June Squibb on Finally Becoming a Leading Lady (and Action Star) at 94

The actress opens up about doing her own stunts, intergenerational friendships and her Hollywood dreams.

Richard Roundtree and June Squibb in Thelma. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

It’s not every day that a 94-year-old woman becomes a leading lady—and action star. But for June Squibb, it’s her reality. “They have me doing a lot of TV clips saying I’m going to kick somebody’s ass,” she tells Observer, laughing. “It’s fun.” Squibb, who has been acting for more than 60 years, has more than earned her star turn in Thelma, a movie that was quite literally made with her in mind.

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In the film, written, directed and edited by Josh Margolin, Squibb plays the titular Thelma, a gullible grandma-turned-vigilante, who gets scammed by someone pretending to be her grandson (played by Fred Hechinger) for $10,000 and decides to embark on a quest to reclaim her lost funds.

For Margolin—who based the film on his own grandmother’s story—Squibb was always who he envisioned for the role. He just didn’t know how to get the script to her. Luckily, Beanie Feldstein, Squibb’s friend and former co-star in the 2019 drama The Humans, was able to help since she was family friends with Margolin. “She texted me, ‘I’m going to send you a script.’ And I texted back, ‘Okay.’ And that was it,” Squibb recalls with her signature sweet lilt.

Despite portraying a fictionalized version of Margolin’s grandmother in the film (in reality, the family intervened before she was bamboozled by a senior scam), Squibb didn’t meet her until just a few weeks ago after she had seen the film. “She was so sweet to me, she said, ‘You’re not an actress, you are Thelma,” Squibb recalls of the interaction, “which no greater praise could I have.”

That comment meant the world to Squibb because she committed to the role of Thelma. She was so dedicated to character—and the film—that she did her own stunts, including running up the stairs (no easy feat for someone in their 90s) and snaking through an antique store over fallen lamps and under chandeliers. As Margolin put it to Indiewire she embraced “the Tom Cruise of it all, doing it yourself, throwing yourself in there as much as possible.” Of course, taking on such a physically demanding part came with its challenges. She needed to learn how to use a scooter, which her character borrows from her friend Ben (Richard Roundtree). “Once I learned how to work it, you could do it by twisting the handlebar things [and] you get your speed that way, it was kind of easy to do,” Squibb says. “You had to learn how to stop it because when you stopped, it would jerk forward a few feet, and I did learn that.” In fact, she got “very good” at it. But there was one particular move that she found difficult—bedrolls (or rolling over a mattress like an action star sliding over a car’s hood)—which she does at her friend Mona’s house (played by Bunny Levine). That didn’t stop her, though. “I just felt I could do them, and I did them,” she laughs. 

That inherent sense of determination has also been central to her career. Regardless of how long it took for her star turn, Squibb never wanted to quit. “I think it was always, ‘this is what I do,’” she remarks.

Born in Illinois, Squibb began her career in musical theater, making her Broadway debut in 1959 in the musical Gypsy (she played Electra, one of the strippers who sings “You Gotta Get a Gimmick). It wouldn’t be until 1990 when she landed her first movie role in Woody Allen’s rom-com Alice. From there, she earned supporting stints in films like the 1997 comedy In & Out (1997) and the 1998 fantasy romance Meet Joe Black. But it was the 2002 dramedy About Schmidt that caused a shift in her career, where she held her own opposite Jack Nicholson as his distant and irritating wife, Helen Schmidt.That somehow gave me legitimacy, and they brought me out to Hollywood for the premiere,” she recalls. She then had an uptick in TV roles like ER, Just Shoot Me, Curb Your Enthusiasm. “Let’s just put it this way,” she quipped. “I kept getting work constantly.” Her career got another boost in 2013 when she starred in the adventure comedy Nebraska, which earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for playing a foul-mouthed Midwestern matriarch married to Bruce Dern. “You sort of breathe differently after that,” she admits. Since then, she’s continually diversified her resume, starring in projects ranging from the Adam Sandler Netfiix comedy Hubie Halloween to the NBC crime dramedy Good Girls. Alongside the release of Thelma, Squibb has also taken over the box office in the animated comedy Inside Out 2, as the voice of Nostalgia, a granny with gray hair and pink glasses who represents one of pre-teen Riley’s new emotions.

From gunslinger to grandma: Squibb in Thelma (left), and the character she voices in Inside Out 2, Nostalgia (right). Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/Courtesy of Pixar

It’s no surprise that Squibb’s next project is not only a departure from her recent transformation into action hero but from her other projects, too. She’s set to star in Scarlett Johansson’s directorial debut, Eleanor the Great, where she’ll play a nonagenarian who befriends a 19-year-old. It’s a role she’s found relatable, considering she has a handful of intergenerational friendships. From filming Thelma together, she and Hechinger have become rather close. Squibb and his parents, who all met the night before our interview, decided that “when he’s in New York in his home, his mother and father would take care of him, but when he’s in L.A. I would take care of him.” Chris Colfer, who Squibb met when she appeared on Glee in 2014, is “one of my closest friends in the whole world.” “I remember on my 90th birthday, Chris was there and people kept saying, ‘June, who’s that young kid over there?’” she laughs, adding, “He’s a part of my family.”

While Thelma might seem like the ultimate peak of a lifelong dream, Squibb still has others. For one, she’d love to do a Western. She’d also “love” to work with Robert De Niro. “I know his background, his training and I think it’s somebody I would work well with, so I would like that,” she says with certainty.

For now, she’s focused on Thelma—and her forthcoming trip to Hawaii. “We swim, we eat, we go to the wonderful restaurants, we go to The Big Island near Kona, and we do a lot of day trips and see everything,” she exclaims. “I love it.”

 

 

June Squibb on Finally Becoming a Leading Lady (and Action Star) at 94