June Squibb was in a bit of shock when she first saw her performance as the tart-tongued wife of Bruce Dern's character in Alexander Payne's "Nebraska."
Squibb had encountered women like the controlling, outspoken Kate growing up in a small town in Illinois. Still, she had no idea while making the movie just how well she knew the shrewish Kate.
"I thought, 'Oh, my God, that's my mother up there,'" recalled Squibb at a Beverly Hills hotel. "I never once thought of that when I was preparing and shooting the film."
Squibb, as charming and disarming in person as Kate is controlling and single-minded, said her mother didn't have all of Kate's irksome qualities. But they both spoke their mind.
Kate, she said, "has no filter. Whatever comes into her head goes right out of her mouth. It's not just Kate saying I know and you don't — she thinks everybody feels the same way she does. Everybody thinks the same way Kate does, and that's what my mother used to do. It was God's word because everybody she knew had to think the same way."
In her second outing for director Alexander Payne — she played Jack Nicholson's dullard wife who suddenly dies in 2003's "About Schmidt" — Squibb has earned critical praise and awards talk. . In "Nebraska," which opens Nov. 15 in limited release, the 84-year-old actress plays the long-suffering spouse of Woody (Dern), an alcoholic good-for-nothing in the throes of dementia who believes he's won a million dollars in a sweepstakes.
"You dumb cluck," she shrieks at Woody. "You know what I'd do with a million dollars? I'd put him in a home."
Woody and his youngest son, David (Will Forte), set out from their home in Billings, Mont., to Omaha to collect the prize. And they are joined by Kate when they stop in their small Nebraska hometown where all of their relatives want a piece of Woody's winnings. She quickly puts the money-grubbing family into their place.
"She's a fabulous teammate," said Dern, who won best actor at the Cannes Film Festival and is considered a strong contender for the lead actor Oscar.
Dern got a kick out of having seen Squibb more than 50 years ago play a stripper on Broadway opposite Ethel Merman in "Gypsy."
"She's running around and just as spry as she was then," said Dern. "I remember I told someone June here was a pole dancer in 'Gypsy.' She came up to me after and said, 'I was never a pole dancer, Bruce, I was a stripper.'"
The right Kate
Squibb had never met Dern until they made the movie. Payne, she said, brought them out to Nebraska early so they would get to know each other. "Bruce and I spent time together. We basically come from the same kind of work ethic."
Even though he had cast Squibb before, Payne didn't immediately think of her for Kate.
"The casting director John Jackson and I were auditioning and receiving taped auditions from actresses and not finding what we were looking for," explained Payne. "She sent an audition tape presenting this woman in two different ways. One as the harridan which you see, which is funny, and another in a more frank and down-to-earth way, which was not. June knew to say I can do it this way and I can do it that way."
One minute into the tape, he and Jackson realized they had found their Kate. "And the resulting woman you see in the film I think is a combo pack of the harridan and the down-to-earth person and some of June herself."
Squibb has honed her acting craft for more than 60 years. She began as a character ingénue at the Cleveland Playhouse, getting her big break in 1958 off-Broadway playing the comedic supporting role of Dulcie in "The Boy Friend." Besides twirling her tassels as Electra in "Gypsy," she starred with Robert Goulet in the 1968 musical "The Happy Time."
She wanted to do more dramatic work, and her late husband, acting teacher Charlie Kakatsakis, inspired her to retire her tap shoes. "People didn't know I ever did musicals in a few years," said Squibb.
Film work, though, was slow going. In fact, she didn't make her film debut until she was 60 in Woody Allen's 1990 "Alice." Though she quickly got small parts in films and TV being cast in New York, it was "About Schmidt" that changed her career.
"When I found out it was Jack Nicholson [in the film], I was like 'Oh, my God.' But he couldn't have been sweeter. The day before we started shooting, he sent me this massive thing of flowers that came to the hotel."
She was getting so many job offers in Los Angeles, she left New York and settled here. At one point, she was appearing simultaneously on several series including "The Young and the Restless," "Ghost Whisperer" and "Judging Amy."
Since returning from the Cannes Film Festival, where "Nebraska" debuted in May, she's been working steadily. She guest starred as Lena Dunham's grandmother on HBO's "Girls" and has a role in an episode of another HBO series, "Getting On." This month she reunited with one of her best friends, Margo Martindale, playing her mother on an episode of CBS' "The Millers."
The highest praise for Squibb came from her fellow Midwesterner Payne, who doesn't tend to talk in superlatives. "She can do anything, that gal."