Tom Cruise Gave June Squibb and Director Josh Margolin His Blessing for Their ‘M:I’ Homage in ‘Thelma’

Believe it: “Thelma” is the first leading role in the great character actress June Squibb’s four-decade screen career.

The 94-year-old star, whose guileless way in any movie suggests an actor who shows up to set and hits her mark without any fuss, feels ubiquitous in our screen lifetime. Since earning her SAG card in the 1980s and impressing in small roles on TV and film through the ’90s, she received the Oscar nomination that changed everything in 2014 as Will Forte’s cantankerous, tombstone-flashing mother in “Nebraska.” Squibb also played Lena Dunham’s ailing grandmother, spouting barbs from her deathbed, in HBO’s “Girls.” And she’s had roles in “The Big Bang Theory,” “Bones,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Good Girls,” and recently lent her voice to “Inside Out 2” as Nostalgia. Basically, if you need a granny who shirks nonsense for wisdom, and is a reassuring presence in spite of blunt truths, you call June Squibb.

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She plays a version of Josh Margolin’s own 103-year-old grandmother in “Thelma” as Thelma Post, who with a Lifeline wristband and a stolen scooter zooms off toward justice after becoming the unwitting victim of a mail scam. Thelma is deeply close with her directionless but sweet-meaning layabout of a grandson Danny (“The White Lotus” Season 1 scene-stealer and ultimate hero Fred Hechinger), with whom she shares the secret code of understanding recognizable to anyone who’s close to their grandparents.

After Thelma’s duped out of $10,000 by a caller claiming Danny has been arrested and needs bail money, her family (Parker Posey and Clark Gregg) chalk it up to senility in need of a nursing home. So Thelma — despite a valve replacement, double mastectomy, and a benign but steady tumor, much like Margolin’s grandmother — entreats a fellow senior (“Shaft” icon Richard Roundtree in his final role) to chase down the culprits, family micromanaging be darned. And as the movie establishes in its opening moments, Thelma is emboldened by the does-his-own-stunts derring-do of Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible,” which now in retirement, she watches on TV at home while doing needlepoint.

As Squibb and Margolin told IndieWire in a recent interview, Cruise himself gave the filmmakers permission to use footage from the espionage action franchise. While they’re not sure if Cruise has seen “Thelma” just yet, Margolin and team have sent him the movie. The heartwarming, leanly written and edited comedy opens June 21 after a smash premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. The film’s distributor, Magnolia Pictures, placed a big bet on acquiring this impossible-to-resist film out of the festival. Now, the indie outfit launches its widest initial opening in the company’s history on more than 1,000 screens. And don’t count Squibb out of the indie acting awards later this year.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

IndieWire: Josh, not to be weird, but I looked at your Instagram, and your real-life grandmother even looks exactly like June Squibb in “Thelma.”

Josh Margolin: She’s 103. She’ll be 104 on July 23. She’s hanging in. She lived alone until she was 99. Now, for the past couple years, basically since Covid, she’s been living with my parents in LA. She lives in my old bedroom, so there’s kind of been a full-circle thing happening now. The room is this funny mix of all my high school stuff mixed with her stuff, so it’s a very unique blend of teen boy and hundred-year-old woman.


June, did you get to spend time with the real Thelma as well?

June Squibb: I did. We kept trying to meet, and it didn’t work, and then about a few weeks ago, Mo Rocca was interviewing me for “CBS Sunday Morning,” and the next day he interviewed Josh and Thelma, and they had me come over. So they actually filmed my meeting her, and it was wonderful. I had never met her before and I walked in and said, “I’m Thelma Post,” and she said, “No, I’m Thelma Post.” And then we both giggled and laughed a lot. We thought we were so funny together.

It was totally news to me that this was your first leading role. Were you even aware of that when you took on “Thelma”?

June Squibb: I don’t think I thought of it until everybody started talking about it. If I had gotten this script and Josh had said, “Will you work for one day with us?” I would’ve said yes. I mean, it has nothing to do with that, but it’s lovely. It’s lovely to be the leading lady of a film.

You’re quite busy. What’s the proportion between scripts you turn down and scripts you take on?

June Squibb: [It has to be] something that just interests me. If I can say, “I’ve already done that sort of role,” so I won’t do this, or “I’ve done that sort of role,” and I liked it, and I have more to say about it, then I would do it. It’s crazy because I do have somebody else read all my scripts, but she and I usually agree on what I should do or not do, and I turn down a great deal. When I get an overwritten film script, I almost always say no to it. I just feel that that bodes badness for me. And Josh’s script was so lean that he didn’t overwrite for one minute, and that, to me, is gold if you’re going to do it.

THELMA, June Squibb, 2024. © Magnolia Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection
‘Thelma’©Magnolia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Josh, Tom Cruise gave you permission to use “Mission: Impossible” with a sort of pithy “go forth.” Has he seen the film?

Josh Margolin: He’s been very busy, so I’m not sure if he’s seen it, but I would be very excited for him to watch it if he does. I already feel very grateful that he signed off and let us use the footage. We were advised to kind of just go straight to Tom and give it a whirl and he very generously was “thumbs up.” [“Mission: Impossible”] is such a central thread [in “Thelma”]. Obviously, it’s not exactly the plot, but thematically, it’s very woven in, so it was really nice to be able to just have that in there for what it signifies.

June, have you ever met Tom Cruise?

June Squibb: No, I’ve never met him. I think we might’ve been at one thing during the award season 10 years ago, but I never met him.

Little moments in “Thelma” struck me, like when Danny’s mother, played by Parker Posey, is prattling on about a friend’s son who’s become “addicted to Don Julio” and vaping as a sort of cautionary tale for Danny’s waywardness. He and Thelma share a look of, like, “Oh, this woman is crazy.”

June Squibb: Oh my God, I’m so glad you caught that. I think people do catch it. I think it’s there. I love that moment. I just felt that it shows how close we are and how we understand each other and these two crazy people, my son and daughter and his father and mother. We don’t need them. I just love that moment.

June, you did all your own stunts for this movie, including riding the scooter but also, yes, climbing the stairs! Which has got to be hard. Was this your first time doing your own stunts?

June Squibb: I’ve never done this much, let’s just say that. I’ve had stunt people work with me and do things that I was supposed to do, but nothing like this so much. It’s not easy because people think you’re crazy. I think Josh thought, “She can’t possibly do most of this stuff, so we’ll have this great stunt lady here ready to jump in.” But I wanted to try as much as I could and after reading the script, I really got excited about that scooter. I thought, “Oh, this is going to be great.”

Josh Margolin: June did just so much more than we anticipated, which was wonderful for the movie. It is the ethos of the movie. It is the Tom Cruise of it all, doing it yourself, throwing yourself in there as much as possible. And we had a great stunt team. Ryan Sturz, our stunt coordinator, and June’s double [Heidi Pascoe] were so highly involved and stepping in as needed. But June was just like she was a dancer and Broadway performer for years. She’s a physical performer, too, in a way that I didn’t totally have an awareness of going into the project.

June Squibb: It’s really hard to go up and down stairs when you’re 92 years old. That was not acting basically. I mean, I was climbing those stairs!

THELMA, from left: Richard Roundtree, June Squibb, 2024. © Magnolia Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection
‘Thelma’©Magnolia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Ellen Burstyn, who is 91, recently said she’s busier than ever because all her peers who could’ve played great-grandmothers are now dead. And that’s not, true, June, because you’re also available! Do you feel busier than ever in your career?

June Squibb: It’s just that I’ve been around so long, I think. People think of me for certain things, and I do get offers all the time. It’s kind of neat. I don’t quite know why. I guess this thing about “everybody’s died off,” there’s some truth to that. There are a lot of women I used to be up for certain roles with, and some of them are gone.

When was the last time you had to audition?

June Squibb: Before “Nebraska.” Before “Nebraska,” I was auditioning for everything, and then after you’re nominated for an Academy Award, everybody says, “He doesn’t have to audition, or she doesn’t have to audition anymore,” and they give you scripts.

Does retiring interest you?

June Squibb: No. I wonder myself how long I am going to keep working, and I have no answer for it. I think, “Well, maybe ‘Thelma’ will be last,” but then I was asked to do “Eleanor the Great.” I could do voiceover work crawling on my knees. ‘Til I can’t do it anymore, I guess! I’ve never done a Western, and I would like to do that.

“Thelma” is now in theaters from Magnolia Pictures.

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