As soon as you walk into the presence of Sam Elliott, it all hits you. The face. The physique. The mustache. And of course the voice: deep, rumbling and somehow soothing, it’s a voice you recognize instantly from countless films, TV shows and commercials, ranging from his breakthrough film Lifeguard to his first major star turn in Mask to more modern efforts like Parks and Rec. The 72-year-old actor from Sacramento, California is in some ways the unlikeliest of pop culture icons, in the way that he channels a different era of Hollywood and a different kind of film star while remaining relevant and contemporary.
And yet in a long and diverse career, he’s perhaps never gotten the chance to shine like he does in The Hero, the new film from writer/director Brett Haley (I’ll See You in My Dreams). Elliott plays Lee Hayden (his name is derived from legendary actors Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden), a 72-year-old character actor who became famous for one role — in the title movie — and has doggedly remained working ever since, getting what TV and film work he could and making a living doing voiceovers. Now faced with his own mortality, Lee begins to realize that he’s missing some important things in his life — like love, companionship and a sense of who he is and what he wants to leave behind.
Haley says in the film’s production notes that he wrote The Hero for Elliott after they worked together on I’ll See You in My Dreams. While there are elements of Elliott in Hayden, the character and the actor are not the same: Hayden is divorced and estranged from his one daughter (Krysten Ritter), while in real life Elliott is happily married to actress Katharine Ross for 33 years and has a fine relationship with his own daughter (although in a weird bit of mirroring, Ross plays his ex-wife in the film).
And yet Elliott says he’s known actors like Lee Hayden throughout his career — and can relate to the character — when we talk in Los Angeles earlier this week. “Yeah, I have,” he says in that inimitable drawl. “I knew people that were hot for a period of time and then didn’t have it ever again. So, in that sense, I know him. In a larger sense, I know him because I’m an actor who’s been at it for a long time, and I make a a living off voiceovers. That’s a common thing. But there are certain things that are far from the truth, like the divorce from the wife. Katharine and I have been together for 39 years, married for 33 years. I love my daughter more than anything. I don’t smoke pot, and I don’t have cancer.”
But, Elliott adds, “Apart from that, I totally get this guy. I’ve had the struggles that he has. Not with family and that, but I’ve had the struggles career-wise, and it’s never an easy road.” He does admit that it was strange playing scenes with his wife in which she plays an alternate universe version of herself in which they’re long divorced. “It was totally weird with Katharine, and a little unsettling, playing a divorced couple, but at the same time, I look at those scenes and I think it’s powerful stuff, because we have this shorthand and there’s very little said, but it looks believable to me.”
The most impressive thing about Elliott’s performance in the film is his raw vulnerability; often cast as “tough” or “even tougher,” he’s exposed and emotionally unguarded here in a way that’s almost disconcerting. “Sometimes you get an opportunity to just bare it all, and this is the first time I really have had this kind of an opportunity,” Elliott says candidly. “Grandma (the 2015 film in which he played the bitter ex-husband of Lily Tomlin’s title character) had some of it, clearly. But that was 11 pages, as opposed to 115 pages of it.” Was there a time in his career when he wouldn’t let himself appear so vulnerable on screen? “Yeah, I think there’s a tendency to hold back until you become comfortable with or more knowledgeable about the acting process. Or just more guarded, on some personal level…acting is a pretty strange thing, or it can be.”
Unlike Lee Hayden, Elliott is not known just for one role; but similar to Hayden — and so many other actors — he went through a period where he was the guy you called only when you needed a cowboy, or something along those lines. It was when those calls slowed down that Elliott admits that the job got more difficult. “I don’t think you ever know that you’re gonna get through it, you just hope you’re gonna get through it,” he says about those dry spells. “You’ve just got to be optimistic. I always had people that encouraged me — friends, mentors, family — that would encourage me to stick it out and go on. But there weren’t a lot of long, long, long periods of time where I didn’t work. That’s not to say that I didn’t have long spells of not working, but there weren’t those killer droughts that some people have.”
Now all these years later, Sam Elliott has become an actor who is known for different roles to different generations: older fans remember Lifeguard or Mask, while younger ones ask him about The Big Lebowski or his stint on Parks and Rec (he also joined the Netflix universe last year as one of the stars of The Ranch, with the second season premiering on June 16th). What does Elliott think he’s learned about the craft over the course of his career that he didn’t know when he started?
“That there’s nothing to be afraid of,” he replies. “You’re either gonna be good or you’re not gonna be good, but you just do the best you can do. I wanted to do this since I was a young kid. I don’t think I was particularly good when I got started, and I think I was always a little glib about the whole thing, but I always had a work ethic. And I wanted to go the distance, I always wanted to have a career. It wasn’t like, I’m gonna give it x amount of years and if it doesn’t work, I’m gonna go back and dig ditches or whatever.” He adds, “I’ve been so lucky. Not only to still be working, but to work with the people that I worked with over that period of time.”
The Hero is out in New York and Los Angeles today (June 9) and expands nationwide later this month.