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Why Bruce Dern Will Land an Oscar Nomination for ‘Nebraska’: The Method Actor Tapped His Own History

Why Bruce Dern Will Land an Oscar Nomination for 'Nebraska': The Method Actor Tapped His Own History

Bruce MacLeish Dern, age 77, has been having a blast on the speaking circuit. He’s eating up the attention like a thirsty plant. Finally, after all these years, he landed an Oscar-worthy leading role in Alexander Payne’s sweetest movie to date, “Nebraska,” which played well for the Academy last weekend. And Dern is loving it, even if he’s losing his voice. He came to Sneak Previews and shared stories with us, including a heartbreaking explanation for the most emotionally moving scene in “Nebraska.” Like the method actor that he is, Dern brought his own history to the performance. He’s an actors’ actor who has been living the actor’s life and delivering quality performances from the start. Now’s his time. The actors in the Academy will not deny him the ultimate accolade: a Best Actor nomination.

Anne Thompson: How was doing Charlie Rose Show? (clip and trailer below)

That was fabulous. He was wonderful. I’d done it a couple times before, but this time he sat back and let me tell stories and kept egging me on.

We’ll do the same! When you first came to LA how old were you?


I went to NY when I was 22. I came to LA when I was 25. The first movie I did was for Mr. Kazan who I was under contract to. First movie I did here was
“Wild River” and it starred Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick and Jo Van Fleet and then the second movie I did out here was with Bette Davis and Olivia De Havilland: “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte.” And they cut my head and my hand off. 

What was it like to work with them? It must have
been terrifying.

I never acted. I quit college in 1957,
looked around for what I wanted to do. I tried to make it as an Olympic runner in 1956; I wasn’t quite good enough so I got quite
discouraged. I looked around for stuff to do. I was a journalism major. I
sucked at that. I started going to movies. And the people on
the screen were kind of touching me, and reaching me. And I said, “I’d like to
learn to be able to do that,” because in my household I didn’t get a lot of “come on down” from the dinner table. I had to raise my hand from 7
to 17 to be called on at my own dinner table. After about two weeks in dramatic school in Philadelphia,
I realized there were three things you had to do: You had to go to NY, you had to
try to go be a member of the Actors Studio and you had to go to Mr. Kazan. And I got under contract with Mr. Kazan. 

After about a month Kazan had five of us at the time, me, Rip Torn, Pat Hingle, Geraldine Page, and Lee Remick, and I was kind of the baby of the group. And
then Mr. Strassberg and Mr. Kazan were the two people to train me and I was
kind of like a guinea pig. But the first year I was in the Actors
Studio they decided, since I’d never had any kind of formal training, they
started by allowing me to only do scenes where I was the silent partner. So they
wanted to train my instrument, train me how to go from the heart immediately, go through my own life and own
experiences and bring those out through the character. After a year I was
allowed to take on dialogue so I had the other thing down. 

This movie doesn’t have a whole lot of
dialogue. You are the star, and you are almost silent. That must have
been one of the most difficult things of all to do.


In my career, I haven’t
been asked to do this, but I’ve put in embroidery to enlarge the pathetic little characters I’ve had to
play. Some of them are so sick we don’t even need to bring them up. You can’t kill John Wayne and then try to blow up the Super Bowl in “Black Sunday” two years later and get away with it. I had to
play a lot of bad folks that did bad stuff. I got to do this movie and the first
day, Alexander, had loved a movie called
“Smile” I did a long time ago, and he said, “I wonder if you could do
something you’ve never done before.” He said, “Let us do our jobs. Don’t show us
anything. Let us find it.” I put my arm around him. I knew I had a partner, a man I could trust. I knew he believed what I
believe, which was simple truth,, and so the one thing we worked on the whole film
was to not let you see me acting. 

The scene where you go through the house. That’s where
the emotion really comes out. What’s going on in his mind?

It’s the toughest scene I’ve
had to do in my career, because now that you know I was trained, I go back home
myself and I look in the bedroom and that’s extremely difficult because I say, “this is my room,” and she says, “this is
where your little brother David died,” and I say, “I was there.” Which is a
classic line to give somebody. And you go to the next room and you look into the room and I look
down and there’s a broken crib and my ex-wife, Diane, mother of Laura, and I lost a
little child when he was 18 months old, drowned in a swimming pool. So that all comes back. And then I go
into my parents’ bedroom. If I got whipped it was with a nasty strap with a metal tip on the edge of it. And it was either that or a big bar of American Family
soap because I said wretched things in my household and made up a bunch of shit
that they hated. So when I say, “I’d get whipped if they found me in here and I
guess nobody’s going to whip me now.” 

Not anymore. And it all goes back to the fact that my
family did not want me to become an actor. At my dinner table, at least three
months a week, sat my father Tom Dern who was a very famous lawyer in Chicago, my surrogate godfather Adlai Stevenson who ran for president twice, my uncle Archibald MacLeish who was the Poet Laureate of the United States. He and his brother, my grandfather, owned a big department store in Chicago, so forth and so on. So if Brucey was going
to say something, he had to raise his hand.

So they didn’t respect acting?


I said, “Why does Archie
always get a pass?” 

And they’d say, “Bruce, Archie is an artist.” 

And I’d say “really, why?” 

“Because he’s a man of letters.”


“And now you want to earn a
living pretending the rest of your life. Are you afraid of the truth?”

Not at
all. I knew what the truth was. I had to get the hell out of there. 

Did they ever come around?

No, my Dad passed away
during my first year at the Actors Studio. And my mother hung in there with me
for a while. Her mother had been Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s roommate at Wellesley. She was very nice but she never came around. The last thing she said to me was berating me because after 12 years I wasn’t Jimmy Stewart. She said, “if you’re going to do it, be Jimmy Stewart. What are you doing all those
westerns for? I can’t take your grandfather to westerns like ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They.'” They gave me an opportunity to learn from 7 to 17 and live a privileged life. They didn’t like the kids I hung out with. They didn’t get my drill. 

You worked with Jane Fonda in “They Shoot
Horses, Don’t They?” Was that the first time you met her?


Jane Fonda and I got into the
Actors Studio in 1959. They picked Ron Leibman, myself, Jane Fonda and a girl
named Inga Svenson. 

Did you get along with Jane? Was she someone you

Jane is the most fabulous
female teammate I’ve ever had in a movie. She criticized herself a little too
much. She doesn’t need to do that, she has brilliant instincts and listens fabulously. She’s great to look at, she’s great to work with and she’s honest. She’ll
be the first to tell you, if she walks down here right now, she marries poorly. (laughter)

I love her autobiography. When I was a kid in New York, I worked at United
Artists in the publicity department, we worked on “Coming Home.” What
was that like?

Hal Ashby is right up there
with Alexander. I starred with Mr. Kazan, Mr. Hitchcock, Alexander, Hal Ashby, Douglas Trumbull, Mr. Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Bob Rafelson, John Frankenheimer and I worked a day with Quentin Tarantino [on “Django Unchained”].

“Coming Home” was
special because the first 10-20 days, we worked at Rancho Los Amigos and this was 1977, these men were rehabbing, all missing a limb, they were the extras and the wheelchair basketball team and crippled vets. On the very first day Jane came over to
me and said, “They hate me.” I said, “Well, I think you’ve got something to do
here.” I said, “Friday, we don’t work in the afternoon. Take them all to lunch.” 

So she
took them all to lunch. There were 17 of them and they all came and she stood
up at her own table, there were no other people in the room, I wasn’t there just Jane and the 17
survivors and she said, “I don’t know what to say except I marry poorly. I got taken downtown. It wasn’t my own enthusiasm. I didn’t think twice.” She
just said, “I like men, what can I say?” They laughed and they got it. That made
it easy. From that time on the one thing that Alexander and Ashby have, is you
are excited to go to work with Alexander Payne every single day because you think
on that day he might just do something no one has ever done. My biggest win on this movie is not the award at Cannes. The biggest win was getting the part.

Talk about winning the award at Cannes.

The award at Cannes was wonderful. Paramount allowed me to take my
whole family, which was Laura, my wife Andrea, my business partner Wendy. We
got a six day ticket. My sixth day was up on Saturday. Well, they give the award
Sunday afternoon. So we flew back and at about 9 in the morning, and I got a phone
call from Laura, who said Alexander just called me and he was on his way out to dinner with a bunch of
German friends when they told him we won something. He walked by the Palais and the first
award they give is Best Actor. And I was thrilled because he got up to get it.
Laura calls me back 20 minutes later and says, “I don’t know a lot more, Dad but
Alexander says that you just won best actor at Cannes.” Laura did Alexander’s first
movie, “Citizen Ruth.”

Who were you acting with in this film, were there many locals?

Rance Howard is Ron Howard’s father. June Squibb played Jack Nicholson’s wife in “About Schmidt” and played a stripper in Ethel Merman’s “Gypsy” on Broadway. Mary Louise Wilson won a Tony playing the mother in “Grey Gardens” on Broadway. The fat menacing brother was in the “Home Alone” movies. [Stacey Keach starred in “Fat City.”] Everyone else was local. 

I love that shot when you’re all sitting there like Mount Rushmore. 

We’ve all been there, trust me. 

Do you think we are responding to a sense of loss in
this movie as Americans?

Alexander’s from Omaha.
Reviews in the last couple of days have been unbelievably positive. In one
review, a positive one, the headline was “An Adventure into Yet Another Flyover State.” We don’t like that. That’s not cool. That’s the
heartland of America, bud. Get off Cape Cod and realize there are houses out there. (Applause.)

Audience: Was the black-and-white a decision made before the film was made or during the production?

Alexander did not write the script. Bob Nelson did. When he was given the script to be executive producer on it, he said he wanted to direct it and that he wanted to make it in black-and-white and with Bruce Dern. Nine years later we made the movie. That’s what you get for putting Bruce Dern in a black-and-white movie. Alexander said, he just saw it in black-and-white, and he wanted to study the faces, and he felt by studying them in black and white we’d do a better job of that.

Audience: What was it like to play the father in “Big Love”?

I was not thrilled with “Big Love” because they didn’t use me enough. Originally it was going to be a battle between me and Harry Dean Stanton to take over the church. When you tell all the stories of every character over the weeks, there’s very little time. As the series progressed, I wanted to do movies, I wanted to get away, so they would kind of only use me three or four episodes a year. And in the last year, I fought very hard to get some kind of redemption for Frank, and then he came around a bit. At one time he did love [the Grace Zabriskie character]. 

Audience: Was there a storyline possible that David maybe wasn’t Kate’s son?

No. Look at the other woman. When Angela McEwan goes out of that door at the end, and he holds on her face for a long time, that’s all once upon a time, and that’s magical, and that he has the courage throughout the movie. Like I said at the beginning, Alexander said “don’t show us anything, let us find it.” Well he found that face and it allows you to see what’s going on in her as she starts thinking back, and that’s priceless. Alexander Payne he’s six-for-six in moviemaking as far as I’m concerned and he’s got a magical ability. He and Bob Nelson, who wrote this material, just hit it off right away. And Bob Nelson lives in Seattle but he was raised in Arlington, Nebraska: population 108. We shot in a town called Foster: 57 people, no streets, just dirt.

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