At 91, Cloris Leachman has no plans to slow down

Cloris Leachman arrives at the 2016 American Film Institute Life Achievement Awards Honoring John Williams, in Hollywood, California, on June 9, 2016. (AFP/Getty Images)

The Oscar and multiple Emmy-winner has a hit movie out, the faith-based film “I Can Only Imagine,” about the story behind the MercyMe song of the same name. It has earned over $22 million in just six days of release on a $7 million budget.

Cloris Leachman spoke to The Associated Press Thursday about the film, the unlikely role she’s most proud of (it’s not “The Last Picture Show”), and her plans to keep working.

Remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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AP: Congratulations on the success of “I Can Only Imagine.” Was that a surprise for you this weekend?

LEACHMAN: The whole thing is a surprise.

AP: Why did you want to do this film?

LEACHMAN: Oh, it isn’t like that at all. You’re given a movie with the time of yours, you know what you’re doing, and you can do it and the time and money and who’s in it, blah, blah, blah. And you say yes. You’re not sitting around in a living room with a pile of scripts high up to your eyebrows.

AP: I was a little surprised, knowing that you identify as an atheist and this is a Christian-themed movie.

LEACHMAN: I am an atheist, absolutely. But I really think it is wonderful that there are gods for people who need them. We all believe in something. It’s something or nothing. If you believe in nothing you believe in something. I think it’s wonderful that they build a place where we can come and be there together. It’s got a lot of good things about it.

AP: You have such impressive stamina, how do you maintain your energy?

LEACHMAN: I’ve always been sort of interested in health since I was a little girl. It’s just what I reach for.

AP: What do you think of the roles that come your way?

LEACHMAN: I’m quite excited about them, I think they’re wonderful.

AP: Anything you look for in particular?

LEACHMAN: No, just whatever comes. I once played a woman from North England in World War I who took her little baby from the hospital two days after it was born because it was going to die. Its eyes had been removed, it didn’t have anything, anything. She just looked at that baby and summoned God’s love and said tell me something to do. That little boy, one night she went to turn the television off … and she went down there and it wasn’t on and she eventually went to the room that was right next to her little boy’s room and she had gotten an old piano just to tinker with. He was playing Rachmaninov, or, no it was, who was the pianist who is very gay? Oh, you know.

AP: I’m not sure.

LEACHMAN: Oh, just tell me who you think.

AP: I don’t think I’ll be able to guess.

LEACHMAN: Liberace. He was playing his theme song the way Liberace played it. He had never played a note in his life. And he began then playing on the radio. Oh my god, that was the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done I think. I knew what to do even before I did it. Even before the director. I just knew. It was one of those things that’s just human to me.

(Editor’s Note: The film Leachman is referring to is a 1983 ABC afterschool special “The Woman Who Willed a Miracle” about Leslie Lemke.)

AP: Do you keep in touch with some of your friends from…

LEACHMAN: No, no.

AP: You gave a very funny toast to Betty White recently at the Publicist’s Guild Awards. Can you tell me a little bit about what went into that?

LEACHMAN: Well they put her and me together for some reason or another (laughs). We’re both in our 90s. We’re not friends, we don’t even know each other.

AP: You don’t? You don’t stay in touch?

LEACHMAN: No, never.

AP: What about people like Mel Brooks and Peter Bogdanovich?

LEACHMAN: We love each other but we don’t ever talk. Unless we’re together for some reason or another.

AP: Do you wish that were different?

LEACHMAN: No, it’s fine, I have a big family.

AP: What inspires you to keep working?

LEACHMAN: This is what I do. I love it. I just love it. It’s very exciting.

AP: Do you think good roles exist for older actresses or does it start to taper off at a certain point?

LEACHMAN: Well, I think it’s tapering off now. I’m in my 90s and everybody knows it.

AP: You’ve said before that you didn’t have plans to retire, is that still the case?

LEACHMAN: Yes.

AP: What are some other roles that you’re most proud of?

LEACHMAN: Well this one. Not this one. I didn’t even know what this was about really. They tell me about it and I go oh yes, I guess that’s right. I had to go to the church and act like I was very moved by it.

AP: That’s why you’re a good actress.

LEACHMAN: I would have been better had I known!