Thelma star June Squibb’s moment in the spotlight is a long time coming. Squibb’s acting career began in 1948 at the Cleveland Play House, and later, she replaced Chotzi Foley as Electra in the original 1959 run of Gypsy on Broadyway. It wasn’t until she in her late 50s when the actress appeared in her first movie, Woody Allen’s 1990s film Alice.
Ten years ago, she was even nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. But a lead role evaded her until Josh Margolin cast the nonagenarian as the titular Thelma. The movie debuted at Sundance last week and debuted with a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Thelma explores aging, family, and autonomy with a laugh and a wink. When Thelma Post is duped by a scammer, she takes inspiration from Tom Cruise, and sets out on a treacherous quest with retiree friend Ben (Richard Roundtree) to reclaim what was taken from her.
Margolin’s feature debut is based on his own centenarian grandmother, of whom he made several short documentaries. He even used the premise of Thelma learning to use a computer for the movie’s opening.
Squibb and Margolin spoke with MovieMaker during Sundance to dish about Thelma being the talk of the festival and why Squibb was Margolin’s first and only choice to play Thelma. We learned why working with older actors added several extra weeks to the shoot — and both Squibb and Margolin talk about working with Richard Roundtree in what would be his final on-screen performance.
Joshua Encinias: How are you enjoying Sundance’s embrace of Thelma?
June Squibb: Well, it’s my first time here, so that’s fun and I’m thrilled with the reaction to the movie. It’s been mind-boggling that everybody has loved the film. I felt so good about the film anyway, but then when everybody says they like it, it’s wonderful.
Joshua Encinias: Thelma’s adventure is inspired by Tom Cruise performing death-defying stunts in his 60s. Are you impressed by Tom Cruise jumping off the buildings?
June Squibb: Of course, my God, yes. And riding that motorcycle the way he does. I keep seeing the trailer for Top Gun because they keep reviving it all the time. And then there was a trailer of him riding a motorcycle in a European street and it’s just death-defying. It really is.
June Squibb on Doing Stunts for Thelma
Joshua Encinias: Josh, June is 94 and does most of her own stunts and the real Thelma is thriving at 103. What makes both of them so resilient?
Josh Margolin: The answer is part of what drew me to make this movie. My whole life, I’ve always really admired my grandma and been close to her. She’s felt so sturdy my whole life. She’s gone through the wringer in her own right but keeps trucking. But there was one moment in the past couple of years when she had some medical issues.
She fell, and things were looking like it was the end. And we were all there, gathered around her, and some time passed. Then she was like, “Are we all just waiting for me to die?” We were like, “We don’t know… we’re not sure!” And then she was like, “Okay, well, should I get up?” So she got up and now it’s three years later.
June Squibb: I think people felt it was impossible for me to do stunts and I think the world has changed. Age has changed a lot. We can do so much more, and a lot of people I think, because historically, age has stopped people, I think they think it still does, but it doesn’t. And we’re getting people older and older. I mean, the civilization in the United States is getting older and we control a lot of money and we control a lot of voting. It’s an important age, it really is.
Joshua Encinias: Josh, how did you know June could pull it off?
Josh Margolin: When June was itching to do something potential dangerous we wanted to ensure we felt good about first. But as the shoot went on, we got more and more confident in her ability to take these things on because she kept outdoing herself.
There’s a sequence in the movie where she’s walking across an uneven dirt patch in the middle of the night. Our stunt team was there and we were coordinating everything. But at a certain point, she just had to do this walk that she felt comfortable doing, so we made sure we made the path as smooth as could be.
In any other movie, somebody walking across dirt is not the height of terror, but with our setup, the way the movie was made, and with the actors involved, it just had this intense feeling to it.
Joshua Encinias: In an interview before Sundance, June said the movie shot for six or seven weeks. At a time when Paul Schrader shoots a new movie in 17 days, how did you get six or seven weeks to direct your first feature?
Josh Margolin: We got lucky. Part of what allowed us time was the fact that our lead performers are older and we didn’t want them pushed beyond their limits or their comfort zones. You always want time on a movie and you never feel like you have enough, so it’s fortunate to get it in any form.
We wanted to make sure everybody felt like they could take advantage of their days, but not be run ragged, and feel that we were treating the thing like a marathon, not a sprint. There was goodwill from people who love June and Richard wanting to support that effort. It was a confluence of those factors.
Joshua Encinias: How was Thelma’s fall staged?
June Squibb: I did have a stunt person do the fall. That I didn’t do, because I probably would have knocked my teeth out if I had done it [laughs]. But I lay on the ground for quite a while as they shot everything. And that was it pretty much. They just shot me from the ground.
Joshua Encinias: Have you experienced any of the scams that Thelma was victim to in the movie?
June Squibb: I’ve never fallen for them, but I’ve had the calls. I have them on my emails and texts all the time. I recognize it. There’s one that keeps saying, “You’re Chase debit card…” I don’t have a Chase debit card, so I know that this is a scam.
Joshua Encinias: Josh, what was it like for Richard Roundtree to pass away while you were in post-production on Thelma?
Josh Margolin: It was incredibly sad and surprising as everybody really loved him. He was a warm presence on set, very kind, very talented, and wonderful to work with. He just seemed well when we saw him for ADR, he just seemed happy to be there. I think it was only a couple of months later that we heard he was sick, maybe a week before he passed, but I feel lucky that we got to spend the time together that we did and that we got to work together.
I know Richard and June had a really good thing going, and a really lovely chemistry in the movie. It was very surprising for her too. We all talked about it and have been thinking about him.
Joshua Encinias: Richard has this line, “We’re old, we’re diminished and we’re a liability to the ones we love,” and it hurts to hear his character, Ben, say it. June, I’m curious how you responded to that scene as his acting partner.
June Squibb: Watching Richard do that, you see the pain of Ben’s wife’s death and that’s what it stems from. Thelma feels that what he’s saying isn’t true. We can still do things, we can still make a difference, and we can still make decisions. The fact is that Thelma didn’t want anything really to do with Ben until she got to know him better, because they were forced to rely on each other.
Josh Margolin: Something about Richard’s character, Ben, is different for him. It was an opportunity to show a new side of himself as a performer. I think it was exciting for him to play and I believe he gave a beautiful performance.
It was an embarrassment of riches to work with both Richard and June because I’ve been a fan of theirs for such a long time.
Main image: Richard Roundtree and June Squibb in Thelma. Photo by David Bolen.