This article first appeared in OscarWrap: The Race Begins.
When Alexander Payne called June Squibb to offer her a role in “Nebraska,” he had a simple pitch for the actress who’d played the wife of the title character in his “About Schmidt” a decade earlier. “I have another icon for you,” Payne told Squibb. “I gave you Jack Nicholson, and now I’m giving you Bruce Dern.”
In return, Squibb gave Dern all he could handle and then some. As Kate Grant, a long-suffering, tart-tongued wife fed up with her husband’s alcohol-fueled fantasies and rages, the 83-year-old actress steals scene after scene in “Nebraska,” whether she’s ripping into Dern’s Woody Grant or brazenly discussing her sex life with anybody who’ll listen, including her sons.
“That script was so beautiful, and so surprising,” Squibb told TheWrap. “You could go from scene to scene and not believe the dialogue — I was amazed at the stuff I got to say.”
Squibb had spent decades acting onstage and in the musical theater before making her first movie, Woody Allen‘s Alice, at the age of 61. She auditioned for Payne on tape, shooting scenes in her agent’s office in New York because a workshop for a musical she was doing meant she couldn’t meet the director in Los Angeles. Since Payne wasn’t on hand for the audition, she did the scenes two ways; the first time she played it straight, and then she went for a fiercer and angrier approach — or, in Payne’s word, as “a virago.”
The director went for option two. That means that most of the movie goes by without a kind word between the aging couple, a lack of obvious affection that didn’t worry Squibb for a second.
“I think that Kate was just worn down by how he lived his life, but it never meant that she didn’t love him,” she said. “I think the script gives you clues along the way — and no matter what she’s saying to him, you realize that there’s a strong relationship there. Also, we don’t go into Woody’s alcoholism that much, but for me that was very important. I’ve had my share of relationships with people with alcoholism, and I kept putting all of that into what I did in the movie.”
Squibb, who grew up in rural Illinois, said she wasn’t thinking of her own life while she was shooting the film — but when she saw it, she couldn’t help but notice her own mother in her performance.
“I really didn’t think of her on the set,” she said, “but when I saw it, I saw so much that was her, and how she handled things. And, boy, I saw so much of my family in it.”