Never too late for Oscar

Before her first Academy Award nomination, June Squibb, 84, plugged away for decades, giving auditions, taking acting classes, and doing soap operas.

Published: January 26, 2014 3:41 am
Squibb in Nebraska. Extra-salty, extra-assertive characters are one of her specialties of late, and she will next play a grandmother in HBO’s rough-edged Girls. (NYT) Squibb in Nebraska. Extra-salty, extra-assertive characters are one of her specialties of late, and she will next play a grandmother in HBO’s rough-edged Girls. (NYT)

June Squibb, 84, has been nominated for an Oscar for playing a way-past-giving-a-hoot Montanan in Nebraska. What does her character think of her dead sister-in-law? While standing over the woman’s grave, Squibb’s foul-mouthed Kate gives her hilariously matter-of-fact answer: “What a whore.”

But on the morning I went to visit Squibb at her apartment in Sherman Oaks, California, the bespectacled actress greeted me not with a volley of expletives but with an invitation to listen to her singing teddy bear.

“Push her paw — go ahead, push it!” she said of her 18-inch-tall bear in a white satin gown. Violetta, the bear, was perched on a living-room table near the still-hanging Christmas stockings.

And sing Violetta did. “So adorable,” Squibb said. Not nearly as adorable as her owner.

Last year, it was spunky child actress Quvenzhané Wallis who was unexpectedly invited to Hollywood’s Big Dance, receiving a best-actress nomination for Beasts of the Southern Wild. This year, the spunky Squibb fills that role. “I’m a little overwhelmed,” she said quietly over coffee. “So lucky.”

Luck is a factor in any successful Hollywood career, and Squibb found out about Nebraska only because a friend, actress Margo Martindale, 62, mentioned it.

“Margo said, ‘I have this great script, but I’m too young for it, and, oh, my God, June, you’re perfect for it’,” Squibb recalled. “She was right about the script being good. My mouth just hung open as I read it.”

But that is where luck ended for Squibb. Her rise, not to take anything away from the young Wallis, is no out-of-the-blue surprise. Squibb’s best-supporting-actress Oscar nomination — along with a Screen Actors Guild nod, a trip to the Golden Globes and a passel of critics’ group honours — is the result of something that is overlooked and underappreciated in Hollywood: Squibb has kept plugging away and plugging away and plugging away.

Day after day, decade after decade, she has pounded the audition pavement, taken acting classes, worked on the stage and even taken soap opera work if she felt she could grow from the experience. (She had a beehive on The Young and the Restless.) And, like most character actors, Squibb has done it with a quiet dignity. She doesn’t need a limo to the set, thanks. Just show her her mark. “It’s called being a pro,” said Nebraska director Alexander Payne, also nominated for an Oscar.

Payne knew Squibb well, having directed her in About Schmidt, his 2002 comedic drama, in which she played Jack Nicholson’s wife. But Payne initially rebuffed her.

“I don’t know why, exactly,” he said. “I just didn’t see her as Kate.”

Ultimately, Payne agreed to allow her to audition — on video, since she was in New York at the time — and Squibb performed the assigned scene two ways and sent it in. Payne was sold.

Extra-salty, extra-assertive characters are one of Squibb’s specialties of late. Last month, HBO’s Getting On, set in a hospital’s geriatric wing, cast her as a racist, homophobic, obscenity-spouting patient. “These broads all look half-dead,” her Varla said before  vomiting on a nurse and then demanding a cigarette.

Squibb will next play Lena Dunham’s grandmother in HBO’s rough-edged Girls, appearing in the ninth episode of the season.
“June has a playfulness and a spontaneity that is unusual in an actor of any age,” Dunham said in an email. “I loved her willingness to improvise and her devilish smile. She can move so quickly between a comic moment and a tragic one, and she approached playing a sick character with all the gusto of playing a live wire.”

Squibb’s partying days are behind her, but she has been doing her best to soak up her moment in the awards spotlight. “The studio even hired me a stylist,” she said, taking a bite of a muffin in her kitchen. “I giggle about it on occasion.”

She hit three soirees after the Golden Globes but was tuckered out by the time she reached one thrown by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, the hosts of the show, at the Chateau Marmont. “I lasted a full half-hour at that one,” she said. Aside from sitting through the ceremony, she had done two hours of red carpet interviews. “But I got to talk to Al Roker,” she said. “That was fun.”

Nebraska, written by Bob Nelson and starring Bruce Dern, both of whom have also got Oscar nominations, may have only about $10 million in ticket sales, but it has made her famous in a way that roles in the television series The Ghost Whisperer or even the movie Scent of a Woman never did.

“This woman came running up to me at the grocery store and said, ‘Can I hug you?’” Squibb recalled. “And then she gave me a kiss on the cheek.” Another strange awards-season moment came on the morning of the Screen Actors Guild nominations. She was scheduled to be driving down the freeway at the time of the announcements, en route to film a commercial, and that made her agency nervous.

“They were worried I would hear about my nomination on the radio and drive into a ditch,” she said. A driver was dispatched.

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