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

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood November 18, 2013 at 8:00PM

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 "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.
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'Nebraska'
'Nebraska'

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.

Bruce Dern in 'Smile'
Bruce Dern in 'Smile'

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. 

Bruce Dern in 'Silent Running'
Bruce Dern in 'Silent Running'

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."

"Oh." 

"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. 

This article is related to: Bruce Dern, Nebraska, Awards, Awards Season Roundup, Awards, Oscars


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