“It’s a part I’ve waited 77 years for” - Bruce Dern on ‘Nebraska’
After a 50-year career, Bruce Dern is finally getting some Oscar attention. Acting is “an endurance competition,” he says. “It’s like a marathon: you don’t start racing until mile 16. It will take a long time,” he tells Tara Brady
‘It’s a part I’ve waited 77 years for.” When Bruce Dern’s turn in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska deservedly took the Best Actor prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it was only the long-serving thespian’s third visit to the Riviera’s ritziest shindig. Really? After more than 50 years in the biz?
“The first time was with Mr Hitchcock, ” recalls the veteran actor. “We opened the festival and they were honouring him. In 1979, I came with Coming Home with Jane Fonda and Jon Voight. It’s the same as everybody getting ready for the World Cup every four years. But Cannes is special even more than that. It’s like breaking into a house thinking ‘they’ll whip me if they catch me’. But I guess there’s nobody who’s going to whip me now.”
We’ve all read Hitchcock’s quips relating to the acting fraternity – “I never said all actors are cattle; what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle”; is that how Dern, who worked with the Master of Suspense on Marnie and Family Plot, remembers Hitchcock’s directing style?
“Thing is,” laughs Dern. “I had more freedom when the switch was on in Family Plot than I have had until I started working with Alexander. On the first day, I said ‘Why me?’ And he said: ‘Bruce, Mr Pakino [sic] wanted a million dollars.’”
Dern, even in supporting roles, has long cast a giant shadow across the movieverse. He shoots John Wayne in the back in The Cowboys (1972), steals a police motorcycle in Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels, and dreams of crashing a Goodyear blimp over the Super Bowl X in Black Sunday. For more than five decades, he has radiated a sense of danger across westerns (High ’Em High), science fiction (Silent Running), car chases (The Driver), comedies (The ’Burbs) and family entertainment (The Hole 3D).
Age – he’s now 77 – has not wearied him. He can still do a mean, wide-eyed crazy: check out his twisted Mormon polygamist on HBO’s Big Love (2006 -2011) and his turn as Jamie Foxx’s former owner in Django Unchained.
Perhaps more than any artist – more, even, than his old pals Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda – Dern has come to personify post-classical Hollywood. He’s the guy who can’t keep up or get down with counterculture in Coming Home and Drive, He Said. He’s the guy who’s plum out of luck in The King of Marvin Gardens and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
In person, Dern couldn’t be less like the nogoodniks and ne’er-do-wells he so frequently plays on screen. He has never consumed coffee or alcohol and he has been married to Andrea Beckett for 45 years. An affable chap and an engaging raconteur, he’s quick to ask after Robbie Keane and the fortunes of the Irish team.
“My first paid job as an actor was doing a Sean O’Casey play called Shadow of a Gunman,” he beams. “O’Casey was still alive then and he came to see it. Lee Strasberg directed it on Broadway. Actors Studio actors doing this play. In the play, Strasberg said, ‘You and Jimmy Green have only one scene. The rest of the play I want you to go up to your dressing-room and we’ll give you newspapers and we want you to talk to one another about 1916, the church, sports, the IRA and whatever. I remember his daughter, Susan Strasberg, raising her hand and saying ‘Daddy’. ‘Not here,’ he said. ‘Here, I am your director, Suzy.’ She said we’ll be able to hear them. And he said: ‘It’s a tenement. Talk over them. This play is not about you. It’s about 1916 and Dublin. There would be talk everywhere.’”