By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Sam Elliott has just one scene in the Paul Weitz dramedy “Grandma,” but he delivers a performance that audiences are likely to never forget. As the cuckold ex-husband of Lily Tomlin’s titular character, Elliott, as Karl, unloads pent up feelings that have that have brewing beneath the surface ever since she left him for a woman decades earlier.
“It’s just about learning the words,” the 71-year-old actor modestly responds when asked about reaching that dark place within during his climactic scene with Tomlin.
With his distinctive deep voice and trademark bushy mustache, Elliott is best known for the cowboy roles and other typically hyper-masculine characters he has played in his five decades in show business. The Sacramento-born actor is as American as apple pie and Dodge Ram trucks, for which he provides the voiceover in commercials.
Paul’s younger brother, Chris suggested Elliott for the small but pivotal role in the film, which largely revolves around unconventional grandmother Elle (Tomlin) and teenage granddaughter Sage (up-and-coming actress Julia Garner), tapping friends for money for Sage’s pending abortion. Elliott had appeared in Chris’s 2007 fantasy adventure “The Golden Compass.” Elle’s colorful bohemian life unfolds as the two go on their daylong quest, including a last resort stop at Karl’s. The odd adventure brings not only similarly free-spirited grandmother and granddaughter together, but eventually Elle’s feared and ferocious daughter (Marcia Gay Harden) into the mix.
Elliott, who is married to actress Katharine Ross, recently spoke about getting the role, working with another Weitz brother and reuniting (sort of) with Tomlin.
Q: You have to convey a lot about this character in just one scene. Was it challenging to get the tone right?
Elliott: It’s just about learning the words, and then when I got in there with Lily, it just came through. I didn’t really know her. I’d had a fleeting encounter with her at the Daytime Emmys a couple of years ago. We were both nominated in the same category. (Tomlin won for her narration on HBO’s “An Apology to Elephants.” Elliott was nominated in that category for playing the narrator on an episode of Cartoon Network’s “Robot Chicken.”)
Q: So you and Lily had only exchanged hellos at the 2013 Emmys?
Elliott: I congratulated her after she won the award. Me and my daughter (Cleo Rose) were sitting right behind her at the show.
Q: How did you find the right tone for the character? He starts out cool and collected and then loses his temper.
Elliott: All that stuff has been brewing inside of him for years. Some people go through life and deal with stuff as it comes. They deal with things and get them out of the way. They take some of it along, the good stuff, and the rest of it, they’re able to let go. And there are other people who can’t do that. I feel I kind of fall in-between somewhere, but Karl is somebody who doesn’t do that; at least with that portion of his life. So it’s that, and the fact that he’d been married multiple times, and had all of these offspring.
Q: Lily’s Elle is the one who got away and broke his heart.
Elliott: And she ran off with a woman on top of it. That’s a blow to the male ego.
Q: Was that all in the script? Did you improvise at all?
Elliott: It was all on the page. Paul’s a brilliant writer.
Q: Did Chris Weitz or Paul Weitz first contact you?
Elliott I got a call from Chris last spring. I hadn’t been in touch with him since “The Golden Compass.” He said, “I want to tell you a couple of things. First of all, my brother’s not crazy. He’s doing this movie with Lily Tomlin, and there’s this part in it that he’d really like you to read.” So he sent me the script and that’s why I’m here because of that connection with Chris.
Q: Did you initially read the whole script or did you go directly to where you character comes into it?
Elliott: I looked at the character, first. As an actor, I don’t know if it’s ego, but you’re curious about what you’re going to be saying. It’s all about me. (He laughs.)
Q: It’s probably good not to know the rest of the script, because you’re character doesn’t know what Elle’s been up to when she shows up.
Elliott: Yeah. Because of the way it’s segmented, it was all right for me to look at that first. Then I went back and looked at where Karl fit into the puzzle.
Q: You shot this sequentially?
Elliott: Right. I know our scene was shot sequentially.
Q: How many days?
Elliott: Two days. It was one day for interiors, one day on the porch.
Q: Where did you shoot it?
Elliott: Paul’s house in Topanga (Calif.). It was about a half-hour from my home, so I liked that.
Q: What are you looking for these days? You just finished “Justified” and a recurring role on “Parks and Recreation.”
Elliott: I’m so shocked that there’s all this sudden interest in me. There was recently a piece on me in The New York Times. The reporter said that I’m having “a moment.” And it’s like that—I’m having a moment. It’s pretty incredible after 47 years to be having a moment. If I’m going to keep working, which I’d like to do, all that matters to me is that the project be good. I was never driven by money. I figured early on if I was going to have a career, I wouldn’t work for money.
I’m very fortunate that I have this voiceover career that allows me to do that. I’ve been smart with my money. I’ve banked my money rather than blown it over the years. That said, I think the near future is fairly mapped out for me because I’ve just agreed to do this show on Netflix.
Q: What’s it called?
Elliott: Right now it’s called “The Untitled Ranch Project.” It stars Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson from “That 70s Show.” The producers are Don Rio and Jim Patterson, who previously produced “Two and a Half Men.” It’s a three-camera show in front of a live audience on Friday nights. It represents a total change from anything I’ve ever done before.
Q: Is it a comedy?
Elliott: It’s a comedy on Netflix, so it’ll have an edge to it. They keep telling me, “Don’t worry about it,” but I’m really nervous about it. We’re shooting it in Burbank (Calif.) but it’s set in Colorado.
Q: Your voice can fool anyone into a western location.
Elliott: I hope it’s that simple.
Q: When do you begin production?
Elliott: End of September. It’s 20 shows. There’s no pilot. They’ve made a deal to air 20 shows. It’ll shoot from September to April.
Q: Is your wife, Katharine, glad to see you out of the house more?
Elliott: We’re both a little nervous about it but she encouraged me to do it. She’s always been very encouraging.
Q: You two were in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” But you didn’t get together until several years later.
Elliott: On “The Legacy.” It was almost 10 years later.
Q: Why didn’t you ask her out sooner?
Elliott: Because she was the leading lady and I was the shadow on the wall. I was “Card Player No. 2.” The only reason my name is on the credits is because I was a contract player at Fox, where they made the film. I saw Katharine a lot. I saw her coming and going at the commissary. And I watched her work on set. That whole sequence I was in took only three days, but I got to know the guard at the gate because it was a closed set. After I finished my scenes, I’d come back and watch them filming the rest of it.
I used to sit on sets all the time, even on shows I wasn’t working on just to learn the process. I watched everyone on the set to see what they were up to.
Q: Did you stay in touch with Paul Newman or Robert Redford?
Elliott: I did (“The Company You Keep”) with Bob a few years ago. We shot it up in Canada. Julie Christie also was in it. Those where the two reasons I wanted to do that show.
Q: Working with young actors like Julia Garner in “Grandma,” do they look to you for guidance?
Elliott: I think so. The smart ones do. They’re not just there because they’re a pretty face; they’re there in search of something. They’re there because they’re in the game. I didn’t get to spend much time with Julia, but I was totally captivated by her. She just killed me. I just prayed to be 20 years old again. She was just a killer, and so sweet. I look at Julie as a throwback to a 1930s star. Beautiful skin, those blue eyes and that curly head of hair. She is the whole package.
Q: The gossip show “TMZ” seems to catch up with you at the grocery store a lot.
Elliott: Ralphs. It’s an incredible thing. A lot of people are put off by those guys, and I can’t stand magazine shows. I never watch any of that crap because of what it represents—that whole industry of people being famous for being famous. That said, I used to watch (“TMZ” host Harvey Levin) when he was a lawyer on one of the local television shows. I always thought he was a charming guy. And now he has this show with all these young (reporters), and I’m always kidding them. We have a rapport. They’re never abrasive or pushy. Harvey even asked me to come in and sit in for him when he went on vacation, but I couldn’t do it. (TMZ) is so off the wall that it’s funny.
Q: You’ve managed to balance being a celebrity with serious work like you did in this film.
Elliott: You can’t take it too seriously. I feel that I’m blessed. I’ve been doing what I’ve want to do ever since I was 9 years old, and I’m still doing it. I’ve got love and I’ve got work, and that’s pretty fulfilling.
I find it completely freeing to work in independent film. “Grandma” was shot in 19 days for $600,000. I find with independent films everyone’s on the same page, everybody’s excited everybody’s having fun, and everyone wants to make a good film. Pretty simple.