In "Nebraska," 84-year-old June Squibb's Kate Grant is plain-spoken to a fault. Which is a nice way of saying she has reached an age at which she simply doesn't care what anyone thinks. Her brazen negativity can be off-putting at first.
"At the beginning, you're not sure if you like her or not. In fact, you don't like her. She's a bitch," says the Oscar-nominated Squibb with appropriate directness. "But as you get to know her more, you understand why she is the way she is. We do a lot of question-and-answers after screenings, and so many people say, 'Boy, I hated you in the beginning. But by the end, I really liked you! I liked how strong you were!' "
Squibb first performed on Broadway in 1959 as stripper Electra ("You Gotta Get a Gimmick") in "Gypsy." She has been busy in film and TV since her debut in Woody Allen's "Alice" in 1990. But the whirlwind of Hollywood's awards season is new to her.
"My son and I got up, and we were watching it," says the Vandalia, Ill., native of the Oscar nomination announcements on Jan. 16. "Just before they did my segment, he put his arm around me. I felt he was saying, 'Whatever happens, Mom, I still love you.' " She laughs jovially over the phone. "A lot of hugging and kissing. It was just great."
Including "Alice," Martin Scorsese's "The Age of Innocence" and Alexander Payne's "About Schmidt," Squibb has racked up about 40 film and TV credits. But none of those roles was as fulfilling as her turn in Payne's "Nebraska." Kate, wife of Oscar-nominated Bruce Dern's Woody Grant, is both long-suffering and long-inflicting of suffering.
"Well, I love her. I think she's a hoot. She's honest, which I love. Bob Nelson wrote a brilliant script. It is so spare. He has relatives in Nebraska, and when he was a kid, he used to go visit them. And I think he heard all this then.
"And I trust Alexander; I would do anything he asked. It never occurred to me to think in terms of, 'Do I want to do this or not?' I was thrilled with what she did," she says, pointing out how rare it is that films display so many facets of their characters. "As an actress, playing all these things is just a joy."
The film is a son's seriocomic journey of discovery through the often bleak badlands of his family's past. As he takes his increasingly foggy father on a Quixotic quest for a dubious prize, he learns about who his parents really were as people before he came along. And he comes to realize where some of his mother's seemingly relentless pessimism comes from.
"She's under pressure; [Woody's] constantly walking off," Squibb says. "And we're all worried about his mind. Does he have Alzheimer's or is he just getting dotty in his old age? All these things are happening, and she's the one who deals with it all."
One of Kate's key moments comes when relatives descend to pick apart Woody's imagined treasure with greedy talons. Kate's blistering, truth-telling defense of her family brings down the house.
"We did it over and over again, which is fun in a way," she says. "[Payne] and I do work together that way; he'll throw things at me quickly, and we'll just shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot. I never know exactly what's going to come out. I never plan anything. It just kept popping out."
Squibb also relished working with the playful Dern.
"Driving the car, Bruce was in the back teasing me and yelling at me, telling me how bad I was driving," she says, laughing. "I started screaming, 'I'm a good driver!' Then we found out the line was open and the crew had heard the whole thing. We could hear them laughing hysterically at us yelling at each other.
"He's got a wicked sense of humor. He told some people — we were at a screening, and he loves the idea that I played a stripper in 'Gypsy.' He didn't mention 'Gypsy,' he didn't mention Broadway; he just said, 'Yeah, June was a pole dancer.'
"He's wicked. He really is."