NEW YORK — June Squibb recently ducked into a Times Square office above the theaters she spent decades knocking about, taking any decent part she could get.
"We ran around," she recalls. "We ate matinee days."
After a lifetime of Broadway, regional theater, cabaret, musicals, summer stock and bit movie roles, Squibb is, at 84, an Oscar nominee. Her supporting actress nod came not for playing — as you might expect — a dignified elderly woman or regal historical figure, but for a prickly, foul-mouthed Midwestern matriarch who, in her most memorable scene, lifts her skirt up at a gravestone. In Alexander Payne's "Nebraska," her Kate Grant epitomizes heartland tenacity.
The accolades (she was most recently given the Virtuoso Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival) have brought Squibb more attention than she's ever received in a career spanning 60 years, from playing the stripper Electra in "Gypsy" on Broadway in 1960 to a tough-talking secretary in "Scent of a Woman."
If Squibb were to win the Academy Award, she'd be the oldest ever to win for acting. It's a very welcome victory lap for a veteran used to working in near-anonymity. The actress Margo Martindale, Squibb's friend and former Upper West Side neighbor of 30-plus years, says: "I tried to call her for three days, but, you know, she's too busy!"
Squibb, who has Kate's matter-of-factness but not her coarse frankness, has enjoyed the attention with a sincere but bemused gratitude.
"It's not like I just all at once burst out acting," she says. "I've been doing this for years. I've enjoyed the film work tremendously. So the fact that it comes in film, rather than in stage, I feel like I belong."
Squibb grew up the daughter of an insurance salesman and a piano-playing mother in the small town of Vandalia, Ill. "It was never, 'I want to be' or 'This is what I'll do,'" she says. "It was 'I am.' That's all I knew I was: 'I'm an actress.' I have no idea where it came from. None."
She worked primarily in musicals before making an abrupt shift to drama. She later made a similar move into movies. At 60, she landed the first three parts she auditioned for: Woody Allen's "Alice," ''Scent of a Woman" and Martin Scorsese's "The Age of Innocence."
Her evolution as an actress she credits entirely to her late second husband, Charles Kakatsakis, a well-known acting instructor who demanded realism.
"He used to scream in class: 'Don't act! Don't act!'" says Squibb. "I would say, 'Well, what do you do then?' And he said, 'Listen to what the other actors are saying and if any of them talk to you, answer them back.'"
Squibb first heard about the "Nebraska" role from Martindale, who starred in Payne's "Paris je t'aime" short film, and recommended the script to Squibb. Squibb had worked with Payne before, playing Jack Nicholson's wife in "About Schmidt," but the director didn't initially think of her for "Nebraska." He changed his mind after Squibb sent in an audition tape with two versions of Kate, one volatile and the other more controlled.
In the film, Kate starts as what seems a typically combative (albeit especially voluble) spouse to Bruce Dern's Woody Grant, an aging alcoholic with senility setting in. Though much of the film revolves around Woody's relationship with one of his two sons (Will Forte), Squibb provides, as she says, some "spice" to the melancholy tale, often recalling a youth when all the boys were trying to "get in my bloomers."
They make for a portrait of marriage defined not by the high ideals of love but simply hanging together. One of the movie's most tender moments comes when Kate calls Woody "you big idiot."
"There are parts of her that I relate to," says Squibb. "Her strength."
Dern, also nominated for an Oscar, says all his co-star ever needed was "someone to manually turn on the faucet that is June Squibb."
"Her cause is similar to mine, if you want to call them causes," says the 77-year-old Dern. "Her journey. She's had to work a long, long time with what comes down the road. Finally, a guy wrote a part for her."
Squibb has soaked up the parade of awards dinners and events this Oscar season, taking the time to become friendly with her fellow nominee (and perceived front-runner) Lupita Nyong'o of "12 Years a Slave." She greeted her: "We're in this together. I think I should introduce myself."