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Oscar-Bound Bruce Dern Talks Career and Alexander Payne's 'Nebraska'

Thompson on Hollywood By Anne Thompson and Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood September 30, 2013 at 4:25PM

Let the Oscar drum-roll begin for 77-year-old actor Bruce Dern. He talks his career, and his wonderfully heartbreaking performance as Woody Grant, an aging man on a quest for a dubious sweepstakes reward of $1 million, in Alexander Payne's "Nebraska."
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"Nebraska"
"Nebraska"


Dern on his first day on set in "Nebraska":

“I tend to get emotional when I talk about this. First day of work, he came to me, put his arm on my elbow, and he said, ‘Bruce, this is Mr. Papamichael. He’s your cinematographer. My name is Alexander Payne, and I am your director. I want you to do something that you’ve probably never before done in your career: I want you to let us do our jobs. I want you not to show us one thing for eight weeks; we’ll find it. We’ll find you, because you’re Woody, and that’s the story we want to tell. Without dialogue.’ I hugged him. I said, ‘I get it.’ And I realized I couldn’t let this guy down. I couldn’t cop out. Even when there were lines I could’ve danced with, or made funny or made more specific or anything else, I didn’t do it. I always went with the other choice.”

Dern on his advice to Will Forte, who plays his son in the film:

“I told him, ‘You have to start within yourself and be a person and build from there. Drama’s no different than what you do in your skits. Movies should be fun, so have fun. Talk to Woody through Bruce, and I’ll talk to David through Will, and if you get scared or intimidated, cut that shit out, because I don’t need to hear it. I’ll rip ya a new one.’ ”

Dern on the film's reception at Cannes:

"We had an enormous ovation for three minutes. And then the people started really clapping. Alexander [Payne] said to me, ‘Where are you going? The other ovation was for all of us, but make no mistake, this one is for you.’ Jack [Nicholson] told me that he timed it: ‘You got about eight minutes,’ he said. And I said, ‘Yeah, well, what did you get for Schmidt?’ And he said, ‘I think it was eight total. But you had the first three and then the eight. That’s pretty good for a fucking kid from Winnetka who doesn’t know shit.’ ”

Laura Dern on her father's ability to stay centered:

“It was possibly isolating for him, when all your buddies are partying. Running was his best friend. He knows what he needs to do to keep himself centered in a bizarre business with a lot of ebb and flow, particularly if you’re going to do it as long as Dad has.”

Laura Dern on her favorite scene from "Nebraska":

“There’s a scene where Woody is walking through his parents’ bedroom to a window, when he takes his boys back to see the family farm,” she says. “As an actor, he doesn’t attempt to tell us anything, and yet you know the whole story of Woody’s childhood. I don’t know what that is; it’s not acting, it’s really transcendent. There is no self-awareness. Particularly with Alexander, he could have thought that he shouldn’t be too mean because it’s a comedy, or that he should be likable in the end or find empathy somehow.”

Walter Hill on Dern:

“Bruce has the power of using excessive politeness to disguise malevolence. He’s always fun to watch, even in those lousy movies in the sixties. He’s never tried to steal a scene. But even when he’s underplaying it, as he does in Nebraska, he seizes and dominates the scene. The camera loves him in a very certain way—not the way it loves everybody, and Brucie’s aware of that. He knows his skills.”

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews , Bruce Dern, Alexander Payne, Alexander Payne, Laura Dern


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