Sam Elliot on Stealing Scenes in ‘Grandma’

At 71, Sam Elliott is busier than ever. He’s got four films this year: “Grandma,” “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” “Digging for Fire” and “The Good Dinosaur.” He just ended a stint on FX’s “Justified” while also working on “Grace and Frankie” and lending his iconic voice to TV commercials. He’s a standout in Paul Weitz’s “Grandma,” where his 10 minutes of screen time with star Lily Tomlin — give or take a few — galvanizes the film and exposes their characters’ history and emotional depth. In the encounter, Elle (Tomlin) and her granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), visit the sprawling Topanga Canyon house of Karl (Elliott), her former husband. It doesn’t take long for their history — she had an abortion without consulting Karl; she then had a one-night stand and kept that baby — to destroy any civility. Elliott, with much vulnerability and empathy, goes from welcoming host to angry jilted lover to open wound, with devastating effect.

Elliott: “I always felt that if it was on the page, the odds are you have a better chance of doing something really special. Paul’s always been an incredible writer, but I think this is the best material he’s ever written. Whether it was the character, whether it was the material or working with Lily (it was all compressed into two days) or the place up in Topanga Canyon where we shot it — it all came to bear and it was — on some level — two of my favorite days in the business.

Popular on Variety

“I think it was a combination of Lily and her being so open, it had something to do with Julia, who I’d never met, her angelic little face and what she was going through, and it had something to do with Paul. Paul gave us this great piece of material, but then he stepped back and let us go. It was a great arc, but I don’t know if I was consciously after anything special. I just tried to commit to it and be real. You know, when you get that kind of material, founded in such pain on some level, then it’s pretty easy for it to become real.

“We didn’t have any rehearsals. We went up there and walked through the scene so we’d have a leg up when we went there to shoot — you know we shot this thing in 18 days — and so time was a factor. But that moment — it was one of those pieces that spoke to me, and that particularly spoke to me in a painful way, for whatever reason, I’m not even sure.

“I remember one moment, we’d done a take or two and — I was standing on the side, kinda keeping my distance, keeping my head where I wanted it to be, and Lily leaned in to me and said, ‘You’re making me feel like a real asshole here.’

“It was a very painful thing for him, that she’d aborted his kid without conferring with him then went off and had another child with somebody else. Obviously, it was something he never got over.

“That’s where Karl was — he went from being this congenial host and happy to see her, happy to meet the granddaughter, and then as soon as the old shit, as he called it, bubbled up from the past, he just went into a dark pit. Sure was rewarding I must say.”

More Film

  • Boris JohnsonConservative Party rally on eve

    U.K. Parliament Passes Brexit Law, Leaving Film, TV Incentives Unaffected

    The U.K. Parliament on Wednesday evening passed legislation paving the way for the country to leave the European Union on Jan. 31, 2020. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the U.K. had “crossed the Brexit finish line” following passage of the Withdrawal Agreement, which will officially become law when it receives royal assent from Queen [...]

  • A security guard wears a mask

    Chinese New Year Film Releases Cancelled in Response to Coronavirus

    The releases of all new movies this week in China have been cancelled as a response to the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus. The move is a massive blow for the Chinese film industry. Seven major films were expected to have been released over the coming weekend, with the likelihood that together they would have [...]

  • The Turning

    Film Review: ‘The Turning’

    Director Floria Sigismondi’s “The Turning” is like the alt-rock cousin of author Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw.” From its grunge-infused soundtrack and period setting to its fiery feminist overtones, this is an ambitious contemporary take on the iconic, claustrophobic thriller. Concerning two young orphans who psychologically torment their caretaker in a spooky, [...]

  • Birds of Prey

    ‘Birds of Prey’ Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the always-on TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Warner Bros. claims the top spot in spending with “Birds of Prey.” Ads placed for the superhero film had an estimated media value of $6.94 million through Sunday for 431 national ad airings on [...]

  • The Witcher Netflix

    Film News Roundup: Netflix Developing Anime Feature 'The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf'

    In today’s film news roundup, Netflix announces a spinoff feature based on “The Witcher,” Liam Neeson’s “Honest Thief” finds a home and Sheryl Main will receive the Henri Bollinger Award. PROJECT LAUNCHED Popular on Variety Netflix is expanding its fantasy series “The Witcher” with an anime feature film “The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf.” The [...]

  • Marvel Studios' CAPTAIN MARVEL..Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel

    'Captain Marvel' Sequel in Development

    Disney has officially launched development of a “Captain Marvel” sequel. The studio is in final negotiations with Megan McDonnell, a staff writer on Marvel-based series “WandaVision” on the project. The 2019 blockbuster “Captain Marvel” starred Brie Larson as Carol Danvers and grossed $1.13 billion worldwide. Popular on Variety Disney and Marvel have not yet set [...]

  • Aviron Pictures Hit With Layoffs

    Aviron Pictures Hit With Layoffs, Joel Kinnaman Action Movie 'The Informer' in Limbo

    Fledgling distributor Aviron Pictures has been hit with a significant staff reduction less than a month after the removal of top executive WIlliam Sadleir, numerous insiders told Variety.  Almost half of a staff of 30 were dismissed last week, amid wide rumors that the company’s deep-pocketed financier Black Rock has defunded the outfit entirely, sources [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content