At 94, June Squibb Is Scaling the Box Office in ‘Thelma’ and ‘Inside Out 2’

At 94, June Squibb became an unlikely box office champ last month. She had roles in two of the country’s Top 10 movies: “Thelma,” the charming action comedy in which she plays the lead, and the No. 1 blockbuster “Inside Out 2.”

Her career has spanned seven decades, Broadway, TV and an Oscar nomination, in 2014, for Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska.” But it’s “Thelma” that has ignited audiences: In it, Squibb is a live-wire nonagenarian grandmother who sets out to retrieve her money after being scammed. “We thought ‘Nebraska’ was hot,” she said during a recent video interview. “This is hotter.”

“Thelma” is based on (and named for) the writer-director Josh Margolin’s real-life grandmother, who will turn 104 in July. Though the offscreen Thelma did not engage in a stunt-filled chase or even fall for the con, she and her alter ego share a sense of tenacity and a joie de vivre, if not a daredevil style on a mobility scooter.

Squibb’s co-star is Richard Roundtree, the original “Shaft.” It was his final feature role before his death last year, at 81, from pancreatic cancer. He got to see the movie about a week before he died, Squibb said, explaining, “We had no idea that he was ill. It was a joy of my life to have had that time with him.”

In “Inside Out 2,” Squibb plays Nostalgia, depicted as a bespectacled granny. “The rose-colored glasses got me right away,” she said, laughing. “I thought that was so funny.”

She tap-danced her way though childhood in a small town in Illinois, and said she always wanted to be an actress. “It never occurred to me when I was growing up that I was anything else — that was it,” said Squibb, who is also the lead in Scarlett Johansson’s forthcoming directorial debut, “Eleanor the Great.” She is not considering retirement; she still thinks of herself as ambitious.

“It’s a very slow kind of ambition, that doesn’t rush in,” she said. “But I think that I have always had this sense that I am going to get what I wanted.”

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Thelma is indomitable, but the movie also underscores the realities of aging — friends gone and physical limitations. What was important for you to show?

Just the showing of age. I mean, at this point, every role I take is in her 90s — 80s, perhaps, on good days. But I think that the fact that he was writing about an older woman who was capable — I feel very strongly about it.

You had a stunt double, but a lot of it was you. How did you decide what stunts to do?

I did most of the scooter work. When I read the script, I thought this was going to be great fun, and I really found I had an affinity for this scooter. Except it was hard to stop — it bucked a little bit. So I had to learn how to stop it cleanly. I did all that walking, up those stairs; I did all the bed rolls; all that business with a gun. That was all me.

Is there a secret to your stamina?

I was always energetic. And when I was working, I always found that extra energy to finish what had to be done. I never faded during a job. Now, I get tired more easily. And I recognize that because — I never used to recognize it. I would ignore it, but now I don’t, and I know I have to stop. But I have in my contract now: I only work 10 hours — a day.

One undercurrent in “Thelma” is the way in which the world is not set up for older people, or differently abled people — they have to use ingenuity to get what they want. Was that an important message for you to see onscreen, too?

Oh, yeah. Because I have always broken rules. I don’t know why — even as a kid, I couldn’t understand rules. I just feel that we have so much more that we can do, if we stop listening to people saying, “You can’t do it.” That’s very important to me.

You played a stripper when you joined the original Broadway cast of “Gypsy,” in 1959, opposite Ethel Merman. What was that like?

We all loved Ethel. She was such a oner — there’s no one else like her in this world. And that voice was a joy to hear night after night. The orchestration was great. You’d sit in your dressing room and just listen to that orchestra playing it. We did a wonderful number called “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” every night, and the audience loved us. It was a great period of my life.

Do you miss the stage?

I miss it. I did [the musical] “Waitress” on Broadway for about eight weeks [in 2018]. I loved it, but it sure wore me out. It’s just harder on you physically than filming is.

What can you share about “Eleanor the Great”?

It’s a woman who says she was in the Holocaust and was not. She’s lying. But you get all of the reasons she lies. And she has a wonderful relationship with a girl who’s at N.Y.U. They understand each other and, in a sense, Eleanor is feistier than the young girl.

You recently joked that now that you’ve conquered an action movie, your next move is to do porn. What kind of project do you dream of?

I’d love to do a western. I rode for years — I was a good rider. If they got me on the horse, I think I could stay on it.

A lot of the plot of “Thelma” revolves around her use — or misuse — of technology. How do you use tech?

I use my phone all the time, for everything. I text, I email, I Google things, I use YouTube. I don’t know the big computers — when I started to film, I knew what a mouse was, but I didn’t know how to use it. My knowledge is, I think, OK for my age. I have friends who are much better.

I think if we’re trained or if someone tells us how to do something, we can usually do it. Not all the time — there are things I can’t do on the internet. And certainly, I don’t do my own Zooming. There are limits. But we can do more, probably, than people imagine.

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