March 19, 2019

June Squibb’s just deserts: A Hollywood vet’s Oscar debut

These days, 84-year-old actress June Squibb is feeling like the princess who has finally been invited to the ball. After more than six decades of quietly grinding away as a character actress on stage, TV and in films, Squibb has been nominated for her first Academy Award — courtesy of her scene-stealing performance as the prickly but staunch matriarch in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska.” And if she prevails on Oscar night, she will become the oldest thespian ever to snag a statuette in an acting category.  

“It’s been grand, just grand,” she said of her own Hollywood fairy tale.

Her time in the spotlight has also included Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for her portrayal of Kate Grant, a cantankerous, profane Midwesterner whose elderly husband (played by fellow Oscar nominee Bruce Dern) is erroneously convinced he’s won a $1 million publishing house sweepstakes. “I never knew the son-of-a-bitch even wanted to be a millionaire. He should have thought about that years ago and worked for it,” Kate snaps.

Nor does Kate mince words while standing over her sister-in-law’s grave: “What a whore,” she opines.  At another tombstone, this one belonging to a former suitor, she lifts her skirt and declares:  “See what you could have had … if you hadn’t talked about wheat all the time?”

“Kate still thinks she’s a sexy broad,” the plucky Squibb said in an interview from her home in Sherman Oaks. “And she’s one of these people who has no filter.  Truly, whatever goes into her head just goes out the mouth. I think she’s probably always said things that shocked people.

“Of course, I’ve been known to drop the F-bomb a few times,” the actress admitted with a giggle.  “That wasn’t foreign to me at all.  And I just felt that that’s her.  If you’re an actress and want to play a part, you have to be ready to be there with her.”

Squibb first heard about the part in “Nebraska” from her friend, the actress Margo Martindale, who is in her early 60s.  “She said, ‘It’s wonderful, but I’m too young for it.  But you’re just the right age, and you’d be terrific.’ ”

Yet Payne initially wasn’t convinced.  The fact that Squibb had previously starred as Jack Nicholson’s wife in Payne’s 2002 film, “About Schmidt,” actually worked against her:  “Alexander just felt that I was this sweet little lady from ‘About Schmidt,’ and I don’t think it even occurred to him that I could play Kate,” she said.

Eventually, Payne relented and allowed Squibb to audition on videotape. And he was dazzled by her explosive performance.  

“I always felt that the key to Kate was her anger,” Squibb explained.

“When I first read the script, I felt that I knew this woman and these people.  I grew up in a small town in Illinois, which is very close to the town you’re seeing in the film.  The scene where all the guys are watching the football game on TV, but not really talking to each other — I’ve seen that happen.

“My mother was also a very volatile person, and she did drink, which made her even more volatile.  There was always a great deal of anger in her for many different reasons.” 

Squibb’s experiences with her alcoholic mother gave her some insight into Kate’s dealings with her booze-guzzling husband: “With an alcoholic, you never know what you’re going to see — whether it’s this nice, sweet person or someone with great rage or someone who just can’t stand up,” she said. “So I think that Kate is drained. After so long with this man, she’s sort of given up.  And that’s where the frustration and anger come in. But even though he’s taken her to the end of her wits, she would never leave. She loves him, and she loves her sons and is very loyal and will do anything to protect them.”

Squibb can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to perform. As a tot in rural Vandalia, Ill., her paternal grandparents would take her to bars, where “I would stand up on the bar and tap dance, and my grandparents would get free beers, and I got all the applause, and I loved it,” she said.

From her early work at the Cleveland Playhouse, she went on to perform on Broadway as the stripper Electra, opposite Ethel Merman, in “Gypsy.”

During lean times, Squibb supplemented her acting work with modeling jobs, posing for the covers of romance books or magazines in the lurid “True Detective” series, among others.  “They were funny, because sometimes they would take a picture of you in bed with a gentleman; I have one of me looking, oh, like the worst hussy,” she said. “I did have a rockin’ body, and I knew how to use it!” she added with a laugh.

Along the way, Squibb converted to Judaism before marrying her first husband, Edward Sostek, a Jew, in the 1950s; she said she fell in love with the religion, was fascinated by the laws of kashrut and forged a strong friendship with the Reform rabbi who supervised her conversion. Even though that marriage ended in divorce some years later, Squibb continues to identify as Jewish and celebrates many of the holidays with Jewish friends.

Through the years, she also persevered as an actress, even though she didn’t land her first film gig until her early 60s, when Woody Allen asked her to join the cast of his 1990 film, “Alice.”  

Since then, Squibb performed in a recurring role on TV’s “The Ghost Whisperer,” took supporting roles in films such as “Scent of a Woman” and “Far From Heaven,” played an obnoxious geriatrics patient on HBO’s “Getting On,” Larry David’s Christian supposed birth mother on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and, most recently, granny to Lena Dunham’s character on “Girls.”  

“I do say some snarky things to Lena,” she said.

Not that she hasn’t encountered ageism in show business: “It’s there, and I would be naïve to say differently,” she said. “But it’s been easier for me as a character actress, because you don’t have to look young or any kind of specific way.”

Until now, Squibb has only watched the Oscars on television, and she recalled her surprise when her name was announced among the nominees for this year’s awards last month.  She was sitting in front of the TV in the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her son, the filmmaker Harry Kakatsakis: “He gave me a hug, and I just felt he was telling me, ‘Whatever happens, Mom, you’re OK with me,’ ” she said.  “Then when they showed my picture, I said, ‘Harry, did they really say my name?’ And he said, ‘Yes, Mom, you did it!’ — and, of course, I cried.”

The ensuing awards whirlwind has been not only exhilarating, but physically challenging as well. Squibb credits her daily stretching and weight-lifting regimen for giving her the stamina to endure two hours worth of interviews on various red carpets — not to mention three parties in a row after the Golden Globes (she finally got pooped at the soiree thrown by Globe hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and left after half an hour).

The studio also hired her a stylist, which “amused me at first,” she said. But Squibb is delighted with the gowns that designer Tadashi Shoji has created for her to wear at the various awards ceremonies: a red velvet dress for the Golden Globes; a plum-colored silk for the SAG event and now a green gown for the upcoming Oscars.

“Of course, part of me is thinking, ‘It’s about time,’ ” Squibb said of her Academy nod.  

“When all actors watch the awards, we think, ‘That’s where I should be.’ But, all in all, I’ve had a wonderful career.”