“Everybody is More Interested in My Age Than I Am”: June Squibb Talks ‘Thelma,’ Her First Starring Role at Age 94

June Squibb

June Squibb during an appearance at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Her role in 'Thelma' is the first big screen lead role of her career. Photo: Monica Schipper/Getty Images for IMDb

Forget Kevin Bacon – the true showbiz-connections game is Six Degrees of June Squibb.

From her 1959 Broadway debut in Gypsy to voicing Nostalgia in the just-released Inside Out 2, June Squibb, born in 1929 in Vandalia, IL, has worked with too many actors to count: from Daniel Day-Lewis to Larry David, Lena Dunham to Jamie Foxx, Melissa McCarthy, Julianne Moore, Brad Pitt, Ving Rhames, Adam Sandler, Amy Schumer and so on. She modelled for romance novel covers and sang on cruise ships; did stints on All My Children and The Young and the Restless; guest-starred on ER and Grey’s Anatomy (and House, and The Good Doctor); and played Sheldon’s original Meemaw on The Big Bang Theory.

She’s best known for two roles directed by Alexander Payne – Jack Nicolson’s wife in About Schmidt, and Bruce Dern’s in Nebraska – and scored an Oscar nomination for the latter. And now, finally, at age 94, Squibb is playing her first lead role, in the droll new caper Thelma. (She promptly followed that up with another lead role in Eleanor the GreatScarlett Johansson’s directorial debut, which wrapped in April).

If nothing irks you more than seniors being condescended to on film – either portrayed as out of touch, shrieking about sex, or both – Thelma will cheer you immensely. After Squibb’s title character loses $10,000 to a grandparent phone scam, she vows to get her money back. What follows is a clever, funny Mission Impossible–esque send-up, with every trope run through the gentle cycle. Instead of high-tech walkie-talkies, Thelma uses cell phones connected to hearing aids; instead of a motorcycle, she steals a scooter; instead of hacking a bank’s website, she whispers “I’m in!” when she clears its thicket of pop-up ads. She even gets to walk away in slo-mo as the bad guys’ hideout explodes behind her (well, a used oxygen tank in a trash can outside the hideout anyway).

For our Zoom chat, Squibb wore a silky sapphire kimono over a blue T-shirt. With her apple dumpling cheeks and snow-white hair, she’d make a cheeky Mrs. Claus, but she’s come a long, long way from her early gig as a mall-Santa’s elf. What follows are highlights from our conversation.  

 

JOHANNA SCHNELLER: Writer/director Josh Margolin based Thelma on his own grandmother. You’re the star and an executive producer. How did that power feel?

JUNE SQUIBB: It didn’t feel any different. I read so many scripts. I knew this was a good one. An awful lot of young screenwriters overwrite. That makes for a dead read. But Josh didn’t. If he had wanted me to work one day on it, I’d have said yes. I understood who Thelma is, and she does things I knew would be great fun to shoot. Plus, there was not one cliché in it. 

 

SCHNELLER: Which clichés about being older irritate you most?

SQUIBB: The whole idea that you’re different because you’re aging. People say to me, ‘My God, June, you’re 94 and your mind is still working!’ I think, ‘Of course it is.’ Everybody is so much more interested in my age than I am. Older people have to go through this all the time: ‘Can you do this?’ ‘Do you think you should do this?’ ‘I don’t think you should do this!’

 

SCHNELLER: What do you say to those people? 

SQUIBB: I say, “Yes I can.” In truth, older people are prepared to do a lot.

Thelma
Richard Roundtree and June Squibb as Ben and Thelma, in Thelma. Photo: Courtesy of VVS FIlms

 

SCHNELLER: I feel like your superpower is that you’re always trying something new.

SQUIBB: Yes. I’ve always been just fine about leaving behind what I’ve done. Not people. But I finish a job, and then it’s back there, and I’m on to the next one. Even as a kid I was very much that way. 

 

SCHNELLER: You began your career in St. Louis, moved to Cleveland, married, divorced, married again – to acting teacher Charles Kakatsakis – and moved with him to New York. You had a son and stayed married 40 years, until your husband’s death in 1999. I’m in awe of how much you worked, given all that.

SQUIBB: If I got a call for a job and they said, ‘You have to leave this afternoon for Timbuktu,’ I would take off for Timbuktu. When I had my child, I would drag him and my husband along. If they couldn’t come, they stayed and I left. 

 

SCHNELLER: Is there anyone in New York or Hollywood that you don’t know?

SQUIBB: [Laughing] I know a lot.

 

SCHNELLER: Who stands out?

SQUIBB: Alexander Payne. I did some of my best work in his films, About Schmidt and Nebraska. He made a tremendous difference in my life. I could feel the before and after in my career. 

 

SCHNELLER: I think he was hard on your character in About Schmidt.

SQUIBB: I don’t think so. Wonderful Jack [Nicholson] made it obvious why I had an affair. He so beautifully played a woebegone little guy, we could see why it happened. 

 

SCHNELLER: Did you enjoy being directed by Scarlett Johannson?

SQUIBB: It was wonderful. She’s such a smart young woman, so talented. I love her as an actress, and she’s a really fine director. I’m sure she’ll continue. 

 

SCHNELLER: You must have seen some big changes in the entertainment business. Are you encouraged or discouraged by where we are?

SQUIBB: What’s happening at the box office is dire. The powers that be are having trouble deciding what people want to see. I love the whole Marvel sci-fi thing, but I don’t know how much can be thrown at people year after year. But I do hope we’re starting to look at age differently. Older people are much more interested in things than we’re given credit for.

June Squibb (Thelma) and Fred Hechinger (Daniel) in a scene from the film.  Photo: Courtesy of VVS FIlms

 

SCHNELLER: Thelma is a widow who admits that she’s loving her time alone. You?

SQUIBB: When my husband died, my son was in his late 20s; he’d graduated from college and was on his own in New York. I’d lived alone a lot, in New York and for work. So I was used to that. I will say widows get a sense of ourselves that is difficult to achieve when you’re married and dealing with a husband, a family. I do things on my own time so much more. There’s less ‘have to do.’

 

SCHNELLER: Is there anything you won’t let go of?

SQUIBB: I must read my New York Times and Los Angeles Times every morning before I go out. Everybody says, ‘You can do it on your phone and take it with you.’ But I don’t want to. I want to have that paper in my hand, at home. 

 

SCHNELLER: I love when Thelma says, ‘I don’t feel young and I don’t feel old.’ Do you relate?

SQUIBB: I think we shift. If I’m swimming, my body works beautifully, I can feel 15 years old. If I’m tired, I feel old. If we listen to ourselves, we know that we shift all the time. I don’t swim as much as I used to – it’s harder for me to swim in cold weather than it used to be. But I try to do an hour of Pilates with a trainer once a week. That’s really made a difference. 

Thelma
Photo: Courtesy of VVS FIlms

 

SCHNELLER: What are you glad you know now?

SQUIBB: That I can listen to myself. I have people I feel it’s valid to listen to. But my instincts are pretty good – I don’t need to listen to a lot of other people. Young actors always ask me for advice, and I tell them it’s important to start knowing yourself. Because it is yourself that is giving the soul to whatever role you’re doing. If you can find a good teacher, great. But all this business of ‘You have to do this or that,’ that’s a bunch of BS. It really is. 

 

SCHNELLER: I’m getting a vibe that you don’t judge people.

SQUIBB: Oh, I get titillated at certain things. I get People magazine, and every week I’m thrilled to read it. But basically, I could care less. I still think of other people. I have friends. I try to make my relationships work. But I really can say, ‘I’m going to do what I want to do.’

There’s nothing in me now that says somebody has to be something. They don’t. That’s very freeing. Because you let go of it for yourself, too – you no longer think, ‘I have to’ do anything.