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

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

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.

“It was the event of a lifetime in my career, being cast in this role,” Dern told Indiewire shortly after the drama’s New York Film Festival bow, where it was met with a standing ovation. That’s saying a lo,  considering the actor has starred in roughly 80 films, not to mention countless TV shows. But in “Nebraska,” Dern, who’s typically cast as deranged villains (most recently in “Django Unchained”), is finally afforded a role that showcases his vulnerable side.

In “Nebraska,” he stars opposite “Saturday Night Live” alum Will Forte as a father and son on an aimless
mission to claim a million-dollar sweepstakes prize that
doesn’t exist. Having received a scam letter in the mail, Woody (Dern)
continually wanders away from his
home in Montana to claim his wealth, upsetting his wife Kate (June
Squibb). Growing weary of picking
up his father on random street corners, David (Forte) — a
electronics salesman — decides to drive his dad to Lincoln, Nebraska
while stopping at their relatives’ home along the way.

Below, Dern talks about the film’s Cannes reception, working with Payne, and why the role means the world to him.

How did last night’s premiere in New York compare to the grand Cannes unveiling?

They were both shockingly wonderful — for the movie and me. I had never been in a movie where people burst into applause at the end of it. They politely applaud and go on a certain amount of time and that’s kind of standard and then they’re out. They don’t stay for the credits or anything like that. And that’s the experience. I’ve had some that did better than that. Others didn’t.

But this was the first time that it was an entire group of people filling a gym who got up together and applauded what we all did, and then hung around for the Q&A. There must’ve been, I don’t know how many people seated in the theater, let’s say 350. 75% of them stayed for the Q&A. That’s because of Alexander. They wanna know who is this guy that makes this stuff up. Does these movies, you know?

But at Cannes, what it became was just more rewarding because the gym is bigger. There’s like 2,000 people in the Palais. And I don’t know what we had last night, but every festival we go to you have the same amount of people. I’ll tell you what I’ve had that I hadn’t seen before either place, and both places had it: unorganized group response, enthusiastically. In other words, they got the movie. They understand the movie. And hopefully they’re touched by the movie and laugh at the movie and so forth and so on. Alexander’s favorite phrase is, just make movies that people want to watch. And he came into the business for that. And I came into the business for that.

Martin Scorsese says it best at the end of “A Decade Under the Influence” which is a documentary about the ’70s films. Did you ever see it?

I’m sad to say I have not.

Well at the end, he says, “I’m blown away by the technology and the wizardry of the directors today and the films. I don’t think I could ever make a film like that. Plus their propensity to make money fast.” And he says, “But at the end of the day despite all of that, I miss the people.”

Well I’m here because I’m about the people. And the movies I’ve tried to get to be a part of in my career are about people. The only time I ventured away from that really was “Silent Running” and that was again about the people. 

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.

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.

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