb about "Love the Coopers," how an Oscar nomination changed her life and the worst audition of her career.
Does "Love the Coopers" remind you of your own family at all?
Oh, yes, with all the different people trying to be so desperately happy. Also, it reminded me of the food thing because everybody always brought what they were known for making, and you had to acknowledge that, of course. Sometimes my family overwhelmed me and I would go hide in a closet. I truly did.
Was that when you were growing up, or is it a more recent phenomenon?
Oh, no, I don’t hide in closets anymore. This was when I was growing up. Sometimes my family, both sides, were a little flamboyant and they were just a little too much sometimes.
How do you view the roles you’ve been offered since “Nebraska”? We’ve seen you play the ornery grandma who’s stuck in her ways a few times now.
What’s kind of wonderful now is I don’t do everything that I’m offered. Really, it’s the script that makes my decision for me as to whether I’m going to do something now. And the people. God knows if you know you’re going to be working with good actors, then that is a joy and you know that you’re going to enjoy it and want to do it. That was one thing about this: the quality of actors and the [director, Jessie Nelson,] who was great. That made a big difference for it. Otherwise, I do a lot of TV where I enjoy the shows or I would like to work on the shows or something like that. I still will do guest spots on shows that I really like a lot.
One of those is "Getting On," which is one of the best shows on TV.
I shot their last season. I think I’m on the fifth episode. They just started again last Sunday, so after five weeks of that, I’ll be back on. That will mean I’ve shot every season of it.
Your character in “Love the Coopers,” as was the case with “Nebraska,” “Getting On” and “Girls,” is pretty undignified. How do you compare that to the world of Broadway, which is often seen as being more classy and regal?
Well, the thing is, I was always a character actress. I was never an ingénue or a leading lady. I did leads in some things, but they were still a character role. It hasn’t been all that much different. I played a stripper in “Gypsy” and one of the girls in “The Boy Friend” for a long, long time. It’s a grown-up version, really, I think. But to me, you see, I think they’re each different. When I read a script, it’s what they’re telling me about this person that’s fascinating.
Now that you've had some time to process the whole thing, what do you make of your Oscar experience? After so many years in the business, it must have been odd to hear "Nebraska" called your breakout role.
Well, I’ll tell you something. I have always felt that I have broken rules, and I think that’s what I did out here. It was amazing for someone my age, never having gotten an Oscar nomination before. People would say, “Oh, nothing would happen with that.” I never even thought it would. It was just a part of the process that we were going through. Our first thing was Cannes. That was the first big thing that we were all together at, and immediately they were talking about Bruce and I and the film being Oscar material. That’s the first I had ever seen it in print or heard people say it. I just sort of accept my life and what happens. I was thrilled. It was a great experience to have, and just the fact of the nomination and all of these different awards -- that meant a lot to me.
The logical assumption is that an Oscar nomination is a huge boon to anyone's career. Do you feel like everything changed after yours?
Very much so. For one thing, I don’t audition anymore. People offer me roles. Auditions never frightened me. In fact, sometimes it was great fun to just go in and throw something out where you felt, "This is what it should be." So it wasn’t a question of, “Oh, thank God I don’t have to do that anymore,” but it’s steadily become people thinking, “Oh, June Squibb can do this. I will ask her if she will do this for me.” It’s a whole different area you're dealing with there.
Is that how “Love the Coopers” entered your life?
Yes, Jessie asked me to do it. We actually talked because, as written, there isn’t very much there. She kept assuring me that we would find things. We did find a lot, I felt. She came up with some things, I came up with things, like the fact that I had the family dog beside me. All of these different things happened and became Aunt Fishy, and it was not in the script as such.
With a big ensemble movie like this, are you given the whole script before taking the part, or do you only see your bits?
Oh, you’re given the whole script for a feature. I think Woody Allen is the only one who gets away with not doing that.
Diane Keaton could be your sister. What do you make of the fact that she's playing your niece?
[Laughs] Yeah, I never thought much about it. I just knew I was playing John’s aunt by marriage. That, to me, was my link to the family. That was important to me that I knew that, but the rest of them were because of John.
Now that you no longer have to audition, what do you consider your best and worst auditions?
I think my best audition, truly, was when I got “Gypsy.” I brazenly said that I could do toe-dancing and I couldn’t. I was a dancer, but I didn’t work on my toes. The stage manager knew it and said, “June, what are you doing here?” I should say I was originally called in for "La Plume de Ma Tante" -- they were replacing someone who did do the toe-dancing. I was very brazen about it, like, “Of course I can do this.” He said, “You can’t do this.” I said, “Yes, I can.” Well, luckily, before I had to prove anything, they were looking for a person for “Gypsy.” The stage manager said he wanted to see me dancing to strip music. Again, I didn’t know what that was. I didn’t know what to do, but I went downstairs and a dancer friend of mine was down there. She showed me some tips and things, and I did that and got it. I think my worst audition was when, for some reason, I decided to sing a song never looking forward, but looking sideways. It was awful.
Why did you do that?
I have no idea! I did things like that when I was young. It was for a musical. I think it was in stock somewhere. I just thought, “I’m going to do this.” I was sort of fearless all through that period.
I guess you recovered because you’ve worked with such great people over the years: Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Woody Allen, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Gene Hackman. I know you’ve worked with fantastic women, too, but the faces of most of your movies have men.
You’re right. You’re exactly right.
Do you ever look around and say, “Where are the women?”
Well, when I worked with Gene Hackman, that was “Welcome to Mooseport,” and Maura Tierney was in it, and she’s wonderful. And Marcia Gay Harden was in it, and she’s wonderful. I just worked with her on “Code Black.”
Of course, but Gene Hackman is the face of “Welcome to Mooseport.” Have you ever wished more of your projects revolved around women?
Well, I think it's Diane in this one. I adore her. She is a wonderful actress and just a dear person, and I’m just thrilled to know her. It was a good relationship. We enjoyed each other, and we’ve seen each other since. It’s been great fun. But you’re right -- most of my experiences have been with very strong male actors.
Do you chalk to that up to the way the industry works?
Well, we all know that every script has two women and 15 men, but it is interesting that most of the films I’ve done have been with very strong leading men.
Did you know that “Welcome to Mooseport” was going to be Gene Hackman’s last movie when you were making it?
No. I’ve been told since that there were probably some health problems, but I don’t know that for sure. I think it was difficult for him and being out of town and so many things -- and he has this gorgeous, lovely wife who was with him. I think it’s still difficult for him.
Have you gotten to speak to him since?
No, I haven’t. I saw him the day that we broke and we said goodbye to each other. I haven’t seen him since. I don’t think anyone has, though. I think he’s living in the South somewhere.
We’ve been talking about all these men, but let’s not discount your spot on this season of “Mom." You got to work with Allison Janney, Anna Faris and Ellen Burstyn, which couldn’t have been too bad. How did that come into your life?
Chuck Lorre called my agent and said he’d written a script. I don’t know that he called, but someone from his office, perhaps. Somehow they got in touch and said that as he was writing it he thought of me. I’ve worked for him, oh, at least twice, if not more. He’s generous and lovely. I thought, “My goodness, of course I’ll do it.” And Allison Janney and Anna Faris! I’d worked with Ellen before on Broadway, but I hadn’t worked with her for a long time. So it just set itself up to be something I wanted to do, and it came up to every expectation. It was a wonderful week.
Is there a TV show you would love to appear on that hasn’t come your way yet?
Oh, “Game of Thrones"! Which will never happen. That or “Walking Dead.” Those are my two favorite shows.
You could be a zombie, why not?
Have you read the Game of Thrones books? Do you have a character in mind?
Well, no. I have them all and I think I’m waiting until they stop the TV show. I read voraciously. I mean, I have so many books. I own every book, I think.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor. I’m about halfway through. It’s very good.
"Love the Coopers" is now in theaters.
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