11/09/2009 01:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Interview: Hal Holbrook relishes rediscovery

It's been more than two years since Sean Penn cast Hal Holbrook in Into the Wild - but Holbrook is still singing his praises.

"Sean gave me the most wonderful gift," Holbrook says of the Oscar-nominated role, while sitting in a Manhattan hotel conference room on a recent afternoon. "Why he picked me, what possessed him - I don't know. But the act of picking me out and sending me that script was a big gift. It was a wonderful achievement and now there's all these complicated things going on."

"Complicated," as in Holbrook having to decide between a variety of film roles, at a point in his career when the offers had slowed to a trickle, if that. Now here's Holbrook, the star of what could be a break-out independent drama, That Evening Sun, which opened in limited release last week and is generating Oscar buzz about his performance.

"I rarely get scripts like this," Holbrook says. "Not only is it a very interesting story with a character that comes off the page, but the dialogue had an authentic feel. It was a great challenge and pleasure to learn it and try to get on that wavelength. It helps you embody the character. You don't have to wonder who he is."

In the film, adapted by writer-director Scott Teems from a short story by William Gay, Holbrook plays Abner Meecham, an elderly Tennessean who bolts from the nursing home where his son has placed him. He heads for the farm on which he raised his family, only to find that his son has leased it to a local ne'er-do-well. So Abner takes up residence in the farm's sharecropper cabin and starts a war of attrition to drive the lessee out.

"I read it and was drawn to the character of Abner," Teems says. "The setup almost had the feeling of a western. And it was the opportunity to tell a great story and place it in the South. I was born and raised outside Atlanta, so Southern fiction was always my favorite genre. I want to tell stories about the South and see my homeland reflected with authenticity. Hopefully this film is about more than the South. Hopefully it transcends regionality."

Teems saw Holbrook in Into the Wild and thought of him for Abner. Holbrook is happy to get back to work.

"I was playing Shylock and all kinds of roles in theater but when it came to Hollywood, I was doing less and less," he says. Continued...

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