A helluva ride for Oscar nominee

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TO nebraska2 Merie W. Wallace AGEING COUPLE: Bruce Dern and June Squibb in a scene from Nebraska.

Diane de Beer

June Squibb’s film path was strewn with roses from the beginning – even if it was a late start. Originally strictly a stage actress, the 84-year-old – who has been Oscar-nominated for her performance as Bruce Dern’s wife in Nebraska – turned to film only in her sixties.

And her first audition, in which she won the part, was for Woody Allen’s Alice, followed by Martin Scorcese’s Age of Innocence.

That’s some start, and it didn’t stop. When she was told about Alexander Payne’s latest movie, Nebraska, she was keen to get in there because she had played Jack Nicholson’s wife in Payne’s About Schmidt. But it was not to be.

“Apparently he thought I was too sweet for the role,” says Squibb. But she wasn’t giving up that easily. She asked if she could audition on video, and when he agreed, she gave him two different interpretations.

In an interview with Charlie Rose (Bloomberg, DStv channel 411), Payne praised her for such a clever move.

“It’s such a smart thing to do, because you show that you could go different ways,” he said.

It worked, and Squibb was cast as the acerbic wife of the ageing Woody, who for most of the movie is off on his own mission. The rest of the cast are there to add colour to the story.

What Squibb loved about the character was that she was fearless and operated without filters. That is a rare thing, and something Squibb enjoyed portraying.

“It’s a brilliant script,” she says, and all she did was to take what was there on the page and make it her own. She wasn’t even transformed much physically.

“They didn’t do my hair, and I wore hardly any make-up.”

But that’s the thing. Do you care, at 84, about anything other than doing a great job?

As the wife of this cantankerous man, Squibb believed she was there to “p*** him off” and to keep him on his toes.

“I think he was quite a catch in his younger days, and would have been quite sexy,” she says of the younger Woody. “She loves him,” she says matter-of-factly.

It all sounds so easy, but we know there’s more to playing the character than that. Squibb has an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress to back that. It’s fun, she says, and one can hear the giggle on the tip of her tongue.

This was also her first awards season, and at 84 it has been huge. We spoke before the Oscars, and Squibb was having a great time.

“I even have people hugging me in the supermarket,” she says.

Talking about her co-star, Bruce Dern, she describes him as a storyteller. “He loved telling stories about old Hollywood on set,” she explained. They had a lovely time, kidded around,

“He has been waiting for this part for a long time,” Squibb says.

For Dern, too, this was second time round with the director.

“He’s an amazing guy. He was a gift to all of us, and especially to Dern,” she says.

Dern himself says of the much younger Payne that their relationship, the director’s support, was something he had not got from his father. “He was like the father I didn’t have,” he said.

Squibb confirms that Payne is “the best of the best”.

She should know. She knows how to pick ’em.

With age on her side, and from the time she stepped on to the red carpet at Cannes last year, she knew this was going to be one helluva ride.

“I’m loving every minute!” she says.

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