June Squibb, who looks exactly like a June Squibb, is short and stocky, with a round, kind face. That warm exterior, however, distracts from the tougher, Midwestern matter-of-factness that seems to rest just beneath. She does not appear to be the type to humor anyone; and as Kate Grant, the stern, disapproving wife of Bruce Dern's Woody Grant in the new Alexander Payne film, "Nebraska," she humors no one, swears at relatives, calls out her husband and refers to elderly acquaintances as "whores."
She is terrifying.
Squibb is also 84, and Kate Grant is the Vandalia, Ill., native's largest movie role to date.
But not her first: She spent decades on Broadway, then two decades ago launched a film career. She has played a Gertrude, an Irma, a Bess and a Hilda; in both "Meet Joe Black" with Brad Pitt and "About Schmidt" with Jack Nicholson, she played a Helen. She's been Mrs. Pebble, Mrs. Punch and Mrs. Hunsaker; she's been an "Old Lady" and in "Far From Heaven," an "Elderly Woman." She was Jennifer Love Hewitt's grandmother on TV's "The Ghost Whisperer"; soon she plays Lena Dunham's grandma on "Girls."
Squibb spoke by phone recently (what follows is an edited transcript). She was very polite and did not swear at us once.
Q: Where the heck is Vandalia?
A: St. Louis was the big city, if that gives you an idea. Southern Illinois, basically. There were 7,000 people there when I was a kid. I wasn't encouraged to go into show business. My father was in the insurance business, and I took every opportunity to act in school, but my family had no interest. I had an aunt who whistled through her teeth and tap danced, but my family had no understanding of how theater life worked.
Q: So you left.
A: I spent my first five years at the Cleveland Play House, then the next 40 in New York theater. I ended up doing musicals for the first 15 years I was there. I was the stripper Electra in "Gypsy," my first show on Broadway. Ethel Merman was in that. We loved her. I went on the road with her in the touring company. She was a very, very fair, dear person. I did "The Happy Time" on Broadway with Robert Goulet, and in the 1970s I did a series of Edward Gorey stories on Broadway that opened in the middle of a newspaper strike. We had one performance. I did lots of stock and regional theater, but never movies until the late '80s.
Q: At which point, you were in your 60s.
A: Right, the first film was "Alice" (1990) for Woody Allen. I think my musical background scared people before that. I wanted to be in films for a long time. After I married this wonderful acting teacher (Charles Kakatsakis, who died in 1999), he suggested I make acting the strong point. I stopped taking jobs in musicals and told my agent I wanted to do films, and they got me "Alice." Which led to "Scent of a Woman." I worked a lot in New York. It wasn't until "About Schmidt" that I worked in Los Angeles at all. I've been living there about 10 years now, but I didn't give up my New York apartment until 2011. I was bi-coastal for a while.
Q: Now that you're being talked about as a possible Oscar nominee, do you wish you had started earlier?
A: Not really. I do look at Bruce (Dern) and his resume and get envious. But no, I've had a good, long run.