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

Interviews
by Anne Thompson
November 18, 2013 8:00 PM
1 Comment
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'Coming Home'
'Coming Home'

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 respected?

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.


1 Comment

  • Ronnie D. | November 18, 2013 8:33 PMReply

    Please explain what you mean when you say that 'Nebraska' is Payne's "sweetest" movie to date.

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