In The Hero, the veteran actor, 72, charms as a fading star of westerns who reckons with his failures as he faces his mortality. The role was written specifically for him.
Between this film and his last movie, I’ll See You in My Dreams, it seems like writer-director Brett Haley is on a crusade to make you a leading man in your 70s.
It’s bizarre. It may be a one-man crusade. It’s incredible, particularly when it’s some kid half my age. I just thought, Where does this kid come up with these stories about ageism and life? The fact that [he and co-writer Marc Basch] thought enough of me to write another script was mind-boggling.
Someone observed that your character’s name, Lee Hayden, is a mashup of Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden, two iconic masculine actors.
Those are two of my favorite actors from that day. They were men’s men. I identified with those guys. I grew up with them. My dad was that way. He worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service, and he had this bunch of guys that he worked with, all men close to the land. Those were the men that I grew up around.
You star in this film opposite your wife Katharine Ross (famous for The Graduate and The Stepford Wives). What’s been your experience landing interesting roles as you’ve gotten older?
Women are still given short shrift. I’ve seen it firsthand. Katharine would love to be working more. It always has perplexed me, whether male or female–but particularly female–that you get to a certain point and that’s not interesting anymore. I get that it’s about marketing, but I just don’t agree with it.
The movie raises the idea of achieving immortality through film. Have you thought about that?
No. It’s been great having this career I wanted since I was a kid. I look at myself in The Hero and think, Jesus Christ, am I that old? I look a lot older to my eye than I feel. I feel like a young guy. But I don’t think about my legacy.
This appears in the June 19, 2017 issue of TIME.