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NYFF: Acting with Non-Actors is the Key to 'Nebraska,' Says Bruce Dern

Photo of John Anderson By John Anderson | Thompson on Hollywood October 8, 2013 at 6:49PM

It was the League of Extraordinarily Mature Gentlemen Day at the New York Film Festival, with two 77-year-old Oscar rivals holding forth in turn, first at the Tuesday morning press conference (Robert Redford for “All is Lost”) and later in the afternoon, with Bruce Dern –whose performance in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” already won him a best actor prize at Cannes – taking the stage, and immediately trying to divert attention away from himself and onto his director.
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"Nebraska"
"Nebraska"

It was the League of Extraordinarily Mature Gentlemen Day Tuesday the New York Film Festival, with two 77-year-old Oscar rivals holding forth in turn, first at the morning press conference (Robert Redford for “All is Lost”) and later in the afternoon, Bruce Dern –whose performance in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” already won him a best actor prize at Cannes – taking the stage, and immediately trying to divert attention away from himself and onto his director.

“There isn’t an actor alive who doesn’t want to work with Alexander Payne,” said Dern, revealing not only respect but gratitude for Payne having cast him, in a role he and his director first talked about in 2004. “No one’s ever thought of me at that level before,” Dern said.  “But nine years later and here we are.”

Payne said it was as early as 2002 or 2003 that he first read the screenplay by Bob Nelson, about the Grant family of Billings, Montana, and their problematic pater familias: The raggedy Woody Grant (Dern) is suffering from a dementia that seems to ebb and flow, but which has left him convinced that a Publisher’s Clearinghouse-style come-on really means that he’s won a million dollars. And that he needs to go to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his money. So he starts walking -- only to be intercepted by his son David (“SNL” vet Will Forte) who has so little going on in his own life that he decides to take his daffy dad to Lincoln.

In addition to Dern, Forte, and a deliciously hilarious June Squibb (“About Schmidt”) as Woody’s sharp-tongued wife Kate, there are a number of real-life people – i.e. non-professional performers – playing locals in Woody and Kate’s old hometown of Hawthorne, Neb. Dern said they raised his game.

“He’s a guy who insists you work WITH him,” rather than for him, Dern said of Payne, “and then he puts in all these no-actors who are so goddamn honest you can’t possibly ACT around these people.”

“I’d like to stop being referred to as a non-actor,” Forte then said, to a roar of laughter from the NYFF press corps. 

Here's our review from Cannes and Dern and Payne's Q & A in Telluride

This article is related to: Bruce Dern, Nebraska, Will Forte, Alexander Payne, New York Film Festival , Festivals


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.