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Octogenarian actor entering her golden age

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Los ANGELES -- If a Golden Globe nomination is a precursor to an Oscar nod, June Squibb, at the age of 84, is a serious Academy Award contender for her work as Bruce Dern's salty, embittered wife in Alexander Payne's Nebraska.

That would suit Dern fine. At a press conference for the film, he let it be known that he was good with the longtime actress getting major screen time as a larger-than-life character.

"It was about time they let June Squibb get out there and be Rosalind Russell," Dern said.

Nebraska focuses mostly on the relationship between Dern's character, Woody Grant, and his estranged son David (Will Forte). But Squibb proved to be a force to be reckoned with in a cast of both non-actors and seasoned thespians such as Dern and Stacy Keach, even if Squibb could almost pass for one of the non-actors, she is so natural and unaffected.

She says she came by the character of Kate Grant through her own Midwest upbringing in rural Illinois.

"When I read the script, certainly my mind went back to Illinois, the years there and the family and everything," she says. Squibb certainly experienced Midwest stoicism first-hand.

"My father had that quality," she says. "He couldn't talk about things. He was in the navy and he was bombed and he never, never talked about it.

"As a child, he didn't say that much to me as a person at all. But he is probably the most moral man I've met, then and since."

Squibb says she always wanted to be an actress, although her early exposure to the arts was fairly minimal.

"My mother played the piano and that was about it," she says. "I also had an aunt who whistled through her teeth and tap-danced... not for money but for fun. And I used to join her in the tap-dancing because I danced when I was young."

Her dancing and performing ability eventually took her to Broadway, where she appeared as a stripper in the original production of Gypsy, opposite Ethel Merman. She worked in stage and television, but her film career was stalled until 1990, when she made her screen debut, at the age of 61 in the Woody Allen film Alice.

Subsequently, she worked for director Alexander Payne in the 2002 comedy About Schmidt, where a short role as Jack Nicholson's wife led to the role as Kate in Payne's Nebraska, giving Squibb a chance to flesh out an elderly character, an infrequent event in contemporary culture, she says.

"I think it's a rare thing to allow older characters to have the depth that these two do," she says. "Even in good films, you don't see the arc that you see with these two people to the point that they're so human, you understand who they are and what's driving them."

It wasn't until after she saw the film that Squibb experienced a revelation about her character and her view of the world.

"Once I saw the film, I thought: Oh, my God, that's my mother up there," she says. "I think Kate always felt that everybody thought as she thought, not that she was right and everyone else was wrong, I don't think that would even enter her mind.

"She just assumed everybody felt and thought the same way she did," Squibb says. "And my mother did that. Everything she said had this great sense of: 'It is right.'"

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 4, 2014 G11

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