Sam Elliott must have been made out of John Wayne’s rib, so fully does he ooze cowpoke charm. It’s a shame that Hollywood doesn’t make many westerns these days, because no actor wears a ten gallon hat more convincingly than Elliott. Some of that ease is attributable to his handlebar mustache and the rest stems from Elliott’s voice, a Texas-tinged baritone that seems to luxuriate over every syllable. So it’s a bit intimidating to hear Elliott pick up the phone, sounding a little like he just finished wrestling longhorns.
“You’ll have to excuse me,” Elliott says with the same drawl he’s used to hawk Coors beer or beef. “I’m right on the tail end of a flu bug. Still feeling kinda like shit. I hadn’t been sick in years and I’ve forgotten what it felt like.”
After years of well-regarded character turns in the likes of “The Big Lebowski,” “The Contender,” and “Hulk,” Elliott is having a moment. At 72, an age when many actors might be inclined to hang up their boots, he’s more in demand than ever. “The Hero,” a new drama that premieres at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is, in the words of director Brett Haley, “90 minutes of Sam Elliott.” In it, Elliott plays Lee Hayden, a fading western star, who tries to mend fences with his family as he faces a medical crisis. Elliott is in nearly every frame of the picture and “The Hero” is very much a love letter to a talent that was until recently widely enjoyed, while remaining strangely under-appreciated.
“He brings this sort of fandom and this idea along with him, but he’s never been the center of a film,” said Haley. “At least, he hasn’t been the center of a film in a long time. I wanted to show the world what I saw. I wanted to shine a light on him and let him shine.”
It’s fitting that Elliott is returning to Sundance, because that’s where his critical stock began rising after two well-regarded turns in “Grandma” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams” premiered within days of each other back in 2015. Those films showed a more sensitive side to Elliott — in “Grandma” he played Lily Tomlin’s ex-husband, a man still nursing old grudges, while in “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” he helped teach a grieving Blythe Danner to learn to live and love again.
Those films represented a break of sorts from Elliott’s tough guy persona, but “The Hero” draws inspirations by the fistful from his filmography. For one thing, his character’s screen career is in the same genre that’s been so good to Elliott, and Hayden subsidizes his living by doing voiceover work for barbecue sauce and other household products. In another conflation of art and real life, Elliott’s wife Katharine Ross plays his former wife. Yet Elliott stresses that there are important differences between the characters, particularly when it comes to Hayden’s healthy pot habit.
“Some of its based on me and some of it’s a bit of a stretch,” said Elliott. “There’s a lot of it that has absolutely zero to do with me, specifically all the drug stuff. That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Haley also directed Elliott in “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and says he got to know the actor well while they were traveling and doing press for the film. That’s what inspired him to write “The Hero” with screenwriter Marc Basch. He echoes Elliott in arguing that Hayden is far removed from the actor playing him despite drawing from the same iconographic well.
“If I just did a movie about Sam Elliott it would be a pretty boring movie because Sam is a well adjusted, happy guy,” said Haley. “This film is about a guy looking back at his legacy who really has to make some decisions about his life and change.”
Elliott says he has few regrets over the course of his career. After initially balking at being typecast as a western star, he’s even made peace with playing a cowboy.
“There was a time when I bridled at it, and I thought, God I’d like to do something else besides this western box that I’m in, but that’s what happens,” he said. “I’m not one of those actors that anybody is going to confuse with a chameleon.”
Elliott says that he’s more comfortable tailoring a role to fit his persona, rather than disappearing into a part, adopting different accents or physical traits in the vein of a Daniel Day-Lewis.
“When I look back at my days as a movie fan, the guys that I most sparked to, they were the same person playing a lot of different characters,” said Elliott. “I felt like Gary Cooper was always an honest and a good man. He always stood for something. There was some sort of righteousness in his characters and that spoke to me.”
The desire to stand for something has led Elliott to shy away from reprobates and villains over the years. He’s taken those roles, of course, but he’d rather be the hero.
“I’ve turned a lot of stuff down because it’s not the kind of guy that I wanted to represent myself as being,” said Elliott. “I’ve certainly played an asshole from time to time, and they’re fun to play, but there’s enough assholes in the world.”