Legendary actor Sam Elliott explains how he almost 'f---ed' himself out of a career


The Hero Sundance Institute

Sundance Institute

Sam Elliott in "The Hero."

Sam Elliott is known for his deep drawl and a look that seems to be right out of a John Ford Western, thanks in large part to that mustache. It's led to four decades of steady work that has given us memorable supporting performances in movies like "Mask," "Road House," "Tombstone," and "The Big Lebowski."

But now Elliott finally has the floor to himself with his new movie, "The Hero" (in theaters on Friday). Starring as Lee Hayden, a washed-up movie star of an iconic Western struggling with the grind of the business and mortality, Elliott delivers a tour-de-force performance.

Elliott talked to Business Insider about his own career struggles - including the time he thought he "f---ed" himself out of a career - how he's finally come to terms with his cowboy typecasting, and what he thinks of working with Bradley Cooper, who is making his directorial debut with a remake of "A Star Is Born." 

Jason Guerrasio: Did it take some convincing to do this role or were you game from the start?

Sam Elliott: I was game from the beginning. I met ["The Hero" director] Brett Haley on another film a couple years prior. It was a picture that starred Blythe Danner called "I'll See You in My Dreams" and it was really a great experience working with Brett. We traveled a lot doing promotion for that film. We got to know each other fairly well and during the course of that, sitting next to each other on a plane or sitting around having a drink or dinner, we got to like each other and he and his writing partner Marc Basch came up with this idea for "The Hero." I don't even know if Brett told me he was going to write something for me, but they gave me a presentation and I was in. It was very much close to home in some respects and in other respects not like me at all. I think every actor's dream is somebody writes something specifically for them. I've had people write parts for me over the years but I've never had anybody give me a script that I was on every page that was written with me in mind.


Guerrasio: And you got the plus of working with Nick Offerman again.

Elliott: I love Nick. I think on some level Nick is probably responsible for whatever's going on with my career right now.

Guerrasio: Really?

Elliott: I think probably. I've never asked Nick this but when I went and did "Parks and Rec," it was to play Nick's doppelganger. I can't imagine that those writers and producers didn't got to Nick and say, "Who do you want to play this character, since it's a reflection of you?" And I think Nick was the one who came up with it.

Guerrasio: You guys have such a comfort together on screen -


Elliott: And it's off screen as well.

Guerrasio: I could almost see you two smoking weed and watching old movies on a lazy day like your characters do in the movie.

Elliott: Well, I think you're right.

Guerrasio: You mention that some things about Lee hit close to home. You said once in an interview that in promoting one of your first movies, 1976's "Lifeguard," "I kind of fucked myself out of a career on that level from being too honest and too opinionated." Is it fair to say you gave Lee that?

Elliott: I think it was there in Lee in some level. Maybe not to the degree that I was speaking of myself. There's a third quotation to that scenario, it's "honest, opinionated, and not very smart." All at the same time. And that's a lethal combination and I'll tell you what it came out of - it was the way Paramount chose to market that film. I'd spent six weeks on set with a guy named Dan Petrie who I have the greatest respect for, he's no longer alive, he directed the film. And we took that whole movie serious, even though it was a fluffy treatment because it was set on a beach. But it was about a guy who was at a point in his life that he had to make up his mind about what he wanted to do: be a lifeguard or get a real job. And when the marketing campaign came out I was on the road for a long time and every time we'd go into a city and start an interview people would start the interview by saying, "This movie is nothing like I expected it to be," based on the marketing, and we would go into this long discussion about the f---ing marketing. [Laughs] It was never positive. So in the end I never worked for Paramount again.


Guerrasio: So you were bitter.

Elliott: I wasn't bitter, it just irked the s--- out of me is the truth of it. It wasn't personal to anybody.

Guerrasio: But did you bring some of that into the Lee character?

Elliott: I suppose so. In that one conversation in the beginning of the movie when his agent calls him in the car about this group that wants to give him a lifetime achievement award and Lee's like, "Great but how about a f---ing job, you got a script for me?" I've had those times. I've had those periods in my career when I was sitting around waiting for a phone call and had an agent who was doing the same thing rather than going out there to shake the bushes looking for a job for me. It's a frustrating game, that's the downside of this business - the rejection.

Guerrasio: It's a helpless feeling because, like you say, you don't know if your agent is doing their job.


Elliott: Right. That's just the reality of it. And I don't know if I f---ed myself out of a career, how you phrased it, but the truth of it is I'm glad it's come now. And I suppose the work I've done over the last couple of years, all of a sudden I'm getting more attention than I've gotten in a long time.

Guerrasio: In my opinion, that's because everyone can see your work through streaming and it's always showing up on cable.

Elliott: I think you're absolutely right, it's like it never goes away.

Guerrasio: One standout is playing The Stranger in "The Big Lebowski."

Elliott: Yep.


Guerrasio: That will be played until the end of time. And that's one where the Coens didn't just write the part for you - your name was in the script when describing the character.

Elliott: That's right.

The Stranger The Big Lebowski Gramercy Pictures

Gramercy Pictures

Sam Elliott as The Stranger in "The Big Lebowski."

Guerrasio: I mean, you can't really say no to the job when your name is in the script.

Elliott: You can't. And how do you say no to the Coen brothers, period? Even when your name isn't in the script.

Guerrasio: And I believe you were on the set of John Milius' movie "Rough Riders" when you got the script.


Elliott: That's right.

Guerrasio: What's crazy about that is Milius was one of the people the Coens modeled The Dude after.

Elliott: Yes he was. It all interconnected on some level. This goes back to "Tombstone." A guy named Jim Jacks, who produced "Tombstone," was a friend of the Coens. He's no longer alive, but Jim told me once while we were sitting at a pool in Tucson, he said, "You know who really loves you is the Coen brothers." And I said, "Yeah, right." And he said, "No, one of these days they are going to write something for you." And I just passed it off. So I'm down there doing "Rough Riders" with Milius and here comes this script and they delivered it up to the set and I couldn't wait to read it. At the time, I felt I was boxed into this Western thing and I felt a Coens script will definitely be a total departure from this Western thing that's got me. And I f---ing open the script and there's that character. He's a drugstore cowboy but he's still a cowboy. But after that I never once had any feeling that I'm boxed in with Westerns. Looking back on the long haul in my career, little films, big films, TV, the Western thing has been really good to me.

Guerrasio: Let me throw this hypothetical at you: If "Road House" and "Tombstone" are on TV at the same time, which one are you going to sit back and watch?

Elliott: "Tombstone." No doubt.


Guerrasio: Do you have any animosity toward "Road House"?

Elliott: Oh, none. Not at all. If I could sit down and watch all those scenes with Patrick [Swayze] and myself I would watch "Road House." But "Tombstone" is a different animal.

A Star Is Born Warner Bros final

Warner Bros.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in "A Star Is Born."

Guerrasio: Have you shot "A Star is Born" yet?

Elliott: I'm working on it right now. I literally have one more day on it.

Guerrasio: Give me your thoughts of Bradley Cooper as a director.


Elliott: Bradley is more than capable as a director. I think he's a great director. I don't know how he does it. I've gone to set when I'm not working just to watch him in action. He covers it all and boy the pressure is on him and he's delivering this amazing performance in which he's singing and playing the guitar. I mean, that guy is driven. He's super intelligent, has an incredible work ethic. He just wants it to be real, that's what he's striving for, some kind of honesty. And he's pulling it off. And Stefani [Lady Gaga] is equally incredible. She's going to surprise a lot of people with her acting ability. It's an amazing experience to be with them both.

Guerrasio: And I'm assuming you aren't a cowboy in this one so I'm excited to see that.

Elliott: Me too!

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