There was no need for the film publicist to announce “I’ve got Sam Elliott on the phone.”
It was obvious who was calling, as soon as the actor — in New York on a press tour for his new film, “The Hero” — opened his mouth. Over a nearly 50-year career, the 72-year-old California native has made a name for himself in roles — many of them in westerns — that take advantage of his rugged good looks, brushy mustache, the ability to harness both soulfulness and grit — and that distinctive, rumbling drawl.
In “The Hero,” which was written for Elliott, he plays a fictionalized version of himself — a cowboy actor in his 70s named Lee Hayden, who’s scrounging for ever-dwindling parts while making do with commercial voice-over work. On the eve of a lifetime achievement award from the Western Preservation and Appreciation League — and after receiving some bad news from his doctor — Lee is forced to take stock of his relationships: with his drug dealer (Nick Offerman); an estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter); an ex-wife (played by Elliot’s wife, Katharine Ross); and a new young lover (Laura Prepon).
In real life, Elliott has had no so such work drought, with juicy roles in recent movies such as “Grandma” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams” (on which he met “The Hero’s” director and co-writer, Brett Haley), and on the television shows “The Ranch” and “Grace and Frankie.” And in first-time director Bradley Cooper’s forthcoming remake of “A Star Is Born,” Elliott will play opposite Cooper and Lady Gaga.
Q: Are we in the middle of a Sam Elliott renaissance?
A: I don’t know. I’d rather look at my career as a continuum. It’s got peaks and valleys, and I’m just on one of the peaks right now. It may be the highest peak I’ve been on since I’ve been in the business. I truly believe that “The Hero” is my best work, probably, and certainly the most fun that I’ve ever been involved in.
Q: How much do you relate to the character of Lee?
A: On some levels, I connect very deeply to him. There are a couple of obvious differences that are contrived: My wife and I have been married for 33 years, and have been together 39 years. I have a deeply loving relationship with my daughter [Cleo Cole Elliott], who I see almost daily. I don’t smoke pot. And I don’t have cancer. Apart from those four elements, there’s a lot of me there. One other big difference: Lee has totally screwed his life up by his choices.
Q: In “The Hero,” Lee says, “I did one film that I’m proud of,” referring to the movie-within-the-movie that lends the film its title. Aside from your new movie, is there one film — or five — that you’re most proud of?
A: There may be five: a film that my wife and I did called “Conagher” , which was a Louis L’Amour novel that we both adapted into a screenplay, and that I produced and we both acted in. “Tombstone” , probably. “Road House” . “Mask” . “The Big Lebowski” . On some level, what makes one picture stand out from another is not so much even the work as the people and the journey.
Q: Ageism is a big problem in Hollywood. Is Brett Haley — who has now cast you in two films, both of which explicitly address aging — doing something radical here?
A: Revolutionary. It’s a terrible thing that Hollywood does with older actors, I think, particularly women. It’s always kind of mystified me that older people get short shrift — older people in general, whatever their field is. The way I look at it is, the older guy is the one that has the knowledge, the experience, something to pass on, something to teach. We put that aside for younger, more beautiful models.
Q: Lee becomes romantically involved with a stand-up comic in her 30s. Is the movie part of the problem, where older actresses are replaced by younger, more beautiful models, or is it commenting on that problem?
A: I think it’s commenting on it, for sure. I think we earned that relationship. It’s not a typical older-guy-and-younger-girl relationship. We deal with how weird it is. Lee says, “What are you doing here?” She says, “What do you mean, ‘What am I doing here?’ You asked me out.” He says, “Yeah, I know, but this is kind of weird.” There’s a lot more going on in that relationship than some b------- physical relationship.
Q: I loved your performance in “Grandma,” as the ex-husband of Lily Tomlin’s character, who quietly unloads his long-buried resentment for her past actions. Is it hard to access these two very different sides of your on-screen persona, as you have done so often: the tough guy and the softy?
A: Not at all. When it feels real, it feels good to deal with it. I truly believe that if it’s on the page, then it’s on the stage. I remember Lily saying to me — I don’t remember how many takes we did of that scene, where he’s talking about her having the abortion and how he didn’t get a voice in it — there was a moment when Lily leaned in close to me and said, “God, you’re making me feel like a real a------ here,” in true Lily fashion. What was her character doing in that movie? She was dragging her granddaughter around, looking for an abortion. My character had an opportunity to show the other side of that coin.
Q: Your audition scene in “The Hero” strikes a similar emotional tone. When Lee is reading for a part in a sci-fi movie, he breaks down over a line that reminds him of his damaged relationship with his daughter.
A: There are two versions of the audition speech: One, when I’m doing it with Offerman, and he’s reading the part of my daughter. It’s kind of a joke. Because Lee falls apart in the audition scene later in the film, it was necessary that you saw, in the reading of it with Nick, that, in fact, Lee Hayden was still a good actor. When he gets in that audition and falls apart, it’s not about the fact that he can’t act. When he hears himself say, “You’re my daughter, and I was dead. But I’m here now” — that’s what takes him down.
Q: This is the fifth time you’ve worked with your wife. What is that like?
A: It’s always incredible. It was a little bizarre playing exes.
Q: Like Lee, who does barbecue sauce commercials, your voice has been used to sell beef and beer. When did you realize you had something there?
A: My mom put me in a cherub choir, back in Sacramento, when I was 5. I was singing baritone when I was 15. And then, not long after 17, I started singing bass.
Q: Your 1976 film “Lifeguard” made you a sex symbol. Can you cop to still being one at 72?
A: It’s a little late for that. That’s not where I’m thinking I am in this day and age, for sure. But, yeah, I guess I can cop to it. It’s genetics, I guess. In “Lifeguard,” I’m running around in a Speedo for a lot of the movie.
Q: During her character’s stand-up act, Laura Prepon makes fun of Lee’s anatomy and sexual performance. Was that hard to listen to?
A: Easy for me, not easy for Lee. That’s not me up on the screen. It’s what I do.
Q: What’s the hardest thing about acting?
A: I don’t find it hard. I get nervous going in — pretty nervous — still.
Q: Even at 72?
A: Yep, because I want to be good.
Q: Do you get a kick out of roles that poke fun at your cowboy image?
A: The narrator in “The Big Lebowski” was that. I’m a purist when it comes to the form. When I do a quote-unquote western, I take it all seriously. But poking fun at it? Absolutely.
Q: Is the western dead?
A: It’s struggling. The last great western made in Hollywood was “True Grit,” the one the Coen brothers did with Jeff Bridges. There’s an audience for it. Those are the people that elected Trump president. I’m not saying every western lover voted for Trump, but Hollywood dismisses the people in what they call the flyover states.
Q: Speaking of Jeff Bridges, what did you think of “Hell or High Water,” the contemporary western?
A: Incredible film. Jeff’s played that part before. So what? As [veteran western actor] Ben Johnson once told me, when we were doing “The Sacketts”: “I may not be a very good actor, but nobody can play Ben Johnson better than I can.” I’ve heard people say, “There’s Sam Elliott doing the same s--- again,” playing another cowboy, another slow-talking, laconic whatever. So what? Nobody’s ever going to confuse me with John Malkovich. But nobody’s going to play Sam Elliott better than me.
The Hero (R, 93 minutes). At area theaters.