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Starting out on television and with Roger Corman in the '60s (you can watch his amazing recollection of this time in the terrific documentary "Corman's World"), Dern would star in a string of Westerns, including "The Cowboys," where he shoots John Wayne in the back; anchor a big-budget sci-fi movie with "Silent Running"; and get nominated for an Oscar for his performance in "Coming Home." Dern starred in movies for Walter Hill, Francis Ford Coppola, Sydney Pollack, Bob Rafelson, Joe Dante, and John Frankenheimer. He's an actor whose scope and breadth has seen him starring in both Alfred Hitchcock's last movie, "Family Plot," and Quentin Tarantino's Oscar-winning, slavery-era revenge movie "Django Unchained."
But now he's about to step into the role of his career, in Alexander Payne's "Nebraska." In the film, Dern plays Woody Grant, a man who mistakes a cheesy flyer for confirmation that he's actually won a million dollars. Humoring him, his son (Will Forte) agrees to drive him to Nebraska to claim the prize money, and the two get into a series of comic misadventures. It's moving and beautiful, shot in black-and-white, an ingenious decision that acts to echo the starkness of the plains.
We got to chat with Dern about what his thoughts were when he first read the role nearly 10 years ago, what it was like working with Will Forte, and why he counts this experience as one of the best of his career.
Moviefone: What were your initial thoughts when you first read this script 10 years ago?
Bruce Dern: You feel a great sense of achievement when you get a script from Alexander Payne, and then you read it and you see the dynamic of the material and how well your part fits into it. You're just thrilled to be considered. The next morning, I went to Toys R Us, bought him a truck, and sent it to him. And I had only met him once in my life because Laura [Dern, Bruce's daughter] did a movie with him eighteen years ago and I met him in the editing room. And nine and a half years ago, here comes this script. Then comes the wait. The guy doesn't want to do another road movie -- the guy's got other things going on, he wants to make it in black and white and nobody seems excited about that. I'm not sure how excited they are about Bruce Dern doing the movie. So he makes "Sideways" but doesn't want to do back-to-back road movies, so he does "The Descendants." Then, last year, it finally comes around and he won his battles, except the black and white battle. I think he talked to every guy on Earth over 70. So, I'm sure he saw every actor there was for my role. But they keep looking until they feel they get what they need. And it ended up being me.
So, to answer the first part of your question, before I went on some long godd*mn diatribe like I just did: It was telling me that I was wanted. And because I was wanted, it made me feel an obligation to trust him from day one. His trust and his cinematographer didn't want me to show them anything. They wanted to find it. And let me let them do their jobs. I had never, and this is all on me, trusted on that level before.
Even when you worked with Hitchcock, Kazan, and Walter Hill, this was a totally different experience?
No. The different experience is that the first day on the set, with the exception of Hitch, the man says to you, "Fifty percent of the crew has worked on every day on every film I've ever made." So, automatically you're walking into a family. Hitch's family was similar, but you don't know who the players are because they just worked for him. But on the basis of Alexander... You know what it is? He dares you to risk. And by daring you to risk, he pushes you out on the edge. He's there, but not with a butterfly net like so many of the other directors are... but he goes down to where you fall and picks you up, and brings you back, arm in arm, to the edge of the cliff and says, "Let's make magic." And the way I rate directors is how many days on a movie am I excited to go to work every single day. I've had that with three or four directors, Hitch being one, Kazan being one, because he was my mentor first and Hitch was my only auteur, and then Alexander Payne. And you're excited to work for Alexander Payne because he just might do something that nobody else has ever done.
Alexander, and it's not just me, it's everybody around him, they watch the scenes intently. He's not back at a box somewhere having a coffee watching it on a monitor, he's on the set next to you. I worked with Mr. Kazan and Hitch, and they would never, ever sit and look at a monitor. They have to see it there. Francis Coppola is like that, too. Quentin is like that! I worked way before there were monitors, and I like the feeling of that. Alexander is your family member and your teammate, and he's right there with you and he encourages you to take a risk in this take or that take.
Hal Ashby, for example, we'd get three takes and that would be that. Or Frankenheimer on "Black Sunday." Or Walter Hill. They'd say, "I'd like another." But they don't tell you why. Alexander tells you why. Very simply. "That sucked." Until you can make him say, "We got it!" He keeps trying for it. Because what they're looking for is, yeah that'll make my movie fine but what if we did one more? And that's their privilege and they should do it. I encourage extra takes but when a director of the caliber of the guys I've worked with and the women I've worked with, they generally are right with what they see and what they print and then it's moving on.
I guess what I'm saying is that it was a delight all the way around, from the teammates to the set to the locations. The driving was tough. The last 10 days we drove 200 miles a day and shot as we went, all over that part of the country -- Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska. And that was arduous and fun. But it was also December. And you're in the prairie. And the f*cking buffalo's breath is turning to icicles while you're watching him; imagine what we're going through.
But at least you got to hang out with Will Forte!
He got the role not long after I got the role. And I honestly wasn't sure who he was. I watched "Saturday Night Live" now and then. I hosted a couple of years ago, I hosted when Buckwheat got assassinated. But I wasn't sure if he was Will Forte or Bill Hader. I didn't know who the guys were, because they were so good at what they do and they can hide. But I know anybody who's worked at "Saturday Night Live" will be a teammate, because that's the only way to survive in that world. He got in the car and ended up being just about the nicest man I ever met in my life.
You seem very intent on campaigning for the Best Actor Oscar instead of Best Supporting Actor. I just wanted to ask you your thoughts on that.
I look at the Academy Awards and the whole picture of it like every other actor does: It's not a competition. It's something the Academy needs to do and does it very well, and it's an honor to have your peers sit around and say, "Hey, that guy had game this year." I look at it as a lump sum of everybody. And I don't know what it's like to campaign. I've never been through it before. I'll tell you something that's interesting. When we began to star in movies, it was our obligation to go out and sell the movie. Because they don't want the director on talk shows, they want the actors. Then, about 20 years ago, a group came into the business and they thought, "Well, if I go out for my movie, that demeans what the performance is; let the performance stand for itself." And that's not fair to the guy who invested his money in giving you the opportunity to do the movie in the first place.
So, I've always felt an obligation to do the most I could for anybody who backs me to be in a movie, financially. And when Paramount has the courage and the guts to make this movie the way the filmmaker wanted to do it, in black and white and with the cast he wanted and I'm sure nobody was the first choice on anybody's list including me, they allow him that privilege, they allow him that vision. And their vision of making a black and white film for a big company owned by another big company is amazing to me. That's something I've not seen in the business before. There's no interference on this movie. So how could you not want to help them as much as you can?
"Nebraska" is in select theaters November 15.