Scenes from an Interview
ACTOR & GOOD GUY Sam Elliott
by Gus Mollasis
Some years ago at the Sarasota Film Festival, Sam Elliott was in town to promote his very good film, Off the Map, starring Joan Allen. In an effort to throw the actor a fresh question on the red carpet, and armed with bad intelligence from the Internet, I asked him, “Mr. Elliott, tell me about your songwriting.” He looked at me and in that voice, you know the one — that iconic voice said, “Brother, you’ve been misinformed.” While embarrassed, I soldiered on with a retort, “Kind of like Bogie in Casablanca, I came here for the waters.” He smiled and made the interaction easy. That’s what a star, who also happens to be a good guy, does. And that’s what Sam Elliott did. I continued to ask the actor who some of his heroes were when he was a kid growing up, and he fed me the names “Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne…those kind of guys.” Cowboys and all-American good guys.
Those are the kind of guys he has portrayed in his long and illustrious career, which started way back in 1969, when he played a card player in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In between that role and his latest role in The Hero, he’s jumped into many memorable parts in movies such as The Big Lebowski, Mask, Thank You for Not Smoking, Grandma, Gettysburg, Tombstone, I’ll See You in my Dreams, to name just a few. Like Cooper, Stewart and Wayne, he’s hopped on his share of horses along the way.
Sam Elliott looks like an all-American cowboy. And that’s why his casting in Brett Haley’s The Hero is such a perfect fit — kind of like an old saddle on your favorite horse. He stars as an aging actor whose best roles are seemingly behind him until he gets both a boost from two things — winning an award at a small–time western film appreciation gathering, and his young date who accompanies him to the event and lifts his spirits.
The Hero allows Sam Elliott to show all the colors that were under his acting hat for years. His coolness. Straightforward nature. His tough guy persona, with a “good guy” softness underneath. And of course that vulnerability and compassion. You saw it in Mask and in other roles. But in The Hero, you see so much more. You see a man grappling with his past, present and his future. It is the role that he was born to play. And no one could play it like Sam. Sorry, not even his good guy screen heroes Coop, Duke or Jimmy.
Now I know I’m not supposed to root for one actor over another, but still I hope that at Oscar time, the man with that unforgettable voice is finally given the award he so justly deserves.
As I prepared to speak with Sam Elliott, I couldn’t wait to talk about his on- and off-screen life, and maybe even learn about some other heroes he’s known as we took a look at some scenes from an interview of his life.
How are you sir? Nice to see you over the phone waves. I met you years ago on the red carpet in Sarasota, when you were doing the publicity for the beautiful film Off the Map. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.
This being the 73rd Anniversary of D-Day, what does the word hero mean to you?
Wow, that’s a tough one for me.
If I’m not mistaken from what I’ve read, you have family that fought in the Alamo?
Let me tell you, it was really the Battle of San Jacinto. I had a great-great grandfather…I think his last name was Pope and I think he was a surgeon. That’s what I recall. I’ll tell you, the word hero to me is so overused. You know? The heroic people to me are clearly the ones that have made the sacrifice for their country I think more than others.
I agree with you.
I knew a bunch of them, and I lost a couple of them this year.
I remember asking you this question before in Sarasota, but who are some of your movie heroes that you looked up to when you were growing up?
Gary Cooper was probably at the top of that list. That’s another tough one. You’re coming up with some tough ones for me this morning.
What do you hope people get from The Hero, and what most attracted you to doing the film in the first place?
Well, I never had anyone write an entire screenplay for me. And I’m an actor. It’s pretty simple, I think on that level. It was a chance to do something that I had never done before. To me, there are a lot of similarities in that part, there’s no question about that. But there’s also a lot of things that are absolutely not like me. First, off the top, I’m still married to my wife (Katharine Ross) after 33 years and we’ve been together for 39 years. I love my daughter more than anything in the world and I’m closer to her than I can even tell you at the moment. And I don’t smoke pot and I don’t have cancer. There are some acting things going on there. That’s that. I’m an actor. And I understand where this guy Lee Hayden was (the character he plays in The Hero), and is in a failed pursuit of life and a failed pursuit of a career — really. I was thinking that in his career, he paid the ultimate sacrifice. He went after it and gave it everything in pursuit of it and fell short. He’s definitely not a heroic character — that’s the irony of it (given the movie title The Hero). He’s not meant to be thought of as a hero on any level.
It’s a wonderful performance, Sam. Thank you for putting it down on film.
Thank you. Thank you.
You’ve worked with Brett Haley on two films now — The Hero and I’ll See You in My Dreams. How good a director is he and how good can he become?
I think that Brett’s got it all ahead of him. I think he’s brilliant right now. I think he was brilliant when we worked on Dreams. I got to know Brett when I was on the film and promoting that film. He and I went out together and spent a lot of time together and got to know each other really well. He and his writing partner, Marc Basch, wrote this script for me. And you know, he gave me a gift that no one has given me in the 48-plus years I’ve been in this business. He’s a real smart kid. He writes. He directs. He edits. And he’s a collaborator. He just loves film. He understands film and he loves film. I think he’s got a magnificent career ahead of him — if there’s any justice in this game — and I think there is.
Aside from The Hero, what is one film you’re most proud of?
That’s a tough one. I’m going to say Conagher. It was Katharine and I, and it was a labor of love. It was based on a Louis L’Amour novel. For a lot of personal reasons, that’s my favorite. It may not be the best film, but it’s one of my favorite experiences.
One of my favorite films of yours is Mask. What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about Mask?
Watching Peter Bogdanovich work, as well as his cinematographer, Laszlo Kovacs. That was, right off the top, the most impressive thing for me. That, and working with Eric Stoltz and Cher. It doesn’t get any better than that.
It’s a beautiful film. It’s a great story. A great tale.
What part of the business still gives you a thrill?
Oh, boy. I just think…the work. It’s the work that gives me the thrill. That’s the one constant that’s always thrilled me. The work.
How was working with Jimmy Stewart?
Incredible. Just incredible. He was doing a TV show called Hawkins. It was right at the end of his career, and I was lucky to spend any time around him. As you said, a great American. Not only was he a great actor, but also a great American.
Mr. Stewart said he treated his audience like a partner. What is the one thing you feel you owe your audience?
My best. The best that I can give them.
Who is the one person whose talent surprised you the most?
I’m not even going to venture into that one. (Laughs) I can’t answer that one.
Many years from now, when the name Sam Elliott is uttered, how do you want to be remembered?
Oh, God, I don’t know. As a good guy. A decent human being.
Well, you are that, sir. You were very kind to me on the red carpet many years ago when I over-researched a question, to which you, in your quintessential voice, said, “Brother, you’ve been misinformed.”
Finish the following sentences:
When I go to the movies I’m looking for…An experience (chuckles).
I know a film is good when…there is silence in the theatre.
Working with my wife Katharine Ross always teaches me…How much I love her.
Good acting usually consists of…Hard work.
I look forward to promoting The Hero in Sarasota, and I hope to hear some buzz during Oscar time. I think you deserve it.
Thank you, Gus. I appreciate it very much. I’m not even thinking about that. I don’t even want to go down that road, but it’s kind of you to say so.
You and Katharine remind me of Jimmy Stewart and his great love, Gloria. They had one of those great marriages. You seem to have that too, so you’re blessed.
I’m a blessed man. No question about it.