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Arts + CultureMoviesAt 94, 'Thelma' star June Squibb is 'breaking every...

At 94, ‘Thelma’ star June Squibb is ‘breaking every rule ever made’

'I wanted to do as much as I could,' says feisty film and stage veteran of first solo starring role in action movie.

What a time to be a nonagenarian.

Dick Van Dyke, 98, recently won an Emmy for a guest-starring role on the soap Days of Our Lives. Mel Brooks, also 98 as of June 28, just received a Peabody Award for lifetime achievement and is lending his voice to two upcoming animated projects. He is also a producer on the upcoming Young Frankenstein Live!, ABC’s live TV adaptation of the Broadway adaptation of his 1974 classic comedy.

Ellen Burstyn, 91, recurs as Christopher Meloni’s mom on Law and Order: Organized Crime and starred in the Sundance comedy Mother, Couch. Carol Burnett, 91, costarred in the Apple+ series Palm Royale. Among always busy 92-year-old Rita Moreno’s recent works are 80 For Brady, Fast X, and Family Switch, and she’s set to star in an upcoming horror movie Theirs. Lois Smith, 93, has recently had roles in The Uninvited and played the matriarch of a heroin-dealing gang on Law and Order: Organized Crime.

Then there’s June Squibb, 94, with two movies in theaters at the same time. In Pixar’s latest, Inside Out 2, she is Nostalgia, the character drawn to resemble the actor who voices her. Then in Josh Margolin’s feature debut, the action comedy Thelma, which opened last Friday, Squibb plays the title character, a grandmother who seeks to be made whole con men scam her out of $10,000. The film represents two new experiences for Squibb: Her first starring movie role and her first time as executive producer.

“It really is crazy,” Squibb laughs during a visit to the city in April where Thelma was the SFFILM Festival’s closing-night feature. “I’m breaking every rule that has ever been made about anything.”

It is true that Squibb’s is a career unlike any other. She’s been performing for her entire life, getting her start singing and dancing in musicals and making her Broadway debut in Gypsy in 1960. She credits her second husband, acting teacher Charles Kakatsakis, with convincing her that she could perform in straight plays. She took his classes and he also coached her at home as she made the transition to regional theater and Off-Off-Broadway. Then at 61, she made her film debut after suggesting to her agent that there were a lot of films being made in New York and she should be in some of them.

“The next week, I had an audition for Woody Allen for Alice, and I got it,” Squibb remembers. “The same casting director sent me up to Martin Brest for Scent of a Woman, and I got that. Then I auditioned for Martin Scorsese for Age of Innocence and I got that. All at once, I was a film actress in New York.”

Two decades later her career slipped in high gear when, at 84, she received Oscar, Indie Spirit, and Screen Actors Guild supporting actress nominations for her role as Bruce Dern’s wife in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.

She may well be in line for more nominations for her work in Thelma. The character is based on Margolin’s own grandmother, an indomitable spirit still living at 103, who almost became a victim of the type of scam that befalls Thelma. 

Thelma became a way to write an ode to my grandmother and celebrate her and do it through the lens of a genre that I have always had an affinity for, which is action,” says Margolin. “I wanted to find a way to shrink those tropes down to explore aging and autonomy and her fight for independence at that transitional moment in life.”

Fred Hechinger plays Thelma’s beloved grandson Daniel, while Parker Posey is her daughter Gail and Clark Gregg is her son-in-law Alan. They all become concerned for her when drops out of sight in her determination to find the people who talked her out of money by pretending to be her grandson on the phone, calling in need of bail money. The late Richard Roundtree, in his final role, is Ben, an old friend who teams up with her in her quest. Armed with little more than their smarts and a motorized scooter, the two perform a geriatric Mission: Impossible all across the streets of Los Angeles.

Richard Roundtree and June Squibb in ‘Thelma.’ Photo via Magnolia Pictures

Squibb was in Margolin’s mind for his lead all the time he was writing his script. As luck would have it, Squibb co-starred in Stephen Karam’s 2021 drama The Humans with Beanie Feldstein, the women striking up a friendship. Feldstein is also friends with Margolin and his sister and knows their grandmother. She, too, could see Squibb in the role, and offered to share the script with her.

“June was the first present, which was amazing and made me feel like the film had a beating heart and we could build from there,” Margolin says. 

The filmmaker jokes that watching Tom Cruise jump out of a plane is scary but so is watching his grandmother get into bed. That is the world of Thelma, where there are stunts and at least one genuinely tense moment but they are built around what is realistic for a 93-year-old woman. In the spirit of Tom Cruise, Squibb did as many of the movie’s physical bits as she could.

“I danced for years,” she says. “I stopped dancing when I started working as an actress but the body remembers. I also did a lot of working out. I worked with trainers in New York and LA. I wanted to do as much as I could. I had a wonderful stunt double but I just kept saying I could do it. And so, they let me, or let me try.”

“My grandma has long been my hero,” Margolin adds. “She is the most resilient person in my life and just seeing her weather the storms of aging and coming up those limitations just feels tense and heroic. I’ve always had an affinity for action movies and the idea of doing the impossible against all odds. That spirit applies to this movie – just on a different scale.”

THELMA is playing local theaters.

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