Talking with Sissy Spacek about ‘The Old Man & the Gun’
TORONTO — Sissy Spacek can make anyplace seem like her back porch.
Take this hotel suite in Toronto, for instance. We’re midway through the city’s annual film festival, there’s a September deluge outside — a pelting city rain — and the surroundings are about as dreary and generic as pricey downtown hotels come. Yet the moment the actress walks in the door, clad in simple black slacks and a black shirt with a zip-up collar, there’s sunshine, and not the glaring kind. Just a warm, easy glow. Spacek lives in Virginia — has for 40 years — and she seems to pack it along with her. Most actors tend to say nice things in interviews. With Spacek, you feel like she means it. She loves David Lowery, the director of her latest movie, “The Old Man & the Gun,” which is screening at TIFF and opens in Boston Friday. She’s over the moon about working with her costar, Robert Redford. Upon hearing that the interviewer is from Boston, Spacek bubbles with praise for a region that, until recently, she had never visited.
“I was doing [the Stephen King TV series] ‘Castle Rock’ [for Hulu] and I stayed in Concorrrrd.” She stretches the word out like a piece of taffy. “I loved it. That town is incredible.”
Spacek, 68, is all the parts of America that aren’t New England, really. She’s from a tiny Texas burg in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and first came to attention as the blank-faced half of a spree-killing couple in Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” (1973), set on the Great Plains. “Carrie” (1976), the movie that made her a star, was filmed in California, despite King’s novel taking place in Maine. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980), the movie that won Spacek her best actress Oscar, takes place in Kentucky and Nashville.
And “The Old Man & the Gun” unfolds in the small towns and backroads of the Southwest, giving Spacek a plum of a supporting role as a widow who falls for a charmer named Forrest Tucker (Redford), who, despite his advanced age, is a gentlemanly and committed bank robber.
The story is based on that of the real Tucker, whose string of holdups in the 1980s had him and his accomplices labeled “The Over the Hill Gang” by amused local news outlets. “The Old Man & the Gun” is notable as the latest gentle ’70s throwback for its young writer-director Lowery (“A Ghost Story,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”).
It’s also Redford’s final movie performance, or so the actor announced before shooting even started. And for Spacek it was a chance to work with one of her own screen idols before he got away for good.
What, you think movie stars don’t have crushes on other movie stars? Spacek recalls briefly meeting Redford when she was 18, before she was an actress, and “making a complete and utter fool of myself.” And she confesses she was initially daunted on the “Old Man” set. “I was starstruck. In fact, David Lowery came over to me after the first time we did the scene in the cafe, and he said” — Spacek drops her voice to a mutter — “ ‘It’s not Robert Redford. It’s Forrest Tucker. Ease off.’ I was like a little puppy.”
It doesn’t come across that way in the movie. In fact, Spacek’s character, Jewel, is the rock of loving decency that grounds the film and keeps Tucker’s actions in perspective, no matter how tickled he and we might find them. In an odd way, “The Old Man & the Gun” is a bookend to “Badlands” 45 years on, especially in the early scenes where Spacek’s characters are wooed by charismatic men. It’s just that Holly in the earlier film is young and empty-headed and swayed by a killer (Martin Sheen) in a tight T-shirt, and Jewel has seen more of life and knows more of her own mind.
“I think Jewel has a little more sense than Holly,” allows the actress when the parallel between the two movies is raised. “There was one point where David was working on the script and he had Jewel running off, going on the lam with Forrest. And I was, no, no, I learned my lesson in ‘Badlands.’ Jewel’s just going to stay home.”
So she talked the director out of it? “I talked him out of it.”
Like too many star actresses of her generation, Spacek is loved by audiences without being cast in projects as much as she would like; when asked when she’s coming back to Boston, she cracks, “Get me a job.” And when an interviewer wonders about her early years in a hedonistic, male-dominated film industry, and how she has been relatively quiet about speaking to the #MeToo moment, Spacek admits that she hasn’t been asked.
“I haven’t really had the opportunity,” she says before pondering why her Hollywood generation of women was so silent on the issue. “We were fighting so many battles then! Rights for women, a woman’s right to choose, protesting the war in Vietnam. And it’s so thrilling now to see these young women fighting for things that we just accepted as par for the course.”
Whatever Spacek herself may have had to contend with on her rise through the ranks — if anything — she keeps to herself. Instead, she quietly says, “I remember when I married my husband [art director Jack Fisk] in 1974, I thought, ‘Great, now I’m not fair game.’ ” I remember that being a relief.”
Then the sun comes out again. “I guess what I am saying is that I’m so moved by how these young women, who have been through a lot and suffered a lot, have stood up to something that my generation never was able to do. And I admire them and I respect them and I applaud them and I would line up behind them.”
One imagines those young women feel exactly the same way about her.