‘Thelma’ Star June Squibb Loved Playing an Action Hero So Much She Did Her Own Stunts

June Squibb isn’t one to turn down the opportunity to play interesting characters, so when the script for the action-comedy “Thelma” came her way, she was instantly hooked. That it marked the first lead role in her career after over 60 years in the business and was an action movie was merely the cherry on top.

“I don’t quite know what that means,” Squibb told TheWrap of the fact that this is her first starring performance. “But if I look at a script and if the character is interesting to me, then I decide yes. I couldn’t have turned this down. If it had been one day of shooting, I would have wanted to do it.”

Written and directed by Josh Margolin, “Thelma” tells the story of a woman who gets scammed out of thousands of dollars and decides to go after the scammer. The film is told through the trappings of the action genre – there are fast cuts, heroic music and even a scooter chase. And at the center is Squibb, who carries the entire film on her shoulders and appears in nearly every scene.

“I enjoyed it tremendously. I loved riding the scooter, and I did a lot of the bed rolls and getting up off the beds and all that business. Going up the stairs, that was a hard one. My assistant kids me and says they had to tell me to go slower,” she said with a laugh as she recalled her stunt work.

“Something I was thinking about a lot was like, OK, Tom Cruise, jumping out of a plane is terrifying, but so is watching my grandma get onto a bed,” Margolin explained of his approach to the film’s action. “And trying to essentially take that equation and look for opportunities to kind of match or mirror some of those classic action beats, but do so in a way that feels really true to everyday things.”

The character Squibb plays was inspired by Margolin’s own grandmother, who was scammed in a similar situation.

“It got me thinking and imagining what might have happened if she had sent [the money to the scammer] and if she had set out on her own to get it back, which is something I would not put past her,” Margolin told TheWrap. “So it sort of became, in a way, an excuse to write something to celebrate her grit and her tenacity.”

The filmmaker combined this concept with his love for action movies to result in something unique.

“I honestly just got really excited about trying to take some of those tropes and some of those ideas that are in that genre and shrink them down to explore a more everyday heroism that I’ve seen with my own grandma,” he explained. “And finding a way to milk humor, but also tension and fun and suspense from those tropes if we bring them down to earth and do them on a slightly more day to day scale.”

It required an actress who could hold her own but also play the film straight and nail the emotional beats. For Margolin, the choice was always Squibb.

The surrounding ensemble cast proved key as well – “The White Lotus” actor Fred Hechinger plays Thelma’s grandson and struck up a relationship with Squibb in real life that mirrors their touching one seen onscreen. And in one of his final roles, Richard Roundtree plays an old friend of Thelma’s whose scooter she steals to go after her scammer.

This was the first time Squibb and Roundtree had ever worked together, and Squibb brought it up on their first day of shooting. “He walked in and I walked up and said, ‘Well, it’s about time.’ He said, ‘Yes!’ and he knew immediately what I meant.”

But while “Thelma” can certainly be described as a romp, there is an undercurrent of loneliness that runs throughout, especially in the relationship between Thelma and her grandson. Both are underestimated by Thelma’s daughter and her husband (played by Parker Posey and Clark Gregg), who don’t trust Thelma to be alone and are pushing their son to get a job and put his life together.

“The heart and soul of the movie, and sort of the crux of it, is the idea that there are these transitional moments that kind of mirror each other throughout life,” Margolin said. “And some we really tend to associate with old age in a traditional sense, but I think we actually kind of encounter them at various crossroads and at various points in our lives. And in a way, it’s almost a friendship movie.”

The film also plays great to a crowd, as Squibb and Margolin learned at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year where it debuted to a rapturous response. To that end, they’re thrilled it’s getting a theatrical release from Magnolia Pictures.

“It’s nice to watch it however you can watch it, but it has been really, really exciting to see it with audiences just because they’ve been so responsive,” Margolin said.

As for Squibb, despite notching “action star” and “lead role” off her list with this film, she has no desire to slow down. She just shot a role in Scarlett Johansson’s directorial debut “Eleanor,” which she said has a “very interesting” script.

“Just keep working, that’s the most important thing,” Squibb said of her advice to up-and-comers and other performers waiting for their break. “Just keep at it.”

“Thelma” opens exclusively in theaters on Friday, June 21.

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