Oscar-nominated ‘Nebraska’ co-star talks about her Cleveland days

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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June Squibb is Kate Grant in Nebraska, from Paramount Vantage in association with FilmNation Entertainment, Blue Lake Media Fund and Echo Lake Entertainment. NEB-03429BW

One of the nicer aspects of the Academy Award nominations was the attention given to Nebraska, the black-and-white tale of an elderly man who goes on the road to claim what he thinks is a million-dollar prize.

The nominations for Nebraska, which comes to DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, include best picture, best director (Alexander Payne), best actor (Bruce Dern), original screenplay (Bob Nelson) and, for best supporting actress, June Squibb.

It’s the first nomination for the 84-year-old Squibb, who played Dern’s anger-driven wife and who had one of the most memorable scenes in movies last year. (It involves a cemetery, Squibb’s reflections on the people buried there and a bit too good to spoil here.)

A veteran screen and stage actress, she has been enjoying the awards-season ride, even turning down work to participate fully in the round of celebrations and awards shows.

“It’s been great fun,” she said. “I understand the honor. I am well aware of what an honor it is to be nominated. I keep thinking, my God, of all these great films. This was a phenomenal year for films. And of all these great films, my performance is one that many of these awards have chosen — and I’m blown away by that.” Even better, it’s all for a movie and a team that she admires greatly.

Her current acclaim’s foundation is at the Cleveland Play House, where a young Squibb got her first full immersion in the craft of acting.

Growing up in small-town Vandalia, Ill,, she said, “I knew I was an actress. I did everything I could at school. Any time you could perform, I performed.”

While in high school, she was thinking about the next step in her acting education, and at first considered both Northwestern University and the famous Pasadena Playhouse.

“But both were very expensive,” she said, “and my family wasn’t prepared to lay out that much money. … One of my close friends had a cousin — and he might have been from Cleveland, because he told me about the Cleveland Play House. He said, ‘I know they don’t charge you anything, but you work for them in a lot of different categories, and you get to act.’ And he was right. So I applied to Cleveland, and I got in.”

She entered a different world then.

“I really had not had any college work of any note, and most of the people who got in were college graduates. But they did take me in, so I spent five years there, and even worked with them three summers.”

Since Squibb is so fearless as an actress, I wondered if that quality helped get her into the Play House.

“I think it was,” she said. She said she had a can-do attitude from the beginning “because I didn’t have to give them any money. And my mother and father were willing to help me with money for rent and food for a year.” By the second year, she had a fellowship that helped pay the bills, and her last three years she was a fully paid staff member.

And learning all the time, with help from mentors like the actor Bob Allman.

“I had a dreadful accent from Illinois. It was not only Midwestern but had a touch of Southern, too, because we were in south central Illinois. It was awful. … He took me in hand and worked with me, and he didn’t have to. He got rid of most of that — I still maintain some of the Southern, but basically he got rid of that Southern sound and accent.”

The constant performing at the Play House was also valuable.

“It was a workmanlike situation,” she said. “We did so many shows. Not that the artistry wasn’t appreciated, but it was jobs. You were constantly doing shows, one right after the other, and I learned a great deal of discipline,

“And also, I had always danced but I had never sung. At Cleveland, I started doing musicals, and I ended up being the comedienne in two or three musicals there, and was very successful. So when I went to New York, I was doing musicals rather than straight work.”

Indeed, she told the Chicago Tribune that her 40-year career on the New York stage began with about 15 years of musicals, starting with playing a stripper in Gypsy with Ethel Merman. (A friend from the Play House, Jack Lee, went to New York when Squibb did; she told CBS News that he would play piano for her at auditions.) Her first movie role did not come until 1990, in Woody Allen’s Alice, but since then she has piled up the movie and TV credits, including About Schmidt (also directed by Payne), Scent of a Woman and The Age of Innocence. She said she is thinking now about another film. But that will have to wait until after March 2 — Oscar night.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Twitter (@RHeldenfelsABJ) and Facebook. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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