Talking to the acting legend Bruce Dern is a marathon, not a sprint, and I wouldn't have it any other way. When interviewing him, he may go off topic and on tangents that have your head spinning, but he always, always brings it back to answer your original question. Sure, you could take the more direct route to your destination, but isn't the longer, scenic route so much more fun? That's Dern in a nutshell. And being told you have 20 minutes to talk to a man with stories like Dern has is simply ridiculous.
But when I spoke to him about a month ago during the Chicago International Film Festival, I knew that the day after this interview, we would be doing a Q&A after a screening of his triumphant new film NEBRASKA, directed by Alexander Payne, so I'd have more time to pick his brain about a film and television career that stretches back to 1960 and includes such early highlights as "Naked City"; Hitchcock's MARNIE; HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE; a slew of Western-themed television series; THE WILD ANGELS; THE WAR WAGON; HANG 'EM HIGH; SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF; THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY?; and THE COWBOYS, a film that saw Dern become one of the very few actors to ever kill John Wayne on screen (making him one of America's most hated men for a time).
Beginning in the early 1970s, Dern was at the forefront of a new wave of great American cinema that sought to deconstruct the classic American template of heroes and villains, turning the native Chicagoan into one of the great antiheroes of the time with such works as SILENT RUNNING; THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS; the original THE GREAT GATSBY; FAMILY PLOT (again, with Hitchcock); BLACK SUNDAY; THE DRIVER; TATTOO (good Lord, this movie is rough); THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON; and COMING HOME.
Then as the '80s was fading out, Dern had something of a resurgence playing unhinged gentlemen (often to comedic effect) in films such as THE 'BURBS; AFTER DARK, MY SWEET; DIGGSTOWN; LAST MAN STANDING; THE HAUNTING; ALL THE PRETTY HORSES; MONSTER; THE HOLE; and most famously in this period, as the devious Frank Harlow on HBO's "Big Love." Last year, he popped in briefly during Quentin Tarantino's DJANGO UNCHAINED and has now shown up as the star of Alexander Payne's latest work, the stunning black-and-white NEBRASKA, in which Dern plays Woody Grant, a man who believes that he has one $1 million in a bonus sweepstakes, and is determined to get from his home in Billings, Montana, to the sweepstakes offices in Lincoln, Nebraska. Much to the annoyance of his wife, Wood drags his youngest son David (Will Forte) with him on the journey, which brings him back to his hometown, where he must confront characters from his foggy past, including his extended family.
And with that, let us get just a few slivers of film history and knowledge from the great Bruce Dern. Please enjoy…
Capone: I’m sure this has come up many times, but there will probably be discussions about Woody’s state of mind and mental health. To me, he always came across as someone who had lost interest in life. Not in living, but in the life he was living. When that's meant to be a little fuzzy, how do you play that as an actor?
Bruce Dern: Well, basically you start--at least I did--with a premise of who is Woody and who is Bruce? And how can Bruce become Woody when he kinda is Woody? I mean, I’m 77, and Woody’s probably 77. If Woody is Wrigley field, the right-field lights are out. He’s lost a bank of lights. Is it dementia? Not really. Is it Alzheimer’s? Not really. You’re absolutely right in your observation. However, if Woody has one standard ingredient that is vanishing from the country, it's that he is a fair man, therefore, he thinks everybody else is fair. And he believes what they say. And why should they lie to him? He never examined that. He won the war, came back from Korea, he crashed in a plane. When [one character] gives that information, it’s jolting to people, even his kid. He thought he was just a mechanic, and he was but his plane crashed when he was transferred.
He’s--lets put it this way--a little bit emotionally but more just overall appearance, he’s damaged goods. He’s not circling the day he’s going to die. He’s doesn't have this or that [affliction], and if he did, he wouldn’t know because he doesn’t go to the doctor. He doesn’t need one. He’s the guy that’s going to make it. And that to me is what is so beautiful and yet heartbreaking about the last shot. We just get out of the truck and go back to where we belong. He doesn’t take life on like you would think the conventional movie hero would. He’s not Mr. Deeds or anything like that. But Alexander Payne makes movies like Preston Sturges, like Frank Capra, and his biggest battle outside of [casting] me was [shooting in] black and white, and that much more I think than me. You're from here; I'm from Winnetka. So when we go west of Wheaton, the world is black and white.
Capone: Without color, yes for sure.
BD: Yet in Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and that area of the country, they don’t leave. They stay there because their families came there. And however they crossed, whether it was on the trains or in the wagons or however when they left East Saint Louis to go west, some stayed in Nebraska. It was paradise to them. Everybody said, “Oh you got to go over the mountains and the Sacramento Valley" It's beautiful, but so what? And there were no houses or anything there. But they don't leave. And the sad thing to me is, they’re tenant farmers on their families' property because the combines brought them all out, and then they're working for them. But they don’t leave. And who’s to say they’re wrong? They love it.
Woody is a patriarch without knowing he’s a patriarch. And he isn’t a patriarch to them, because they're watching a football game; they all think they're fucking patriarchs, but they're not. And the excitement about who is Woody is, everyday I got to go to work as Bruce and Woody with Alexander Payne, who knows how to make a movie. And Phedon Papamichael who knows how to shoot; this movie is a pretty good-looking movie.
Capone: It’s beautiful.
BD: Haskell Wexler said something to me when he saw it. Jane Fonda and I and Haskell all saw it at the same time same night. So Haskell comes over, and he says to Jane, “What about our guy here?” And she says, “Who knew?” [laughs] No, she didn't really say that. She did for a long time, but she might not have know I was a guy who helps drive the movie. And I knew it would be that when I saw it on the page. And I knew if I didn’t hit, the game was over, and we had to get a man on base. Not hit a home run, I just had to get on so maybe we could manufacture a run because we’re down 2 to 1. I felt that to go to work everyday--and I’ve had it a lot of times with a lot of directors.
I haven't had [that kind of connection with a director] every single day of a movie, except three times. I had it with [Elia] Kazan [Dern's film debut was WILD RIVER], I had it with Hitchcock, and I had it with Alexander. And oddly enough, I had it the day I worked for Quentin on DJANGO--I just did an afternoon. But that is you’re excited to go to work everyday. Oh, and also I had it with Doug Trumbull on SILENT RUNNING. Every day, I was excited to go to work because we just might do something that's never been done before, and when I said to Hitch [on FAMILY PLOT], he said, “Why are you so bubbly every day, Bruce?” And I said, “Well, because you bring it everyday.” “Meaning?” I said, “Well, you’re here, your're active, you’re alive, and people say, ‘Well does Hitch really come to work, does he really sit in the chair? Does he do it all?’” He said, “They don't say that to my face.” And I say, “Well, they better not.” And I sat next to him every day for 10 weeks. As close as I am to you.
And he couldn’t turn around and talk to me so I said, “Why me?” And he said, “Well Bruce, Mr. Pacino [pronounced Pack-A-No] wanted $1 million.” And I said, “Why you calling him that?” “All guidos should have that names said phonetically when you say them.” And I said, “Oh that’s good.” And he said, “In my office, I have 1,242 perfect frames on the wall, but none of them are entertaining. So that’s why you’re here because we never know what you might do next.” And with Barbara [Harris], the same way. And if there are a few disappointments in my career, it’s about the ones that are still here but aren’t here and Barbara’s one. Where is Barbara Harris? Give me a break. How good was she? NASHVILLE or A THOUSAND CLOWNS or FAMILY PLOT or whatever she was in.
I was lucky, last week I got to meet Geoffrey Rush; I’d never met him. This was at the Mill Valley Film Festival, and he was there for his film.
Capone: THE BOOK THIEF.
BD: Right, and we were there for NEBRASKA. So, I just walked right up to him and I said, “I want to shake your hand” and he said, “Oh, Mr. Dern.” And I said, “Cut the bullshit. I just want you to know that in my lifetime you gave the best performance I have ever seen. I judge that by three performances I could have never given, but your performance in SHINE is the best performance I ever saw.” And he said, “Who were the other two?” I said, “Well one was a very good actor, one did an almost-perfect performance but isn’t known as the greatest actor ever. And that was F. Murray Abraham in AMADEUS and Roy Scheider in ALL THAT JAZZ. Fosse was a Chicago guy too, and kind of a friend. That's how we bonded. Where did you go to school?
Capone: I went to Northwestern, but my college roommate went to New Trier High School like you did.
BD: Oh, what year were you at Northwestern?
Capone: I graduated in 1990.
BD: Do you know William Bindley?
BD: He directed a movie I did called MADISON, staring Jim Caviezel and Mary McCormack. It’s about powerboat racing, hydroplane racing. And he was in the class of '91 at Northwestern.
Capone: Well I did journalism, and he was probably a film major.
BD: Oh yeah, right. So that’s basically how I dealt with it. If you say, "Well what did I do technically [to become Woody]?" I try not to do anything technically, but if you say, “Is there something that you could tell another actor to do?” I would say, “Start with the one basic premise. The greatest crippler of actors is behind-the-camera intimidation, because you know it's about you, you know they're whispering.” They pay a prick to walk around at 5pm and look at his watch, just to scare everybody. Well, he scares the actor because the actor is doing take four. You have to shut all of that out. That's the thing I told Laura [Dern, his daughter] at the beginning of her career: Learn to dance around all the problems on the set. Don’t make it personal; it’s not you, and the crew is not looking at you. They just want to go to the Lakers game. It starts at 7pm and it’s ten 'til 6. So what Woody did and what I did is you just shut all of that out so you're removed from that. And therefore, it can’t interfere with you, but you also miss about a third of the day. That’s what happens I think when you’re like Woody.
Capone: You mentioned before that Woody was a guy who grew up believing everyone and believing that everyone was being fair to him.
BD: Well, because he’s fair. Why wouldn’t you?
Capone: Well, what’s interesting is we’ve grown over the years to the point now where we look at people who think like that as being naïve or foolish. But what the movie teaches us is that if we were all like that, the world would be a much easier place to live in. That might be the lesson that the son, Will Forte’s character, learns as well. They come back from their journey and they go right back to living, but I think there is a tiny bit of enlightenment in there, for the son at least.
BD: There’s a word: enlightenment. I found enlightenment is a big word. And it was the name of Laura's series.
Capone: That's right, it was. That was a show I loved, and I’m so sorry it’s not coming back. Tell me about Will, because I’m guessing you probably weren’t that familiar with what he had done prior to this.
BD: [whispers] I had no idea. And I hosted two "Saturday Night Lives," not when he was there. One of the ones I hosted was the night Buckwheat got assassinated. And my musical guest was a 24-year-old, 325=lb black kid who sang "A House is Not a Home." And it was Luther Vandross, and no one knew who he was; this was 1983. The only reason I came back to do it a second year--Lorne Michaels wasn’t there then, Dick Ebersol was running the show--it was the two years he ran it. He said, “Oh no, we have to have you back; we have this fabulous episode that you’re the only guy that can pull off.” So I said, “Ok but Eddie’s got to be there.” And he said, “Well this is Eddie’s one song, because we’re going to off him.”
I’ve known two genuinely outstanding guys that just make me laugh. And Eddie is one. Collin is another one. And oddly enough, Dick Gregory. And when I was in college, Ron his brother was captain of the Notre Dame track team. But Dick really got it. He just got it. And he was transferable. I’ve never met Spike Lee or John Singleton, but I guarantee you Spike Lee knew who he was.
Capone: I’m sorry, Dick Gregory was at Roger Ebert’s memorial service, and he told the dirtiest joke I’ve ever heard in my life, but it was so funny.
BD: [laughs] This thing he did one time, in 1962, was almost 98 percent black audience, and they were laughing, really laughing at the jokes he was making about “So I did this,” and he’d go from a white man’s voice to a black man’s voice, and they were laughing their asses off, and he got pissed off. He said, “Hey, you know, before you all laugh your asses off over these jokes, understand one thing. We’ve always claimed we were the poorest people in the country. We’ve been shit on and everything else. Let me tell you who the poorest man in the country is. The white Mississippi share cropper, because he don't have shit.” And they are all looking like, “What do you mean he don’t have shit?” “He had two things in his life that were his and now they're gone.” And some woman said, “Well, what’s that?” “He had a toilet he could go to that said ‘White Only’ and he had a fountain he could drink out of that said ‘White Only’ and that’s it. And that’s gone. So don't think that we’re the only people that have been shit on here.”
Capone: Alright, go back to Will for a second. Tell me about discovering Will’s abilities.
BD: Well, I think the contribution Will makes is he’s the linch pin of the movie. Without Will, I don't do what I do. He is, outside of Jack Nicholson, probably the best partner I’ve ever had. And one of the reasons I give him that is, for him to come to this movie to work in a genre and style he’s never really worked in, and having made a career for 20 years as a comedian, as a guy who lays out jokes correctly and is funny and witty and everything else. To abandon that and do what he did in this movie is what brought me to the only time in the movie where it looks like I might be saying, “Wow, this kid’s got game.” That's when we’re in the truck at the end, just before I’m allowed to drive it after he’s bought this stuff. I just start to look over at him and realize--and of course the minute he catches me, I can’t look at him--but it’s that, and I hope it looks father and son for a second, but it’s really an appreciation for the sacrifice he made, and he had to be scared shitless the first couple of days and he’ll tell you.
He was intimidated and not just by Alexander. He keeps using the word legend, but I hate the word legend. The excitement of my generation is when we came to Hollywood in 1960-61, we still got to work with the legends. We’re not legends. You can’t be a legend today, because we know everything about everybody. Why are they legends? Because they were bigger than life. John Wayne was bigger than life, Ms. [Bette] Davis was bigger than life, Ms. [Katherine] Hepburn, whoever they were.
I had Davis and Olivia de Havilland on the same movie, in HUSH HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE, and they were legends. For Will to give that up and risk--I’m all about daring to risk as an actor--and he did that without training to do that. Nothing else like that except he’s a hell of an actor when he wants to be, and he shows that in this movie. And he doesn't get the credit he deserves. First of all, Alexander deserves everything he gets. [Screenwriter] Bob Nelson deserves everything, Papamichael deserves everything. The first day on set, Alexander said to me at 8:45 in the morning the very first day, which is a year ago today, “How’s it going?” I said, “It’s going good.” “Well, you see anything you haven’t seen before?” I said, “Yeah, everybody is pulling their oar at 8:45 the first morning of the first day.” He said, “Well, we’ve got an 82-man crew. 41 of them have worked every day on every movie I’ve ever made. And so you, sir, can dare to risk because we’ve got your back.” So how can you not do that? And then, he said, “Let Phedon and I do our jobs, meaning don’t show us anything. Don’t do anything for us; let us find it.” You just got to hug a guy like that.
I’ve had great directors, but for 24/7 for 42 days, I got a guy who without out saying it demands it, and you can’t let him down because he’s asking you to do what you got into the business for in the first place, which was to know how to act but don't act, be a person, be a real human being. And I’ve been pretty good at that throughout the years as about 30 percent of the guys in my generation. I mean, Dustin’s pretty good, and the fucking savant movie.
Capone: RAIN MAN.
BD: Yeah. And a lot of other things. Bobby [De Niro] and them are a little younger than us I think, but we’re a very competitive group of guys and girls. The saddest thing about the girls in my generation is they're alive, but they’re not here. Where’s Faye [Dunaway]? My ex-wife [Diane Ladd] makes a living, and she’s out here. Where’s [Gena] Rowlands? They got old. Where’s Eva Marie Saint? They were a little older than we were. But where’s Geraldine Page? Well, she passed, and she was the best I ever worked with, and I did to play with her on Broadway, "Sweet Bird of Youth," and it was a Kazan play. She and Paul Newman were the stars of it. And he married Joanne Woodward while they were doing the movie.
But I think basically, I’m proud of my performance but I’m prouder of Woody because Woody is not on his way out. It may look like it to everyone else, but it's not that he’s a fighter or he’s a monumentt. But there are Woody’s out there, and they’ve been though shit that kept them from doing the shit they could have done. Who knows? But they are kind of monuments. They are a throwback to people who have homesteaded the land. That’s why they never leave. Because that’s home. You go west of Wheaton an hour and a halt, it’s Nebraska. And it is black and white. Alexander will tell you, because they're on him all the time, "Why black and white?" Well because when I read it, I just felt that’s how it should be. And he said, "I’m not running off to make the greatest movies in the world. I just want to make movies that people want to watch. He’s pretty fucking good. Did you like the film?
Capone: I wouldn't be here if I didn’t. I know people ask you about working with Hitchcock and with John Wayne, but I’m a child of the '80s, and Joe Dante was one of my favorite directors growing up. You’ve made several films with him.
BD: Laura, her mother and I are the only family in the history of Hollywood, where all three, mother, father and child, all have stars on the Hollywood Boulevard. Joe Dante presented me; that's how close we are. Della Reese presented Diane, and David Lynch presented Laura. And we’re also the only family to have multiple Academy Award nominations. There have been other families but never mother, father, child. Joe Dante, I love him, and I’m sure you saw it, THE HOLE is wonderful, but it never got released really.
Capone: No, not really. I got sent a screener of that.
BD: How fucking good is that movie? How good is the fight at the end of the puzzle? And oh shit, what’s down in the hole. And only Joe can come up with a tribute to GREMLINS with that nasty little puppet that comes up, and I just thought it was wonderful filmmaking, and for him not to get recognized... And yeah, I mean, my first day on WILD ANGELS, on my set working were Francis Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, other guys that went on to do stuff.
Capone: All the Roger Corman regulars.
BD: Yeah, Roger Corman. My first movie that was reviewed, SILENT RUNNING, which Roger really made me do. It helped my career enormously, because he loved it and supported it. It was a big help for MARVIN GARDENS and movies like that. And one of the better reviews I had was from Joe Dante, who was the Philadelphia Bulletin night movie critic, he and a guy named Joe Baltic, and he quit and came to Hollywood and made movies. I’m walking down the street in Telluride, where the [SILENT RUNNING] did very well in terms of who saw it, and we went to do four screening, we ended up having nine. And the people really liked it and responded to it because it was a surprise; they didn't know what it was. They knew I won an award at Cannes, and they’re all freaking out, "How the fuck did he win an award? And what is this movie?"
Where are the guys like Alexander Payne? They're out there, but why aren't they allowed to make their movies? He got a chance and he didn’t fuck it up. And he surrounds himself with all-stars. I mean, shit, he’s got a left fielder, center fielder--everybody’s got game on every level. And the greatest thing going back to Will is Alexander gives you great team mates, and movies are the ultimate team sport. And it's team work, and you know it. And Will picked it up the first minute of the first morning.
The only thing I ever said to him was, I was a little worried towards the end of the first day about his endurance day to day. I was sitting in a car, and I said, “Don’t be bored about the rigging and everything. Just shut it out of your mind and understand that they are artists in what they do. So before you can say you’re the only artist here and nobody cares about us, they’re pampering the shit out of us, and these guys have to haul it every day.” And he said, “Well, can you give me any advice?” And I said, “Yeah, bring it every day and play every play.” And he said, “Well I’m not sure about on takes three and four.” And everybody said, “Oh my god, you only took four takes?” And Alexander said, “Yeah, well I’m good at that.” And I said, “Hitch took one.”
Capone: Alright, well. We’ll pick it up tomorrow. Good to meet you, sir.
BD: I’m excited you’ll be there tomorrow. You asked wonderful questions, and I'm glad you're kind of champion of Will's.