Nonagenarian actress June Squibb is making her first ever in-person appearance at the Sundance Film Festival this year as the star of Josh Margolin’s comedy-action-drama Thelma about a grandmother who goes after an internet scammer.
“I’ve had films show there before but either I was working or wasn’t that interested in the film,” says 94-year-old Squibb, who was Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actress in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska in 2013.
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In Thelma, she plays a 93-year-old L.A. grandmother, living happily alone and unassisted in her beloved condo in the Valley, whose independence is threatened when she is scammed out of $10,000 by a caller impersonating her grandson.
Initially ashamed and flummoxed by her gullibility, Thelma is inspired to embark on a mission to track down the thief after seeing a newspaper headline celebrating Tom Cruise’s age-defying Mission Impossible career.
No longer in the possession of a full driver’s license and in need of wheels, she passes by the retirement home of old acquaintance Ben, played by the late Richard Roundtree, to borrow his mobility scooter.
It turns out to be a two-seater and he comes along for the ride.
“Is there a cooler man in the world? He was so cool,” said Squibb of former Shaft star Roundtree, who died last October of pancreatic cancer at the age of 81.
“He was heaven. He was so great to work with. And we were together for that whole period of shooting. The very idea that he was behind me on the scooter was more than I could handle sometimes. He was so strong and straight, even in his 80s.”
Squibb and Roundtree are joined in the cast by Parker Posey, as Thelma’s daughter, Clark Gregg, as the son-in-law; and Fred Hechinger as a dopey but loveable grandson. Malcolm McDowell also puts in an appearance.
Alongside the “action”, the film also gently probes issues of how to age well, the challenge of physical and mental deterioration and dealing with solitude as friends and loved-ones die.
The actress says she was drawn to the film for the way it chimed with some of her own experiences and Margolin’s “beautiful script”.
“I only do movies for which I like the script or where I know someone personally involved. This script really grabbed me. It’s beautifully written,” she says.
“Josh was a brilliant director, I kept telling him you must have four or five other films in a drawer somewhere because this can’t be your first time. He was wonderful. He was in such control of everything but with joy and great love. It was just a really great experience.”
Of her character Thelma, she says: “I thought she was just really strong. She had very strong feelings about herself, her life and her family. And I just felt that she was ready for this adventure, and that she could do it.”
Squibb also loved the shoot’s setting of the Valley, which she has long called home.
“A lot of people think of it as sort of the other side of the tracks. It’s not Hollywood. It’s not Downtown L.A. I love living there because when I would be working in Hollywood, I would drive over the hill and it would be calm,” she says.
Squibb, who has clocked up a staggering 50 credits in the decade since she appeared in Nebraska, shows no sign of slowing down any time soon.
“I’m actually going to be shooting a film in New York in a few months. And again, it’s about a woman in her 90s,” she says, referring to Scarlett Johansson’s directorial feature debut Eleanor, Invisible.
Squibb will play the titular leading role of Eleanor Morgenstein, an elderly woman trying to rebuild her life at 90-years-old when she is forced to move to New York from her long-time home of Florida.
Prior to that, she will be seen in Marisa Guterman and Keith Gerchak’s upcoming comedy Lost & Found In Cleveland, alongside Martin Sheen, Liza Weil and Stacy Keach.
“They’ve been trying to get it made it for a decade. They first contacted me about 10 years ago. They wanted me to do it with Ed Asner playing my husband. Of course, he’s since passed. I decided to do it as it worked out date wise, with Stacy Keach as my husband.”
Squibb suggests the roles she is scoring are a sign of increased interest in stories about older people as populations age worldwide.
“We’re becoming very strong. There are more and more of us. They’re having to look at us voting. They’re having to look at us in all sorts of ways. We hold a lot of money in this country right now,” she says.
“Age is something that people are exploring more and more. You keep getting these articles about people who are living into their 80s and 90s and still vital and doing things, she adds.
“I do Pilates once a week. We walked in and they kept going on about my age. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t do it. That was about a year and a half ago. We stayed with it and it’s helped.”
Squibb is among a growing number of nonagenarian actors keeping busy in Hollywood, alongside the likes of Everything Everywhere All At Once star James Hong (94) and 80 For Brady’s Rita Moreno (92).
She suggests the film world also needs to catch up, especially around issues of healthcare and insurance.
“If you’re going to have actors working at this age and able to work at this age, maybe 100 will have to be the cut-off date where insurance will deal with it? I don’t know,” she says.
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