At 94, June Squibb is a leading lady at last in the Sundance breakout ‘Thelma’

PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — June Squibb is perhaps the busiest 94-year-old in Hollywood. This year alone she’ll voice a role in “Inside Out 2,” head to New York to star in Scarlett Johansson’s directorial debut and film a television series that she can’t quite talk about just yet.

And for the first time in her rich and varied career which has brought her from the stage to an Oscar nomination at 84, she is the lead of a film, “Thelma.” It’s a grounded but also “Mission: Impossible”-inspired comedy about a grandmother trying to get her money back from a phone scammer. Thelma goes on a scooter ride across Los Angeles, with the late Richard Roundtree in tow, to right the wrong.

“My friends all laugh at me, like ‘What are you doing next?’” Squibb said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Sometimes I say to my agent, who is here, why are people still asking me to work? But I love it and I do it and it’s been great.”

The charming film from first-time director Josh Margolin premiered Thursday at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where it quickly became one of the must-sees. The filmmakers are looking for distribution partners at the festival.

“I just knew that the minute I read it that I wanted to do it. That’s how I decide, because I truly read everything,” Squibb said. “I thought it was beautifully written. And I got excited about that scooter right away. I thought that would be a hoot to drive around on that.”

Thelma is the name of Margolin’s grandmother, who was an inspiration for the story. Squibb was on his mind while writing, too, and it was a mutual friend, Beanie Feldstein, who connected them.

“Beanie knows my sister and he knows my real grandma and she was like, ‘Oh, you writing about your grandma? It’s got to be June,’” Margolin said. “I said, 'Yes that’s exactly what I want.'”

Feldstein had recently acted in “ The Humans ” with Squibb and texted her: “I’m going to send you a script.” One read and a 30-minute conversation later and she was in.

In “Thelma,” she’s a widow living alone in her beautiful apartment. Her family is busy living their own lives but also concerned about her and wondering when they’re going to be able to convince her to go into assisted living. Thelma is especially close with her grandson, played by “The White Lotus’” Fred Hechinger, who feels personally responsible that his beloved grandmother has gone missing. Of course, the audience knows she hasn’t simply wandered off — she’s on a mission, which she knows well she has to do on her own as her family would never let her do anything that potentially dangerous. It’s something that resonated for Squibb.

“I think we’re all stronger than anyone thinks we are, in many different ways,” Squibb said. “I mean, I have friends that don’t get out of the apartment, but they have strength in other areas.”

Her accomplice in this is Roundtree, who is delightful in one of his last film roles as the owner of the scooter she so desperately needs. He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died in October at age 81. Squibb hadn’t known the “Shaft” star before “Thelma.” The first thing she said was, “It’s about time.” She’

“He was so good and lovely. He was just a joy,” Squibb said. “And he would have gone on working. He was only in his early 80s.”

Squibb loved shooting “Thelma” all over the Valley and Brentwood in Los Angeles, with co-stars like Parker Posey, Clark Gregg and Malcolm McDowell, who made a big impression in his two days on set. “He’s a hell of an actor,” she remembered telling her assistant.

“We all knew, I think, that we were doing something special,” she said. “We had no idea that people would relate to it and react to it the way they are.”

The real Thelma and Squibb have yet to meet, but they’d like to. She gave the actor a “beautiful needlepoint pillow” and they’ve spoken over the phone about their favorite cop shows.

“My favorites are the ‘FBI’ on Tuesday night — all three of them,” Squibb said. “Oh, boy. You can’t drag me away, I love them.”

She doesn’t seem too impressed with the leading lady designation. For her, it doesn't change the work and some of her favorite roles have been “supporting,” especially those in Alexander Payne's “About Schmidt” and “Nebraska,” for which she received her first Oscar nomination 10 years ago. Both were turning points in her career, she said.

“I'm aware of what Alexander Payne did for me,” she said. “It made a tremendous difference.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is her refusal to watch “dailies,” the raw, unedited footage made during the making of a film.

“Some editors go crazy with me because they try so desperately to get me to come in and watch what’s been shot. And I will not do it. I just don’t want to,” she said. "When I worked with Jack Nicholson, he wanted me to come in. I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ My early training was on the stage and you really learn not to look at yourself. Don’t think about yourself. You just do it. And I think I’m sure that’s probably what it is.”

She has no trouble watching the finished product though — she can even dissociate and just watch it as a film. And she’ll keep working as long as she keeps finding interesting parts.

“When I came out of the womb, I said, ‘I’m an actress.’ I did it at a very young age and I decided ‘This is it.’ And I never varied from it or wavered,” Squibb said. “It’s just something that I have always loved doing.”