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Meet the New Action Movie Star — She’s 94

June Squibb nabs her first lead movie role in ‘Thelma’


spinner image June Squibb against light purple background with colorful designs around her
At age 94, June Squibb scored her first lead movie role in "Thelma."
AARP (Monica Schipper/Getty Images)

Tom Cruise, 61, has nothing on June Squibb, 94. In the highly entertaining Thelma (in theaters June 21), she plays the title part, a phone-scam victim who watches Mission: Impossible and decides to get her $10,000 back from her scammer. Fearless as Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, Thelma pursues the bad guy, and grabs the motorized scooter of a friend, played by Shaft star Richard Roundtree in one of his last roles — “a sexy grandpa,” says Squibb. 

The filmmakers wanted to use a stunt double, but Squibb insisted on doing most of her own stunts, except when Thelma pulls a wheelie on the scooter, which she doesn’t know how to do. “I did a lot of the action, rolling over, crossing streets with cars, banging into Richard [on a second scooter].”

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Squibb is a late-blooming star with a career that makes one cheer. At 30, she debuted on Broadway as the stripper Electra in Gypsy, opposite Ethel Merman. Her costume had bulbs that lit up as she sang, “I’m electrifying /​ And I ain’t even tryin’ / If you wanna make it / Twinkle while you shake it!” Once, an electrician had to repair a loose wire just before she went onstage so she didn’t zap herself. At 60, she got more electrifying news: She auditioned for three films and got all of them: Woody Allen’s Alice, Scent of a Woman with Al Pacino and Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence.

At 84, she played the tart-tongued wife of Bruce Dern in Nebraska. She stole her scenes with him, and the film reignited both of their careers. One fan smooched her cheek in a grocery store checkout line. “At Cannes Film Festival, we’d walk into a bar and people were clapping and whispering about us,” says Squibb. “We were just the talk of the town. Frightening in a way, but you also feel, well, I’m not crazy. I knew I should be doing this. And a lot of other people are now saying, ‘Yes, you should be doing this.’ ” You may have seen her in Girls, Glee, Shameless and The Big Bang Theory.

VIDEO: Exclusive Clip From "Thelma."

Now, at 94, she’s got her first lead role, in Thelma. “It’s based on [director] Josh Margolin’s grandmother, Thelma Post,” says Squibb. Post was fooled by a phone scammer impersonating Margolin, claiming to need bail money. “She was scammed, but they caught it before she sent money,” Squibb explains. “Josh said she would have done anything to get her money back.”

Squibb was so good with Dern in Nebraska that they both got Oscar nominations. Her more affectionate chemistry with Roundtree in Thelma was evident on-screen and off. On her birthday during the shoot, Roundtree gave her two dozen roses. Roundtree’s oldest daughter told her that he would come home and say, “Oh, that June Squibb is kicking ass!” Her decades of dancing and treading the boards on Broadway (most recently in Waitress, 2018) paid off.

One reason Thelma is such a kick is that it’s not just a heartwarming comedy. It takes both the valiant and the sadder parts of aging seriously. Roundtree’s character poignantly reunites with an old flame who doesn’t remember him anymore. Thelma faces more peril in falling than Tom Cruise does, and she gets spooked when she overhears her panicky daughter (Parker Posey, 55) say the scam episode might mean she can’t be trusted to live on her own. “It brings up a lot about the elderly, and honestly,” says Squibb, “that’s what I loved about the script.”

Squibb points out that not all scam victims are old: “Everybody has weak moments. Older people are capable of much more than anyone ever realizes. We think! We have access to money, and to voting. We are responsible for the most part. I just think that we have a fuller life than people realize.” She thinks actors scared of aging who have surgery are idiots. “I hate all that. It also scares me to death. I mean, why have operations you don’t need?”

spinner image Richard Roundtree and June Squibb on a motorized scooter in a still from Thelma
Richard Roundtree and June Squibb star in the movie "Thelma," in theatres June 21.
Magnolia Pictures

Few lives are fuller than Squibb’s. “I’ve been working like crazy — constantly!” She’s nabbed more than a dozen on-screen roles since turning 90. She voiced the character Nostalgia in the animated Inside Out 2 (June 14), and plays the heroine of the upcoming film Eleanor the Great, directed by Scarlett Johansson. Eleanor is a nonagenarian who moves from Florida to a new life in New York after her best friend dies.

Squibb likes to joke that from now on, she won’t accept anything but lead roles. She’s bonded with the real Thelma over their passion for cop drama — Post recommended Blue Bloods to her, and Squibb urged her to watch all three FBI shows on CBS Tuesday nights. She says they’re kindred spirits: “I’ve had the grit and determination that Thelma has, and that has been good for me.”

 

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