In The Hero, actor Sam Elliott enjoys one of the best roles of his career as Lee Hayden, the faded star of T.V. Westerns, now relegated to commercials voiceovers, a mostly-fruitless search for acting work and too much time getting drunk and stoned.
Long divorced from wife Valarie (Katharine Ross) and estranged from daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter), Lee receives a dire medical diagnosis that forces him to re-examine his life and his priorities, which is further complicated by an unexpected relationship with Charlotte Dylan (Laura Prepon), a saucy stand-up comedienne who takes a shine to him.
The Hero is the third feature from editor/director Brett Haley, who cowrote the screenplay with Marc Basch. Haley, a 2005 graduate of the UNCSA School of Filmmaking in Winston-Salem, brought The Hero to the RiverRun International Film Festival in April, and the film received a Grand Jury prize nomination at the Sundance Film Festival. The Hero opens June 30 at Aperture Cinema for its regular theatrical engagement.
Haley made his feature debut with the award-winning 2010 comedy The New Year, which starred UNCSA School of Drama graduate Trieste Kelly Dunn, followed by the acclaimed comedy/drama I’ll See You in My Dreams, which he also cowrote with Basch and where he first worked with Elliott.
Haley jokes that he made The Hero just so he could spend more time with Elliott, yet there’s some truth to that. Having enjoyed his work over the years, Haley wanted to make a film in which the actor was unequivocally the star. It’s not so much that Sam Elliott is underrated or overlooked, but taken for granted. He makes it look easy.
“That’s kind of true,” Haley observes. “When you mention Sam Elliott, people say ‘I love that guy!’ – and my goal was to make a film with him the central figure. Let’s see him carry something.”
Although there are some parallels to the character and the actor, Haley insists that Lee Hayden is not Sam Elliott. Nor is he Lee Marvin or Sterling Hayden, for whom the character is named, although there are similarities to them as well.
The voice. The presence. The sheer ease with which he plays a character. These are the components of the Sam Elliott screen persona.
“He’s just singular,” Haley said. “You can see it on screen. Not many actors have that kind of presence. He doesn’t have to do anything. He doesn’t have to say anything. It’s just who he is. There’s no bullshit with him.”
Haley couldn’t be more pleased by the rave reviews Elliott has received.
“The Sam-renaissance is real – it’s happening!” Haley said.
Haley enjoyed delving into the Western milieu, a genre he has great regard and respect for.
“Very much,” he says. “I love the simplicity of the genre.”
Indeed, Haley and cinematographer Rob C. Givens, a fellow UNCSA graduate, paid homage to the genre with visual references to the works of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood.
When it comes to selecting a favorite Sam Elliott film, he can’t choose just one.
“Grandma, The Contender, I love The Big Lebowski, the classics: Tombstone, Roadhouse, Lifeguard,” Givens said. “He was terrific [on T.V.] in Justified, which was a great show.” (Elliott won the 2015 Critics’ Choice Television award for Best Guest Performer in a Drama Series for his performance in the series.)
Haley admits it wasn’t difficult to cast Ross, who is married to Elliott in real life, especially as the role was written specifically for her. The rest of the cast quickly fell into place.
“The actors responded to the material, and also, just as much, the opportunity to work with Sam,”
Haley said. “Nick, like Sam, is taken for granted.”
“You mention Nick Offerman and people say ‘I love him – he’s hilarious!’ He can do just about anything,” Haley said. “He comes out of the theater and improvisational comedy, and comedy is just about the hardest thing to do. I’ve found that comic actors can play drama just as well.”
In the end, “I made the film I wanted to make, 100 percent,” he said. “I’m very proud of the performances. I’m not trying to change the world or the world of filmmaking.”
Looking back on his school days at UNCSA, “I remember the intimacy of the place, and being consumed by it – eating, sleeping, and breathing movies,” Haley said. “It’s very sweet when I come back. I have a good place in my heart for the school and Winston-Salem. I met life-long collaborators there, people I’ve been lucky to have met there.”
“I remember him as a student with a great sense of humor,” Dale Pollock, then the dean of the filmmaking school and currently a faculty member, said. “His student film (Sprinkler) was about scarecrows coming to life and is one of the most popular student films I show in my annual shorts class. I am not at all surprised that he has become a successful filmmaker. I think he’s a great director of actors because of his own personality.”
Filmmaker Richard Clabaugh, who taught full time at the School of Filmmaking from 1999 to 2008 (and has occasionally been engaged a substitute since) remembers Haley well and particularly Givens during their student days.
“[Rob] was very noticeably gifted and capable,” Clabaugh said. “A good man, and he has a great aesthetic sense. I really think the world of him – both of them, actually – and I’m super happy they’re enjoying success, because they richly deserve it.”
- The Hero opens Friday, June 30 at Aperture Cinema. To view Mark Burger’s review of the film, visit com.