As the gravel-voiced king of the all-American character, Sam Elliott has reverberated with onscreen charisma ever since 1969 when he landed a bit part in that ultimate piece of Americana, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. So it’s not entirely surprising that Bradley Cooper famously ‘stole’ Elliott’s iconic voice for the role of hat-wearing, hard-drinking country singer Jackson Maine in A Star is Born. Then it only made sense that Cooper would lobby hard to get Elliott on board in the role of his brother.
Over a cappuccino in a Venice beach cafe, just days after taking home Best Supporting Actor at The National Board of Review Awards and having his hand and footprints added to the star-studded collection outside the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood, Elliott tells how a scheduling conflict almost forced him to drop out of A Star is Born, that he doesn’t see himself personally winning more awards, and how he wishes Cooper had got a Golden Globe.
So the Globes were a bit of a disappointing surprise for A Star is Born. Did you feel protective of Bradley Cooper that day?
Well, for starters, the entire field is full of good films, and good actors, and good directors. It’s not like it often is, when there’s clearly one place to go and they end up getting all the awards. That said, yeah, I mean, I’d love to have seen Bradley win. So I do feel protective in that way. I have no illusions as to what’s going to come my way in terms of an award. Maybe a nomination, but winning awards for this small of a part…in the category that I would be in there are so many incredible parts in other films, and so many incredible performers too. The National Board of Review thing was enough, that was wonderful, but again, I mean, when you look at the field, I think it’s like a war of attrition for me. You know what I mean? I’ve been there long enough, and so they feel sorry for me.
It’s definitely not that. But no one can deny your career has been long and full of high points.
I’m very lucky.
Your role in this film is pivotal though. And then there’s the fact that Bradley obviously felt inspired by you and your voice.
He boxed himself in, didn’t he? In terms of who was going play the part.
It’s been an intense couple of weeks with the Globes, the hand-and-footprint ceremony and the NBR Awards.
Couple of weeks? It feels like it’s been a couple of years of crazy. [The hand-and footprint ceremony] was fun. I have no idea where that came from either. The hand-and-foot thing started in 1927 I think, and to be part of that history is an incredible thing, a wonderful thing. And I have a lot of friends from the last 50 years, some of them that I hadn’t seen for 30 years, who showed up. It was pretty incredible.
And Bradley and Lady Gaga were there too in support. You call her Stefani, don’t you?
Yeah, I called her Gaga one time. It might’ve been at the Governor’s Awards, or somewhere in front of an audience. I referred to her as Gaga and she said, “You wanted to call me Stefani!” Backstage I said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it.”
I saw you introduce her at a SAG-AFTRA event last year, and you really seemed like a proud father.
That’s how I felt. That’s how I feel in some ways. She’s two years younger than my daughter.
You all seem rather like a family at this stage.
Yeah, I think everybody just threw in so deeply with Bradley, and the one thing he asked of all us was to trust him. A pretty amazing thing to ask somebody you don’t know. I’d never crossed paths with Bradley before this film, and he asked me to do that. I think it was the last thing he said to me the first time I met him, “Just trust me, and you’ll be glad you did.”
So what made you trust him?
I just think that he has a way. And he convinced me early on that he deserved to be trusted.
When you went over to his house and he played you a tape of himself doing your voice, that had to be a very strange experience?
It was pretty unsettling to say the least, and I think he prefaced with, before he put it on, “This is going to sound a little weird.” And he was right, it did. But I thought, “God, if this is where this guy’s really going to go with his sound, lucky me.” He kind of boxed himself in, as I said, to sound like me. I’m not sure which came first. And I’ve heard him say both, but I really think that he settled on the voice, the sound, before he thought of me playing that part. I may be wrong, because I’ve heard him say that he wrote it for me, which I don’t…I’m not sure.
Sidebar, but I heard the first time you were ever at the Globes it was because you were working construction on the hotel? That’s the stuff of Hollywood folklore.
I was in the cement end of the construction business, as a laborer. I was pouring concrete, and stripping forms off of set concrete, and pulling nails, and stacking plywood, and doing that kind of thing. I was in peak condition in those days. But I remember one night seeing this big line of limos starting to form about the time we got off work, and people in tuxedos and gowns getting out of these cars and going into the hotel. And I found out later there was a thing called the Golden Globes. I was going to a workshop at that time at Columbia Pictures called The Film Industry Workshop.
You got into that workshop by accident though? By helping someone else audition?
It was a roommate from college that I was living with, and he had a girlfriend, and she was going to audition for this workshop, and she asked me to do a scene with her, and she didn’t get in, but they called me, and I joined up. I don’t think she was around a lot after that.
But acting was something you always wanted to do since you were very young?
Since I was a little kid. I went to too many films. There was a neighborhood theater. I grew up in Sacramento and spent a lot of time in the Saturday matinee. I just thought, “Wow.” It’s that magic of sitting in a dark theater as a little kid. That was in the ‘50s. A long time ago. Life was pretty simple and pretty safe. I mean, that whole thing about light shining through celluloid and those images on the screen. I really never had any thought about being a legitimate actor, like a stage performer. I wanted to make movies. I wanted to do television and make movies.
The scene in A Star Is Born where Jackson kicks your character out of his life – that resonates with so many, that devolution of relationships due to addiction.
It’s one of the major elements of this film. It speaks to so many people I think, that just destroys people when they see it. It’s one of the reasons that people weep in this film, the addiction thing. I don’t think there’s anybody that doesn’t know somebody that’s touched by it, if not directly going through it.
Can you talk about your process in that scene? How it all came together?
That was the first scene I filmed, which was daunting anyway, because I’d had a couple of encounters face up with Bradley, had never seen Stefani other than a table read, and didn’t know any of the crew. That was to be shot at Coachella, and I couldn’t make it because I was filming a television series [The Ranch] at the time for Netflix, and I couldn’t get there nights. I literally told Bradley–we texted a lot when we started, rather than talk–and I was on my last episode, and the commitment there on The Ranch just wouldn’t allow me to start this film on the schedule that they were on. So I ended up telling him, “I’m not going to be able to do your movie, man. I just cannot. I’m committed to this thing, I have an obligation to them, I can’t do two things at one time.” [He said] “We’ll fly you over in the afternoon, fly you back, and get you there in time.” But I said, “No, I can’t do that.” Then his last text was, “I’m not going to let you go.” And then next day they changed the schedule.
They decided that they didn’t have to be at Coachella, that they could shoot that scene anywhere, and we ended up doing it at the Greek Theater in the parking lot. I got there and they’d encircled all these trailers, moved them, like a circle the wagons kind of thing, so it could’ve been anywhere. But I got there, and there were three cameras and wall-to-wall people standing shoulder to shoulder, extras and crew members. It was very unsettling. And then to play that scene out, the drama of that scene, was just unbelievable. But we got in real deep right there, right off the top, Bradley and I. We really connected, and I just trusted him, gave it to him, gave him everything that he asked me to give to him. I think about a third of the scene is in the film, but the meat of it is there.
What got cut?
Just more of the backstory about the dad, you know? A lot of stuff that wasn’t of value. And there was also a piece in there where Stefani recognizes, or discovers that I’m the brother. She says to him, “He’s your brother?” But as it turned out in the final edit, there had been so much talk about the brother already.
That connection with Bradley, you believe in him deeply.
With that trust, you feel very safe. And Bradley is a brilliant human being. I mean, he’s a fucking smart guy. He’s like a genius of sorts, and as it turns out, he’s a brilliant filmmaker, he’s not just a wonderful actor as we’ve all have seen develop over the years, but he’s a brilliant filmmaker, and he’s also a sponge. I think because of his intelligence, because of his curiosity, because of his artistry, and his love of making moves, he just has soaked it up in the years that he’s been doing it. It’s astounding. From when he started out on Alias and hanging out in the editing room, and hanging around with J.J. Abrams, looking over his shoulder, and just figuring it all out really early on. For him to take this project in its fourth telling, to end up in control of it all, to bring all the elements together, to create this thing and convince the studio that he could do it, and to bring Gaga to it. It’s totally remarkable. So I think out of that, you just go on this incredible journey, and it’s not always that way. In the ideal, if filmmaking was that way, it would just be astounding. It’s rarely that way where everything just seems so perfect. This was just a fantastic journey. And not only how we worked together, but I think how we felt about each other. It was just mutual respect. There was no bullshit. Everybody was there for a reason; everybody was collaborating. Bradley doesn’t give a shit where a good idea comes from. A good idea is a good idea.
Do you think you’ll work with him again? Or Gaga?
I hope so, yeah, but I think the odds of me working with Stefani again are probably very small. She’s got her other world. I’m curious to see where that’s going to go, or how she’s going to balance that, because she clearly has what it takes to do both. I mean, we see it now. I’d love to work with her again. I love her dearly, and there’s no secret about it, she knows it.
Is there anything that you have your sights set on next?
I just want to keep doing good work. I’ve been so lucky to have the work come to me that I have. I didn’t think I was ever get involved in doing television again, because I did a lot of it early on, and I love television, I know that it’s probably one of the best fields to find yourself in, because of the quality of it today, but it’s also a very time consuming procedure. I committed to doing The Ranch for five years. We’re finishing up our fourth [season], supposedly, that’s the end of it, but if they choose to go again, I’ll go again. By the end of five years it would be a hundred episodes. It’s going be 80 by the end of this year. I’ve just been fortunate. It’s just really about the work. I was never afraid of hard work. I managed an apartment that I lived in for a number of years and paid very little rent, and had no overhead. But it never was, “I’ve got to get a job to pay my bills.” It was always looking for the right stuff, and that’s a real luxury to have. I just thought early on that in order to have longevity, in order to have a career that was fulfilling for me, seeing that vision through that I had as a kid, it couldn’t be about money. If you work for money, odds are it’s shit work you’re doing, and then people get sick of you, so you’ve got to pick things that you think are right. It’s a gamble.