Hal Holbrook still relishes a juicy role

November 9, 2009

It’s been more than two years since Sean Penn cast Hal Holbrook in “Into the Wild” – but Holbrook is still singing his praises.


“Sean gave me the most wonderful gift,” Holbrook says of the Oscar-nominated role, while sitting in a Manhattan hotel conference room on a recent afternoon. “Why he picked me, what possessed him – I don’t know. But the act of picking me out and sending me that script was a big gift. It was a wonderful achievement and now there’s all these complicated things going on.”


“Complicated,” as in Holbrook having to decide between a variety of film roles, at a point in his career when the offers had slowed to a trickle, if that. Now here’s Holbrook, the star of what could be a break-out independent drama, “That Evening Sun,” which opened in limited release last week and is generating Oscar buzz about his performance.


“I rarely get scripts like this,” Holbrook says. “Not only is it a very interesting story with a character that comes off the page, but the dialogue had an authentic feel. It was a great challenge and pleasure to learn it and try to get on that wavelength. It helps you embody the character. You don’t have to wonder who he is.”


In the film, adapted by writer-director Scott Teems from a short story by William Gay, Holbrook plays Abner Meecham, an elderly Tennesseean who bolts from the nursing home where his son has placed him. He heads for the farm on which he raised his family, only to find that his son has leased it to a local ne’er-do-well. So Abner takes up residence in the farm’s sharecropper cabin and starts a war of attrition to drive the lessee out.


“I read it and was drawn to the character of Abner,” Teems says. “The setup almost had the feeling of a western. And it was the opportunity to tell a great story and place it in the South. I was born and raised outside Atlanta, so Southern fiction was always my favorite genre. I want to tell stories about the South and see my homeland reflected with authenticity. Hopefully this film is about more than the South. Hopefully it transcends regionality.”


Teems saw Holbrook in “Into the Wild” and thought of him for Abner. Holbrook is happy to get back to work.


“I was playing Shylock and all kinds of roles in theater but when it came to Hollywood, I was doing less and less,” he says. “The less they use you, the less chance you have. They hear you’re 75 or 80 and figure you’re probably dead. They don’t know who you are anymore. Since ‘Into the Wild,’ it seems to me that certain people’s perception of who I am has changed. The so-called independent films are an area where you get more of the character-driven scripts. Naturally it incites my interest.”


Holbrook is 84, noting, “And I’m heading pretty straight for 85.” His face carries a roadmap of his past that’s invaluable to a director, Teems says.


“My job is to put the camera on him and trust him,” Teems says. “He’s 50 years older than me and has been acting twice as long as I’ve been alive. It’s about relying on the mystery of his face – the mystery and the history. You look in his eyes and see that life. It gives layers that a thousand words couldn’t convey. That’s the ace up the sleeve of any director with an 80-year-old actor: that history.”


For his part, Holbrook looks for a director to mold what he brings to a role: “What I appreciate from a director is allowing me first to do what comes naturally,” he says. “I’m not an actor who just picked up the script when he got to the set. I’ve been working for weeks or a month and I come with all my lines learned. I don’t want to think about lines; I want to think about thinking.


“The main thing is not to get in the way of instinct. Instinct is so valuable. And Scott  trusted me. That took away that little voice inside you that questions what you’re doing. When you get rid of that, then whatever you do is OK and you feel freed up.”


Holbrook still tours with his one-man show, “Mark Twain Tonight,” which won him both a Tony and an Emmy in the past. The touring circuit has shrunk in recent years because of the economy, but Holbrook still plays 20 or more dates a year. And he still finds that Twain allows him to editorialize about the societal ills that bother him, in a way that Holbrook would never feel comfortable doing as himself.


“Twain is my machine gun,” Holbrook says. “I go out and unload my feelings about how deeply distressed I am at the thoughtlessness of society: socially, politically, culturally. I don’t know what we’re doing to ourselves. There are so many things to get upset about. I never found a weapon to equal Mark Twain. I can put things out there that I would never dare to say as myself.”


He swings into a new speech he recently uncovered among Twain’s writings (he regularly edits and updates his show), something written 100 years ago that still rings true: “This is a strange panic we’re in. It’s a blight. It’s as if a mighty machine has slipped its belt; it’s still running but it’s accomplishing nothing … A blight has fallen upon us. And a monarchy of the rich and powerful are the authors.”


Meanwhile, Holbrook is busy wracking up new film credits. He’s finished two roles and has more in the offing. And he’s glad to be in demand.


“This was the first thing that came along after ‘Into the Wild’,” he says of “That Evening Sun.” “And there are a couple of others I’m going to do. The challenge of going from one to another is very exciting to me. I don’t know how to give up.”


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