Sam Elliott Interview – THE GOLDEN COMPASS

     December 7, 2007

By now most of you have heard of “The Golden Compass.” The commercials have been playing all the time, the billboards are up in all the major cities, and New Line has spent a small fortune promoting the movie in the hopes that they can turn it into another “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

If you’re not familiar with the story, “The Golden Compass” is the first book in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy. It’s a fantasy adventure, set in an alternative world where people’s souls manifest themselves as animals, talking bears fight wars, and Gyptians and witches co-exist. At the center of the story is Lyra (played by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards), a 12-year-old girl who starts out trying to rescue a friend who’s been kidnapped by a mysterious organization known as the Gobblers – and winds up on an epic quest to save not only her world, but ours as well. The Golden Compass stars Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and Sam Elliott, and features the voices of Ian McKellen, Ian McShane and Kathy Bates. The film is written and directed by Chris Weitz (“About A Boy”).

Anyway, a few days ago I was able to interview director Chris Weitz and Sam “the voice” Elliott. Tomorrow I’ll have Chris posted, but for now enjoy reading or listening to Sam. We covered all the usual things, and of course we talked “Road House” and “Big Lebowski.” How could we not.

As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the audio as an MP3 by clicking here.

“The Golden Compass” is now playing everywhere.

Q: How was your flight back from London?

Sam Elliott: Well I’m here. It was good. It was a pretty interesting press junket over there and the premiere, there’s been a lot of premieres over the years but I’ve never seen one that was that scary.

Q: What was so scary about it?

Sam Elliott: Well the numbers of people, these total strangers shouting your name, and then it’s Sam (British pronunciation). It’s not Sam (American pronunciation). It’s Sam (British version). It’s very bizarre. It was so silly on some level.

Q: We’ve seen you without a moustache in some roles so after you’ve shaven it, how long does it take to grow back into your trademark stache?

Sam: Oh, I don’t know, a couple of three months maybe. This (referring to handlebars on his moustache), right? There’s a lifetime there, not quite, but it takes months, several months. Three months wouldn’t get this, might get this, but…

Q: Do you get extra cash for shaving?

Sam: No. 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’ll look totally different. That’s kind of the reason I’ve always worn long hair because I can really change my look radically by getting rid of it. And the other thing is 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, then I can cut it off.

Q: It’s great hair.

Sam: Thanks.

Q: When you got attached to the project, did you read all the books?

Sam: Immediately read all the books when the project came my way. It was the first thing I did. I started reading the books before the deal was made and it made me just…You know I remember calling my agent on a Sunday after I’d finished it. I think I was half way through the second book and I said, “You guys can’t let this thing get away. I don’t care what they’re offering. I want to do this thing.”

Q: What caught your eye about it? What was it that interested you?

Sam: It’s just great literature. I don’t think that these – and I’m speaking of the books now – this is not just the newest novel around. I think they’re quite an incredible literary achievement. I think Pullman happens to be a really good writer and that said, the first thing that I read was Chris Weitz’s adaptation and I think it was a pretty accurate adaptation. You know it’s always the material The material is what gets me involved in a piece.

Q: Did you get confused at all while you were reading it the first time?

Sam: I’m confused when I see it. [Laughs] Yeah. I mean it was very convoluted on many levels, in and out and back and forth from one world and then the other. Who’s good and who’s bad? Who’s the Magisterium? Still I find it very confusing on some levels. I’m not sure that a lot of people are going to be confused initially in seeing the movie. I know a lot of people that were when I talked to them in London. They came away scratching their heads.

Q: I read somewhere that Pullman based your character on Lee Van Cleef. Did you hear that at all or look at him for anything?

Sam: No, I didn’t look to Lee Van Cleef but I heard that rumor. I’ve not heard that from Philip though.

Q: Did you like the mix of this kind of iconic Western character in this fantasy world? Was that appealing?

Sam: Yeah. I thought it was an incredible mix because you know it was a real daunting thing for me personally to go to London and work with all these English actors like Clare Higgins and Tom Courtenay. I’ve been a Tom Courtenay fan since “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” because I was a runner at the same time and I’ve been a Tom Courtenay fan ever since. So I haven’t had an opportunity to hang out with them, to work with them. You know it’s a real blessing but at the same time it’s kind of daunting for this guy who always wanted to make movies to go to work with all these people that have basically a theatrical career with several good movies along the way. But these are like consummate ‘actor actors.’ And at the same time, within the piece, the character is the only American in the piece with all these otherworldly figures, lots of them Europeans. So there’s a real kind of a crossover there that worked well.

Q: You got to work with the British actors but you didn’t get to work that much with Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman?

Sam: I didn’t work with them at all.

Q: Did you get a chance to meet them or get to know them?

Sam: Only on these press junkets. We didn’t have any kind of a rehearsal period or any of that. I’m sure the first time I met Daniel was at the Cannes Film Festival and the first time I met Nicole was this year when we went back for the 40th anniversary that New Line had in New York a couple of months ago.

Q: What was your take on both of them?

Sam: Oh they’re huge stars, particularly Nicole. I happen to be a huge Nicole Kidman fan period. My take is I don’t have a take yet because I’ve not really spent any time sitting down and having a conversation with either of them. It’s always been a group of people that we’ve met, you know, kind of a social thing. I’m lucky and happy to be in a film with them. Happy to be billed behind Nicole, you know, thanks to New Line. But I gotta say it’s a bit of a misrepresentation . There’s no truth in advertising. That’s for sure.

Q: How much will you be in the next two films if they make the rest of the trilogy?

Sam: He figures quite prominently in the second book particularly. It’s some really exciting stuff that I’m looking forward to doing but I’m not writing the script. Maybe they’ll elbow him out or maybe they’ll embellish him so he can deserve his second billing credit that they so generously gave.

Q: We didn’t see too much of Hester but how did you feel about your character having a rabbit represent your animal spirit?

Sam: A lot of people have been kinda looking down their nose at the rabbits of the world. You know it’s not a bunny. Hester’s a jackrabbit. Initially I thought maybe a horse but that would’ve been kind of [tough] having a horse in a gondola, a flying ship. But maybe a little more macho kind of an animal or something. I didn’t think that way very long because it occurred to me because of where my family heritage is which is in Texas, I wasn’t born there but my family all hails from there for several generations. Texas is full and was as a kid and I used to go there as a kid a lot to see relatives and every time I went there, there were all these billboards or signboards in those days up and down the highways and in the shadow of every billboard there were hundreds of jackrabbits. I mean like this [demonstrates] no elbow room, just fields of ears. So it occurred to me that a jackrabbit is kind of an iconic character in Texas and it made total sense that Hester would be a jackrabbit and the fact that it sounds like Kathy Bates, you can’t do any better than that. I’m looking forward to doing more with her although we were never there together. It’s an incredible opportunity to work with her.

Q: How physically challenging was it?

Sam: Not. The next one is. The next one he’s on his feet on the ground. When you’re standing in an airship, the biggest physical challenge was not getting nauseated. I’m sad that the big sound stage that we were shooting…this gondola on the ship was on a big gimble, a big arm that could be moved around and it’s about, I don’t know, 30 feet off the floor I’d say in a really particularly large sound stage at Shepperton Studios.

Q: Will you take Dramamine next time around?

Sam: No, I don’t think so. You just get used to it. I got used to it after a couple hours but initially it was kind of heady. The floor was green, the ceiling was green, and all four of the walls were green. It was like kind of being in a bubble or something.

Q: This has to be the most CGI-heavy movie you’ve done.

Sam: Absolutely. Without a question. You know they were CGI’ing that hawk in “Ghost Rider” but for me personally it was almost every scene I was in there was CGI. I think it was every scene that I was in because the demon’s there. It’s kind of an acting exercise. It becomes determining number 1 before you get going what it is that you’re gonna be seeing. You gotta assess that out. Otherwise you’re really gonna be lost if you haven’t got a clue what’s to come, what’s the audience gonna see ‘cause that’s what you have to react to in order to kind of blend into it. It’s a real odd thing to be speaking and reacting to a spot on the wall or something in your arm or whatever. It’s a test but that’s what we do. We’re the great pretenders, some not so great probably, but that’s what we do. We pretend for a living. It’s a real exercise in pretending.

Q: You’ve done a lot of big budget movies such as “Ghost Rider,” “Hulk,” and this, are you looking to get back to a more independent?

Sam: I’ll tell you there’s a time particularly like in the gondola in the green room on the green stage where you just long for four walls and a human across from you to relate to. But the truth is after 40 years I’m just thank to have a job period, a good job and something that I really want to do. I’m picky in the work. I’ve always I think in the last half of my career anyway been pretty picky about what I’ve done. I think I got away with a lot of it early on and then I kind of survived from the not too good stuff maybe. But I’ve tried in the last half of my career to be a little more selective and now I’ve become really like I’m really picky. I just feel like if you want a career and you want to have longevity in your career that you’ve gotta be careful how you expose yourself ‘cause people’ll get sick of you real quick.

Q: So what does that mean? What do you have coming up then?

Sam: I don’t know.

Q: So you’re not attached to anything before the strike?

Sam: Nope.

Q: You had a good long association with Louis L’Amour, a lot of his books being turned into films. Is there another book of his that you’d love to see made into a movie and to be a part of?

Sam: There’s a couple of Louis L’Amour books that I’d like to do. I think Tom Selleck has the rights to one of them. I say that and the truth of it is that there’s probably a lot of Louis L’Amour books that I would be more than happy to do. I just think that Louis is tops. Number one I love his stories and his characters. They’re so classically American Westerns and cowboys and that’s the kind of stuff I really love doing. That’s the ultimate escape on some fantasy level. Some of those can be fantasy films in some regard as well.

Q: Ever think of a prequel to “Road House”?

Sam: No. It’d have to a prequel too, not a sequel ‘cause I’m dead you know. Somebody told me that they’re making a stage play of “Road House.” How ‘bout that?

Q: The musical, right?

Sam: Yeah. I’d not heard that.

Q: Will you be going to see that?

Sam: If it comes around I might go see it. Yeah. I’d be curious.

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Q: What’s the film you get most recognized for, that people come up to you and want an autograph?

Sam: Road House.

Q: When was the last time you watched it?

Sam: Jeez I don’t know. I don’t remember the last time. That’s how long it’s been.

Q: That had to be the movie you kicked the most ass in.

Sam: Well maybe. At least by virtue of the reruns. Yeah. [Laughs] I’d hate to count it. It’s on somewhere, some late night, you know every week it’s playing somewhere.

Q: Did you ever think when you were making it that it would become a huge cult film?

Sam: No. I don’t think you have a clue. Listen, if you knew when you were making these movies what they were gonna do, man you’d have it figured out then. You’d be the smartest guy in town. Everybody’d be comin’ to ya if you had that formula figured out. I think you always kind of have a thought, you have an inkling. I think the only time that I really thought that there was something that was gonna last forever was the Coen Brothers, working with them ‘cause they just have this cult following built into any of their projects. It was so obvious watching Jeff Bridges playing the Dude that it was like the quintessential kind of dope picture and there’s a lot of dopers out there man.

Q: Have you ever gone to the Lebowski Fest?

Sam: I’ve never been. I was invited to the one last year but I didn’t go. Kind of scary. See a bunch of guys wearing hats and dressed like you and saying all your dialogue from that movie.

Q: What’s your average experience with the Lebowski fans, somebody who comes up to you and loves you from that particular movie? How does that usually go?

Sam: Just say ‘The Dude abides’ just once. [Laughs] Just once. Just say it.

Q: You do some voiceovers on commercials. Is it weird for you to be watching TV and hear yourself?

Sam: Yes.

Q: They air a lot during football.

Sam: Yeah, I think there’s Coors. Coors is the one and I haven’t heard any of those yet.

Q: I think that might be the only thing that could make me drink Coors.

Sam: Well thanks. I actually am a Coors drinker so it worked out good. Coors Light. The voiceover thing’s been really good. It came late. I hadn’t done them for a long time. You know I was always kind of torn between going that commercial route. I won’t do any on camera stuff but then I’m picky again about the kind of voiceovers I want to do. I turn a lot of it down. But I had this great relationship with the Beef Council for years in which I did these ‘Beef, that’s what’s for dinner’ commercials. That’s over. These guys quit that this year and I still don’t know why that disappeared. I was a little surprised when that left. I think the best relationship has been the one with IBM that went on for 3 years. It was supposed to have gone on for like 6 months and then it ended up being 3 years. They were so smart and just good stuff. They ran ‘em during Wimbledon and all the golf classics and the tennis classics. Smart stuff. It’s just like what’s a good movie to get involved with. I said earlier it’s about the script and it’s about what’s on the page. If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage and I believe that. And it’s the same with the commercials. If you’re gonna sell cars, you’re gonna tell them where to step up to the counter and buy that whatever, I’m not interested. If you’re doing something and it’s like you’re listening to it and watching this thing and you’re kinda wondering what are they selling here, that’s the kind of stuff that invariably I’m most interested in doing.

Q: So you’re not going to do pharmaceutical commercials where you’re listing the side effects?

Sam: No.

Q: How was it being inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum?

Sam: Incredible. Yeah. That was kind of… I don’t know. It’s just I’ve done this Western thing for so long. It’s kind of the county seat which is not quite the right term but it’s like the hot bed of that audience. I’ve received a half a dozen of those what they call Wrangler Awards that this organization gives out over the years. They’re Western Heritage Awards basically for a contribution to the continuation of our Western heritage. The first time I went there I received one from a show that I did with James Whitmore and Ned Romero based on Chief Joseph and the flight of the Nez Perce Indians, “I Will Fight No More Forever.” Anyway I received one that year (1976) and Ben Johnson was there and Slim Pickens was there, Colonel Tim McCoy, who was like out of the silent era, Joel McCrea and his wife were there. It was an amazing experience. At that time it was known as the Cowboy Hall of Fame and there was all of these real hard core cowboys, rodeo cowboys, that came in 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 the days gone by, weapons and beautiful artwork, one of the greatest Western art collections I’ve ever seen and monstrosities, huge pieces. So it was very kind of an emotional thing for me to get inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Hall of Fame. It was quite an honor for me and my family as well.

Q: Who were your favorite Western iconic actors?

Sam: Gary Cooper was probably the guy that I’ve somehow… I don’t know. You know what I mean and because of a lot of things, not even just Westerns. I remember Sergeant York. God “Sergeant York” used to just reduce me to a puddle every time I saw it and still. I still get weepy when I see it. There’s just something that kind of stuff it just speaks to me and that’s why I gravitate toward them. I think it has something to do with integrity and a man’s word and honor and all that kind of stuff — values, morality, all that kind of stuff that everybody looks kind of down their nose at. ‘That’s so passé, get with it, man. Get with the times. It’s not cool anymore.’ If that’s true, it’s really unfortunate because there’s several generations of kids that could benefit greatly from that and it ended I think with “Star Wars.” I think that was the end of the American Western basically. I mean that was one of the great Westerns of our time but not all time. That scene in the bar in “Star Wars” with all those freaks was as classic as any Western I think that’s ever been done you know. And since that time up until these times with the exception of, there’s always exceptions, I mean talking in kind of generalities. Thank god for Eastwood who kinda kept it alive and Selleck and myself who’ve always kept it alive. There’s a few of us. Ed Harris is in New Mexico with Viggo Mortensen right now doing a movie called “Appaloosa” which Harris is acting in and directing as well. And I have great hopes for that because those guys, they’re good at doing that game.

Q: Any Christmas plans?

Sam: I’m gonna go to Oregon. I’m gonna take my 92 year old mother to see this movie and I’m gonna keep the fire burning and spend time with my animals and my family and be glad that this rat race thing has come to an end.

Q: Did you see “Jesse James” or “3:10 to Yuma”?

Sam: I loved “3:10 to Yuma.” I got “Jesse James” poised. I’m really looking forward to seeing that performance by Casey Affleck that everybody’s bragging about.

Q: “Jesse James” is a great movie. It really is.

Sam: There’s a reason it took so long to get out there and one of the reasons was that it’s so long. But you know what? God bless ‘em for making it so long. That’s the one thing that I think this thing suffered from was that it’s too short. It’s too short. For whatever reason, maybe something didn’t work or whatever. It should have been an hour longer. That break at the end was like the popcorn break for me.

Q: Did you shoot a lot of stuff that didn’t end up in the final film?

Sam: Yeah. The scenes of mine that were in the film were all longer. All of them longer. That scene with Serafina was miles longer and it was good stuff too. I hated seeing that but that’s the nature of [the business]

As he’s getting ready to leave someone asks for an autograph. He signs one of “The Golden Compass” press kits.

Sam: Is that the way it’s coming out? That’s the press kit?

Q: Yeah.

Sam: Mindboggling. I remember going out on the press tour for a movie called “The Lifeguard.” We had press kits in boxes in the hold of the airplane and they weren’t on that. They were all 8 by 10, you know, big folders.

Q: Some of us still remember that.

Sam: You guys are all too young to remember those days.

Q: Some of us got those.

Sam: One city, one day, fly in, fly out for six weeks. It was fun. Thanks everybody. You have a great day. Goodbye.

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