It’s hard to pin-down the iconic Sam Elliott performance. Between the good-natured biker of Mask to Swayze’s bestie in Road House to, of course, The Stranger in The Big Lebowski, Elliott has elevated each of these supporting roles into fully fleshed characters, suggesting more with a simple drawl and smile than most actors could in an eight-page scene. Elliott, at one point typecast only in Westerns, has steadily built up a storied career – popping up in big-budget tent-poles like The Hulk & The Golden Compass or critical darlings like The Contender & Up in the Air; but despite all these terrific performances, the actor’s rarely been front and center of a picture. Which is probably why The Hero is such a welcome surprise, a film that finally allows Elliott the spotlight he so richly deserves.
The Hero plays off Elliott’s persona – as Lee Hayden, a ‘Western’ actor who never got his due, Elliott taps into the frustrations of an actor who can do so much more than don a cowboy hat. After being diagnosed with cancer, Lee begins to question his life choices, striking up a relationship with a much younger woman (Laura Prepon) and attempting to rekindle his dormant acting career. Elliot, unsurprisingly, is terrific in the role, resisting the urge to ever overplay into the melodrama of the script. There’s a show-stopping scene about midway through the picture, wherein Lee practices the audition sides for some particularly awful sounding YA-film, yet in Elliott’s hands, this meta-joke scene becomes the emotional lynchpin for the character and the film as a whole.
In the following interview with Sam Elliott, the actor discusses how similar he is/isn’t to Lee Hayden, working with The Coens on The Big Lebowski and being pigeonholed as a ‘Western’ actor. For the full interview, read below.
When did [co-writer/director] Brett Haley first approach you about The Hero? I’m assuming after I’ll See You in My Dreams? [Haley had previously directed Elliott in the aforementioned film]
Sam Elliott: When we did I’ll See You in My Dreams together, Brett and I ended up spending a lot of time on the road promoting the film. Lots of miles on airlines. Lots of meals. Had a few drinks. Lots of talking. So we got to know each other, got to like each other a lot, got close to each other. And for whatever reason at the end of that whole run, Brett said I’m going to write something for you.
What is that like – when someone tells you ‘Oh – I’m going to write a movie specifically for you’?
Elliott: I’ve actually heard that before and it’s never happened. I’m always very skeptical.
Who else has said ‘I’m going to write a movie for you’?
Elliott: I don’t even remember. I think I probably put them out of my mind. A lot of people have said ‘Oh I’m going to write something for you someday.’ And it’s like ‘Really?’ I’ve had parts written for me, but never something where I’m on every page like this thing.
So you didn’t believe Brett at first…
Elliott: I didn’t believe him but then a couple months later, here comes this treatment. Back then it was called ‘Iceberg’. I thought ‘Wow – that’s a provocative title.’ [The treatment] really rang true to me in comparing an actor’s career and his one success to an iceberg. That what you see is not necessarily the most important stuff that holds it all up… Not long after that the title changed to ‘The Hero’. I think it was because the money people didn’t think that ‘Iceberg’ was a marketable title.
People would probably think it was about Titanic for some reason.
Elliott: You know — that’s probably exactly why.
How did that original treatment compare to the finished script? What was in place then versus later on?
Elliott: It was pretty much all in place. The one thing that really changed after I got involved was the character lived on the beach rather than up in Topanga. There were all of these scenes where he was sandbagging [the beach], trying to stop the water. It was always about stopping the flow, which represented time and things that are out of your control. But [we were shooting the film] during a not very rainy season. So I just asked Brett, ‘What’s your budget on this movie? Because number one – good luck finding a house in Malibu that’ll allow you to shoot there. And number two – if you’re going to have sandbags and rain, you’re going to have to bring in equipment.’ I’ve worked in a lot of fake rain sequences in my career — and it takes a lot. So that all went out the window and then it became Topanga Canyon for the home and visits to the beach.
How closely do you feel like Lee reflects yourself?
Elliott: I think there are a lot of common things. It came out from a lot of those early discussions [Brett and I had]. So a lot of it certainly parallels me. But I’ve been married [to] Katherine [Ross] for thirty-three years and we’ve been together for thirty-nine years. I love my daughter more than anything. I see her all the time, always have. I don’t smoke pot. And I don’t have cancer. But apart from that, it’s pretty close. I do voiceovers. I’ve done a few westerns in my career. I think the real difference is that Lee just fucked his life up. He fucked it up. He fucked his life up in pursuit of this career. He’s not married to his wife anymore. He doesn’t have a relationship with his daughter anymore because he wasn’t there for her. And he doesn’t have a career. He’s not very smart. He’s certainly not very heroic on any level.