Veteran Hollywood actor Bruce Dern discusses his Oscar-nominated performance in Alexander Payne's melancholy road movie, Nebraska
Nebraska's a road movie. Did you do much actual travelling?
"We stayed in one town the first six weeks and the last two weeks. We travelled every day. We'd shoot from 7.30 in the morning until 4, and then we'd drive 250 miles to the next town, sleep, do the same thing. We moved 1100 miles in five days, shooting every day on the way."
Did you learn anything new about America?
"I didn't learn a bunch of stuff that I didn't know before, but I wasn't that familiar with Nebraska. And there's a Nebraska in every country. In America, it is a place where it is black and white. There is colour in the people, but it's over in Nebraska. It's a depressed area and it's forgotten. But the people don't leave. No one gets out."
Was there anything about Woody, your character, that particularly excited you?
"When I first saw the material I said, 'I see two things here right away that excite me. I see a man who's got a couple of banks of lights out. He doesn't hear as quick. He doesn't move as quick. He is an alcoholic. But he's about two things: he's about tell it like it is and fairness.' He just expects that and in Nebraska it isn't fair any more."
Why did Alexander Payne choose you?
"I don't know. But Henry Fonda's his favourite actor and he said to me, 'He had what you have and that's the ability to be stoic and not budge, and yet be kind of attractive to an audience.' He said, 'You may have played the nastiest roles there's ever been but there's a likability that makes us want to watch to the end - so that we can all drive the truck over you together.'"
You've been Oscar nominated twice. What do awards mean to you?
"Well, I've never looked at prizes as anything. I was nominated for Coming Home and there's others where I was better where I never came near, because people never saw the movies a lot of times. I mean, I did a lot of movies that a hundred guys turned down before they gave them to me. Seventeen people turned down Silent Running before Douglas Trumbull gave it to me."
When you look at the movies you've been in, do you have a favourite?
"I don't look back well. Maybe I could have had a better career, maybe I couldn't, but I don't look back that way. My favourite film is my next one."
Has the profession changed much since you started?
"Yeah, when I began there were three goals: go to New York, work for Kazan, become a member of the Actors Studio. Well I did all that, and I did it early on, and I was correct. They were the most important things. Now the kids come to Hollywood and they just want to get a star on the Boulevard and go to the party. Nobody studies any more. Nobody continues looking at the craft."
And you are still?
"This is a business about endurance. I'm a runner and I've run, I don't know, 300 marathons - and I was a really good runner in the '50s, when I was on the Olympic team - and in the marathon, nobody starts racing until we've all done 16 miles. Well, let's just say I'm in my 17th/18th mile, so I'm ready to race. And I'm coming on if somebody will just have the courage to cast me."
You worked with Hitchcock on Marnie and Family Plot. That must have been interesting?
"I was in his TV show a couple of times and then when I came to Family Plot, the first day I was there, I turned up on set and put my chair right next to him, for 11 f****** weeks, and said, 'I'm not missing this opportunity to learn.' I said to him, 'Why me?' He said, 'Well, first of all, Bruce, Mr Pack-i-no wanted a million dollars.' I said, 'Who's that?' He said, 'The guy from The Godfather. It's Pacino, but I won't say that because he wants too much money.'"
And the other reason?
"He said I was entertaining and unpredictable and a bit of wild card. He said, 'You don't do it the same on take two. But I don't mind that, because there won't be a take two.' He was a classic, classic act."
Your daughter, Laura, has also worked with some interesting directors, notably David Lynch and Alexander.
"Oh, I'm very proud. At nine years old she asked me what the drill was, because she wanted to be an actress. I told her, 'Firstly, the greatest crippler of actors is behind the camera intimidation. Everybody's looking at you, you see people yawn, you see people take a sip, you see a guy who's paid every afternoon after four o'clock to walk around looking at his watch. Well, you can't take that as being on you. Dismiss all that and dance around the problem. Secondly, do roles that are risky.' And she's been really good at that."
Where does Alexander Payne come next to some of the greats you have worked with?
"He dares to dream, and that is what the Rafelsons, the Ashbys, the guys that were two generations before, did. But the business beat their brains out. The business battered them. And Alexander doesn't let it. He has made six pretty good movies, and that's not bad."
The song at the end of Nebraska is about someone going to the electric chair. Why that one?
"It's remembrances of things past. And that's who I am and that's what Alexander is. Let's not forget what went before. These people, they trusted, they believed, they were fair - why not make a movie about them? They're the fabric of the country I live in but nobody pays any attention to them, because they don't give a shit. We made this for the people that don't give a shit."
Nebraska is available on DVD now