Bruce Dern speaks … and keeps on talking

November 14, 2013

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In one sense, actor Bruce Dern is an interviewer’s dream: He’s pithy, quotable and voluble.

In another sense, Dern is an interviewer’s nightmare: You ask one question and never get the chance to ask another, because he’s got so much to say. That’s tough, particularly given the time strictures placed on most such encounters.

I had 20 minutes with Dern during a recent press day for “Nebraska,” the Alexander Payne film which has been earning Dern all sorts of awards buzz (and actual awards) since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May. I asked one question – then interrupted him about 10 minutes in to re-ask it (since he had gotten off on a fascinating tangent).

I don’t believe I got another query in, but was happy to play stenographer to Dern’s monologue. At 77, he’s been acting in film and TV since 1960 – and has the stories to prove it.

The question I asked – or tried to ask – had to do with the fact that, in “Nebraska,” he plays the most taciturn role of his career. As Woody Grant, he’s an elderly man so convinced that he’s won a million dollars in a magazine sweepstakes that he wants to travel from his home in Montana to Lincoln, Neb., the sweepstakes’ home, to collect in person. Instead, his son (Will Forte) drives him, a revealing trip that includes a family reunion of sorts that goes wildly awry.

But, over the years, Dern has built a reputation as a wonderfully, excitably adventurous actor with a tendency to explode onscreen. As I put it in my question, he’s known as an actor who isn’t afraid to “go for it” in any particular scene – and here he was, playing an almost-silent role. Dern acknowledged that that was true.

“But I went for it in every scene,” Dern quickly put in.

So here’s as much of Dern’s thoughts and observations as I was able to capture in the short but fruitful time I got to spend with him.

“I’ve been doing this for 55 years, nothing but this. I’ve had wonderful opportunities and roles, but I’ve never been offered a role like this. I’ve played leads, when I was an afterthought in terms of casting, to be candid. It would be, well, we can’t get that guy but we can get Bruce Dern. So let’s still make the movie. Usually, I was the 17th choice, or something like that.

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“I was the second choice to play Tom Buchanan in ‘The Great Gatsby.’ Jon Voight was the first choice. In ‘Coming Home,’ Jon Voight was going to play my role. Originally, John Schlesinger was going to direct and Al Pacino was going to play the lead. But then Schlesinger and Pacino dropped out, Hal Ashby came aboard and Voight moved over to the lead.

“People have talked a lot since Cannes about the long ride from May to November, between the festival and the film opening. I won the best-actor award at Cannes but I wasn’t aware of the enormity of winning any prize at Cannes. Anything that’s got Palme d’Or on it gets people excited.

“I wasn’t even there to get the prize because my package had run out. I took my family and we’d already gone home. I never dreamed we’d even get mentioned, because a lot of folks did really good stuff that was in the festival. Then, the next morning, I’m back at home and Laura (daughter Laura Dern) calls. I was more than thrilled, because Alexander accepted it for me.

“But when they talk about prizes and awards, as much as anything means to any actor, winning the prize in this case for me meant just getting this role. Being offered to play a character in an Alexander Payne movie, in a studio movie, and with this studio – I don’t think I’d been in one of their movies since my ‘Black Sunday’ days.

“When I was starting out as an actor, there were three things every actor had to do. You had to go to New York. You tried to become a member of the Actors Studio. And you wanted to work for Mr. (Elia) Kazan. (Dern’s first film was “Wild River” for Kazan.)

“Now they bypass New York. They’ve put theater on the back burner and they all want to work for Alexander Payne and Quentin Tarantino. (Dern was in “Django Unchained” for Tarantino.) They’re the Kazans of today. They’ve given me opportunities I’d never have been able to do.

“As a director, Alexander isn’t just your partner – he’s your mentor, your coach, your friend. When he gave me the role, he came to my house. He stayed for six hours, just talking. And when he left, I knew I had a dream director – and a friend.

“He said the most marvelous thing that anyone’s ever said to me. He and the cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael, were talking to me and Alexander said, ‘We want you to do something for us. Don’t show us anything. Let us find it.’ I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven. Here was an opportunity not to have to perform or push or do anything. I could just be the character because he was going to be there with the camera. The courage of a director like that.

“Alexander is telling several stories here and that’s one of the magical things, because it’s all the story of the same family.

“It’s about Alexander’s appreciation for where he came from and who’s there. He doesn’t pick on those people. He respects them. A guy like Woody, as frail as he is, is a monument to those people in Nebraska.

“I loved that scene where we went back to the house where Woody grew up. The house is there but everybody’s gone. Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again – but you must. When you go back to that house, you realize who you were and where you came from.

“If we make a mistake in life, it’s not telling the older people in our life what we feel about them before it’s too late. It’s an inability to get to the hug first. When I was kid, I never hugged my father; I shook his hand.

“This movie was a magical opportunity. It was on the page. I didn’t need to add anything. I didn’t need to throw in any of those pathetic ‘Dernsies’ I’ve been skating by with for my whole career.

“I remember Mr. Kazan telling me, ‘If you only have one scene, you better be the most interesting fifth cowboy from the left that you can be. You don’t have much room to breathe in those scenes – so breathe heavily.’

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“If I going to compare Alexander to people, I’d start with Kazan and Hitchcock – and I’m including the final productions, and not only the fact that he was wonderful to work with on the set. Alexander is available all day to everyone. He’s approachable. I got along with Hitchcock; he was approachable, at least to me, though some people had trouble with him.

“On a crew of 85 people for this movie, 47 of them had worked on every one of Alexander’s movies. They were members of the Alexander Payne family.

“When I got the role, I called my daughter and said, ‘What am I getting here?’ She said, ‘Trust him, follow him, believe him.’

“Then she said, ‘I’d be more concerned with what he’s getting.’”

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