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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Defying age and expectations, 94-year-old June Squibb is Hollywood’s latest action star

June Squibb arrives Friday for the premiere of “Thelma” at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles.  (David Swanson/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Josh Rottenberg Los Angeles Times Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES – On a bright June afternoon in the San Fernando Valley, the summer’s unlikeliest action hero sits down at a small dining table in the tidy ground-floor apartment that she shares with two cats. Offering her guest a plate of cookies, June Squibb explains that she previously lived for two decades in a different apartment on the second floor, but three years ago her son Harry insisted she move down to this unit so she wouldn’t have to navigate stairs every day. “He was right – moving down here was the best thing I could have done,” she said.

This may not seem like the typical setting for an interview with an action star. But then again, Squibb is 94 years old and nothing about her career has been typical. After decades on the stage in New York, she made the leap to film and TV when she was in her 60s and quickly found herself working for directors like Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Alexander Payne. When she was 84, Squibb earned a supporting actress Oscar nod for her turn in Alexander Payne’s 2013 film “Nebraska,” and now, at an age when many actors have long since retired or died, she is finally stepping into the spotlight with her first starring role.

In the comedy “Thelma,” Squibb plays a strong-willed grandmother who is duped out of $10,000 by a phone scammer and embarks on a quest to it get back, taking to the streets on a scooter hijacked from an elderly friend, played by “Shaft” star Richard Roundtree. (The actor died shortly after making the movie.) Written and directed by Josh Margolin, who based the story on his now-104-year-old grandmother, the film earned raves at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for its fresh twist on familiar action tropes and its sensitive handling of both the indignities and pleasures of later life.

Building off that buzz, Magnolia Pictures is releasing “Thelma” on more than a thousand screens, the widest opening in the indie distributor’s 23-year history. The film hits theaters just a week after Pixar’s “Inside Out 2,” in which Squibb delivers a standout turn as the new emotion Nostalgia – “a funny little lady with rose-colored glasses,” in her words – making this truly the Summer of Squibb. For the Illinois-born actor, after a lifetime of playing supporting roles, it’s new simply to be the face on the poster and No. 1 on the call sheet.

“They keep saying that ‘You were No. 1!’ ” Squibb said. “It’s so funny to hear that because, my God, all these years I just have never dealt with anything like that.”

When she first read Margolin’s script, Squibb connected immediately with Thelma’s determination to confront those who wronged her. Her second husband, acting teacher Charles Kakatsakis, who died in 1999 after 40 years of marriage, always told her she could have made a good cop. “I have a great sense of justice, of what’s right and wrong. Since I was a kid, that’s always been a part of my ethos,” said Squibb, who loves police procedurals and has several bookshelves filled with Scandinavian crime novels.

When looking for an actor in their mid-90s to play a role like Thelma, there aren’t a huge number of contenders. But for Margolin, there was only one choice. “June is such a perfect mixture of strong but vulnerable, funny but understated,” Margolin said. “She has that spirit where she just doesn’t quit, and that’s such an essential piece of that character and of my real grandma. I was just dead-set on it being her.”

“Thelma” playfully sprinkles “Mission: Impossible”– style action set pieces into the story, appropriately scaled to a nonagenarian’s abilities. Like Tom Cruise, Squibb gamely performed many of her own stunts, including driving a scooter at inadvisable speeds and rolling across a bed with a gun in her hand – no small feat after two knee replacements. “I loved the scooters,” Squibb said . “I have to admit, I did not do the wheelie. But I really did most of my stunts.”

In some ways, the physical role of the performance was nothing new to Squibb, who honed her talents as a dancer and singer from an early age. Born and raised in Vandalia, Illinois, Squibb – whose father sold insurance and whose mother was a secretary – could not have been much further removed from Hollywood growing up.

“I had an aunt who tap-danced and whistled through her teeth – that’s the closest I came,” she said. “But I just knew what I was: I was an actress. It never occurred to me that there would be any other way.”

While still in her teens, Squibb began performing in theaters in St. Louis and Cleveland before moving to New York, where she made her Broadway debut in “Gypsy.” “My first 20 years were all in musical theater,” she said. “I did everything: Broadway, off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway, regional. I just wanted to work.

Squibb was in her early 60s when she made her film debut in Woody Allen’s 1990 romantic comedy “Alice.” The director had a reputation for firing people he wasn’t happy with, and at one point Squibb feared she could be one of them. “I yelled at him once – I was trying to get a cue from an actor who was impossible and he was blaming me,” she says. “I went home and said, ‘Well, I’m either going to be fired or he’s going to love me.’ When I went back, he had put me in a lot more scenes.”

From that point on, Squibb continued to find steady work in Hollywood, from films like Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence” and Payne’s “About Schmidt” to countless TV appearances. In 2013, she delivered a scene-stealing turn in Payne’s “Nebraska,” which earned her Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations along with an Oscar nod for supporting actress.

A decade later, she still vividly remembers sitting in her apartment with her son, Harry Kakatsakis, who is himself a director and writer, watching the Oscar nominations being announced. “They said my name and he said, ‘Mom, you did it – you did it,’ ” she said. “And we’re both just sitting there crying. You can look back on it and think, ‘Well, what is it?’ But even now, I’m very proud that next to my name it says ‘Oscar nominee.’ ”

In the years since then, Squibb has found herself getting recognized in public more often. “We go to Gelson’s and there’s almost always somebody in there that stops by and says something to me,” said Squibb, who has an assistant (also at her son’s insistence) but otherwise still lives independently. “Sometimes they think I’m a teacher they had many years ago or something like that. It’s fun.”

Squibb initially thought “Thelma” might be her swan song, but the offers keep coming in. As a testament to her range, she recently played a vampiric leprechaun in the latest season of “American Horror Story” and will next star in Scarlett Johansson’s directorial debut, “Eleanor the Great.”

Despite Hollywood’s obsession with youth, Squibb is encouraged by the variety of roles she’s being offered, which go well beyond the stereotypical grandmotherly type. “Eleanor is very different from Thelma, and God knows they’re both different from the leprechaun,” she said. “I think things are changing. We have these wonderful women doing leading roles at 40, 50, even 60. That never would have happened even 20 years ago when I first came out here.”

Squibb attributes her own ability to keep working to good genes and an active lifestyle. “Both my parents died at 91, which in their generation was very old,” she said. “And, you know, I danced for years in New York. I started swimming for an hour a day when I moved out here, and I still do Pilates once a week. So I think that has a lot to do with it. Physically, I just never stopped.”

And at this point, as long as she remains healthy and able, she has no intention of stopping. “I am completely going against the rules,” she said. “It never occurs to me that I’m doing something different than most people. There are no rules. Now I’m just like, ‘Well, I wonder what I’ll do next?’ ”

So what about “Thelma 2?”After all, every action star needs a franchise.

“Everyone is kidding about that, saying, ‘If June does it, I’ll do it,’ ” Squibb said.