In “The Hero,” Sam Elliott (“Mask,” “The Big Lebowski”) plays Lee Hayden, a beloved Western movie star and voice over actor in Hollywood who finds himself reflecting on his life during the twilight of his career when he receives a disheartening diagnosis from his doctor. Looking for a second chance to land a role with substance, and also a second chance to make up for lost time with his estranged daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter), Lee is a man ready for change. When a young comedian named Charlotte (Laura Prepon) shows interest in him romantically, Lee must decide what he wants in life and how he hopes to be remembered as a father and entertainer.
During an interview with me a few weeks ago, Elliott, 73, talked to me about playing an actor for the first time in his career, working with director Brett Haley for a second time, and his opinion on receiving awards in Hollywood.
It’s obvious how important your voice has been throughout your career. How did it feel playing a character that has also benefited from the way he can deliver a line? Was it surreal?
Yeah, it was. It was the strangest thing playing an actor. I had never done that before. Bringing the voice over element into it made it more personal. It’s kind of a personal tale on some levels anyway, so bringing that into it really made it so.
What was it about “The Hero” specifically that attracted you to the role?
What attracted me to it was the opportunity to work with Brett Haley, the director and writer. We had done “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” so “The Hero” was born out of conversations Brett and I had when we were on the road doing promos for our other film. We logged a lot of miles together and ate a lot of meals together and shared a few drinks together. We really became close to one another. I really have a high regard for Brett. If all things go the way they should, which they normally don’t necessarily, this should be the start of a very long career for Brett. He’s an incredible filmmaker. I’ve had people write parts for me before, but I’ve never had anyone write a screenplay for me. The fact that he and Marc [Basch], the cowriter, went to the trouble of doing that, there was never a question to whether I was going to do this or not. It spoke to me right off the top.
Have your experiences doing voice over work during your career matched what is shown in the film? Is that how it worked for you?
That’s exactly how it worked. It’s very much true to the way it is and the doing of it. I don’t think I’d get as upset by being asked to do another take like Lee was. I’ve always looked at it as part of the deal. Even if [a director] knows they’ve got [a good take], they still want to hear one more for whatever reason.
These days, how do you decide on what roles you want to play? How has that changed over the years? I’m assuming scripts that are written specifically for one actor don’t come too often.
No, they don’t come along very often. A lot of [actors] dream about someone writing a part for us. In most instances, it never happens. Over the years, there were certainly times early on I was just eager to work period. If I got an offer to do something, I’d do it. Now, I’ve become a lot more selective about what I do. I’m always just looking for something that’s honest – something that rings true to me in terms of the story, character and dialogue.
In the film, Lee is given a Lifetime Achievement Award. How would you react if you were offered an award like that?
It certainly is an honor to receive awards from different organizations particularly those that have to do with Western heritage and with keeping the West alive. I’ve been honored a number of times for different projects I’ve done – by the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and The Western Heritage Awards down there in Oklahoma City. I am always honored by that. I’m not cynical about that at all. I always take that to heart. It’s always nice to get that kind of stuff, but that’s not why I’m in the game. It’s nice to be recognized, but I got in the game to do the work. It’s still that way today. That’s what’s most important to me – the work.
You’re in a business where awards seem to mean a lot in terms of success. I mean, if you’re an actor and win an Oscar, you’ll be marketed for the rest of your career as Academy Award nominated-actor so and so. Do you think awards are a good indication of what an actor has accomplished in his or her life?
I’ve always been a little skeptical about awards. I think it’s easy to award somebody that wins a footrace. I think if you had a group of actors that all play the same part then maybe you could make some kind of judgment about who pulled it off better or more interesting or whatever. For me, it’s not about the awards. It’s not about the money. I’ve wanted to do this since I was a little kid. I remember those days my mom and her sisters and her family from West Texas would always want me to sing. I was always a singer, for whatever reason. My mom took me to sing in the church choir when I was five years old and that was kind of the beginning of it. They always believed in me and encourage me about my dream to pursue an acting career. Those were the days.
In the film, Lee is an actor known for one major role in his career. You, of course, are known for a host of them in real life. As an actor, is there a role that you’d hope people remember you for? I loved you in “Mask” and, recently, “Grandma,” and, of course, “The Big Lebowski.”
There are special things about all of those. Often, it isn’t about the part, it’s about who I worked with doing the job. That makes it more special. I’ll always have a soft spot for a film called “Conagher” that my wife and I did together. We wrote the script together. It was an adaptation of a Louis L’Amour book. I produced it and we both acted in it. It was a TV show for TNT. It wasn’t a big screen thing.
I’ll have to seek that one out. I have to say, out of all your film performances, my all-time favorite is “Off the Map,” which I think is an underappreciated little masterpiece.
That was a nice little film. We shot that about 100 miles north of Santa Fe. It was a really special time. [Actress] Joan Allen was just unbelievable. I just loved working with her and being up in that country. It’s was breathtaking.
In the film, your character goes off on a cameraman from TMZ who is bothering you. Have you ever had an encounter in Hollywood with any of those guys before?
I’ve actually had a lot of encounters with those guys from TMZ. I live in Malibu and they used to camp by the market where I used to shop. So, I had a lot of encounters with those guys and they were always nice encounters. I’ve never been harassed. With that said, there have been times where I have been hounded and harassed by guys and I don’t particularly like that. I don’t know that I would overreact like Lee did, but I get that. I understand it.