Ever since Ed Sullivan noticed his theater performance as Mark Twain in 1954, Hal Holbrook has enjoyed a steady career onscreen and off (that portrayal of Twain evolved into Mark Twain Tonight!, a one-man play for which he won a Tony). After an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, Holbrook has experienced a career renaissance at age 84. In his latest, That Evening Sun (out now), he plays Abner Meecham, a cantankerous Tennessee farmer who escapes a nursing home and finds his son has leased his house to a man he hates, who refuses to leave. Holbrook spoke to Vulture about what he owes Penn and acting with a dog.
Has Into the Wild really changed the offers you’re getting?
Yeah, that movie certainly gave me another shot at work. For one thing, it brought this movie on; when they saw me in Into the Wild, they thought I was the man to play this part. Sean Penn gave me a real gift there, I’m telling ya.
So do you find you’re getting more choices as an older actor than you did earlier in your career?
Hollywood gets an idea of who they think you are, because they think you did one role they think was good, and you get stuck in that part over and over again. Sean gave me a role nobody in Hollywood was giving me. I wasn’t playing a lawyer, the man in the pinstriped suit. And actually, it was someone much more like myself than anyone I was doing in film or television. I’m an outdoors person, I work outdoors at home all the time. I don’t dress up in suits and stuff like that; I do dress properly while I go out, I don’t wear pajamas all the time like people do these days, I’m an older generation, so I do dress properly. And people saw it, and now I’ve been offered lots of roles that are more like that. I just finished a film called Flying Lessons in which I play an ex-Navy pilot from the Korean war with Alzheimer’s, a wonderfully interesting role. I’ll be in a film a couple weeks from now, playing a cook in a diner. These are roles I would never have gotten without Into the Wild.
What about That Evening Sun attracted you to it?
I was immediately attracted to the story, it’s extremely well written — it’s written by someone who knows those people; he’s not imitating something he’s unfamiliar with, and you can tell that immediately in the script. Plus I was playing a specific kind of man, I think of people from Tennessee as being almost a specific kind of people. My wife comes from Tennessee, and I’ve been part of the family down there for almost 30 years. People down there have a special way of treating each other, with respect and politeness — but you don’t mess with them. You insult them, you’re going to get a response. So that’s the kind of man I was playing.
Both in this movie and Into the Wild, your characters deal with the difficult realities of old age — loneliness, the old folks’ home, etc. Is it hard for you, at 84, to do that?
Well you can’t act without relating things to your own experience, but I don’t live that way myself, I’m very happily married, we love each other’s company, it’s a whole different bag of beans. Everyone’s life has shadows and corners in it, yours and mine. And especially as an actor who’s lived a long time, you have a lot of experiences you call upon without sitting down and identifying them.
The movie has the feel of a theater piece at times — you have a couple of actual monologues. Coming from a theater background, did it have that appeal to you?
Oh, no, no, you don’t think of it that way. You’re not working in the theater. You’re in a totally different environment. You’re not performing for an audience, you’re not thinking of an audience, you’re just thinking of what you’re saying, being who you are, and when I was sitting there on the bed, with one of those long speeches, that was talking basically to myself, [I] kinda used the dog as somebody to relate to.
Speaking of the dog, you do share quite a bit of screen time with him …
Oh, he was terrific! That dog was a great actor! It was his first acting job! The first! And that dog was so well trained. It was wonderful, once you learned how to make him do things, he was so responsive. I was so fond of that dog, the dear thing. He was so eager to do the job, to always act. He was a darling dog.
Do you see yourself reviving your Mark Twain show at some point?
It’s a funny question, I’ve never really stopped doing it. People have no idea, I do it all the time. I just don’t make a big deal of it. I’m doing it next week at Ohio State. I’ve been doing it 20 to 30 times a year for 55 years! I go all over the country, almost every town you can think of it. I’ve played damn near every town in America in 55 years.