Oscar nominee finding new success at 84

Story highlights

June Squibb, 84, is up for best supporting actress for "Nebraska"

Squibb has been in acting for more than 60 years

She's always had regular work, but "Nebraska" has made her somewhat of a name

CNN  — 

June Squibb has been in show business for 60 years – but it’s only now, with her performance in the film “Nebraska,” that she is getting wide recognition.

And no wonder. It’s not often a role gives an older woman an opportunity to say the F-word and lift up her skirts at a cemetery – and leads to an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress.

5 things we learned from the Oscar nominations

As Kate Grant in “Nebraska,” Squibb is the blunt, put-upon wife of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a cantankerous former auto mechanic who’s convinced he’s won a million-dollar sweepstakes. It’s a role that could have been played for one-dimensional laughs, but Squibb’s performance brings out both Kate’s hard edges and protective heart – for her sons, who run interference for Woody, and for Woody himself.

Director Alexander Payne wasn’t surprised.

“It’s called being a pro,” he told The New York Times. Squibb had also appeared in Payne’s “About Schmidt” as Jack Nicholson’s wife, who dies early in the film.

Squibb said she’s thrilled with the attention but has had plenty of time to prepare.

“I’ve gone through being discovered an awful lot of times in New York on stage, and even some of the films I’ve made,” she told CNN.

She’s been at this acting thing for a while, with regular appearances in the theater, in small movie roles and on television. Her late husband, Charles Kakatsakis, was an acting teacher. Their son, Harry, is a filmmaker. She knows the business.

She even played on the silliness of Oscar campaigning in a video for “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

“Nebraska” was released on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday. Squibb spoke with CNN about the film, her newfound fame and the Oscar nod. The following is an edited version of the interview:

CNN: So what’s it like, being an overnight success at 84?

June Squibb: It’s different, God knows – and I certainly was never nominated for an Academy Award before – but it’s fun. I’m enjoying it tremendously.

CNN: Tell me how this came about. You had a small role in “About Schmidt.”

Squibb: (For) “About Schmidt” they didn’t know me, and they were looking far and wide, and finally they accepted a tape from New York. (Alexander Payne) said, the minute he saw the tape he knew that’s what he wanted for “About Schmidt.”

So 10 years have gone by, and again he was looking for this woman’s role, and he told me he thought I wasn’t right for it. He thought I was that sweet little lady from “About Schmidt.” But his office asked if I would take the script and read two scenes on tape for him, and I did. And he said when he saw the tape, he knew this was it.

CNN: What is an Alexander Payne shoot like?

Squibb: It’s very relaxed because he’s relaxed. He basically comes into it knowing what he wants, and if he doesn’t, he might even tell you. In one instance, when I was telling off the family with the F-word, he said to me, I don’t know what I want. So we tried it all different ways. He’s very open. And he does understand how an actor works. He understands what we have to go through to get somewhere.

CNN: How did you approach portraying the wife? She starts out as almost dismissive of what seems like a no-good husband, and then you realize how deep and firm their passion and relationship is.

Squibb: I didn’t think that out so much. I think the way I work is each scene and deal with it as what that scene is. I never really thought in terms of the trip, because I was taking it.

CNN: Were there any scenes that were difficult for you to do, like lifting up your skirts in the cemetery? (In that scene, Squibb’s character mocks a former boyfriend by pulling up her skirt to show his gravestone what he missed.)

Squibb: The cemetery is the first scene that I shot. When I found that out, I screamed, “Alexander! This is hard!” And he said, “No, we’re doing it first, and it’ll be fine.” And of course it was. We had a good time and it was fun to shoot. I think he got what he wanted from it. The first day on set is always a little nervous-making, no matter how much you’ve worked or who you worked with.

CNN: Did you always want to be an actress?

Squibb: It was never a question of wanting. I always thought of myself as I am an actress. I went from Illinois to the Cleveland Playhouse and worked there for five years. And I went to New York from there. … I went there in ’56, and I was on Broadway by ‘59. I think I did five Broadway shows while I was there. I did everything – off-Broadway, stock, anything you can possibly do.

CNN: Has the acting life been all it’s cracked up to be?

Squibb: It’s been a wonderful life. Of course, it’s difficult – it’s probably the hardest career you could ever pick. But I’ve had a wonderful career; I’ve really worked a lot. I went to New York and started working right away. So I was one of the lucky ones in that respect.