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Bruce Dern On Why Working on Alexander Payne's 'Nebraska' Was the Event of a Lifetime

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire November 14, 2013 at 10:55AM

Several months after winning Best Actor honors at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, 77-year-old acting veteran Bruce Dern is still basking in the glow of a career best turn in Alexander Payne's wry and sad character study "Nebraska," which opens this Friday in select theaters after touring the festival circuit to great acclaim.
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Nebraska Will Forte Bruce Dern

What's it like to be on the receiving end of the best accolades of your career after over 50 years in the business?

I have a line in the movie: I’m running out of time. You know what I’m saying? [chuckles] Well, I don’t have a disease. I don’t have anything that’s terminal. I don’t have a date set. But I’m 77. And it was the event of a lifetime in my career, being cast in this role.

Let me put it that way. Along came a part and a script where everything worked from day one in regards to me. And then you're on a set with Alexander and he tells you half the people on the crew have worked every day on every movie he’s ever made. So you have a family. You have a director who says to me at the beginning of the movie, "You know Phedon Papamichael the cinematographer -- all we really want from you is don’t show us anything, let us find it." If there’s anything that’s good about the performance or anything else, it comes from my trust in those two guys to find whatever it was that I was doing and not telegraph it or show it or perform it or act it. I just thought it was time in my career to settle down and be a real human being.

Nebraska

They were brilliant at what they did and I’m just the result of their brilliance. There’s nothing that I did that’s that spectacular except I locked into the guy. I locked into the situation. And I was at a point in my career where if I could do anything more differently, it would be to have more consecutive moments on the screen of moment to moment behavior, which is the reality of the situation. You’re taking a real moment, following it with another real moment, and trying not to obviously act anything.

What made you take that leap with Alexander and Phedon, and let them do the work, as you put it?

I’ve worked for several enormously gifted directors and I have taken that leap with a lot of them. But sometimes when you’re not the jefe, if you will, in a movie, there are other stories to tell that are more important than yours. And when they finally get down to the character that you’re playing, you have a tendency to embroider your characters so it looks like you have a better role than is on the page. Sometimes they work. And sometimes they’re magical. And sometimes they suck. And the directors are usually the first person to bring that up to you.

That’s why when the switch goes on in the movies I don’t necessarily ever talk over with the director what I’m going to do in the first take of every scene. He’s got take two through ten. I’ve got take one. That really comes from someone like Hal Ashby or John Frankenheimer, where they encourage you to risk from the very beginning.

Alexander encouraged me to risk in his office when he hired me. And that was a compliment. I think one of the things is, when you get cast by an Alexander Payne, you get an extreme sense of confidence: Alexander Payne wants me to play one of the leads in his movie. That’s a confidence builder right there, because you’re getting an arm around you before you begin. And once that arm is around you, you have a trust. And you’re either going to trust that he can get you to the Superbowl, or that he’s not. He gave me such fabulous teammates.

I mean there were some scenes that were definitely hard -- the scene where I go through the old house and all that. But that’s what it should be it should be: hard.

This article is related to: Interviews, Bruce Dern, Alexander Payne, Nebraska, Drama, Awards, Cannes Film Festival





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