Sam Elliott worked with Brett Haley via a supporting role in the low-budget drama I’ll See You in My Dreams. But it wasn’t until a subsequent publicity tour for the film that the legendary character actor and the upstart filmmaker less than half his age really connected.
That’s when Haley told Elliott he wanted to write a script especially for him. Elliott was enthusiastic if a bit skeptical. A few months later, Haley came back to him with The Hero.
The film toys with the actor’s instantly recognizable baritone voice, gray-haired mustache, and iconic Western image, while allowing him more substance and range than he’s often able to show.
“He trusted me from our previous working relationship. We had become very close friends. I wanted to see Sam have an opportunity like this,” Haley said. “If Sam would have said no, then we wouldn’t have made the movie. Period.”
In the film, Elliott plays Lee Hayden, a struggling actor — still best known for an award-winning Western four decades ago — dealing with issues of loneliness and mortality. He spends most of his days puffing on joints with a neighbor (Nick Offerman) or reading for roles with little creative value.
He later forms a reluctant romantic connection with a young standup comic (Laura Prepon) who’s unaware of his recent cancer diagnosis that prompts an urgent attempt to resurrect his career and reconnect with his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter).
“Imagine if Clint Eastwood only made the ‘Man with No Name’ trilogy and never did anything else, or sort of fell off. That’s kind of what Lee Hayden did,” Haley said. “He made this classic Western, and then we never really heard from him again in any significant way. He’s been working, but nothing of substance.”
While the part was written for Elliott, Haley said there are many more differences than similarities between the real-life star and the fledgling actor he plays on-screen. For example, Elliott is healthy and happily married to his wife of 33 years, actress Katharine Ross — who also plays a small role in The Hero — has a great relationship with his daughter, and doesn’t smoke pot.
“Sam Elliott is a guy who’s been working consistently for over 40 years in the industry. While many things cut close to the bone between Lee and Sam, Lee could not be more different from who Sam is in real life,” he said. “We wanted to make this guy very different, but also play on the fact that he’s been typecast as a cowboy pretty much his whole career.”
The film’s title comes from the generic name of the character that Lee played in his most memorable role, but it also allowed the filmmaker to explore archetypes and hero mythology.
“The hero is a really overused term. It’s easy to call someone a hero. Lee is not a hero, but that’s what he’s known for. That duality is very intriguing,” Haley said. “The film is also making a comment on how heroism in everyday life can show itself in different ways.”
From the time that Haley and co-writer Marc Basch began working on the script in early 2016, the process moved quickly. The cameras rolled for 18 days last spring on the low-budget project, using several locations around the Los Angeles area, and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
Haley, 33, has made two straight films featuring septuagenarian protagonists, which he claims is more of a coincidence than a pattern.
“I hate the way that Hollywood treats people of a certain age, with these terrible jokes and clichés, and the cuteness of it all,” he said. “I try to show my characters as real people, and I like the weight and the experience that comes with an older character. This movie is about legacy and looking back on your life. It’s about relationships and how important those are. This isn’t a film about an old person. It’s a film about a person who happens to be a certain age.”