After spending much of his career in supporting roles, actor Bruce Dern is finally getting some recognition: He won the best actor award at this year's Cannes Film Festival for his performance in the new film Nebraska.
Dern, 77, started his acting career doing guests shots on TV shows like Route 66, Surfside 6, Ben Casey, Wagon Train and Gunsmoke. In the '60s, he co-starred in several Roger Corman films, including the biker film The Wild Angels and the psychedelic film The Trip, which was written by Jack Nicholson. Dern co-starred with Nicholson in the 1972 film The King Of Marvin Gardens and was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in the 1978 film about Vietnam war veterans, Coming Home. More recently, he co-starred in the HBO series Big Love as Bill Henrickson's father.
Dern's new film, Nebraska, was directed by Alexander Payne. The story starts in Billings, Mont., where Dern's character, Woody, who is beginning to show signs of dementia, falls for one of those junk-mail sweepstakes come-ons. Not having read the fine print, he believes he's won $1 million and that all he needs to do is collect his money in an office in Lincoln, Neb. Since he can't drive anymore, he starts walking there — from Montana.
Dern tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "[Nebraska] is the most personal movie I've ever done in my career."
On playing a character who shows early signs of dementia
I've always been a person that listened, heard, saw, smelled — whatever the five senses are — around me 24/7. So what I had to do is get rid of all of those instincts, to shut things out, to not be aware of the conversations that were going on around me. ... If you're standing at home plate and looking out on a baseball field, all the lights in right field are out [for] Woody; he's got about two-thirds of the lights that are still on. ... So he misses quite a bit. ...
What he wants to hear, he hears, and what he doesn't, he doesn't. And having the ability to do that and make it believable on-screen was my biggest challenge — the spaciness, the being "out there."
On joining The Actor's Studio
I had never really acted before I arrived [at The Actors Studio]. I had done a couple little scenes in a class in Philadelphia, but I had never really been an actor, never really had been trained. ...
I think [Actors Studio co-founder Elia] Kazan and Mr. [Lee] Strasberg [a teacher at the studio] both felt I could be kind of a guinea pig for them. So the first year I was at The Actors Studio, I was only permitted to do scenes in which I had no dialogue. So I was trained to just deal with my emotions and emotionally become the characters that I played without the handicap, if you will, of having dialogue on top of that. So the obligation was really just to develop an instrument that was real and honest and pure, if you will. ... So I did a lot of scenes where I was just a silent partner. Then, after a year, they allowed me to start doing scenes where I was allowed to speak. I thought I was going to have Harpo Marx's career for the first year that I was an actor.
On being typecast as an eccentric
I think one of the reasons I got a reputation as being good at being somebody who was always on the wrong side of the law ... was that I was always cast in them. And I think I was always cast in them because they believed who I was. ...
I remember David Letterman asked me on his show years later, he said, "You've always played all these wackos and all these sickos and everybody's nuts and everything. Don't you get tired of that?" And I said, "First of all, David, I don't really look at them as guys like you say." "Well what else would you call them?" And I said, "Well, they're really just guys that kind of live just beyond where the buses run."
On Nebraska cinematographer Phedon Papamichael's advice to him
[His advice] the very first day of filming ... was, "Bruce, we'd like you to do something in this movie I'm not sure you've ever done before." And I said, "What's that?" And he said, "Don't show us anything. Let us find it." ...
It means don't perform the role, don't add things that you don't need to add, don't have a lack of confidence that the role works. And the reason you don't need to have that is because we're going to see all of that because the camera is going to be on you when you go through those things. ... Because Alexander [Payne] has the courage to stay longer in a shot so he can see the behavior evolving, rather than to cut away and cut back. ... He stayed and studied the character.
On his advice to his daughter, actor Laura Dern
Take risks. If you're going to take roles, go out on the edge of the cliff and take roles other people don't seem to do or want to do or have passed on for whatever reason, and do it. Take roles that the behavior might be abnormal, the circumstances might be abnormal, but go with that and trust that and learn from there.
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Bruce Dern, won the Best Actor Award at this year's Cannes Film Festival for his performance in the new film "Nebraska." After spending much of his career in supporting roles, he's loving getting this recognition at the age of 77.
Dern started his acting career doing guest shots on TV shows like "Route 66," "Surfside Six," "Ben Casey," "Wagon Train" and "Gunsmoke." In the '60s, he co-starred in several Roger Corman films, including the biker film "The Wild Angels" and the psychedelic film "The Trip," which was written by Jack Nicholson. Dern co-starred with Nicholson in the 1972 film "The King of Marvin Gardens."
Dern was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in the 1978 film about Vietnam War veterans coming home. More recently, he co-starred in the HBO series "Big Love" as Bill Paxton's father. Bruce Dern's new film "Nebraska" was directed by Alexander Payne. The story starts in Billings, Montana, where Dern's character Woody, who is beginning to show signs of dementia, falls for one of those junk-mail sweepstakes come-ons.
Not having read the fine print, he believes he's won a million dollars and that all he needs to do is collect his money at an office in Lincoln, Nebraska. Since he can't drive anymore, he starts walking there from Montana. In this scene, one of his sons, played by SNL alum Will Forte, has been driving around looking for him. After finding him, the son pulls over and tries to reason with him.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NEBRASKA")
WILL FORTE: (As David Grant) Come on, let me take you home.
BRUCE DERN: (As Woody Grant) I'm going to Lincoln if it's the last thing I do. I don't care what you people think.
FORTE: (As David) Listen to me, you didn't win anything. It's a complete scam. So you've got to stop this, OK?
DERN: (As Woody) I'm running out of time.
FORTE: (As David) You don't even have a suitcase.
DERN: (As Woody) I'm not staying there.
FORTE: (As David) Dad, I can't let you go.
DERN: (As Woody) It's none of your business.
FORTE: (As David) Yes it is, I'm your son.
DERN: (As Woody) Well then, why don't you take me?
FORTE: (As David) I can't just drop everything and drive to Lincoln, Nebraska.
DERN: (As Woody) Oh, what else you got going on?
GROSS: Bruce Dern, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on getting the Best Actor Award at Cannes for your performance in this film. What did you identify with in the character? On the surface, your life is so different from the character of Woody's. You're from a kind of privileged background, not from poverty like he is. You've had a fulfilling career, I assume it's been fulfilling. And from all reports, you're a talker, not the kind of man of few words that Woody is.
DERN: Well, I relate to the fact that I've always been a person that listened, heard, saw, smelled, whatever the five senses are around me 24/7. And so what I had to do was get rid of all of those instincts, to shut things out, to not be aware of the conversations that were going on around me, and if I couldn't see somebody looking me in the face where I could look at their lips, so if I missed a word or two I would know what it was they were saying, and just not deal with it.
If you're standing at home plate and looking out on a baseball field, all the lights in right field are out in Woody. So he's got about two-thirds of the lights that are still on.
DERN: But he's playing a night game. So he misses quite a bit. And then there's always the thing of does he miss everything. Well, no, he doesn't. So it's that kind of fine line walk about what he wants to hear he hears, and what he doesn't he doesn't. And having the ability to do that and make it believable onscreen was my biggest challenge.
The spaciness, the being out there, and I would...
GROSS: Well let me say something about the spaciness. First of all, I read, I think it was in the New York Times, that you turned off your hearing aids during some of the scenes so that...
DERN: I took them off. I took them out.
GROSS: You took them off completely so that - because you were just describing how you're always so tuned in, all your senses are tuned in, and you had to stop that. So when you took out your hearing aids, how did that affect your performance?
DERN: That's how it affected it. You know what I'm saying?
GROSS: And that's Woody, that's Woody.
DERN: I didn't get everything at first, and I didn't take them out all the time. I always kind of tried to leave one in. But so, you know, a lot of times, particularly the things that June - that's the lady that plays my wife in the movie - or that Will Forte would say to me, I would just get or not get. And if I didn't get them, a lot of the huh has come from the fact that what are they really trying to say.
The older people in my family, when they'd get to that stage, I would think the huh is from them was more to do with yeah, I hear you, but why can't you tell me something I'm interested in. So when Will says to me, like, you know, well, how did you know. Did you know? Did you know? Huh? I mean, it's like - I mean, get on with it. Do something. Impress me. Be somebody. You know, and that's where all of that comes out of. You know, I mean, don't sit there and tell me that you've been in "Saturday Night Live" for a decade and that you made a movie called "MacGruber."
DERN: That's all fine, but what else are you doing? What are you doing in 2013?
GROSS: Do you think that you're getting to the age where you fear people think that of you sometimes, that you're not - that you're not getting it?
DERN: Oh, I think they've been thinking that of me since I was probably 17.
DERN: My family had a hard time hearing me, which is one of the reasons I became an actor in the first place because I felt, well, at least emotionally they could get what's going on with me if I could tap that and be able to do that in the theater or when the switch is on in film or something like that. But they never got it one way or the other. They just thought it was - I have an uncle named Archibald MacLeish, who was a well-known poet and playwright, and he won I think three Pulitzer Prizes and was librarian of Congress for a long time.
And I asked my mother one time why are you so down on me deciding that I'm going to be an actor, and I'm making a living at it? And you put it down, and yet with Archie you give him a pass. My name's Bruce MacLeish Dern, and Archibald MacLeish was my uncle.
And she said because Archie's an artist, Bruce. I said really, why is that? Because he's a man of letters. Oh really? And what's that make me? She said you're spending your life making money pretending.
GROSS: Well, this was the era before most people took film that seriously. You know, it was - right? I mean...
DERN: Oh, it was late '50s, mid- to late '50s.
GROSS: I mean, your parents obviously weren't like, cinese(ph) or anything.
DERN: Well, I mean, she would say to me, you know, instead of write when you get work, write when you become Jimmy Stewart, write when you become Clark Gable or Gary Cooper or whoever she knew was in the movies in those days, it was like what have you done for us lately. What are you doing for the Dern name? What are you doing for the MacLeish name? Oh my God.
GROSS: Oh little did she know.
DERN: Well, you know...
GROSS: I mean, you've done a lot for the Dern name, you and your daughter Laura Dern.
DERN: She passed away in 1972, and in 1969 after a decade in the business, she was all upset. She called me on the phone one day, and she says why don't you cut all this nonsense out. You come back, you and Andrea, who is my wife, you come back here. You can live with me. I'll put you through law school. You can go to work at the store in the meantime, the store being Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company, which the MacLeish was the and company of, and their father had started it.
And you can get all this acting silliness out of your system by doing plays, little plays at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. And I said, well, but I am making a living, and I'm hanging in there. I'm not making a lot. And she said, well, every movie you're in I can't take your grandfather to see, and I don't want to see it.
She said they're always about drugs or motorcycles or - this was 1969, or all these other things. And now you're in yet another Western, and I just can't - your grandfather doesn't like Westerns. He doesn't like the West. He doesn't like anything about it. He doesn't like anything west of Proviso, which is about four miles off of Lake Michigan, which is where we lived right on Lake Michigan.
So when you start making movies that are important movies or mean something to people, then let us know. I said what's wrong with the movie I'm in now? She said it's a Western. I said mother, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They" is not a Western.
GROSS: Oh that's so funny. That's a movie about - it's set in the Depression, and it's a dance marathon where people basically dance to the death in order to win a prize because everybody's so poor. That's so funny. So it was the grandfather who didn't want to see Westerns. Was that your grandfather, who was the former Utah governor?
DERN: No, no, that's...
GROSS: That was another grandfather.
DERN: Bruce MacLeish, and there were three boys who were the sons of Andrew MacLeish, who brought - well, who brought the store from Scotland to Chicago. And then Archie went on to become a poet, went back east. Norman went on to become a painter, and Bruce stayed home and ran the family store. And that was the MacLeish side.
The Dern side is the one that my grandfather Dern was one of the first non-Mormon governors of Utah and then was the governor from 1924 to 1932, and then President Roosevelt made him the secretary of war in his first Cabinet. And then he passed away while he was still in office.
GROSS: Now I read that when you decided to drop out of college, the University of Pennsylvania, and go to New York to study with Elia Kazan at the Actor's Studio that your parents disowned you. Did they literally disown you?
DERN: Well, my father was a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania and had been a very famous athlete there and edited the Penn Law Review, and he graduated from law school there and was a big deal. And his dad then had just become, by the time he got out of law school, had just become the - started his second term as the governor of Utah.
So at that time, in 1956, I had sideburns about the size of a third less than Elvis Presley's sideburns, who was the sideburn king of the day. And the coach of the track team, who was a Quaker named Ken Dougherty(ph), who was a great coach really, and I was a good runner at Penn, I wasn't a phenom or anything like that, but I did very well, and he told me to cut the sideburns off.
You know, he said the ivy on your face is not Ivy League. Oh thank you, coach.
DERN: He says cut them off, or you're not going to run for this school anymore. So I refused to cut them off. And, I mean, they weren't obnoxiously long or anything like that. He says you're not a team player. And I said, well, are the other people complaining about it? No, I'm complaining about it, I'm your coach, and they're coming off. So I left college.
And my father backed the school and not me, and that was the beginning of winding down of my relationship toward him. And then I went to a little dramatic school there for a little while and realized there were three things you had to do. You had to go to New York, you had to try and become a member of the Actor's Studio, and you had to try and work for Mr. Kazan. And those were the things that I tried to do and did.
Well, they were not fond of that.
GROSS: My guest is Bruce Dern. He won the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival for his starring role in the new film "Nebraska." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bruce Dern. He won the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival this year for his performance in "Nebraska." So you go to New York to study with Elia Kazan. Your parents are - your whole family is really angry you're not going to be upholding the family names. What did you get from studying with Elia Kazan? He and the Actor's Studio have such a storied reputation, but are there principles you got from there that continued to guide you through your acting career?
DERN: Well, the principles I got from both he and Mr. Strasbourg, who was the teacher at the studio, were that I had never really acted before I arrived with them. I'd done a couple of little scenes in a class in Philadelphia, but I'd never really, you know, been an actor, never been trained really or anything like that.
And I think Gadg, Elia Kazan, and Mr. Strasbourg both felt that I could be kind of a guinea pig for them. So the first year I was at the Actor's Studio, I was only permitted to do scenes in which I had no dialogue. So I was trained to just deal with my emotions and emotionally become the characters that I played without the handicap, if you will, of having to - you know, having dialogue on top of that.
So the obligation was just really to develop an instrument that was real and honest and, you know, pure if you will, without having to do anything else. So I did a lot of scenes where I just was a silent partner. And then after a year they allowed me to start doing scenes where I was allowed to speak. You know, I thought I was going to have Harpo Marx's career for the first years I was an actor.
DERN: I mean if you looked at that - and everybody else was being allowed to go to California and, you know, become whatever they were going to become, and I was kept back here, and I drove a cab. And that was it. And then finally Lee Strasbourg said to me what are you still here for. I said because you haven't signed off on me, you know, getting in a covered wagon and going west.
And he said, well, go. Go tomorrow. And then Gadg, who I had to go because I had some kind of a contract with him, I had to go and get his permission, and I talked to him about two hours later, and I said Mr. Strasbourg said it's OK for me to go to California. He said, yeah, I would say on the basis of your ability and your work it's time for you to go, but you're going to have to understand two things, Bruce.
It's an endurance contest, and for you it is not going to happen anywhere near the opening part of your career. You're going to go out there. The best thing that goes on there for actors to get work in are television Westerns and maybe movie Westerns. And you're going to be the third to fifth cowboy from the right. Just make sure you're the most interesting damn third cowboy anybody ever saw.
GROSS: So you go from the Actor's Studio, where you're taught to really value emotional honesty, so much so that you're not even allowed to use dialogue in the beginning so that you can - your body can just be in the service of emotional truth.
Then you go to the West Coast, and most of the work you're getting is episodic TV. You're in "Surfside Six," "Route 66," "Sea Hunt," "Naked City," "Ben Casey," "Rawhide," "Ripcord," "Stonybrook," "Outer Limits," "77 Sunset Strip," "Wagon Train," "The Fugitive," "Gunsmoke." A lot of these are Westerns or, you know, detective series.
I mean, some of them are great. Like, you know, "Route 66," "Rawhide," I will stand by those shows.
GROSS: But did you ever feel like you got a chance to use what you learned in these shows?
DERN: No. I automatically I used it because it was there. I think one of the reasons I got a reputation of being good at being, you know, somebody who was always on the wrong side of the law or was just a badass if you will was that I was always cast in it. And I think I was always cast in them because they believed that's who I was, and therefore they were watching a real guy who is just one of those kinds of people.
I remember David Letterman asked me one time on his show years later, he said you've always played all these wackos and all these sickos, and everybody's nuts in everything. Don't you get tired of that? I mean, I said, you know, first of all, David, I don't really look at them as guys like you say. he said, well, what else would you call them.
And I said, well, they're really just guys that kind of live just beyond where the buses run.
DERN: And he got a kick out of that finally, and that was the end of that. But that's - I always approach them, you know, it really came to a head when I was doing "The Cowboys" in 1972 with John Wayne, and I had to kill him. And the morning that I had to kill him, he was having bullet hits put on him, which he'd never had in his career because hadn't got shot.
GROSS: What are bullet hits? Is that like protective covering?
GROSS: Bullet hits are like protective...?
DERN: Bullet hits are like...
GROSS: Like a shield?
DERN: When I'd pull a trigger, and you cut and see the bullet hit him, a piece of his shirt flies away or something, wherever the bullet in. You see it as like he's really shot.
GROSS: Oh, I get it, I get it.
DERN: So they are little charges that they put under the shirt so when you're shot that looks like a bullet hit there and tore the skin apart. You know, that's what a bullet hit is. And he said to me, they're going to hate you for this. I said maybe, but in Berkeley, I'm a hero.
DERN: And he got a big kick out of that, and he put his arm on my shoulder, turned around to the 85 people on the set, and he said and that's why this prick is in this movie because he understands that bad guys are funny. Otherwise we wouldn't be talking about them 150 years later.
GROSS: That's funny.
DERN: And that kind of put a cap on that part. And then I'd done "Silent Running" at the same time I was doing "The Cowboys," so finally I got a chance to break out of a certain mold, and then I went right back to doing that. Then I went and did a movie "The King of Marvin Gardens." Then I did "The Great Gatsby." Then I did a little movie called "Smile." And then I took the Goodyear blimp and tried to blow up the Super Bowl.
DERN: So I wasn't thinking. And after that, I thought I was doing, you know, fairly well in my career. I was troubled because a lot of the guys my age were getting, you know, great roles which enabled them to show what they could do, and I didn't feel I'd had a great role yet where, you know, where the movie was - where I was what drove the movie, so to speak.
GROSS: Bruce Dern will be back in the second half of the show. He stars in the new movie "Nebraska." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Bruce Dern, who won the best actor award at this year's Cannes Film Festival for his performance in the new film "Nebraska." Dern spent much of his early career in supporting roles, doing guest shots on '60s TV shows and co-starring in low-budget films. He started getting more attention after co-starring in the 1972 film "The King of Marvin Gardens" and the 1978 film "Coming Home," for which he received an Oscar nomination. His other films include "Smile," "The Great Gatsby" and "Black Sunday."
More recently, he co-starred in the HBO series "Big Love" as the father of polygamist Bill Hendrickson. Dern's character, Frank Harlow, is a domineering, abusive father who is in an ongoing, often violent feud with Bill's mother. Here's a scene from the first season. Frank has been hospitalized after being poisoned. He suspects his wife did it. His son, Bill, played by Bill Paxton, comes to pick him up and take him home. Stern speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BIG LOVE")
DERN: (as Frank Harlow) So we both think that your mother did it.
BILL PAXTON: (as Bill Hendrickson) What?
DERN: (as Frank Harlow) Oh, come on. You feel the same way I do. She asked me to come over there to fix her chainsaw, lures me into the rat trap she has the guts to call a house. Feeds me that soup. You saw me a week later, I was lucky to get out of there alive. You know something? You ought to thank me for your successes because if I hadn't pushed you out there...
PAXTON: (as Bill Hendrickson) Pushed me out?
DERN: (as Frank Harlow) Yeah.
PAXTON: (as Bill Hendrickson) You threw me out like I was garbage. Had me get in the back of the pickup, drove me into the city, told me to get out, fend for myself. I was 14 years old. What do you think I did? What do you think I had to do? If you think I'd ever thank you for anything but shame and heartache...
DERN: (as Frank Harlow) Well, what are you waiting for, an apology? That's the way it is. Young boys get run off. Old men get all the pretty girls. That's the way it is, bud.
PAXTON: (as Bill Hendrickson) You lack the decency to even give me your name. Oh, what am I doing? Sooner you're out of my hair, the better.
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Bruce Dern.
So, you know, we've been talking about like studying at the Actors Studio and then doing episodic TV. But you also did several Roger Corman films. And these were like really almost funny like exploitation films about like, you know, bikers and people doing acid. And you know, we're talking about like the mid-1960s. You do "The Wild Angels" with Peter Fonda. And "The Trip," where Peter Fonda is taking his first acid trip and you're his guide. And then "Psych Out" with Jack Nicholson. And then "Bloody Mama," another Roger Corman film, in which Shelley Winters plays the gangster Ma Barker.
So like in some of these films...
DERN: And Bob De Niro's first film.
GROSS: Yes. Right. And then like in "The Wild Angels," which was a Roger Corman film with Peter Fonda as the head of, I think the Venice Beach branch of the Hells Angels, there's so much, you know, slang of the day about like hassle and far out and stuff like that. And I just want to play a little bit of that dialogue and ask you about it. So this is a scene, you're a biker. You have a swastika drawn onto your helmet. You're all about hate. And...
GROSS: You're an angry man.
DERN: And Laura's mom is my old lady in it.
GROSS: That's right. Your soon-to-be ex-wife is your leading lady. And so the scene happens after you've been fired from your construction work job - been fired by the foreman. And so like you've gone home to see, you know, with - you live with your girlfriend, played by Diane Ladd, and Peter Fonda is with you. Your name, your nickname is Loser and his name is Heavenly Blues. So here's that scene. And everybody listen, listen for the far out dialogue.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE WILD THINGS")
DIANE LADD: (as Gaysh) Hey, what you doing home so early?
DERN: (as Loser) I don't like nobody getting uptight with me, man. And that includes you.
LADD: (as Gaysh) Blab. Blues, what's the matter with him?
PETER FONDA: (as Heavenly Blues) Aw, nothing, man. You know, his foreman got uptight. The mother doesn't like him getting messages at work.
LADD: (as Gaysh) So what did he do, fire him?
DERN: (as Loser) Yeah, the fool fired me. Hassled my mind, man. You don't never get a straight deal around here. Are you kidding'?
GROSS: So Bruce Dern, I'm thinking about how like for a long - like for a year you weren't even allowed to have any dialogue in the Actors Studio so that your body can become an emotional instrument. And here you are with what I have to say is just like really lame period dialogue. What was it like for you to do those lines?
DERN: You have to look at the whole thing that we didn't quite realize at the time and look at the fact that we were all allowed to be in the University of Corman.
DERN: And nobody really understood that until later when you look at the graduates of it, if you will. That was number one, but we didn't know it then. What Roger did for us was he let us be billed above the title of the movie. He gave us large roles that were the starring roles in the movies. He didn't pay us very well. We got scale and a box lunch. But you did the movies in 10 days and they were going to be in theaters and drive-ins, obviously, but they were going to be in theaters and that was different than, you know, dying in a "Gunsmoke" or a "Ben Casey" or "Virginian" or whatever the things were. He knew the dialogue was lame. I mean Chuck Griffin, who was the writer, he wrote of the time, that was of the era. It's lame sounding now, but then, in the exploitation world, it was perfectly acceptable stuff; that's the way that they talked. And we had the advantage of having real Hells Angels there throughout the course of making these movies.
GROSS: What did you learn in terms of acting, working fast and cheap for Corman?
DERN: I learned to be quick. I learned that you didn't have any time for take two - that you had to be inventive. You had to be creative. You had to look and listen. So there was spontaneity of reality in those movies and that could override the dialogue sometimes and not particularly - like the scene you just said.
GROSS: My guest is Bruce Dern. He won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival this year for his starring role in the new film "Nebraska." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest, Bruce Dern, stars in the new film "Nebraska."
So let's get to your Oscar nomination, which is from the movie "Coming Home" in 1978 - which is either the big or at least one of the first big movies about Vietnam veterans coming home. And it was very significant because of that. And you play a vet who has come home to your wife, played by Jane Fonda, to find that she's been having an affair with another vet who returned home paralyzed from the waist down, and that vet has become an antiwar, you know, a vet against the war. So in this scene, like you've come home and you're really angry. She's trying to explain herself to you and you're not having any of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "COMING HOME")
JANE FONDA: (as Sally Hyde) I love you. I do. I'm not going to make excuses for what happened. It happened. I needed somebody. I was lonely.
DERN: (as Capt. Bob Hyde) Don't bull (bleep) me.
P. FONDA: (as Sally Hyde) It's not - Bob, please.
DERN: (as Capt. Bob Hyde) God dammit, it's bull (bleep). Everybody needs somebody, for Christ's sake. If it's over with us, it's over.
J. FONDA: (as Sally Hyde) Well, what are you saying, that you're not even going to make the effort?
DERN: (as Capt. Bob Hyde) What I'm saying is I do not belong in this house. And they're saying I don't belong over there.
GROSS: That's my guest, Bruce Dern, with Jane Fonda in a scene from the 1978 movie "Coming Home." How did that movie change your life and your career?
DERN: Well, I think - the movie got a lot of recognition. But I just think that it gives people a different spin on who you have been before and what you've done before. And it's kind of a calling card. You know, it's kind of saying, hey, well, he's always been pretty good, now he's really good in this movie that we all are touched by and it says something. And that was an acceptance I had never had up to that time - although I had been in some, you know, good movies. I mean "King of Marvin Gardens" is a wonderful movie but it never got discovered by major audiences. "Smile" is a good movie. Never got discovered. Even our "Great Gatsby" didn't do particularly well at the box office.
GROSS: So "Coming Home" was kind of a breakthrough role for you. It brought you to a new level of recognition. What about on the home front? Did your parents kind of appreciate the breakthrough that that was?
DERN: Gone. They were all gone.
GROSS: They were dead by then?
DERN: No. They were all passed away. They - none of my parents or that part of my family ever saw any work after...
GROSS: Is that hard for you, that you were never able to like say to them, look, it actually happened, I made a career, I did good by the family name, you would have enjoyed these films?
DERN: Well, without being a - oh, I don't know what the word I should use is. But without being, you know, overly bearing or saying a witness of it, of how I respond to all that takes you right to "Nebraska" when I go through the old house. That's the most personal scene I've ever done in my career. And the whole movie is the most personal movie I've ever done in my career - both my role and the movie. I mean Alexander gets after it and he goes beyond into the underbelly. And when I go through that house, you're seeing what I felt about the fact I didn't get the support that I needed when I was young, and up till I was, you know, I don't know, 34 years old when they were all gone by then. And my father...
GROSS: And what we're seeing, let's just explain it for our listeners who haven't seen the film yet. Your son decides like, why don't we go back to the house that dad grew up in and see what it was like for him. And the house is just, it's almost like a shack that's like falling apart. And...
DERN: And what do I say when they suggest it? They say, well, we want to go see it. What for?
GROSS: What for? Yeah. No, I love that line because it's perfect. But you get there and you're seeing like the place where your father used to beat you, right? And so talk a little bit about how, what your character experiences going back.
DERN: Well, in that house the first thing that you see is, I say this is my room. This was my room. And then my wife says this is where Woody's little brother David died of scarlet fever when he was two. And Woody slept in the same bed with him, which is a carryover from another scene, and never got it. And the son says to me, do you remember that, dad? And this is where Bob Nelson is so brilliant at what he does, and Alexander Payne. Instead of giving an answer that you've heard many, many times, the answer that I say is, I was there. Then he goes into his parents' room and in his parents room he says, this was my parents' room and I'd get whipped if I was ever caught in here. And then I say I guess there's nobody that's going to whip me now. And then I walked to the window and say, the barn is still there. And that's as hard a scene as I'll have in my career or anywhere because it wasn't hard to do because it's all there and because of Mr. Kazan and Mr. Strasburg, that's the first place I go is personally right away, and it was designed for that. Alexander and Bob Nelson knew nothing about that. But that's what I did in "Nebraska" that I've never done before in my career, was to do an entire movie that was based on something that Phedon Papamichael and Alexander said to me - Phedon Papamichael being the cinematographer - the very first day of filming. And that was, Bruce, we'd like you to do something for us in this movie I'm not sure you've ever done before. And I said, what's that? He said don't show us anything, let us find it.
GROSS: What does that mean?
DERN: It means that don't perform the role. Don't add things that you don't need to add. Don't have a lack of confidence that the role works. And the reason you don't need to have that is because we're going to see all that because the camera is going to be on you when you go through those things. And every other actor in the movie, it's on them. Because Alexander has the courage to stay longer in a shot so he can see the behavior evolving, rather than to cut away and cut back to keep everybody alive that's in the scene in the room. He stayed and studied the character. And of all the shots I've ever been in in a movie I'm in, the most spectacular complement of that to Alexander and Phedon is, when my old girlfriend comes out that store at the end of the movie, as I drive by her and you see that face, and if that's not once upon a time, I don't know what is. And he stays on it until you understand what she meant in her face and what was going on and what his movie meant. And that's magical stuff. And what was wonderful about it, it's all on the page. I mean, that's not...
GROSS: She's terrific, by the way. Is she a professional actress? Because she was great.
DERN: Angela McEwan is her name and she works in a little theater and stuff down in the Long Beach, Orange County area.
And it's a face. Alexander sometimes will sacrifice history of acting for faces and people he believes. When he saw Will Forte's little tape that Will sent him, Alexander said send me a tape because you're in New York, I'm out here, I can't get there. And send it quickly. And Will sent the tape and I said, Alexander, what did you see from Will? I believed him.
GROSS: So you were saying that you didn't tell Alexander Payne, the director of "Nebraska," about your own memories of your own home and how that was going to resonate with the scene in which your character goes back to his family's home, to the home where he grew up?
GROSS: Did you intentionally not tell them? Did you not want the rest of the people in the film to know until after that scene was over?
DERN: No. They don't know it to this day. Nobody - I mean I just gave it to, you know, however many listeners you have out there because it's - the horse is out of the barn. But if you want to know what actors work on, I would never tell another actor what I was working on or anything else because that's mine.
DERN: And I have to go back and borrow that time and time again.
DERN: But if you look back at the history and I look into a room where there's a broken crib and a child died in the room - Diane and I lost a child in a swimming pool at 18 months, five months before Laura was born. So it's readily right there at the surface. If you are willing to go there and open that door up into your heart and start there, those are the kinds of things you deal with.
GROSS: You were not encouraged by your parents when you wanted to act. In fact, they actively discouraged you about acting. They were really opposed to your career. They had no respect for the work you were doing. Your daughter, Laura Dern, is a successful actress and an excellent actress. How did you feel about her going into the business? I know there are so many actors and actresses who do not want their children to go into the business because it can be so difficult and you are rejected so often in that business, even if you end up being successful. So what was your attitude toward her becoming an actress?
DERN: Well, Laura was lucky in a way that she lived in a laboratory of actors that were going through exactly what you're talking about. But early on she realized that she wanted to express herself and she wanted it to be more than just to her couple of friends. She wanted to express herself because she had ideas. She had feelings. And so she did it. And the only instruction I gave her early on was, number one, learn to dance. Not dancing lessons.
But in my career, the greatest crippler of actors to me is behind the camera intimidation. And you cannot take it personally. You have to dismiss that; otherwise it'll interfere with anything you're going to do with your work. Meaning that you do a take. They cut. Immediately you know they're talking about you. Immediately they say they're going to do take two. You know you screwed up. You know it's about you.
You can't do that. They just all want to get out at 7:00 and go to the Laker game, for god's sake. I mean that's, you know, everybody, they have their own lives and actors have to get over the fact they are the most important thing on the set. They are not.
And the second thing was take risks. If you're going to take roles, go out on the edge of the cliff and take roles other people don't seem to do or want to do or have passed on for whatever reason and do it. Take roles that the behavior might be abnormal, the circumstances might be abnormal, but go with that and trust that and learn from there.
And she's done it fabulously, Laura. I mean, she's - I'm so proud to be her dad. You have no idea. Particularly in the range of, number one, who she is as a human being, and number two, the way she's embraced what both Diane and I tried to pass along to her, which is simple truth.
GROSS: My guest is Bruce Dern. He won the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance in the new film "Nebraska." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Bruce Dern. He stars in the new film "Nebraska." Alexander Payne, the director of "Nebraska," worked with your daughter, Laura Dern, in his first movie, "Citizen Ruth." She was the star of it. And of course he worked with your old friend Jack Nicholson in "About Schmidt." Did he know you through those films, and is that part of the reason why he initially sent you the script?
DERN: I have no idea what initially sent it. Knowing Alexander now, having learned a little bit about him, I don't claim to be anywhere near to know who the guy is, but I think he felt that I had certain qualities that he saw in the role. A funny thing happened, and I haven't said this before. He sent me the script just about 10 years ago now. Had we made the movie then, I don't think I'd have been as completely Woody as I am today.
DERN: I think that that 10 years aged me. I went with the age. I've behaved like I have some of that in my age. And I learned as an actor to calm down a little bit and not always think that if my part wasn't quite as big as it is, that I had to embroider and push and everything else just to maintain a career as well as anything else.
I mean, I pushed. It's not really overacting, it's just doing more than you have to do because you don't trust the material or the people that are making the movie. And I abandoned all of that when I went to work for Alexander Payne. It boils down to trust. And that is, he trusted me by giving me the role. I trusted him by saying - by him saying to me we'll find Woody. Let us do it.
Don't show us where Woody is sitting. Don't show us that you're going into this room or that room or you're going to do this or that. Let us find you doing that. And that's what you get in the business for. And that's why you leave the theater to go to film. Because the camera can find things you can't find in a theater close up. And the camera can leave something that is forever.
GROSS: You're a marathon runner. Do you still run?
DERN: Every day.
GROSS: How far?
DERN: Now I try and get a half-hour, but sometimes - because I compete at 800 meters and 1500 meters, so I don't have to do as much mileage. So in 20 minutes or 30 minutes I can do a bunch of real fast-slow interval type running and stay in shape to do what I do in my life. I think they say I've run about 104,000 miles.
DERN: Which is four times around the world. And just to give you an idea of how sick I was, a guy called me up on Labor Day weekend in 1968 and he said how would you like to do something nobody has ever done. And I said wait a second. You called the right guy. What would that be? He said, well, let's meet tomorrow and let's run. I said OK. Well, I'm down for that.
He said let's run all day every day. Four months later we ran from Santa Monica Pier to Denver.
GROSS: No. Really?
DERN: Yes, ma'am. Every day 40 miles a day.
GROSS: How much did it hurt when you were done?
DERN: It didn't hurt but I realized that I was diseased.
DERN: And if people say, well, he was a drugger, I don't know what drug I was on. I've run all my life and I've never felt an endorphin yet, of a runner's high or whatever they're looking for. But - and I time every damn run I ever take. Even if I run to the store, I'll time it. It'll take me seven minutes there and I'll try and come back in 6:50. You know, it's just - whatever it is.
And I try not to time anything else in my life but I do time when I run. And what it's done for me is it's given me a feeling that in an emergency, and we're all hurt, I can go for help.
GROSS: So just one more thing. Is it helpful to be in good shape when you're playing an elderly man who is not in good shape and is very stooped over and can barely, like, walk and kind of shuffles?
DERN: You have to be in better shape to do that than not good shape. Because it takes endurance to do it take after take after take. And therefore you've got to be in shape to do that. And, yeah, I slowed down a little. Yeah, I've had a lot of injuries as a runner. Do they all go into Woody? Yeah. Whatever handicaps Bruce has, Woody has. But you have to be in really good condition to pull that off for seven weeks.
DERN: In minus nine degrees...
GROSS: Right. Bruce Dern, congratulations to you. Thank you so much for talking with us.
DERN: And I can only tell you, ma'am, that you are the best interview I've ever had in my career. You ask such fabulous questions.
GROSS: Thank you.
DERN: You've done your homework.
GROSS: Well, thank you so much.
DERN: You deserve an extra something in your envelope which you will never see, but that's not my fault.
GROSS: Bruce Dern stars in the new film "Nebraska."
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