Sam Elliott is well on his way to possibly earning his first Oscar nomination after a long and storied career, thanks to “A Star Is Born.” Already nominated at the Critics’ Choice Awards and Screen Actors Guild Awards for his performance as Bobby, older brother to Jackson (Bradley Cooper), Elliott has earned rave reviews, even with a short amount of screen time.
Elliott recently sat down with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum to discuss working with Cooper as an actor and director, the movies that influenced him most as a kid, acting opposite Lady Gaga and why he’ll be showing up to red carpets this year no matter what happens with the nominations. Watch the exclusive video chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Sam, I’ve been dying to know this for over a month since I saw the movie. Were you cast knowing that Bradley could do a similar voice to yours or was it the other way around?
Sam Elliott: When I first met Bradley, who I’d never met before we did the film, I met him a month before we started production, he played a tape for me at his home that he’d been working with a voice coach for about four months at that time, which he told me is gonna sound a little strange probably, but he turned it on and it sounded very much like me, so I knew going in that he was doing this takeoff of my voice.
GD: And you didn’t mind that at all?
SE: No, I thought it kind of increased my chances for being in the film. Who else was he gonna get when he’s got my voice that he’s working with?
GD: Have other people in your life done your voice back to you?
SE: I’ve had a couple of people.
GD: Bradley’s a first-time director on this movie. Were there any hesitations at all knowing that going in?
SE: Not at all. It was so clear in that first encounter that Bradley was a brilliant man, for starters. But as it turned out, he’s a brilliant filmmaker as well. It was so clear to me then in that first encounter with him that this guy knew what he was up to and I just wanted to be part of it.
GD: I could tell watching it that it felt such a confident hand to it. i’m sure he had everything mapped out in his head from start to finish.
SE: I believe that he did, from start to finish. He had a lot of pre-production time on it, he worked with Eric Roth on the screenplay to get it where he wanted to, and he was completely responsible for the way the cast fell together. I think he brought everyone into this thing, cast-wise.
GD: And the way it’s shot, it’s in your face, not only the concert on the stage you feel like you’re part of the band, but even I remember some of your shots. We’re right up there with you.
SE: A lot of that stuff was steady-cam and they were right in there. I was always amazed when I watched the last scene of [Lady] Gaga onstage at the Shrine Auditorium singing that final number. I was there that day when they did it and that guy was like this, only closer. That lens was right there and Bradley was right there and she’s there on the edge of that stage singing to the house.
GD: Did you see much of the musical production?
SE: Not a lot of it. I saw that stuff that was done there and I was at the Greek Theatre when they did stuff there. I wasn’t at any of the big venues that they went to.
GD: Speaking of shots, you’ve done a lot of movies and shows. You know when a character comes onscreen and it’s a really cool shot, which you have in this movie the first time we see you from behind and walking down the aisle. The introductory moments like that can really seal a movie for your character.
SE: Well for that character it’s always nice to make a nice entrance, you’re right. Bradley was intent on that. I remember him being intent on that. In the script you heard Bobby’s voice first, ‘cause Jack was onstage having some issues with his hearing and Bobby, older brother, was critical of him, thought he was messing around onstage, and then he came out from under the thing and walked down the aisle. So it kind of caught mid-scene where they picked that up, but it was a nice entrance, yeah.
GD: And another shot that I loved was in the truck when he gives that nice speech to you about how much you meant to him and then he gets out and that shot of you pulling away is a really nice one.
SE: Thank you. It’s one of those things that just happens. It’s not planned, necessarily. I think that one of the reasons that that moment is so powerful is because of the arc of that story, of the two brothers, and it comes to that final moment where he just picked him up at rehab and took him home and I think he probably knows that he’s not gonna fare well in the long haul, and he lets him out and Jack kind of hems and haws there and tells Bobby, “You were the one.” It became more than backing the truck out of the driveway. The interesting part about that, talking about Bradley as actor-director, I remember distinctly that he got out of the truck after saying what he said, shut the door, and then took a monitor from somebody at the side, walked around the front of the truck and there was Bradley the director standing out there watching the actor sitting in the truck. It’s astounding. I can’t say enough about him in terms of his filmmaking genius. He’s clearly a brilliant filmmaker.
GD: When you’ve read film scripts and TV scripts over the years, are you looking for those kind of silent moments, moments where you don’t even have to convey what you’re feeling or emotions?
SE: I don’t know, I’ve been referred to as a guy that doesn’t say much or the man of few words or whatever, but it’s not the size of the part, it’s the quality of the part, and I’m not looking for moments. I’m just looking for good work, looking for a good script. I always felt if there’s three decent scenes in a film then that’s plenty.
GD: Well you got way more than that in this movie. Now that it’s been out in theaters for a month and the audience has been watching it worldwide, what kind of reactions have you been getting?
SE: A lot of very positive reaction from a lot of total strangers and friends and people that I respect their opinions. Pretty much across the board it’s all been good. I’m not sure about the anonymity that it’s costing me, but that’s all right. That’s part of the deal I guess, getting hooked up to a successful film.
GD: Before this film, since it’s so recent I wanna ask you about this one, but of the movies and television you’ve done in your career, what have fans most wanted to talk to you about. What comes up the most?
SE: “The Big Lebowski.” “Tombstone.” “Lifeguard.” “We Were Soldiers.”
GD: “Roadhouse,” I’m imagining.
SE: “Roadhouse” is up there. Pretty close to the top.
GD: You’ve had two Golden Globe nominations, you have two Emmy nominations. Because we’re an awards website I love to ask this, what was your first big award show you attended?
SE: The Golden Globes. I’ll tell you an interesting story about the Golden Globes. When I’d first gotten into the business I worked as a day laborer in a construction business. I was involved in rebuilding a wing in the Beverly Hilton Hotel. This was in mid-70s, right there on Wilshire Boulevard and it was right there above where all the cars come into the Golden Globes. I remember distinctly being there one time on Friday evening, we were wrapping up and seeing all those cars pulling in there to the Golden Globes, and about three years later I was in there in my tuxedo, and it was before they put it all on film so everybody was pretty well swackered. I remember seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger, he was in there I think for “Pumping Iron” and he was wearing a corduroy suit and that was it, bulging everywhere, and there was our future governor. So that was my first one.
GD: First one, and it was not too many years after working there.
SE: That was right on the heels of it.
GD: Have you ever done an Oscar ceremony?
SE: I went to the Oscars one time. Actually, in terms of the Golden Globes I hosted the Golden Globes one year with Cybill Shepherd, which is a fact that not many people are aware of, I’m sure.
GD: Was that daunting or did you have a good time?
SE: No it was fun, we had a great time. I love Cybill, so it was fun to be with her. It was the time we were doing a show called “The Yellow Rose” together.
GD: Yeah, I remember that show. And the Oscars, when was that?
SE: I couldn’t tell you, to be honest with you. Should’ve done my homework, huh?
GD: No, that’s good. And now you may be going as a nominee for the first time.
SE: Well, I’m not gonna even go down that road. I just really wanna enjoy this time in this moment. I’ll definitely go there in support of Bradley and Stefani [Germanotta, a.k.a. Lady Gaga] and the film and everybody else that’s gonna get nominated because of this thing. There’s gonna be a bunch of them there.
GD: I think you’re gonna be right there among them.
SE: I appreciate that.
GD: I tell people all the time every year this November to late February, it’s not about that one day at the end, it’s the whole journey. I think the people that enjoy that journey are the ones that get the most out of it.
SE: Those are the fortunate ones, I think. I truly believe that.
GD: Have you been an Oscar voter for a while?
SE: Yes, I joined the Academy right after I worked with Whoopi Goldberg. I’m trying to think of when that was. Anyway, I remember she being one of the people that supported my joining.
GD: She’s on the board of governors now. I always like to ask an Oscar voter when I have one in front of me. When you get the ballot, what types of things are you looking for from another performer? You don’t have to name specific names, but what sort of performance gets your attention?
SE: The stuff I can believe more than anything else, if it’s meant to be believed. If it’s meant to be some fantastical thing then it’s about that. It’s whatever the piece has been set up to convey and if I buy into it. That’s what I’m looking for as a performer, to tell the truth, whatever it is.
GD: And that’s the kind of scripts you’re looking for?
SE: Yeah. I just find it easier to entertain if you can tell the truth.
GD: From your past, name a couple of films or performances that you saw that just really impacted you.
SE: How far back do you wanna go?
GD: It could be from when you were a kid.
SE: “Sergeant York” brought me to tears every time I watched it. Gary Cooper.
GD: Yeah, won an Oscar for that.
SE: He was my favorite actor and I followed him forever.
GD: So “Sergeant York” was one of the ones that made you wanna be an actor.
SE: Yeah. “Creature from the Black Lagoon” was another one. All of John Ford’s films. We had a local theater in Sacramento, California where I was born and grew up until I was 15. I used to go there and watch the Saturday matinees and saw a lot of films and that’s really where I got hooked at a very early age and thought, “Wow, that’s something I’d like to try.” And I pretty much had tunnel vision about it.
GD: It only takes that one that makes you wanna do it forever.
SE: Yeah, indeed.
GD: Well, thank you so much. “A Star Is Born” is a wonderful movie.
SE: It is a wonderful movie.
GD: I hope we see you on a bunch of red carpets over the next few months.
SE: Well, I’m gonna be there like I said, in support of it, for sure. It’s been a joy to be part of it up ’til now and I have no doubt it’s gonna continue until it’s over with.
GD: Well thank you.
SE: Thanks for your time.