Beth Grant is one of those indelible character actors who makes any movie they’re in better. And she’s been in a lot of them; TV shows, too—more than 200 and counting over a more than 40-year career. Three of those films were named Best Picture: Rain Man, No Country for Old Men and The Artist. She is a standout as the flinty beauty pageant judge in Little Miss Sunshine, the ill-fated bus passenger in Speed and a small-town Southern housewife in need of a life makeover in To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.
She was Dwight Schrute’s date (and former babysitter!) in “The Dinner Party,” often cited as the best-ever episode of The Office, and she stole all her scenes as the NSFW nurse-turned-receptionist Beverly on The Mindy Project.
Grant may be best known as the deeply fundamentalist Kitty Farmer in the cult classic Donnie Darko, in which she made iconic the line: “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion.” (It is the line most quoted back to her by fans, along with “What about the rest of us?” from Speed).
So not for nothing did New York magazine recently rank her among “The 32 Greatest Character Actors Working Today.”
Her latest, available for rental or purchase from Redbox, is Willy’s Wonderland. All you need to know is that a mute Nicolas Cage (that’s right, a mute Nicolas Cage) fights off demonic animatronic mascots (that’s right, demonic animatronic mascots) at an abandoned family entertainment center, and that Beth Grant appears as the not particularly trustworthy sheriff.
She talked to Redbox about her prodigious career, loving Harry Dean Stanton and why she would follow Sandra Bullock anywhere.
Redbox: Did you know that the New York magazine article was coming?
Beth Grant: That was a kick. I had no idea, but it just meant the world to me.
RB: After 40 years and more than 200 films and TV shows, you still need convincing?
BG: You’re very sweet. Yes, every day. It is pitiful. PITIFUL! [Laughs]
RB: Did you have favorite character actors growing up?
BG: Definitely Thelma Ritter, without question, for sure. I wish I could deliver a line like she does. My god, what a natural, beautiful, dry wit. All About Eve is one of my favorite films.
RB: What was your career plan?
BG: I wanted to be a glamorous movie star. I had no desire to be a character actor. I was delusional. I thought with the right light, the right makeup, I could be Loretta Young, even Marilyn Monroe and Joan Crawford. But I had a wonderful acting teacher, Milton Katselas. He said, ‘Why do you keep trying to be a Rolex watch when you’re the salt of the Earth? Why do you think you’re better than Colleen Dewhurst, Olympia Dukakis and Maureen Stapleton?’ I told him I didn’t think I was better than them, and he said, ‘Yes, you do because (you think) the parts they do are not good enough for you.’ Boy, did that get my attention.
RB: You’ve worked with a wide range of directors, from first-timers to masters such as Ridley Scott and the Coen brothers. What do you look for in a director to feel like you are in good hands?
BG: I love somebody who has a vision and who does their homework. Ridley Scott for instance. I worked with him on Matchstick Men. We had a rehearsal, which is a luxury. He showed us what the location looked like and where the cameras were going to be. He said, ‘If you have an idea, tell me.’ I like people who allow me to collaborate. Ridley Scott, the Coen brothers, Barry Sonnenfeld and Barry Levison were all willing to listen to my ideas. Ironically, they are all so prepared that there wasn’t a lot that I had to add.
RB: One of the benefits of being a character actor is the breadth and depth of projects you have the opportunity to do. You’ve done prestige films like The Artist and you do popcorn films like Speed. Which brings is to Willy’s Wonderland. How did you get involved with this project?
BG: Grant Cramer, one of the producers, is a dear friend. We were in acting class together. It was a wonderful class: Patrick Swayze, Tom Selleck, Robert Urich, Tony Danza. When somebody from that group calls, I’m going to do anything I possibly could. I thought the script was a gas. What fun to satirize these supposed children’s places. And I love Nic Cage; I did Matchstick Men with him. He’s a great guy, very professional, very prepared and kind. Just a good person. I also helped him cast Sonny, which he directed. He was auditioning James Franco, and as it turns out, James and I really clicked. I saw how brilliant he was, and right in front of him, I told Nic, ‘This is the guy.’ James (got the role) and we later became friends. We did As I Lay Dying, which premiered at Cannes. I was Addie Bundren, one of the great female roles in literature of all time. If it hasn’t been for Nic Cage, that never would have happened.
RB: When you got the script for Speed, could you anticipate that a film about a runaway bus would be such a phenomenal hit?
BG: No. I was like, ‘A bus? How is that going to work?’ But my friend, Don Mancini, who created Chucky, said, ‘This is going to be a huge. Go for it.’ It was a different script than what you saw. Josh Whedon did an uncredited rewrite. He took out all the backstories of the people on the bus. My character had just gotten engaged, had a little puppy and was friends with Sandra Bullock’s character, who was an aspiring stand-up comedian. I was the hero, I wasn’t a whiny coward trying to escape the bus. I think Josh and the studio saw Speed as an all-out action film rather than The Poseiden Adventure, where you got to know all the characters. He was right and the studio was right. (The credited writer) Graham Yost gave us a beautiful script that as an actor I would have preferred, because I had more to do and it was more fully realized, but that’s not what the studio wanted and Josh did a great job.
RB: This was the movie that launched Sandra Bullock to superstardom. What do you remember about working with her?
BG: Thank god for Sandra Bullock. I would follow her anywhere. She saved me. She kept me upbeat. She was friendly. She was generous, kind, loving. She was great to kids who came around to the set. She would give them candy from craft services. I remember looking at her and thinking she was going to be a superstar and she has no idea. I’m so proud of her. She is lit by an extraordinary light.
RB: You are perhaps best known for Donnie Darko, which has a devoted cult following.
BG: That was one of the best scripts I’d ever read. On the same day, I got an offer to be in a world premiere of a Horton Foote play, and I had to read the Donnie Darko script. They had to have an immediate yes or no. My family was getting ready to go on vacation to San Diego, and I was so upset that I couldn’t go with them right away because I had to read these two scripts. I loved the Horton Foote play and said yes. Then I went out to dinner and came back and all by myself in the house started reading Donnie Darko. I had misjudged it. I thought it was going to be some stupid teen movie. By page three I’m in love with this script. By the time I finished it was around 11 at night and I’m standing in the middle of my bed. That’s how excited I was. I wanted to do that movie more than any film I had ever wanted to do, ever. I went into the audition like a tornado. I begged for the part, which I don’t think I’ve done before or since. (Producer) Sean McKittrick told me later that they knew as soon as I walked in (that they were going to cast me) because I had all this Kitty Farmer energy.
RB: Why do you think your signature line—“Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion”—resonated so strongly?
BG: I could not anticipate that. It’s such a simple little line. I was very sincere when my character said it, and it showed the small town-ness of her. It was very telling in that way. I guess it’s something that people say to each other in those moments when they are not sure the other person is on board with whatever the other wants to do. It’s a great line.
RB: Of all the actors you’ve worked with, I wanted to ask about another of the great character actors, Harry Dean Stanton, with whom you co-starred in his last film, Lucky.
BG: I’m happily married, but I was genuinely in love with him. He was everything I wanted him to him to be; the real deal, an artist. He was 89 when we shot it and he was quite frail. I’m so glad that his best friend, (director) David Lynch was there. He knew how frail he was. He didn’t have to do a damn movie. I think he did it for his friends. All the people involved were his friends and I’m sure he thought, ‘Let’s have one last party.’ We knew it was probably his swan song (Stanton died in 2017.)
RB: Do you ever think about retirement?
BG: I want to retire every day. [Laughs] But I love to work so much. I was doing student films up until three or four years ago. The last one I did I had to drive to Whittier and I thought, ‘I don’t know if this is the best way to be of service,’ but then I got there and there were all these kids in the movie and a young female director, and I said, ‘Yeah, this is the right thing to do.’