June Squibb – Broadway, Film, TV, Judging Amy, About Schmidt, Curb Your Enthusiasm

Originally published in 2007

June Squibb is a New York-based actor who has been living and working out of Los Angeles for the past three years. Her career has spanned over 50 years, and she’s moved from regional theatre and stock beginnings to acclaimed feature films and television.

 

 

Interviewed by Joanna Parson

Backstage - Casting You Can Trust

Let’s first talk about television, which you’ve been doing a lot lately– you have a recurring role on Ghost Whisperer, and have done a ton of guest-starring roles in the last few years, in both comedy and dramas. What do you think are some common misperceptions about working in television?
I think the most common misperception is that we don’t think of it as important. I think most people, at this point in what’s happening in the entertainment business, think that film is the most important, and then probably stage. And I think that people look at television sometimes as not that important.

But I have found in working in it, and working with the people, that they’re terribly dedicated. Much more so than I have assumed they would be. I think that people that are Hollywood-born, and raised in Hollywood, and have done TV all their life– they’re still very dedicated to good work. They want to do good work. There is a lot of casting from the standpoint of “Well, let’s get five 20-year-olds, and they’ll be cute and charming and sexy.” But I think even then, they want very much to do good work.

The 20-year-olds.
Yeah. It still is actors who want to do their best work. Not always. I mean, I certainly have worked with some that don’t. But– especially the stars, do. And the people that have been working in television. They really do. And I think they’re very, very proud of the work that they turn out, when it’s good.

What’s different about doing sit-coms, versus dramatic series like ER and Ghost Whisperer?
Well, the hours, for one thing. The big joke out in Hollywood is that everybody wants a sit-com, because they have normal hours. Because with a sit-com, you work one week. Five days, actually. On Monday you’ll table-read. Maybe you’ll start staging, maybe not. And then you stage through the week. Thursday, you might tape a few of the scenes. Friday, they do it in front of a live audience, the scenes that have not been taped. So you’re getting the audience reaction. Friday is like, nine to midnight. But other than that one day, you really are out of there sometimes by the middle of the afternoon. Which is not true of drama. Because with a drama, you would work 15 hours days, from 5:30 in the morning until midnight.

So, is doing a drama more like doing a little movie?
Yeah. It’s very much faster, of course. And in a film, you certainly have 15-hour days. You have 12-hour days a lot. Ten is considered light. And that’s true of the dramas. So, it’s harder. During that period of time that you’re working, if you’re working a few days it doesn’t matter so much. But if you are a regular and are working almost every day of the eight or ten, then you have no life. It’s very hard.

JuneJack.jpgJune as Helen in About Schmidt

You lived in New York most of your career, and started spending more time in Los Angeles after About Schmidt, in which you played Jack Nicholson’s wife. How did that film change your career?
It changed it dramatically out in Hollywood, I think. Because when the film opened in LA, I went out there. My agent wanted me to come out there for a little while, and I did. I went out for the premiere. And while I was out there for the premiere, I got an ER. And that basically was because of the film. I mean, I met with them and talked to them and was offered a job.

And some casting agents in Hollywood knew me from New York, and from the film work I had done before. But a lot didn’t. And so everybody saw that film, because of Jack. And it made all the difference in the world. I would not be doing what I’m doing, the television I’m doing now, if it were not for that film. I think it made a difference in New York, too– though I haven’t been in New York long enough to see what kind of difference it’s made. But I think that certainly the reaction that I’ve had, from the few NY casting people I’ve seen, and producers since I’ve been in Hollywood– everybody saw the film. So yes, it made a tremendous difference.

People sometimes think an A-List movie like that is all cast through phone calls between Hollywood deal-makers. Did you audition for that role in New York? How did you get the part?
Well, it’s really quite a story. Because it was my agent, Martin Gage, in Hollywood. He has an office in New York as well. Prior to that, all of my film work had been done out of New York. I had been auditioned in New York, and mostly filmed out of this area. And this film was casting in Hollywood. They did not want to come to New York. In fact, Alexander Payne, the director, talked to me about it afterwards, and said he really wanted to cast it all in Hollywood. It was shooting in Omaha, but he wanted everybody to come from Hollywood.

So, they had an actress that they were about to settle on. But it was not something he was that excited about. So my agent had been trying to get them to tape me in New York. He said, “All right, don’t go into New York. Just tape her.” And they said, “No, no, no. We’re gonna do this.” Then finally he got them to tape me in New York. And they sent the tape out. They taped me at New Line, the studio who produced it.
And I was told later that the minute they saw the tape, they knew this was it. Alexander did. So then he came into New York, and we had a meeting. And he taped me again. And then about six weeks went by, and then they asked me to do it. He told me later that I had the job the minute he saw me. Then when I met me, he said, “This is really what I want.” But they had to wait and see if they got a young actress as the daughter that would match Jack and I. And they felt that Hope Davis would match Jack and I.

What was the experience like making About Schmidt? You’d worked in film before– was this the most intimidating role you’d had to that point? Did you learn anything from your co-star, or the process, that you didn’t already know?
I learned a lot from Jack. I think the thing I really learned– and I learned it not so much from him, but because of working with him– is never be afraid. Because if I had allowed Jack Nicholson to become the important thing, then it would have been impossible to do the scenes. He had to become an actor who I was working with. He had to become Schmidt. And that’s what I was able to do.

And it didn’t always– I mean, offstage, I was always aware of who he was. He was charming. This is nothing to do with him. It’s to do with how you react when you meet someone like this. But on set, he became just an actor, and my husband, and all the things that he’s supposed to be if you’re working well. Because that’s the only way you can get through something like that. And it has come in handy since, because if I get into a certain situation I’ll think, “My God, you worked with Jack Nicholson. Why should this scare you?” Once I accomplished that, it certainly made a difference in the way I approach– not the work, but the environment that I’m going into.

At least one critic mentioned that About Schmidt was one of the only films in which Jack Nicholson was paired with a woman his own age. You’ve had a very different experience of aging in the business than many women, who can be frightened that their careers will dry up at 40. Do you have any advice for people who have fears about aging in Hollywood?
Well, it’s like anything else. I always feel, rules are meant to be broken. And certainly there are rules about age. There are rules about age in New York, in the theater, or in the film industry. But I think you just go ahead and work. And you don’t think about it.

I mean, we’ve known for how many years that there are ten men’s roles for every one woman’s role in a play or a film? And there’s nothing you can do about that. That was true when you were 15, or true when you were 20. So that was already slanted, as far as a woman’s concerned. And it still is.

I think you have to admit to yourself, and know who you are. Because if you are an older woman and still trying to play– or still want to be cast as a much younger woman, you won’t be. And that’s not realistic. I think that you have to be very realistic about your age. But I think if you are, there are a lot of opportunities.

In fact, it’s funny. In Hollywood now, my agent was saying the other day that it used to be, they would cast the young kids in a TV show. And then they would want their mothers and fathers. Now, for some reason, they want their grandparents. This is happening in many shows. Where the grandparents have become the family.

Maybe it’s because the parents are supposed to look young and hot like Teri Hatcher, but the producers still want an older presence. Even though in real life, parents look like parents.
Right. But I think also, I was always a character woman. Even as a young actress, I was a character actress. Never an ingenue, never played straight ingenue roles, ever. So that, too has a lot to do with it. As you age, it’s easier if you are a character actress. Because there’s nothing about having to look a certain way, or having to look young or anything like this.

I’m not saying Hollywood’s right. I’m not defending it. I think a lot of times people get tired of it. Of how they cast, and what they see women as, and the whole thing. I think that this is probably coming out now in your lack of people watching films. And the fact that independent films are many times better-received than any of the big studio work. And studios had a bad year last year. Finally some of them admitted it was product. I think that what we’re talking about has a lot to do with it.

Acting can be hard physical work, and you work out with weights and swim regularly. How has having a physical routine helped your acting? Have you exercised all your life?
I didn’t exercise all my life, because I danced a large part of it, which is exercise. So for all that early career, when I was doing musicals, I was physically working out all the time. And then I went through a period where I was making a change into straight drama as an actress, rather than a musical theatre performer. And I gained weight, and didn’t exercise. And then I started in again with the weights and the swimming and the stretching, and the whole thing. And it’s made a tremendous difference. I mean, I don’t think that physically I could do a lot that I do if it weren’t for that.

So what’s your routine? Can you share?
Sure. I do a stretch every morning. I work with a trainer here who rehabs runners. That’s how he started. And I went to him because my knees were bad from dancing. He gave me a stretch routine that I do when I first get up in the morning. And I even do that sometimes at 5:00 in the morning before I’m going off to a set, just because it’s hard for my knees and legs, my body to work if I don’t stretch. I do weights usually two to three times a week, both lower body and upper body. And I’ve been swimming almost every day.

In the beginning of your career, you worked in musical theatre, playing the role of Electra in Ethel Merman’s Gypsy on Broadway. Was that your first big role? How did you enter into the New York musical theater scene?
It wasn’t my first big role. The first big role I had was Boyfriend, which was off-Broadway.

Oh, the Julie Andrews?
No. They had brought the English version over and had played Broadway. It played six months, had a short run. It was not considered a tremendous success. And then a few years after it, in the late ‘50s, we did an off-Broadway version which ran for about five years. It ran here for a long, long time. And then I did it in Hollywood as well.

So how’d you get that role?
Well, I auditioned for it. Actually, the number, “It’s Never Too Late to Fall In Love”– I played Dulcie in it. A friend of mine had asked me to do the number with him in his acting class. Then he got an audition for this producer that was doing the off-Broadway. It was not even off-Broadway. It was a summer stock tour, first. And he asked me to do the audition with him. So I basically was not even auditioning. And they asked me to play the part, then. So I did the summer tour. And then we did it off-Broadway. And I played it here for about a year. That was the most influential thing, certainly, of my career at that point. People seeing me, and reviews, and the whole thing. And it was a big success, and I was successful in it, so.

 

juneheadshotsmall.jpg

Did you plan to do musical theatre?
Well, I had started out in musical theatre because I had been at the Cleveland Playhouse for five years. And I worked as an actress there, but they did musicals. Now, I had danced all my life, but I had never sung. A dear friend of mine (Jack Lee), was the vocal director at the Cleveland Playhouse, and he started me doing the comedienne roles. So I ended up singing. And I ended up being very popular [LAUGHTER] as the comedienne in musical theatre. I had never thought of doing it before.

So then we got to New York. And a large number of us came from Cleveland, including Jack and other people that did musicals there. And we started doing musicals here in New York. Equity Library theatre and stock, at different places. And I just got caught up in that. So my early career here in New York was as a musical theatre performer. And at that point, I think I accepted that. That this was what I was, and was going to be.

So how did it change?
Well, it changed because I think by the time I was doing Gypsy, I began to realize that I wanted to do more acting. And then I met Charlie (Kakatsakis), who was an acting teacher. I started working with him in stock and musicals. And he kept saying, “You’re a better actress than this. You should be thinking of it in terms of being an actress.” So I worked with him. And started changing what I did. Literally, I made– I had to do it. It didn’t just happen. Off-off-Broadway was just coming into the fore here in New York. It was just becoming something. And I started doing that, and started doing regional theatre as an actress. And this is how I made the change. The irony is, when I was in the musical theatre, no one hired me or wanted to hire me as an actress. And then after I made the change, no one dreamt I was in musical theatre. I mean, it’s crazy.

That’s really interesting for people to know. That you had to do it, before the people would see you in that way.
Yeah. And I literally had to just say no to jobs, to musical jobs.

How did you stay motivated (and financially solvent) during the leaner years? Is there anything you recommend actors do to take care of themselves and their futures when the business can be so unpredictable?
That’s hard. Because I think you have to find your own way. I mean, also, different people have different levels of money that they need to be happy. And so, I think you have to decide what your level is. I think that probably, to be honest with you, the most dedicated actors, or the people that have gone through and lasted, are those that have lived on less money. And if you really need all of the things that you’re supposed to want and need, I think it’s going to be very hard.

I know from Charlie’s students, at around 35 to the late 30’s, he had a huge dropout. Most of them were people that had started a family, or they went to graduate school. And some of them came back. I’m not saying that you can’t, or won’t. But an awful lot of them, I think, missed a career, basically. Because they opted for a certain standard of living. And I mean, we raised a son. And went through some– I went through some bad periods on my own, and certainly he and I did as well.

How do you stay artistically motivated during those times? Is that easier?
Well, I think that even if you’re working for no money– which happens, as we all know– you have to make it the most important thing. You can never not make it the most important thing.

Your husband was an acting teacher– did you continue to train? What do you think about training, and its importance to an actor’s career?
I think it’s important to know how to work. If you work well, then there’s probably very little that anybody can help you with, other than to keep your body attuned, your mind attuned. Charlie actually taught me how to work. Because I did not know how to work as an actress. It was hit and miss. If it were working well, it was great. But when it didn’t– it didn’t always work from the gut well– then it wasn’t so great. But he taught me a great deal, in terms of how to work.

Also, I worked with Bobby Lewis, and an actor named Ken McMillan, who both helped, too. But Charlie was certainly the biggest influence in my life, in terms of teaching me how to work. So, I think training is important. I think that it’s very important for a young person. I think it’s probably the most important. Because if you know how to work, then that’s what you can truly fall back on.

The irony is that different teachers teach different things. But you have to decide– and this is hard– which is the best for you. How your work grows the most, or is the most real. Which way of working. Some teachers are charlatans, God knows. But others that I might not agree with are perfectly fine for other people.

What would you tell people who are just moving to Hollywood? How can they prepare themselves BEFORE they arrive, rather than thinking they’ll come out to Hollywood and everything will happen for them after the big move?
The most important thing, I think, is having an agent. Now, you can work in New York, do a lot more, I think, without an agent. But in Hollywood, I think that it’s very– I mean, I think there are probably stage things you can do. But, in terms of films and television, I don’t know how you would make it without having someone submitting you. Because from what I can understand, it’s like, all done– I don’t know what the difference is. I guess in New York, you can do enough stage that people see you. And there, I think that’s very hard. They have a lot of stage, but I think mostly casting people don’t go.

A new subject– I think people would be interested to know about doing Curb Your Enthusiasm. It’s a unique sitcom, in that it’s heavily-improvised. Can you tell us a little about that process, and your experience doing the show?
Yeah. It is improvised [LAUGHTER]. When you audition, and when you’re doing the show, they write out a “precis”. They give you what they want, without giving you lines. In the audition, it was just a small paragraph of who this woman was, and what she was doing. I actually auditioned with Larry. I don’t know if it happens all the time, but because I was playing his so-called “mother”, that might have been why that happened.

And doing it was fun. It’s hard, because he will occasionally come up with lines he wants in it. And then it’s like, instant memory, which is not always easy. In other words, you’re improvising, but you have to have one or two lines that are exactly what he wants. The other thing is, they don’t know what they want. And Larry and the director will keep shooting. And what they do is, “Do it again. Do it again. Do it again.” What am I doing wrong? But one of the producers finally came up to me, he said, “June, it’s not you. This is how they work.” And they just keep at it, until they– they don’t even know what they want. In other words, they don’t know what lines they want, they don’t know what they want her to say.

Did you feel like you needed to be a stand-up comedienne, and come up with funny things?
No, and actually I don’t think they want you to do that. I think they want you to be the person that they’ve written. And he gives. I mean, he gives to you a great deal. And then they allow you to take it. Sometimes they’ll say, “No, don’t say a word. Just be there.” If you’re talking, and they don’t want you to talk.

That’s the only reason it’s hard. And that’s a part of that thing we were talking about earlier, about being on set and being intimidated. Or, how you work in a situation. I think that’s hard, because they don’t know what they want. And they don’t take the time to talk to you, or to let you know what they’re doing, or anything. And it’s– as I said, “Do it again, do it again.” That can get a little intimidating sometimes. Because you always say, “Well, what am I doing wrong?” Many times it’s not you at all. They’re just not hearing what they want to hear. And they don’t know what they want to hear. So, that’s the difficulty there.

You’ve had a relationship with one agent for years– how’d you meet him?
Martin Gage and I were old friends. We met years ago. He was an actor when I met him. And he became an agent, and worked with about three different agencies before he opened his own agency. And I was with him at one of those agents. I had a different agent before that. When he opened his agency in New York, I went with him.

Then he went out to Los Angeles, and he left someone in the office here in New York that I did not get along with. So I went with another agent for about seven years. And that was fine, and successful. Except near the end of the seven years, I began to feel I should make a change, for various reasons. And Martin had always said if I wanted to come back to him, I could. This must have been the late’70s, and I went back to his office here in New York. And I’ve been with him ever since.

How do you help him help you?
Occasionally I will hear of something that I tell them about. But for the most part, not much has ever come out of that, to be honest with you. Either they have already explored it for me, or it’s something that didn’t work out from a casting standpoint. I always try to keep my pictures up, and demos up, and all this. And I feel this is my responsibility.

And then, just certainly being there always when they need me. Sometimes in LA, that’s hard. With the driving miles, and all of this. But I really do try to do everything they ask of me.

We’ve sort of talked about this. But, you’ve had a lot of industry friends in theatre circles, television, et cetera. You’ve watched many careers evolve in different ways. Is there one quality that is shared by the people you’ve known who have had fulfilling acting careers?
I guess the thing of making it very important. I don’t think you could even deal with this kind of career, unless you make it so very important. Sometimes to the detriment of family and friends. I think that– I don’t know. I realize now, it’s not so much what I do, as what I am. And I think that it has to be that for you. I think that this is what takes over. It has to just be what you are.

What did you think of this interview? Leave a comment!

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