[IMG:L]The year 2008 will mark Sam Elliott’s fourth decade as a working actor in film and television, and although he’s played everything from a Malibu lifeguard to a White House politico to a ghostly gravedigger, no actor of his generation has emerged as a more iconic embodiment of Old West thanks to roles in films including The Quick and the Dead, Tombstone, The Hi-Lo Country and The Big Lebowski.
Elliott once again brings his classic cowboy charm to the big screen in the role of Lee Scoresby, the Stetson-wearing aeronaut from the country of Texas who adventures through the parallel world of The Golden Compass. He took time to palaver with Hollywood.com over a sarsaparilla about his long and storied trail through the tumbleweeds of Tinseltown.
Hollywood.com: We've seen you without your trademark mustache in some roles. How long does it take to grow back?
Sam Elliott: Oh, I don't know, a couple three months. Maybe to get it like this. It's a lifetime there. Not quite, but it takes months, several months. Three months wouldn't get this. It might get this. I'll do anything. I'll shave my head for the right job. I'm partial to my facial hair, I guess, but I also enjoy doing something where I look totally different which is kind of the reason why I've always worn long hair. I can really change my look radically by getting rid of it. The other thing is that I'd rather wear my own long hair than wear a wig for something. So if the job requires long hair I've got it, and if it doesn’t I can cut it off.
[IMG:R]HW: When you got attached to this project, did you read all the books right away?
SE: I immediately read all the books when the project came my way. That was the first thing that I did. I started reading the books before the deal was made and it made me--I remember calling my agent on a Sunday after I'd finished, or was halfway through the second book and said, 'You guys can't let this thing get away. I don't care what they're offering. I want to do this thing.’ It's just great literature. I'm speaking to the books now, but this is not just the newest novel or whatever. I think that they're quite an incredible literary achievement. I think that [Philip] Pullman happens to be a really good writer. That said, the first thing that I read was Chris Weitz's adaptation and I think it was a pretty accurate adaptation. It's always the material. The material is what gets me involved in a piece.
HW: You've done a lot of big movies recently with The Golden Compass, Ghost Rider and Hulk. Are you looking to get back into a less blockbuster-style cinematic world?
SE: I'll tell you what, there was a time, particularly like in the gondola in the green room and green stage, where you just longed for four walls and a human across from you to relate to. But the truth is that after 40 years I'm just thankful to have a job, period, and a good job, something that I really want to do. I'm picky in the work, or I think in the last half of my career anyway have been pretty picky about what I've done. I think that I got away with a lot of it early on and kind of survived from the not too good stuff maybe, but in the last half of my career I've tried to be a little more selective and now I've become really, really picky. I just feel like if you want a career and you want to have longevity in your career then you have to be careful how you expose yourself because people will get sick of you real quick.
HW: You had a good long association with Western author Louis L'Amour with projects like The Sacketts, The Shadow Riders and Conagher. Any more of his works that you'd like to do?
SE: There are a couple more Louis L'Amour books that I'd like to do. I think that Tom Selleck has the rights to one of them. The thing about that is--I say that and the truth of it is that there's probably a lot more Louis L'Amour books that I'd be more than happy to do. I just think that Louis, number one I love his stories and his characters. They're so classically American Westerns and cowboys. That's the kind of stuff that I really love doing. That's kind of the ultimate escape on some fantasy level. Some of those can kind of be fantasy films as well.
[IMG:R]HW: How was it being inducted into The National Heritage Museum?
SE: Incredible. That was kind--I don't know. I've done this Western thing for so long that's kind of the county seat, which isn't the right term, but the hotbed of that audience. I received a half dozen of those, what they call, Wrangler Awards that the organization gives out over the years. They're Western Heritage Awards, basically for the contribution to the continuation of our Western heritage. The first time that I went there I received one from a show that I did based on Chief Joseph and the flight of the Nez Perce Indians called I Will Fight No More Forever. I received one that year and Ben Johnson was there and Slim Pickens was there. Colonel Tim McCoy who was out of the silent era was there. Joel McCray and his wife were there, and that was an amazing experience. At that time it was known as The Cowboy Hall of Fame and there were all of these real hardcore cowboys, rodeo cowboys that came to get these awards and then it evolved into The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and it's a breathtaking collection of Western art from days gone by--weapons and beautiful artwork. It's one of the greatest western art collections I've ever seen and these monstrosities, huge pieces. So it was a very kind of an emotional thing for me, to get inducted into this National Cowboy Western Heritage Hall of Fame, or whatever they call it. It was quite an honor for me, and for my family as well.
HW: Who were your favorite iconic Western actors?
SE: I think Gary Cooper was probably the guy--and not just Westerns. I remember Sergeant York. That just reduced me to just a puddle every time I saw it, and even still. I still get weepy when I see it. There's just something with that kind of stuff that speaks to me and that's why I gravitate that way. I think that it has something to do with integrity and a man's word and honor and all of that kind of stuff that--values and morality. All the stuff that everybody kind of looks down their noses at, like, “That's so passé. Get with it, man. Get with the times. That's not cool anymore.” If that's true, it's really unfortunate because there are several generations of kids that could benefit greatly from that. It ended, I think, with Star Wars. I believe that was basically the end of the American Western. That was one of the great westerns of our time, but not of all time. That scene in the bar in Star Wars with all those freaks was just as classic that's ever been done, and since that time, up until these times--there are always exceptions though. I'm talking in generalities, but thank God for [Clint] Eastwood who kind of kept it alive and Selleck and myself have always kept it alive, and there's a few of us. Ed Harris is in New Mexico with Viggo Mortensen right now doing a movie called The Appaloosa and Harris is acting and directing as well. I have great hopes for that because those guys are good at doing that game.
HW: What's the film that you get most recognized for, that people mention the most when they talk to you?
SE: Road House.
HW: That had to be the movie you kicked the most ass in.
SE: Maybe. By virtue of the reruns, yeah. God, it's on somewhere some late night every week. It's playing somewhere.
HW: Ever think about a prequel?
SE: No. It would have to be a prequel, too. Not a sequel, because I was dead. Someone told me that they're making a stage play of Road House. I'd not heard that. If it comes around I might go see it. I'd be curious.
[IMG:R]HW: Did you think that when you were making it that it was going to become a huge cult film?
SE: No, never. I don't think that you have a clue. Listen, if you knew when you were making these movies what they were going to do then you'd have it figured it out. You'd be the smartest guy in town and everyone would be coming to you if you had that formula figured out. I think that you always kind of have a thought, an inkling. I think the only time I really thought that there was something that was going to last forever was working with the Coen Brothers. They just have this cult following built in to any of their projects, and it was so obvious watching Jeff Bridges playing The Dude. It was like the quintessential kind of dope picture and there's a lot of dopers out there.
HW: College students throw festivals dedicated to The Big Lebowski.
SE: I know. I've never been. I was invited to one last year, but I didn't go. It's kind of scary to see a bunch of guys wearing hats and dressing like you and saying all of your dialogue from the movie.
[IMG:R]HW: What's your average experience with a Lebowski fan? How does that usually go?
SE: Just say 'The Dude abides,' just once. Just once.' That's how it is.