In 'The Hero,' Sam Elliott Continues His Career Renaissance

Jun 11, 2017
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LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

For nearly five decades actor Sam Elliott with his deep drawl, steady gaze and, of course, that mustache has made his mark on generations of fans from his first gig as an extra in "Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid" two roles in "The Big Lebowski" and "Tombstone." But at the age of 72, this legendary actor known mostly for his supporting roles as cowboy characters is undergoing something of a career renaissance and for the first time reveling in a film that was written specifically for him.

The film is called "The Hero." It was directed and co-written by up and comer Brett Haley, and it's out in theaters this week. Sam Elliott is generating a lot of buzz for his performance playing a veteran actor forced to come to terms with what he's given up for an industry that seems to have forgotten him.

SAM ELLIOT: I did one film that I'm proud of. That was 40 years ago. Since then I've stayed busy. I wouldn't say I've been achieving. It's kind of weird being remembered for one part for so many years.

SINGH: Yeah. But it's about as close to immortality as any person can get.

I spoke with Elliott about the film, and I began our conversation by asking what drew him to the project.

ELLIOT: Well, the fact that it was written for me was astounding off the top. It was written by Brett Haley and Mark Burnett. Brett Haley also directed and edited. And I had worked with him on a picture called "I'll See You In My Dreams." I've never had an entire screenplay written for me before. I've had parts written for me over the years, but never an entire script. It just was an incredible gift, you know, after almost 49 years in this business, I can honestly say this is the peak for me. This is the highlight. It's quite a note to go out on. And if I went out on it tomorrow, I'll be good with it.

SINGH: In the film, Elliott plays aging actor Lee Hayden. It's been decades since Hayden made the film that defined his career, an iconic Western also called "The Hero." He's getting by on commercial work and spending his days in dissipation with his friend and pot dealer played by Nick Offerman of "Parks And Recreation" fame, until his life is up ended by cancer diagnosis, and he's forced to re-examine the choices that he's made.

ELLIOT: I just think that he really knows that he's totally screwed his life up, that he's spent this lifetime in pursuit of an acting career. And there is nothing, but bodies along the trail in that pursuit. His marriage is over. His relationship with his daughter is on the edge to say the least. He's had this diagnosis, and he's forced to look at the mess that he's made of everything. And, you know, the clock's ticking. But I think it's really, you know, really kind of coming to grips with his mortality.

SINGH: Halfway through the film, Hayden is offered a chance to restart his acting career with a potential role in a blockbuster sci-fi movie. Sam Elliott describes a scene in which Lee Hayden and his pot dealing friend rehearse for that audition as a pivotal moment in the film.

ELLIOT: You see in that scene that Lee has it still. And it ends up being a very powerful scene in which Nick ends up with tears in his eyes and none of the reactions were scripted.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HERO")

NICK OFFERMAN: (As Jeremy Frost) Who are you?

ELLIOT: (As Lee Hayden) They call me Turner.

OFFERMAN: (As Jeremy Frost) Turner?

ELLIOT: (As Lee Hayden) That's Right. And I'm here to help you.

OFFERMAN: (As Jeremy Frost) But why?

ELLIOT: (As Lee Hayden) Because you're my daughter. I've come to save you, and I need you to come with me now.

OFFERMAN: (As Jeremy Frost) My father? You're not my father.

ELLIOT: (As Lee Hayden) Just let me. If we don't go now, we're as good as dead.

It was important that you saw that Lee could still do it, that he could in fact still act, that he was a good actor. The fact that he was reading this scene in which his dope-dealing friend Jeremy was reading the part of his daughter seemed a little odd to, you know, all of us. And potentially that scene could have been very funny and just discounted and just read the ridiculous lines. But it was important that you saw Lee make it real, that he breathed life into it.

And the reason was important because the next time that you see him reading the scene is in the casting office and he's reading for the director. And in there, all the points that are parallel to Lee's life in the text of the script get the best of him, and he has a melt down and can't deliver it, can't do it, can't act, can't remember the lines, can't do anything. And he gets totally wiped out by it, walks out.

SINGH: There is then this moment where Lee Hayden can escape from that with this love interest played by Laura Prepon. Audiences may know her from "That '70s Show" and "Orange Is The New Black." We have a clip from this film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HERO")

LAURA PREPON: (As Charlotte Dylan) Are you married?

ELLIOT: (As Lee Hayden) Divorced. Have been for long time.

PREPON: (As Charlotte Dylan) So are you going to ask for my number?

ELLIOT: (As Lee Hayden) You want me to?

PREPON: (As Charlotte Dylan) Yeah.

ELLIOT: (As Lee Hayden) What? You got a thing for sad, old guys or something?

PREPON: (As Charlotte Dylan) No, just old guys.

ELLIOT: (As Lee Hayden) Do anything on Sunday night?

SINGH: (Laughter) So, Sam Elliott, I know that, you know, some people would look at this film as, well, here's another film about an older gentleman gets with someone half his age and the end.

ELLIOT: Seen that before.

SINGH: But there's so much more to that, bringing the dynamic between these two alive.

ELLIOT: It was important to earn that relationship. You know, we've all seen in movies the old guy and the beautiful, young woman. And nothing is ever said about that. It seems a little weird, to me anyway. And it was important that we deal with it in the film. Lee says to her after, you know, they spent the night together, I don't understand what you're doing here, he says to her. She says, well, if you got a problem, I'll go. They both want something from each other, and it's not just physicality. It's a kind of freend thing. It makes me Lee feel good to have somebody that he perceives wants to spend some time with them for whatever reason that is.

SINGH: So, you know, a lot of reviewers have noted similarities between you and Lee Hayden from his reputation as a, quote, "cowboy actor" to his steady gig voicing barbecue sauce ads. But do you see parallels or do you think the reviewers have it totally wrong?

ELLIOT: No, I mean, there are parallels. This thing was written for me. I mean, there's obvious things that are nothing connected to me. I'm still happily married to my wife Katharine after 33 years. We've been together for 39 years. My daughter is the love of my life, and I don't have cancer. And I don't smoke dope all day long. So, you know, apart from that, there are a lot of similarities.

SINGH: Sam Elliott is a television and film actor. His new film "The Hero" is out this week. He joined us from our studios in New York. Sam Elliott, thank you again so much for speaking with us.

ELLIOT: I'm so thrilled to be here. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.