That Evening Sun's Hal Holbrook: A Candid, Emotional Movieline Interview
It's time to move Hal Holbrook off the Oscar bubble and into the fold. The 84-year-old actor delivers arguably the performance of his career in That Evening Sun, director Scott Teems's terrific adaptation of the William Gay short story "I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down." Holbrook plays Abner Meecham, a Tennessean banished by his lawyer son (Walton Goggins) to a nursing home he'll soon flee in disgust. Returning to his farm, Abner discovers the Choate family -- led by ne'er-do-well patriarch Lonzo (Ray McKinnon) -- occupying the house he and his late wife built from scratch. When Abner decides to set up house in the tenant's quarters, the ensuing battle of wills between he and Lonzo zig-zags from comic to gothic to disturbingly violent -- thanks much to Holbrook's scenic route along the spectrum between righteousness and utter sociopathy. Imagine his celebrated character in Into the Wild soaked in vinegar and hung out to dry in the sweltering Tennessee sun, and that's Abner Meecham. He's quite the marvel.
As is Holbrook, who, along with Teems, recently talked to Movieline about That Evening Sun, breaking out of the typecast rut, respecting the South, and one of his most enduring personal influences. (Sun opens Friday in Los Angeles and is currently playing in New York.) Enjoy your Crazy Hearts and Up in the Airs, but this is a real-deal American master worth as much -- if not more -- consideration than anybody out there.
Scott, I'd read you were uneasy about casting Hal because he was perhaps best known for playing Mark Twain, and you needed someone a little rougher. Is that true?
ST: I guess the reason I hadn't initially thought of him is that I had been kind of programmed by Hollywood to think of Hal as the "guy in the suit." Or the mustache. Or as the lawyer, the judge, Mark Twain. So he wasn't initially on my radar five years ago in the conception of this. It wasn't until we saw how Sean Penn reimagined Hal to be this physical specimen -- this outdoorsman, this man of the land -- as he did with Into the Wild that we thought, "Aha! That's who we've been looking for." What I was searching for was this really searching for was this really specific combination of strength and fragility. You believed that he believed that he had the strength to work this farm; he's convinced himself he could do it. And we would stand up to this interloper on his land. And it wouldn't be surprising to you that he'd do this. At the same time, I want you to say, "Please be careful! You're an old man." To find an actor who wasn't afraid to be 80 years old and yet have that presence was a challenge. Seeing him climb that hill in Into the Wild, you're going, "Yes, I absolutely believe this man would do that."
HH: I have to say, that's the first time I heard him say that about the Mark Twain thing. It's so interesting to me because, you know, I've been fighting images all my life. Honest to God. This business can drive you crazy. You can exhaust yourself trying to overcome the image the create for you in Hollywood. It's so frustrating because I love doing different kinds of parts, you know? On the stage I can do it. I get choices. But naturally everybody's stuck with that, and this has been the most exciting breakaway for me. I just did a film about an old man who has Alzheimer's. I'm doing a cook in a diner next. After that I'm doing a wrestling coach. None of these roles would ever have come if it hadn't been for Sean giving me that role. How in the name of the Lord in Heaven Sean decided I could do this, I don't know. But to the end of my life, I'll never be finished thanking him.
I'm actually writing two books. The second book comes after the success of Twain in 1959 -- which was a total shock not only to everyone on Broadway, but to me. Everyone said, "Who is this kid Holbrook? I heard he's on a soap opera. Who is he?" Nobody could understand. I got reviews like nobody could imagine. The first book ends with that. But I'm realizing as I write the second book that it's about that: How in the hell can I escape this image I've created? Because nobody knows who I am. The star was Mark Twain. The boy inside -- which was me -- nobody knew who I was! I had to start all over again, man!
In That Evening Sun, your character Abner is motivated to take a stand. Is that something, then, that also motivated you?
HH: Well, I don't want to dwell on the book, but the whole story is about survival. It's not about an actor. It's about survival. As a little boy I learned, and now I have to go back and think about it. I realized it as a boy when my mother disappeared when I was 2 years old. We visited my father in the insane asylum all the time and brought him a carton of Chesterfields. Christ, I must have been 3 or 4 years old when I realized that survival was the one thing in life. And that means keep going. Keep climbing that hill no matter what.
ST: And that's Abner.
HH: That's Abner.
The first shot of you in That Evening Sun -- staring out the window of a nursing home -- is kind of devastating. How did you react to seeing yourself like that?
HH: Well, first I react as an actor watching himself act and say, "Enh, I should have done that better." But I get caught up in this film. I get caught up early on. I have a very strong connection with this man. I like this guy. I like the way he is, and I wonder sometimes if I'm that tough with people. I guess I am; my wife tells me I am sometimes. But she's so kind to everybody all the time. She says, "You're so grouchy!" I guess I am. But I hate deception. I hate lying. I cannot stand lying. That's what makes me so angry about things I see going on around us, behind us, all these Wall Street and political people deceiving us. People are deceiving themselves all over the country. They've got one idea, they don't want to listen to anybody else, on and on. That feeds me. It feeds me up onstage with Mark Twain, because then I get the machine gun out and start really leveling it. It keeps me going.
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