At 84 years young, actor Hal Holbrook has had drama coursing through his veins for over a half-century, going back to when Ed Sullivan had him on TV to perform a piece from his beloved one-man play, “Mark Twain Tonight.” But Holbrook remains prolific in his twilight years, especially after receiving a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for “Into the Wild.” He can most recently be seen headlining director Scott Teems’ gorgeously atmospheric “That Evening Sun,” in which he steals the show as an irritable Tennessee coot named Abner Meecham. After escaping a nursing home to find his land has been rented out by his lawyer son (Walton Goggins) to bad apple Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon) and his family, Abner decides to squat on the property anyway, and the southern-fried tensions soon rise. With an avuncular delivery reminiscent of his Twain characterization, Holbrook phoned from California to talk about the family member who inspired the character of Abner, why he rejects the idea of retirement, and how prescient ol’ Samuel Clemens was about today’s economic mess.
You’ve worked with so many acclaimed filmmakers, and Scott Teems is still a relatively unknown name. Why did you take a chance on a newcomer?
I just did the same thing a month or two ago with another film. The film business changes a lot, and for an actor who’s interested in character work, I suppose you might say, I don’t get offered these films where you have to jump out of an airplane with a machine gun, land on both feet and take out half the crowd. When a good script and character comes along, usually there’s not much money in it either, but it’s much more interesting for an actor. Most of us take a shot at that opportunity. It was a bit worrisome working with a new director, but it turned out to be a great idea. You do it because of the material.
Has that ever backfired, like when you pursued a great screenplay, but the director didn’t have the same understanding of it as you?
That’s something you have to arrive at. Sometimes with a director, it just seems like a perfect match, like with Sean Penn and “Into the Wild.” Sean said very little to me. We just seemed to be on the same wavelength. No matter what you’re doing as an actor, there’s always a little strain of tension because you’re not too sure whether what you’re doing is okay. You hope it is. Scott had a very specific idea about how these characters should relate and behave. The character in this movie had to be dried out. That’s the best way I can say it.
There’s always an instinct in an actor to protect his character, to try to somehow get the audience to feel sympathetic. That’s a fly in the ointment sometimes. I learned something very valuable by just doing another take, and another take, drying the character out and not asking for any sympathy. The thing that surprises me, frankly, is that this film has taken a hold of audiences the way it has because I thought it would be too dark and gloomy. When we went to Austin for [South by Southwest] where it premiered, the audience got the humor of the sarcastic insults my character and Lonzo Choat were throwing at each other, and I thought, “My god, that’s wonderful. They’re laughing!”
Your wife, Dixie Carter, who also has a small role in the film, is from Tennessee. What have you gleaned from your time in the South?
I’ve learned a great deal from my association with my Tennessee family. People down South have an extraordinary family component. They are very encompassing and defensive about the family. Coming from the no-family structure that I came from, this was a whole new world to me. My father-in-law passed away about three years ago. He lived with us for 20 years or more, and when he was in really bad shape, he said to Dixie one day, “Darling, I’m getting dyin’ signals. I want to go back to Tennessee.” So we moved there, it turns out to be for two years. My father-in-law was in my mind a lot when I played this character because he was a no-nonsense man, and when he said something, you could believe it. He didn’t pussyfoot around. You would never get a word of advice from him. He would never say, “I think you should do this in this way.” But if you asked him for his opinion, you got it. Bang!