“Hot one out there today,” Sam Elliott tells me in that voice — that bass-y growl softened by his Oregonian twang. He’s exactly what you’d expect from his movies, only not so laconic. He’s talkative and not afraid to bridge certain subjects — say, the topic of abortion, which fuels his new film. In “Grandma,” Lily Tomlin plays a poet trying to procure a safe procedure for her granddaughter (Julia Garner). Elliott plays one Tomlin’s old flames, still hurting that she left him decades before for another woman. Imagine all of his responses in his signature, euphonious drawl.
There aren’t a ton of films that deal with aging in a serious way. This and “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” with you and Blythe Danner, are definitely exceptions.
I just think these things are an honest slice of life. Brett Haley [director], on “I’ll See You On My Dreams,” people would ask him what kinds of films he wants to make. And he always basically said he wants to make films about real life. That’s what I think this thing is too. It’s an honest portrayal of somebody that’s experienced love and loss and is moving on in spite of it all — until the granddaughter comes knocking on the door in search of an abortion. Kind of a contentious issue debated in this moment of time.
I imagine the parts of the country won’t take to a film that, in its first five minutes, offers a lesbian character with a younger girlfriend trying to help her granddaughter get an abortion.
I’m anxious to see in the course of this press tour how often that’s going to come up. It’s such a polarizing subject, thanks to the Planned Parenthood “expose” — for lack of a better word. Paul [Weitz, “Grandma”’s director], he’s not bitin’. He’s not bitin’ when someone brings it up. Because it’s not really what the movie’s about. Politics is not what drove Paul to write this thing.
This would have probably been a studio film at some point, but the market’s changed. Now slices of life tend to be almost exclusively in the indies.
I’ve certainly noticed that. But there’s such a market for good independent films. Those types of filmmakers have to go elsewhere to tell their stories. If the big studios aren’t going to do it, they can do it on their own. Things like Kickstarter get things rolling. Not that you can bankroll and entire film with them, but it’s a start. You can’t keep a good film down.
“I’ll See You In My Dreams” quietly made a few million dollars in theaters, even when it was on VOD. So there’s an audience for these films.
There’s always an audience — an audience that’s crying for intelligent, entertaining stuff. If I can go to a theater and be entertained, and I can cry and laugh at the same movie, then what the f—, man? That is the ultimate. Because we’re in the entertainment business. You can ask, “What did you take away from that experience?” And you can maybe be enlightened or educated. It’s like this whole abortion issue. Maybe you walk away from it saying, “Well, they didn’t really deal with the pros and cons of it.” But there is a moment where Lily looks at her granddaughter and says, “You’re going to think about this every day of your life.” Somebody says that to you, you know that it’s something worth considering. It’s a very difficult decision. I come on the side that the government’s got no business telling women what to do with their physicality. I’m very much pro-choice. But enough about politics, even though I keep bringing it up.
Alright, changing the subject: You’re often called on to play stoic, but this film lets you do that and show a more “sensitive” side.
This thing spoke to me. I don’t know why, but it spoke to me. This guy was wounded. He was wounded from being cuckolded, by another woman yet. And I think he’s f—ed up on some level, by the fact that he’s been married umpteen times and had umpteen grandkids. But he still didn’t believe in abortions.
You often gets cast and thought of as this paragon of virility and machismo. How much of that is true?
It’s just what comes with the body of work over the years. I’ve played a lot of those characters. And there is a certain amount of that in me. But that’s not all there is. I like to think I’m a lot more sensitive than those characters seem to be. Stoicism is a big part of that image. And I am stoic. I’m truly stoic on some levels. But not all of them.
You are talkative, which is not often seen as a stoic quality.
I’m talkative, maybe to a fault sometimes. When I first got into this business, there was a movie called “Lifeguard” I did. I bristled at the ad campaign that Paramount had. The one-sheet has me in a Speedo and two big-titted girls on either arm. There wasn’t a big-titted girl in the movie. And it said, “Every girl’s summer dream.” Instead of going with it I bristled at it. We took the film really seriously. I’d get into these interviews and the interviewers would invariably open up with, “This movie’s nothing like I expected.” And that’s all I needed, being glib and smart-ass and young and not too smart. That’s not a good combination. [Laughs]
Have you found that acting, and the diversity of experiences that come with the job, has kept you youthful?
Absolutely. It’s a grand opportunity to travel and meet people and be in different cultures. Always at the center of it is this job, this acting thing. It’s very bizarre. I still today go overseas or somewhere else, and people know me. That always startles me. It’s like, “F—, really?” I think part of it is I’m a techno-peasant. I don’t get into email or any of that stuff. I don’t Twitter and all that. I don’t have a computer. I have an iPhone. I do love to get information from it, but I don’t want to be enslaved, and I don’t want to be exposed to it any more than I already am.
I do remember when we all talked to each other.
It’s unbelievable. This morning I saw a guy with a hard hat on and a f—in’ cell phone and a lunch pail. He almost got f—in’ run over because he was stepping into traffic and he was looking at his f—in’ phone. No one’s relating to each other. They have all the answers in their palm. You go into a restaurant and you see all these glowing faces. It’s like you’re sitting in a pumpkin patch.
How do you keep up the energy?
I tell ya, my exercise routine is pretty nil right now. I used to be a runner. I was a runner forever. And I used to swim all the time as well. I still love to swim. I’ve been a manual laborer all my life. My joints are just ugh. It’s like mortality is knocking on the door, saying, “Hope you enjoyed it all! [Laughs] Because now you’re going to pay!” We do have three acres of land, Katharine [Ross, his wife] and I, in Malibu. I got a guy who comes three days a week and does yardwork, and the rest of it we do. I’ll always be a laborer and that will always keep me in some kind of shape. But those days of really hard working are behind me.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge