Anna Lisa Raya is Deputy Editor of AwardsLine.
Veteran stage, film and TV actor June Squibb shines as the tart-tongued matriarch Kate Grant in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. At turns brash and tender—juggling frustrations with her delusional husband, Woody (played by Bruce Dern), even as she protects him from his money-grubbing family—Squibb’s portrayal garnered early praise when the film debuted at Cannes last May and has been building momentum since.
AwardsLine: You’ve collaborated with Alexander Payne before in About Schmidt but in a much smaller role. How did you get involved with Nebraska?
June Squibb: I don’t know when (Alexander) thought of me, but at some point he did. (His office) called and asked if I would tape some things for them if they sent a script. And I just felt, when I read the script, that I knew this woman. I felt really close to her. And so Alexander called me right after he got the tape and let me know that as far as he was concerned I was the frontrunner for it. We started shooting last October, and I was in New York the spring before, so that’s when he came to me.
AwardsLine: What were some of the qualities that drew you to the role of Kate Grant?
Squibb: Well she’s fearless, God knows, and I think Bob Nelson has written a script that just tops itself page after page. You read these scenes that this woman has, I mean, for an actress it’s just gold.
AwardsLine: What kind of a rehearsal process did you have and what were some of your early discussions with Alexander about?
Squibb: Well, what happened is, Alexander called me, Will (Forte) and Bruce (Dern) to Nebraska a week early. We met and we did a little reading—not that much—and he showed us around all of the different location spots he had already chosen, and we just got to know each other. We really didn’t have a rehearsal period. Alexander came to my hotel room once, and we talked a little bit about (Kate), but not all that much. I think when he sees what he wants being given to him he recognizes that.
AwardsLine: Let’s talk about one of your big moments in the film, when Kate rises to defend Woody in front of his entire family, telling them to “just go fuck yourselves.” It gets a big reaction from the audience.
Squibb: It’s funny because the audience is like, “Yay, go!” but I sort of look at each scene on its own. I don’t think, “Oh, boy, I’m going to say the f-word here.” You’re working from the scene; you know what’s going to happen. You see the growth from when the scene first starts to the f-word, but it’s just a question of playing the scene and not getting ahead of yourself. It’s very exciting. Kate’s just very strong and she’s a mother, and she would kill for her two boys and husband. And I think that it shows.
AwardsLine: What was it like working along a veteran such as Bruce Dern and Will Forte, who’s a total newcomer?
Squibb: Well, it worked. The three of us really respected each other. And Will was so funny. (Laughs.) He would be sitting there working with the two of us, and he would say, “I don’t know what I’m doing here. What am I doing with you two?” But he was wonderful. He came through beautifully. I think what Alexander saw in him was more than fulfilled in the film.
Awardsline: Was there anything you learned from working on this film?
Squibb: I learned that I have a certain strength. Filming is physically and emotionally hard, especially acting in something like this, where we go into the honest feelings of these people. But it’s also very exciting because there’s an adrenaline that’s pumping (through you) when you’re doing these scenes. I think we all knew that we had something very special. We did not know how special or what it was, but we knew that we had gone through a fantastic experience shooting the thing.
AwardsLine: Nebraska was very well received in its debut at Cannes last spring. What was that like?
Squibb: I had never been to Cannes so that was a big shock. My God it was fantastic. We got a 10-minute ovation! We all were just standing there, we didn’t know what to do, so we started hugging each other and crying, and we really were just confused by it.
AwardsLine: Your portrayal is getting a lot of Oscar buzz already. How do you balance just being proud of your work with managing the expectations that surround awards season?
Squibb: Considering I’ve been at this for so long—I had such a long career on stage before I started in film and television—I already have gone through so many times where people have said I’ve been “discovered.” But it’s still very exciting, and I’m thrilled that people look at this film and see my role as something special.
AwardsLine: With a character like Kate, we all know some version of her from our mothers.
Squibb: You know, I didn’t think about my mother when I shot it, but when I saw the finished film, I saw my mother. If I get a certain hairdo for a film or TV, I look at it and think, “Oh, shit! There’s my mother!”