Sept. 23, 2017
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3+ Questions

Sam Elliott reflects on his new film, The Hero

June 22, 2017, 4:25 pm

On Friday June 30, a new film starring legendary character actor Sam Elliott opens at the Center for Contemporary Arts, and it's a doozy.  A screenplay tailor-made for Elliott, The Hero follows a once-famous Western film star in the wake of a cancer diagnosis as he attempts to right his past mistakes and make up for a lifetime's worth of decisions he regrets. SFR will run a full review of the film in our July 28 issue, but suffice it to say that Elliott is absolutely brilliant as the regretful, marijuana-loving Lee Hayden, and seeing him dig deep alongside actors like Parks and Recreation's Nick Offerman is the stuff film buffs' dreams are made of. For now, just know that when an interview opportunity with a bonafide legend comes along, you answer the call.

SFR: Was it weird or exciting to have a project built around you? Maybe a bit of both?
I think it’s a lot of both. It really was born out of a relationship with writer/director Brett Haley that started on a picture called I’ll See You in My Dreams. … I was only there a couple of weeks on the shoot, but we spent a lot of time on the road promoting the film, and really got very close, as one would when you spend a lot of time and are logging a lot of air miles with someone. [We were] getting to know each other and talking about our lives and Brett decided he was gonna write this thing for me. He went back to Brooklyn with his writing partner Marc Basch, who's a Brooklyn boy, too, and they came up with it, and it was an amazing gift. There wasn’t any doubt that I was gonna do this thing. When I first saw it, it was in treatment form; 10 pages, 11 pages, mostly photographs, but enough text in Brett and Marc’s handwriting that really made it fascinating. At that point, it was called Iceberg, from that whole theory about the tip of the iceberg being not really what it’s all about—what you see on top ... what it’s all about is below the surface, and I found this completely fascinating, especially for one pursuing success in the acting game. Unfortunately, they changed the title. I say it’s unfortunate, but it’s probably good they did. The money people said they would never be able to market something called Iceberg. I’m not second-guessing them, that’s their world. But it was certainly exciting. I’ve had parts written for me over the years, but never where I’m on every page. It was daunting and exciting; the fact that it was so close to me was daunting, and I’ve never played an actor before. And that made it a challenge, which was a lot of fun. There were a couple elements there that once I looked closer, there was a lot of it that was purely fabricated, like the relationship with the wife, the daughter, the cancer diagnosis, the sitting around smoking dope all day—I’ve been married to my wife for 33 years, we've been together for 39. I love my daughter more than anything.

Do you feel the character of Lee closely reflects who you actually are in any way?
There are certain commonalities that all of us actors share, I think. The being on the edge and the pursuit of the career, the rejection, the being ever-hopeful. Some of us deal with it differently than others, and [the character] Lee Hayden didn’t deal with it very well, and the pursuit of it costs him dearly; it costs him the relationships with the people he loves. He’s made a mess of his life in that pursuit. The cancer sets him off on a journey. He’s reflecting very heavily on his own mortality. And just because he’s failed his relationships doesn’t mean he doesn’t love his wife and daughter very dearly. Brett Haley and Marc Basch are brilliant writers. Haley is a brilliant filmmaker, which I don’t say for any other reason than I just believe it like I believe I'm talking to you now. This is the top of a long road for Brett, career-wise, and we’re just the messengers—we get to say the words these guys write.

Did some of the story elements hit a little close to home, and was that difficult to confront?
No. I don’t think so. I understood this guy. I think what made it uncomfortable was, I thought about a couple of my friends from days gone by—and I don’t mean friends who sat around all day smoking dope or were alcoholics like Lee—these were people who spent a lifetime in the pursuit of a career, had a peak and had a moment where they were on people’s lips and then lost it all for whatever reason. In most cases, that’s because the business says 'Naw, we’re moving on to the next guy.' I kept those guys in mind. Neither one of them is living.

Did you learn anything new about yourself while making this film?
No. I don’t think of myself as very interesting. I think I felt like I was on to something here, only because, again, it was just all on the page. When you get one of these things handed to you that’s so well-drawn in terms of themes and characters and it goes out to actors who are like, the dream choices … there were no offers sent out to any actors who are not in this thing, they were all first choices. That’s a rarity. It speaks of the material. When actors get parsed like this, if they’re available and they want work, it’s really about the work. It’s not about making money. We shot this thing in 18 days for a budget of around $1.2 million. You make it for the love of the beast. If you love making films and you love this business, it’s about the work. That just made it a pure joy. It was a jam-packed 18 days, but it was the highlight of my career. If I’m done tomorrow, I’ll be good with it. It’s been a great road. It’s been a long one. The first time I worked on a film was in 1968 in Santa Fe working on Cactus, which they changed the name of to Molly and Lawless John. It was my first Western and we shot in White Sands and outside of Santa Fe. I’ve been blessed from day one. There’s been those lean times, but they’ve been few and far between, and for whatever reason, I decided early on I wanted to do a certain kind of film. I didn’t want to just do fluff and make money. I got an opportunity to do the right things and I’ve been very, very fortunate.

This is kind of just for me personally, but are you and co-star Nick Offerman buddies in real life?
We are. I went in there to play that doppelgänger character [on Parks and Recreation], and I think Nick had a voice in that. I’m sure they didn’t just say 'Somebody’s gonna come in and play that character.' And we hit it off. We kind of come from the same background: He comes from farming, my dad worked for Fish and Wildlife, was an Eagle Scout and always outdoors. My mom was also from that area, and generations of Texans are behind me. ... So Nick and I had something in common and just built on it. We were fast friends, and it was just so cool to come in and do this kind of shoot [for The Hero]. To sit around smoking Hollywood dope in a movie, it was a lot of fun, sitting there trying to roll joints out of this herbal stuff they gave us. That was a challenge, sitting around smoking all the time. To have to sit there sucking that stuff up … there were a couple of days where that’s all we were doing, just those smoking sequences, and that was a challenge. 


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