Sam Elliott has played his share of hardscrabble characters, plenty of them in the Old West. But the 63-year-old actor, famous for his bushy handlebar mustache and mane of silver hair, says that there is an emotional through line connecting his body of work, uniting the cowboys, military men and rebel bikers who have populated his 40-year career.
"There are certainly cowboys out there who would be chagrined to be compared to a guy on a Harley-Davidson with long hair," Elliott says, "but they share a common vein - I think it's very simply the code and a sense of freedom and a sense of responsibility to someone."
Those attributes are evident in his latest creation, laconic Lee Scoresby, a dapper "aeronaut" in the epic fantasy tale The Golden Compass. The film, adapted and directed by Chris Weitz based on the first novel of British author Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, opened last week.
Scoresby comes to the aid of its young heroine, Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), who has headed from England to the Arctic Circle after her best friend has vanished.
Elliott says it was a bit disconcerting working in a special-effects-laden movie. "But," he adds, "it's sort of the ultimate in pretending. You need to understand as much about whatever this final vision is that these guys are going to create at the end so you don't look like a total buffoon. And fortunately they had it pretty well figured out by the time you [were] called on stage."
"A lot of people have asked me - here is this macho guy that you're playing, and you have a rabbit for a daemon," the actor says. All the humans in Compass have their own daemon. "But I remember going back and forth from Texas a lot as a child to see family. At that time there were tons of billboards on the highway, and in the shadow of every billboard there was this sea of long ears of jack rabbits that populated the state of Texas. I thought how insightful for Philip Pullman, the Englishman, to come up with the jack rabbit. They are survivors, and that is really what Scoresby is."
Which also makes him the ideal character for Elliott. Although his childhood was spent in suburban Sacramento, Calif., he carved a niche for himself playing men who adhere to a cowboy code of honor.
His affinity for those kinds of characters did grow out of his family heritage, however. "My family on both sides for several generations all hailed from Texas," says Elliott. "My dad was with the Fish & Wildlife Service and got transferred from West Texas to Sacramento. I was born the year after they got there. I never heard the end of the fact I wasn't a Texan.
"I spent a lot of time around ranchers and real-deal cowboys and sheepmen. There is something about that sensibility in general that appeals to me."
And the Western influence has a certain hold over Elliott's life. Along with his wife, Katharine Ross, and his daughter, Cleo Rose, Elliott lives in Malibu and owns a ranch, complete with horses, south of Portland, Ore.
Elliott says that he's ready to revisit Pullman's fantastic universe, and he's waiting to hear if the second film in the trilogy will get the green light. "I think in a week after the movie opens we'll know" if the series will continue, Elliott says. "I would love to continue on with this thing right now."
Susan King writes for the Los Angeles Times.