In a 60-year career that’s seen him turn up in key supporting roles in hits like “Alien,” “Top Gun,” and “M*A*S*H*,” Tom Skerritt finally gets a starring role in a movie.
The acclaimed actor is front-and-center in “East of the Mountains,” playing a retired heart surgeon who keeps his terminal cancer diagnosis a secret from his daughter and bottles up his emotions after the death of his wife. He drives into the Cascade Mountains of Washington, alone except for his dog and a shotgun, determined to take his own life while he’s out in the wilderness. Soon into the fateful journey, his car breaks down and strands him, but the kindness of strangers and memories of his childhood rescue him in more ways than one. The film was an endurance test for the 88-year old Skerritt. It’s also, amazingly, the first time the character actor has played the central role in a movie, though he did anchor “Picket Fences,” winning an Emmy for his troubles.
“This was a lot of movement. I wasn’t still very much. When it comes to doing film and doing a job, some kind of energy fills up your body and you just do the work. It helps doing it a number of years. You do the right work, and always remember less is more. Because if you do less, more is expected or wanted of you by your viewers,” Skerritt told Variety in a virtual interview from his Seattle home.
Skerritt may be well into his ninth decade, but he hasn’t slowed down. He’s lively in the interview, waving his hands around and gesticulating, something he said he picked up while working in Italy, one of his favorite places to be. He plays his “East of the Mountains” character, Ben Givens, with a reserved strength and soft-spoken wisdom, but he explodes in pivotal scenes when faced with danger.
“You take a guy who’s a heart specialist for 40 years, now he’s retired. [There’s] this discipline that doctors have, maintaining and keeping control of your emotions [and] a very anti-social behavioral pattern. How do you handle that? Your wife has just died and now you’re told you have cancer and you’ll die if you don’t take care of yourself. What does a man over 80 do? You don’t do anything; you get the hell out of there,” Skerritt says. “Go somewhere you can remember your childhood. Go east of the mountains where you grew up and used to hunt grouse. It’s getting back to who we were as children and remembering all of that.”
As for Skerritt, he doesn’t have family around to return to his childhood home of Detroit or feel the need to go back to busy Los Angeles. He’s perfectly content in the calming nature of Seattle, writing, painting and carving wood in his free time.
“I live in a place that’s like going on vacation,” he says. “I look up, I see Lake Washington. I may see an otter on the neighbor’s dock, an eagle flying in the air, mountains in the distance, a little smoke from a forest fire. All of this stuff is a beautiful world. This is all creative input. That’s the way I’ve lived my life since I’ve been an adult.”
Despite the name, “East of the Mountains” actually filmed west of the mountains in Washington, Skerritt says. He read the novel by David Guterson years ago, and after meeting Guterson, the author said Skerritt should play the main character if the book were ever adapted for film. SJ Chiro directed the adaptation, which is available online and in select theaters via Quiver Distribution. Among the cast is Mira Sorvino, who plays Skerritt’s daughter, Annie Gonzalez, Wally Dalton and John Paulsen.