Interview: Actor Sam Elliott, Director Paul Weitz Visit ‘Grandma’

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CHICAGO – Actor Sam Eliott will make you smile. The distinctive voice, his famous mustache and his character presence in a film or TV show increases any potential in the production. He recently was in Chicago with director Paul Weitz, as they teamed up in the film “Grandma,” starring the incomparable Lily Tomlin.

“Grandma” has a very unique premise. Tomlin is the title character of Elle, who is visited by her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner). The girl is seeking an abortion, and her feminist poet grandmother seems like the right fellow traveler on her way to the procedure. Sam Elliott portrays Karl, Elle’s ex-husband – she left him for a same sex partner – who harbors a resentment toward circumstances in their relationship. The two meet along the way to the clinic, and the resentment boils to the surface.

Lily Tomlin, Sam Elliott
Lily Tomlin and Sam Elliott in ‘Grandma’
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Sam Elliott would most likely be on the Mount Rushmore of quintessential cowboy impressions. The drawn mustachioed face, with the voice from the gods, has been in several westerns in the post modern era of his career, as well as his other memorable characters. One of his first roles was in 1969 in the classic “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (Card Player #2). From there, he did mostly TV in the 1970s, but made a mark in the cult movie “Lifeguard” (1978). His breakthrough was opposite Cher in “Mask” in 1985, and from there has appeared in western roles and character roles as diverse as “Tombstone,” “We Were Soldiers,” “Gettysburg,” “Prancer,” “3:10 to Yuma” and “The Big Lebowski.” He is on a hot streak in more independent films this summer, appearing in “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” “Digging for Fire” and “Grandma.”

Paul Weitz jumpstarted his career with a pie, the famous film “American Pie” (1999) which he co-wrote and directed with his brother Chris. That came a year after writing the animated classic “Antz” with his sibling, which was followed in their partnership by “Down to Earth” (2001) and “About a Boy” (2002). He went solo as writer and director of the caustic “In Good Company” in 2004, and has scored over the years in “Little Fockers” (2010, as director), “Being Flynn” (2012, adapter/director) and “Admission” (2013, director). His work in the latter film with Lily Tomlin inspired “Grandma.”

Sam Elliott and Paul Weitz of “Grandma” talked with during a recent swing through Chicago on a promotional tour. They spoke of their own grandmothers, among other topics of interest. Sam, your character is consumed by his past with Elle, and can’t seem to reconcile it. How do you connect to or process those emotions when you’re preparing a character?

Sam Elliott: Well, when it’s all on the page – like this instance – it’s pretty easy. This is my job, I’m an actor, as an interpreter of the writer’s work. When the writer happens to be the director, it’s an easy journey. That being said, it’s also about the other actor on set that allows you to draw it out, and Lily Tomlin is warm and generous, and allowed it to happen.

In regard to the character, a lot of us go through life and we deal with shit, or we don’t. The fortunate ones deal with it as it comes in a healthy way, and then move on. I think the majority of us can’t sweep it away, but bury and it and stew in it as Karl did. And inevitably it comes to the top, and bubbled up from the tar, as Paul said to me. Paul, you’re taking a hot button topic of abortion and using it as a catalyst for a family drama and comedy. What did you want to say about the issue of choice for women in depicting the three generations interacting with the weight of the issue?

Paul Weitz: The main thing I wanted to say was ‘don’t reduce a person’s humanity.’ It’s very easy to forget the human beings behind the issue. This is a comedy, but it’s not making fun of the issue at all, but trying to be sensitive to it. At the same time, I think humor can cauterize wounds, and help us to get past some things.

I looked back, for instance, at the film ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High,’ which is viewed as a teen comedy that brought us Jeff Spicoli. But at the same time, the Jennifer Jason Leigh character has an abortion, and I don’t think there was a stink made about it at the time. Whether you look at that, or whether Lily’s character had been with Sam’s character when she was younger, before she could admit who she was – these situations regard the issue on one angle, and are simply somebody’s life on another angle. There are some contrasts brought to light regarding what women have to go through once they make the choice for abortion. In your research in preparing the script, what were some of the contradictions that fascinated you regarding the history of the women’s struggle in obtaining the procedure that is depicted in the story?

Weitz: The primary contradiction is the statistic that full one-third of women have had an abortion before they reach menopause in America, then the idea that you don’t know anyone who had faced that decision is pretty false. Lily’s character is of an age when she lived in an era where it wasn’t legal, and it wasn’t that women – when it was illegal – were not getting abortions, it was just more dangerous. Abortion rates are going down, which is an excellent thing, because no woman is making that decision lightly.

Lily Tomlin, Paul Weitz
Lily Tomlin and Director Paul Weitz on the Set of ‘Grandma’
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics Sam, when you are approaching a scene with an actor you haven’t worked with before, such as Lily Tomlin, what are you looking for in a connection to her as a character and in her style as an actor?

Elliott: I don’t think about that part, because that takes you out of a scene. You’ve just got a go, it’s about the character you’re working with, not about the actual person who I’ve never worked with before. It’s how the two characters are approaching each other, and of course they are coming from the actors as people, but mostly it’s about how the characters they are playing connect. It’s just a hope that it works. Did you ever get any specific training in acting before you started your career?

Elliott: I had a background in acting in school, with a lot of musicals, interestingly enough. I had a great woman for drama and a great man for music in high school, and those two are were my greatest mentors in my early development. Then when I got to Los Angeles in the mid 1960s, and was working as a day laborer in construction, I took a workshop on the Columbia movie lot. It was a film industry workshop, but that was it. I often regretted that I didn’t go to New York City and study with one of the greats, but it was about film for me. That’s why I went to Los Angeles. There is nothing like learning on the job if you’re fortunate enough. Paul, I don’t want to make this all about the topic of abortion, but I found that element to be so intriguing in your film. What does the struggle between pro choice and the forces who want to make abortion illegal again say about American society, and how did you put that into ‘Grandma’?

Weitz: I didn’t try to implement that into ‘Grandma.’ I will say obviously it’s very personal to everybody. I have to think that is why people care so much about it, and different characters in the film have different perspectives on the issue. I will say if someone is looking for a satirical film about abortion, they should check out ‘Citizen Ruth.’ If you’re looking for a comedy that is touching upon various viewpoints, including the third rail issue of someone deciding whether to get an abortion or not, ‘Grandma’ is what you’ll want to see. Did you have Lily Tomlin in mind when you wrote ‘Grandma’?

Weitz: Yes, she was the one, I literally heard her voice in my head as I was writing it. She informed everything the character did, and it just was a perception I had of her and the feeling I after I worked on the film ‘Admission’ with her. And I knew that putting her in the middle of the film in every scene would be like running a live wire throughout the story, and that’s how it turned out. Sam, you seem to be experiencing a renaissance of sorts in independent film…

Elliott: Get the old guy. [laughs] We’ve seen you in ‘Digging for Fire,’ ‘I’ll See You in my Dreams and ‘Grandma’ this summer. Did you intentionally seek out roles that were different than ones you’ve done before, or were you just offered these parts, and what do you find refreshing about taking on these sometimes complicated characters?

Elliott: They’ve just came my way, I was fortunate. It’s one thing to go into a film doing the same thing that I’ve done on some level, and no one would ever confuse me with Philip Seymour Hoffman, or a chameleon-type actor. I’ve ridden my image for a long time, but to still be at it after 47 years, and to get the opportunity to do roles like the ones this summer is gratifying. In ‘I’ll See You in My Dreams,’ it was a privilege to work opposite Blythe Danner, for example. It’s just good fortune coming my way. Paul, after all my serious questions, I want to talk about the animated classic, ‘Antz’…

Weitz: [Laughs] Well, in many ways, that film is about totalitarianism, as it was about an Ant that doesn’t fit into Ant Culture. Since you got a dream cast of voice talent, how much leeway did you give the that cast in making sure their images ‘fit’ the characters you wrote for them, for example making a Woody Allen movie that Woody didn’t write?

Weitz: We did write it for him, and we pegged it to a particular part of his career, the ‘Take the Money and Run’ and ‘Bananas’ part, and he was definitely not doing that part of Woody Allen during that time. There is not much improvisation in an animated film, because first they’re not in the same room when they’re recording, and of course you have to animate that improvisation.

I remember reading opposite to Woody, and telling him directly that my brother and I wrote this dialogue for him. He looked at me, and I don’t know what he thought, because he didn’t say much. I tried to change the subject, and talk about the New York Knicks, but he didn’t even react to that. It was no doubt a queasy feeling for him. [laughs] Sam, you’re known in your career as the quintessential cowboy, a prototype of the American image for a cowboy. What is good about the myth of the American West, and where do you think we’ve taken it too far as a culture?

Sam Elliott
Cowboy: Sam Elliott in ‘3:10 to Yuma’
Photo credit: Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Elliott: It’s all mythic at some level, in the way we’ve viewed the Western genre forever. Whether in literature or film, we’ve talked about the ideals and the character of cowboys – but for me it is an ideal of form, in an idealized time.

Everything was black and white in those types of Western stories, and I think the Western went to hell when it became more gray in nature. When it became more inwardly psychological rather than a man against nature, or man against man and the nature of himself. That to me is the most interesting part of that time.

It’s a different world now, and the industry has kind of put a kibosh on Westerns in the last several years. When we do films like the last version of ‘The Lone Ranger,’ it’s a disservice to the genre. As soon as a computerized anything is interjected into a Western, I think you’re looking for trouble in doing anything positive within that legacy. The simplicity of Westerns has always intrigued me – there is a real beauty in that. Finally, did you both know your grandmothers?

Elliott: I knew both of my grandmothers.

Weitz: One of mine is still alive at 105 years old, living in the same house she’s lived in for 85 years, with a glass of tequila every night. What specific memories do you have about any of them, and how do you think they influenced your life?

Weitz: My grandmother is actress Lupita Tovar, and she starred in the first talking picture made in Mexico, and was in the Spanish language version of ‘Dracula.’ She doesn’t take any crap, which is similar to Lily’s character. The moment you think she’s totally out of it now, she’ll give me a kiss and ask, ‘why haven’t you shaved?’ [laughs] Her nickname in the film industry was ‘The General,’ but she called herself ‘The Witch.’ She was a formidable lady.

Elliott: I didn’t know my grandmothers well – they both lived in El Paso, Texas, and I grew up in Sacramento, California – but we would do summers there. I was influenced by both of them, as far as the stories my parents told me about them. My Dad’s Mom was the first woman who graduated from Vanderbilt University, which was huge. I think it’s extraordinary that both your grandmothers had amazing achievements on their resume.

Elliott: Yes, they were all great ladies.

”Grandma” is in select theaters, including Chicago, on August 28th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Lily Tomlin, Sam Elliott, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Elizabeth Peña, Nat Wolff and John Cho. Written and directed by Paul Weitz. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2015 Patrick McDonald,

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