Bruce Dern has been around the Hollywood block, starting in '60s TV, quickly graduating to Hitchcock films (Marnie and Family Plot), then establishing his counter-cultural bona fides by working with Roger Corman (The Wild Angels, Bloody Mama, The Trip), Richard Rush (Psych-Out), Jack Nicholson (Drive, He Said), and Bob Rafelson (The King of Marvin Gardens), as well as by shooting John Wayne in Mark Rydell's The Cowboys. Dern received an Academy Award nomination for Hal Ashby's Coming Home, played Tom Buchanan in the 1974 The Great Gatsby, and appeared in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. Other career highlights include Michael Ritchie's Smile; Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte with Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland; Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running; Sydney Pollack's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?; John Frankenheimer's Black Sunday; Walter Hill's The Driver; Jason Miller's That Championship Season; James Foley's After Dark, My Sweet; and Francis Ford Coppola's Twixt. Now he's getting Oscar buzz again for Alexander Payne's Nebraska, in which he plays Woody Grant, dotty father to Will Forte's quiet son David Grant. Once a writer on The David Letterman Show, Forte hit it big on Saturday Night Live, and has appeared in such films as SNL spinoff MacGruber (which he also co-wrote), Rock of Ages, Baby Mama, and The Brothers Solomon. While in town for the Mill Valley Film Festival, the pair met the press at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, allowing for plenty of "Dernsies," or signature, improvised Bruce Dern moments.
Groucho: So I guess I’ll kick it off here if we’re all ready. So doing an Alexander Payne film sounds a little bit like going to an out-of-town wedding. You gather in a town. You do some activities. Maybe there’s rehearsal, and then the big event. Can you talk about, Bruce, your preparation to play the character and how much of that harkens all the way back to your Actors Studio training?
Bruce Dern: Well, I went to—I quit college in Philadelphia and went to a little dramatic school there for a couple months. There were three goals. Go to New York. Work for [Elia] Kazan. Become a member of the Actors Studio. I went. I did that. I was under contract to Mr. Kazan with Rip Torn, myself, Geraldine Page, Lee Remick and Pat Hingle. We were the five. And it’s not an illustrious group in terms of fame in the business, but everyone could bring it as an actress—even Lee Remick. Older in life she got really, really interesting. And Geri is as good as I’ve ever worked with, as a woman. Rip can be fantastic when he behaves himself. And Pat Hingle is just—would have been a great Woody if he was in the age group. But that being said, my first year as an actor at the Actors Studio: I was never allowed to do a scene with any dialogue in it. I was just a quiet partner, whether it was Strindberg stuff or whatever it was. There were scenes where, you know—you’d work on scenes where my character didn’t speak. ‘Cause I’d never acted before, really. They wanted to train my instrument first. So I was trained about behavior. But from Bruce. And that was a foundation that—if any actor could have that first, it’s best. Because there was no obligation to dialogue. So I just learned how to really look at you and react and get involved with why this [strokes an invisible goatee to indicate mine] and the glasses, and it looks fantastic, incidentally—
Bruce Dern: But an immediate identification the minute you look at somebody. In other words, Elia—"Gadge"—and I used to have an exercise where we’d be walking down a street [Ed.: "Gadge" was the nickname by which Kazan was known]. I’d have either run in the park, or he came to watch us play baseball in a park, or he was working out because he was an athlete himself. And he’d say, "Look at her." "Now look away and tell me what you saw." Three seconds identification. And it was "Well, I saw a girl with glasses, got a beautiful face, long hair, could be Indian, could not, don’t know quite what she is, could be a little Israeli maybe. But then he says, "Okay, look at her again." Well, now as I’m just looking at the back, 'cause she’s way up the street. And it was an invasion of their privacy. But from my point of view. So you learn to take advantage of a gift that you’re given, which is—everybody can do it: what do you see? Well, immediately as a character—first thing I do when I act—when I meet somebody the first day ever—no matter who it is—in America—I say, "Where did you go to high school?" 'Cause immediately I know of high school. I know 'cause I’m into sports. I’m a sports freak. I know high schools and everything like that. And if they say, "I went to Wyandotte," I know Kansas City. "I went to Boys High": Brooklyn. You know, whatever it is, you know that’s it, right away. And you know that’s where they’re from. And that gives me an entrée to people right away. And then Will told me—he always gives Moraga a plug first and then goes to Lafayette. But he went to high school in Lafayette, and that gives me a starting point. Well, I do that privately with people without ever saying anything to them. And that’s just part of—if you want to call it my technique or anything else. It’s invading who you really are. And I got that because Arthur Miller once told me, when he wrote books and plays, he asks every single—first of all, he can’t write anything unless he knows every character’s name before he writes them on a page. He’s got Willy Loman. He’s got to know the name of that character before he’s ever started to write "Once upon a time…" And the second thing he says is—and I took it from this and reversed it into acting—acting is always—there’s so much "I" in the world of acting. Well, in our Alexander Payne film, there is no "I." There is no "I" in the word "team." And you’re a team. And he gives you the best teammates you can have. I mean, that’s a pretty good cast in that movie that we made. And everybody pulls their oar to—about as good as they’ve ever done. Hopefully including myself. And he makes you do that because he gives you a comfort zone that you’re in a family. And so the questions that you ask—normally you would say, "Well, I’m looking at you, and I’m wondering who you are." No, that’s not the question to ask. Who do you think I am? What do you think I’m up to?
BD: Where do you think I want to go? And where do you think I’ll end up going? Before you ever ask about yourself. So right away the character you’re working with, the personality, you’re asking the same questions we ask in real life about everybody. A guy wrote a book in the ‘60s—I forget the name of it. Oh, Stroking. And it was about—[to Will:] take my hand. Hi.
Will Forte: Hi.
BD: How are you?
Will Forte: I’m good. How are you?
BD: Okay, see, I forced the issue. I say, "Hi," he had to say, "Hi" back. And then, I like him enough that I go the next step: "How are you doing?." And then he says back—that’s called "stroking." And that’s what you have to do as an actor. You have to bring each other out.
G: But to find Woody at the beginning, do you do that process of identification with the script—like, you look at this is his life, this is the setting where he lives, this is his experience, and identify him based on that—size him up? So that you can walk into the room, walk up to Will and say, "Hi" as Woody to start that? Where do you start—as an actor?
BD: But Woody doesn’t do that. Woody’s not a "Hello, I’m here." You know what I’m saying? So it depends who they are. But silently what you say is in the very first scene. I mean, he comes in, and he’s immediately denying what the rest of my life is all about, and trying to take it away from me. Well, I blame it on my wife 'cause she won’t take me. And so you immediately get the paranoid of—"Well, what do you come in here? You’re gonna—". It’s like in the street. The purest line in the movie is "Well, then why don’t you take me?" And his alternative, his answer, is "You know, well, I’ve got shit to do. I’ve got a busy life—".
BD: "Oh yeah. Really? You’ve got that much going on? Give me a break. You couldn’t get laid with a hundred dollar bill."
BD: It’s that kind of stuff. And the quicker you can get to make it personal, the more real it’s going to be to the audience. And a couple years ago, I got tired of performing. And I just wanted to be human beings in movies from now on. I want to be real people. I don’t want to perform. I want a hundred and—I don’t know, what is it?—an hour and forty-five minutes of moment-to-moment behavior.
BD: And that’s where my beginning was. That’s the Actors Studio. It’s all about—Stanislavski’s all about moment-to-moment behavior. And I can’t even spell his name. But I know he was up to something a hundred years ago.
G: Well, he said the dog in the rehearsal studio would know when rehearsal was over because they’d immediately started being real. He said, "Well, we’re all wrong. We can’t be acting right because the dog could tell...we’re lying...when we’re acting."
BD: Well, a lot of times in a movie—Will and I would be in a car for five, six hours without getting out of it—‘cause the rigs are on the car so you can’t open the door and get out. So I had to pee in a bottle.
BD: No, I did.
WF: Got to pee in a bottle.
BD: There was no way to go, you know. And so—Alexander knew exactly what he was doing. He encouraged us to stay. And if I’d have gone to my dressing room, he would have said that was fine. Do that. But in the real world, he liked it better that we were stuck together.
G: It’s the movie. You’re stuck with each other.
BD: Well, I know. And that paid off, and he picked up on that immediately. And he just—he’s the lynchpin to the movie, like I was saying for a year...
Alexander said to me at the very beginning, he said, "This is Mr. Papamichael; he's the cameraman. I'm your director. Do something for us you've never done in your career—that we know of." I said, "What's that?" He said, "Let us do our jobs." And I thought I got it. I said, "Well, I think I get it." He said, "Well, don't need to explain myself, but in essence—you know, when people turn this switch on you, in your career, you bring it pretty quickly, pretty specifically, and entertainingly. Do Mr. Papamichael and I a favor. Don't show us anything. Let us find it." When I go out of the kitchen into the [living] room, they play the scene in the kitchen, the camera's on me. Well, you can't act that. You've just got to be—when somebody is your partner like that and gives you an opportunity to be a real person, you got to hug him and go with it every single day. [Referring to Will:] By the first time you could get a donut on the very first morning, he got that. He got in the car—first thing we shot was him selling the record players to the people. And the second thing we shot's the end of the movie when he loads the generator onto the truck. (Laughs.) Y'know, that's his first day! And he got it right away. And it's not easy! I mean, he will never know how many times I've told people—and the first guy I told it to was Jack, Nicholson, when he saw the movie. He got right away. He said, "That kid's like a humorist or something, isn't he? I mean, I see him on Saturday Night Live, and he does all that stuff. Where was that in the movie?" I said, "That was taboo." I said, "Both from me and from Alexander." So he just behaved instead of "acting." He followed what the story was, perfectly. I mean, he doesn't get near the supporting actor accolades right now—in the lists that these bloggers put out, and everything—that he should. I mean, he should be on every list! Not just because of what he does in the performance, but what he dared to do as an actor. Which is sacrifice his natural instinct for comedy, not go for the jokes or anything like that, and just talk to me. And it's funny. It's like when we go through the very first scene when we get home, second scene, and we're going in the house. "Well, what do you need a truck for?," y'know. "Well, you can't drive." "Well, I'll get a new one. Or I'll get my license back." "Yeah, well, let me know, because—". And it's just a throwaway line! But he would have done something else with it in a Saturday Night Live sketch.
BD: But he just said, "Yeah, well, let me know. And I'll be sure to stay off the road." And if you don't do that with Alexander Payne, you ruin his movie. If you don't just say it the way it's meant to be said. If you start performing it, or trying to get the joke. And the two brothers do it excellently, and they didn't even know what they were doing! Well, the one kid's just a local Omaha actor. And the other kid was in the Home Alone movie. I don't know, was he in every one or he was in one?
WF: I know he was in the first one. I don't know... [Ed.: For the record, he was also in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.]
BD: Devon Ratray, that kid.
WF: Devon and Tim.
G: When you’re sitting on the couch there right after that scene you were just talking about, it’s such a great moment in the film when the camera stays with you while in the kitchen. They’re discussing you like you don’t even exist, like you have no say in your own life. I wonder what you felt was going on in his head in those scenes? What was your thought process when—
BD: Well, he doesn’t hear that stuff. He—I mean, how many times can I say "Huh?" in a movie. And how many times can he say, "Dad!"? (Beat.) "Dad!" (Beat.) "Dad!"
WF: (Laughs.) I say, "Dad" a million times!
BD: And the only time in the movie that there’s a "Dernsy"—and now Alexander said it wasn't a Dernsy—you know, is when he gets in the truck with I have the cap on at the end, and he says, "Dad." (Beat.) "Dad." And I say, "I’m here." You know. I thought I just did that. And Alexander said to me yesterday, "No, that was on the page." Well, I’ll go back and look at my script.
BD: But otherwise—
G: You were really in the moment.
BD: Well, the thing is that he’s—that’s one of the easier things about playing Woody is he’s abstracted because he doesn’t get it. Y'know. He’s got like I’ve got, which is one of these in each fucking ear, otherwise I don’t hear. I can’t hear a bird. I can’t hear when the Dodgers scored two in the second inning last night—[sotto voce:] ‘cause I was in the movie. [Ed.: The Mill Valley Opening Night screening.]
BD: But it's just—he gives you an opportunity to do what you’ve waited all your life to do as an actor. Because he makes films. But in this case, I felt I was in an opera. Because it was better than a film I was in, and I don’t know what’s better. I’m a guy who loves opera in life. Absolutely loves it. I wouldn’t sit through a fucking opera. I couldn’t sit through it. But when we all stand in a ballpark and sing the anthem—that’s opera. When you go certain places, that’s opera. The opening of the Olympic Games is opera.
G: Yeah. Even though there’s not a lot of dialogue in the movie, I could hear your internal aria during that movie.
BD: And that’s the thing. And so what Woody’s doing when he’s sitting on the couch, he’s just kind of napping with his eyes open. (Laughs.) I mean how many times in movies you got to show him shots of me, and you know who that guy is in real life, who the actor is who plays my brother? That’s Ron Howard’s dad.
G: Oh, right, Rance Howard.
BD: That's Opie's dad.
BD: And he was in a lot of those, I think, too—in the Andy Griffith shows. And he’s fabulous also. And that’s the best thing he’s ever done. He is so real, people think we picked him up right there on the set, from how he got on the house or something.
G: Well, it’s working when you all bring up each other’s game, right?
BD: Well, and then there’s a guy who says—and I won’t talk, I’ll let him talk. [Ed.: referring to Will.]
WF: (Laughs.) Why start now?
BD: But there’s a guy who has the courage to put eight guys in a room in a semi-master close-up watching a football game, and there’s forty words said. And that’s it. In four minutes. And it works. Because, you go back there: every one of those families has that. And I come from one that wasn’t back there that’s the same way. You know, the long pauses. Like when the couple comes up at the end and June says, "Yeah, well, I had to let the hair go." And then nobody says anything. Well, you’ve been there; I’ve been there. I mean it’s those pauses—and he dares to shoot the pauses, and that’s why he’s like—the only other guy like that that I worked with a lot—Hal [Ashby] was a lot like that—but Bob Rafelson. I mean, you look at Marvin Gardens or Five Easy Pieces, I mean, it’s those pauses when Jack goes out at the end to talk to his father in the wheelchair, I mean, he says very little. The father says nothing, ‘cause he’s had a stroke. Well, it just breaks your heart. And plus the fact it’s shot well. They’re off like this and—but Rafelson did that a lot in all his films. He made a wonderful movie nobody ever saw called Mountains of the Moon, about the discovery of the Nile. You know, Sir Richard Burton when they went and discovered the Nile. Well, there’s pauses in there that are great, but shit, man, you’re in the middle of Tanganyika or whatever it’s called. You know, and there’s nothing out there. And there’s nothing in Nebraska. Which is why it’s black and white. The beauty of it is—and that’s why I liken Woody to kind of a monument to a kind of man that is very rarely left in this country that anybody pays any attention to. And that’s guys that—like he says—believe what people say and are fair. If there’s one thing I have to say about Woody more than anything else, he’s a fair man. And he believes in fairness. And when you don’t bring that, he wants you gone.
BD: You know, "Don’t bug me." I’m sorry, ask him one question [Ed.: referring to Will].
G: Yeah, we’ll ask him!
BD: Let him ask!
WF: No, it’s all right—
BD: Go ahead.
WF: I mean, y'know, this is how I prefer it.
WF: No, this is what is was like for the entire time we were there—which I wouldn’t change a thing. It was hearing the most delightful stories of all time while we’re waiting to act. And then, we’re acting and he’s the exact opposite person—this person who is just—
Will Forte: Telling these amazing stories with—full of life—then all of a sudden is this person who barely says a word, is so believably Woody. It was—to get to experience this special performance, to be a part of it—and not just a part of it but to be this close to him, you know, a foot away from him most of the time—is an experience I’ll never forget. And to hear him compliment me in the way that he does, it is something I’ll take with me to my grave. I could not have more respect for him as an actor. Going in I had a tremendous amount of respect, but as a person, like getting to know him, while we were making the movie, it just was, y'know, we’re like family now.
Bruce Dern: Oh, that’s sweet. I just—and...I never had much of a relationship with my Dad. So when I met Alexander, he said to me, in the course of seven weeks, every single thing I wanted a father to say to me. And that’s why I say I found my father. He encouraged me. He went to my track races. He went to my—I was a speed skater first and then a well-known runner and so forth and so on, and they wouldn’t come to the things, but Alexander comes. And not only that. He’s not at the fucking monitor in the back of the stage with the grips and the guys betting the Laker game. He’s right there with you. And if you miss—I mean, I don’t know how many times Will and I would finish a take in the car and just dread which side of the car he was gonna come to after the take—for notes. You know what I’m saying? And yet he dares you to risk. And the first day he told Will and I on the set—I said, "I’m just amazed that everybody’s pulling their oar opening day before lunch even. Everybody behind the camera is pulling their oar as much as we’re trying to do it." And he said, "Well, thirty-eight of my eighty-man crew has worked every day on every film I’ve ever made." So you have to dare to risk. Otherwise, why’d you get in the business in the first place? You know, I remember when Laura and I and the mother got stars on the Boulevard. Joe Dante introduced me 'cause he’s my friend, and he can bring it. I mean, he’s funny, he directs—people forget some of those early movies, you know—the Explorers and The Howling and Piranha and stuff like that. And so he introduced me—Della Reese introduced Miss Diane, and David Lynch introduced Laura. Well, at the end of it, you know, you have to say—well, you have to get up and say something. And there’s fifteen hundred, two thousand people in the street. But everybody else is going down pissed off: "Get those fucking people out of the way there. They’re holding the light at the corner for three people I’ve never heard of?" You know what I mean? "One’s a Ladd, one’s a Dern, one’s another Dern but I mean, so what? What do they do?" And so you’re a little embarrassed about that. And then they’re giving the thing. But it was quite sensational 'cause we were the only family to ever be honored like that. Mother, father and child—there’d been other families—I’m not a Barrymore. But I mean, we did good.
Groucho: There’s still time.
Bruce Dern: Oh, please...And even Miss Diane—she can bring it too. She’s funny, Diane Ladd...