Playback: Sam Elliott on ‘The Hero’ and Living His Childhood Dream

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

Icon is a word that gets thrown around a lot but it seems safe to say Sam Elliott qualifies. Even the man’s voice is iconic, which was the entry-point for his role in Brett Haley’s new film, “The Hero.” Elliott stars as a voice actor searching for that next gear in life, and it’s the kind of character he admits he doesn’t get to play very often. Deep into a nearly 50-year career, he cherishes these kinds of opportunities — so much so that he’s actually taken to calling the role of Lee Hayden a gift, rather than an opportunity.

He put plenty of himself into the part, but he cautions that there are glaring differences. Still, he could relate to Lee’s plight, both in his own experience and those of friends and colleagues he’s observed in the business.

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“There is some stuff that I identify with,” Elliott says of the role. “I know actors who had a good run at it, a short run, and then nothing happened after that, and I watched those guys dry up on the vine, waiting for it to turn around. This business is not easy on its actors, I don’t think. My friend Bill Paxton told me and Katharine [Ross] one time, standing in our kitchen right after we’d done ‘Tombstone,’ he said, ‘We’re all just grist for the mill,’ and I just thought, ‘F—, man, that’s the truth of it.'”

This is Elliott’s second collaboration with Haley, following 2015’s “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” Haley was eager to write a role specifically for the actor, no doubt to harness that aforementioned iconography. And Elliott himself relished the chance to again work with young up-and-coming talent.

“It gives you hope for where the game is going,” he says. “I’ve been in this business a long time, almost 50 years, and wanted to do it since I was a kid. I’ve seen a number of changes, I think marked most prominently by the introduction of the chip, so to speak. That’s really revolutionized the business. And here comes this kid who comes from that side of it who I think is a brilliant filmmaker. I think Brett has an opportunity to do some important work over the long haul. He has things to say and he knows how to go about putting it together.”

As Elliott says, he has wanted to be a part of the movie business since he was quite young. He delighted in the big screen, watching Flash Gordon and Tom Mix serials (the latter helping to ignite his love of the western genre, which — not to belabor the term — counts him as one of its icons). He can’t pinpoint exactly when it was the hook sank into him but the rush of cinema is something that has flowed in his veins for a very long time and he frets, somewhat, for its future.

“There was a somewhat off-putting piece to me in the LA Times last week about all the exhibitors trying to bring the audience back into the fold,” he says. “All the bells and whistles they’re offering, the food, the reclining chairs, the rumbling seats, the spray. It’s like, what the f—, man. For me going to a film is about going into a darkened theater and it’s a relationship you have with what’s going on on the screen. It’s not about the distractions going on around you and having to focus and block things out. That’s why you go in there.”

For more, including Elliott’s thoughts on the modern viability of the western genre, popping up briefly in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” working with Bradley Cooper in the currently-filming “A Star is Born” and his personal secret to longevity, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

Subscribe to “Playback” via iTunes.

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