‘Thelma’ Star June Squibb, Age 94, Is Our Next Great Action Hero

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Magnolia Pictures/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Magnolia Pictures/Getty Images

There’s not a lot of people who get spates of headlines and articles written about them, all with the words “kick ass” in front of their name.

“I love it,” Oscar-nominated actress June Squibb tells The Daily Beast’s Obsessed about her newly anointed moniker. “I’ve been telling people I will kick their ass.”

If you were among those who helped turn the new movie Thelma into an indie box-office smash over the weekend—or even just saw Squibb’s work in the film’s trailer—then you believe her promise: “Oh, I could do it. Yes.”

At age 94, Squibb is an unlikely action hero—and yet, an undeniable one.

The actress, who received her first Oscar nomination in 2014 for Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, stresses that she was actually 92 (and turned 93) when she filmed Thelma. The film, written and directed by Josh Margolin, is inspired by his own grandmother’s experience being conned out of thousands of dollars by scammers, after they called her pretending to be him asking for bail money because he had been arrested.

In the film, Thelma is mortified when she learns that she had been targeted because she was elderly, and easily duped. “Oh, I’m so embarrassed,” she moans, addressing her dead husband, needing comfort after the distressing incident. Her family uses the incident as an excuse to coddle her over her old age, insisting that she can no longer care for herself. When the police tell her that getting money back is a lost cause, she takes matters into her own hands.

What follows is Squibb’s own version of a Mission: Impossible-style caper, her first time as an action-movie leading lady after six decades in the business—and revitalizing the genre as a grandma seeking revenge.

She hijacks an electric scooter, speeding through the city streets like it’s a hot rod. (The film’s clever poster has her stern-faced with aviator sunglasses on, looking like Tom Cruise, with the film’s title and tagline spelled out in needlepoint.) She breaks into a friend’s house and steals her gun, locates the scammers in the back of an antique shop, and climbs over the fallen lamp stands and ducks under low-hanging chandeliers like they’re security laser beams in a bank vault. At one point, she walks away from an explosion in slow motion.

With the film already a crowd-pleasing hit, we talked with Squibb about finding dignity in aging, doing her own stunts at age 92, defying expectations, and being busier now than she’s been in her entire career.

I saw Thelma at Sundance, and got to witness the immediate love it received there. Did you know when you were filming this that it had the possibility to be the kind of move that people rally around in this way?

I don’t think we did. I think we knew this was a very special film. I think we were all very proud of it, and we really did enjoy doing it. But until Sundance—and we were all there—I don’t think any of us ever dreamt that we would get the love we were getting from people who saw the film. It’s just been amazing. In all my career, I’ve never had anything like this.

What’s really special about the film is that, while there is the fun of the action-movie elements, it’s also tackling something very serious: the scams targeted toward elderly people.

I think today, when you make a film, you have to have something like the scam [storyline], where you want to get serious about it. You want to talk about it, and you want to make a difference. I think we take the cover off of the scam thing, and people understand it. And then I just think the action is a hoot. I love it. I just, I think that Josh had been so smart, and his script and his ideas for this lady. [Laughing] I think she is an action hero.

June and Fred point at a computer screen in ‘Thelma’

June Squibb and Fred Hechinger

Magnolia Pictures

One thing that makes this character work so well is that she’s motivated by a pursuit of dignity, when what happens to these people who are scammed can be so undignifying.

One thing I related to is when she said to her dead husband, “Oh, I’m so embarrassed, Teddy, I made a mistake.” I think you do feel that. You feel dumb. You feel like, how did they put that over on me? And in truth, [these scammers] are very smart. Now they have the AI thing too, which can call you and make it sound like someone you know. So I think we have to get over that. I think we have to get over our embarrassment and instead do something about it. And hope that the police will do something about it, or the telephone network, whoever. Zuckerberg. [Laughs]

When you first read the script and saw how much action there was going to be in it, did that excite you or make you nervous?

It excited me. The whole scooter thing excited me. I thought, this will be fun to shoot. Just be on that scooter, I thought that was a great idea. I don’t think I thought early on what it would entail, physically: the bedrolls [rolling over a mattress like an action star sliding over a car’s hood], going through that antique store, you know, things like that. But as we got to filming it, I just felt, “Yeah, I can do this.” And I did most of it.

What did it feel like when you were actually doing those stunts, like the bedrolls?

It felt great. You say, “I think I can do it,” but you're not sure. I said, just let me try. “Let me see.” Like the bedroll, both of them. And they were both different. It wasn’t the same bedroll each time. But I just felt I understood what they wanted, and that I could do it. So I just sort of threw my body into it, and could do it. The second one especially was very impressive to the crew and everybody around.

People have compared the film to Mission: Impossible, which I guess would make you its Tom Cruise.

Yeah! I think I am. I love the [espionage sequence with the hearing aids]. Then when Richard [Roundtree] and I walk away from the [exploding] antique store with the flame behind us, I just think that’s a hoot. I still laugh at it every time I see it.

‘Thelma’: 94-Year-Old Grandma Out for Revenge Against Her Scammers

When I wrote about the film at Sundance, like a lot of people have been doing, I put your age in the headline. Some people messaged me that they thought it was ageist to do that. How do you feel about the fact that your age has become such a huge part of the narrative of this movie and people’s interest in it?

It doesn’t embarrass me. I think it’s fine. I sometimes begin to feel like, well, if someone says I’m 94 one more time... [Laughs] I was actually 92 and 93 when I shot the film. But it is a film about aging. I think people would be remiss not to mention this, because that’s the whole concept of the film: that it doesn’t destroy her life to be at this age.

There’s a difficult balance to strike between talking about aging in a realistic way, with humor, and being demeaning or leaning into clichés that are debasing. What is the trick to nailing that in a film like Thelma?

I think if it’s done honestly, it’s OK. That’s one thing that Josh did. He never laughed at her or at anything she was doing. But we looked at it with humor. It’s what you do in life. I think if we all didn’t look at our lives humorously, we would be sad as hell. It would be much more difficult to go through life if you didn’t have humor.

Dennis McCoig, June Squibb and Bruce Dern sit at a table in ‘Nebraska’

Dennis McCoig, June Squibb and Bruce Dern in Nebraska

Paramount Pictures

How does it feel to be at a part of your career where it seems like you’re mostly getting offers for roles?

That's wonderful, and that actually started happening after Nebraska, after the Oscar nomination. For some reason, it’s like you get an Oscar nomination, and you don't audition anymore. You sometimes meet somebody. You might meet a director or meet a star. But you’re sent scripts. People ask, and that’s kind of wonderful—when you’ve spent your whole life auditioning, especially.

It also seems that a byproduct of that, of being an actor who gets so many offers, is that you’re working a whole lot lately. Do you feel like you’ve been incredibly busy?

Yes. It’s funny. I was offered a one-day shoot on a TV show, and I wanted to do it. My assistant said, “We're not going to fly to New Jersey and do that, and fly back [to LA].” And then we had to fly to New York the next week to start shooting a film. I said, “I do want to do it.” And we did it. It was crazy. I knew it was crazy, but I read that script and said, “I’ve got to do this.” So there you go, as to my sense in what I do or don't do.

The emotion Nostalgia, a purple grandma, opens a door in ‘Inside Out 2’

Nostalgia, voiced by June Squibb, in Inside Out 2


I saw Inside Out 2 recently, and all the kids in the audience laughed so hard when your character, Nostalgia, came out. What is it like being a part of something that is going to be indelible to so many kids?

I love doing it. I really do like doing voice-overs. They’re great fun. And I like Pixar. I like working for them. I had done Toy Story 4, which was my first of the big features that they do. It’s very exciting. And everybody loves them. They talk about getting the toys at McDonald’s. It’s great fun.

Whenever I watch a Pixar film, like Inside Out 2, I’m the grown man who starts crying in the middle of it. Did you have any emotional reaction to the film when you saw it?

No, I didn’t cry. I was kind of amazed. I’m always looking at those movies, and I’m like, “How do they do that?” All the animation is so involved and so beautiful. We saw it at the premiere, which made everything sort of heightened. I went through the red carpet and everything. So there was a lot going on. But it was fun just to sit there and watch the film. I always enjoy that.

Do you enjoy getting to do the red carpets, the big premieres, the interviews, the talk shows, and all of that?

Yeah, I enjoy it. I do get tired. As I’ve gotten older, I get tired earlier. But I feel good doing it.

What do you think people will learn from Thelma and watching a woman her age take her fate into her own hands?

Oh, I just hope people realize that there are no laws about age, about aging. You can continue to do so many things. And people are so different at my age. I know other 90 year olds doing different things than I’m doing. You just shouldn’t stop yourself. That’s the whole thing.

That’s a lesson for people of any age. I’m taking that to heart.

I’ve always felt that. I guess I’ve always broken rules. I just don't know how to live otherwise.

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