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Bruce Dern: “You’ve got to keep accelerating”

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Bruce Dern
Photo by Mark Mainz
Short Profile

Name: Bruce MacLeish Dern
DOB: 4 June 1936
Place of birth: Chicago, Illinois, USA
Occupation: Actor

Mr. Dern, you were born into a quite conservative family. Was moving to New York to pursue acting a kind of rebellion?

No, it was an act of disillusion! I was a runner, I tried to make the Olympic team in 1956 — but I did not. I wasn’t nearly good enough actually, but a lot of people thought I was. And I was very disillusioned with that and also with college, I wasn’t getting anything out of it, and so I started going to a lot of movies. I was very affected by cinema; the people that were on the screen touched me. I decided I wanted to act and so I came up with this plan: go to New York, try and become a member of the Actors Studio, and try to work for Mr. Kazan.

How did your plan work out?

Surprisingly l was able to achieve all of that within a matter of about five months! At the time, the Actors Studio was all about human behavior and the human condition. They wanted to build an instrument — so for the first year and a half I was not allowed to do any scene where I had dialogue. They wanted me to learn how to draw from everything that was going on within me. That really pointed me in the right direction.

In what way?

It fascinated me so much that I decided to dedicate my life to trying to play roles that had to do with why we behave like we do, particularly in times of crisis. The ability to start from just the machinery and everything inside my own body, my heart, my mind before thinking about other people’s words was fabulous for me.

“Trust yourself. You are interesting and unique because it’s you. It’s nobody else.”

It seems like a very healthy growth experience. What other observations did you make at the time that have stayed with you?

First, avoid intimidation. You’ve got to learn how to dance around that, you’ve got to stay in your own zone. Second, trust yourself. You are interesting and unique because it’s you. It’s nobody else. Copying other performers and all that is horseshit. Third, take risks. I took a lot of risks in doing parts that other guys weren’t really interested in doing. I played a lot of crazy people and I played a lot of guys that were vengeful.

But then it took quite some time before you stopped being typecast as the villain. Was it ever difficult to come to terms with that time in your life?

Well, first of all I think all actors have to be dreamers. I think every citizen of every kind of society has to dream. If you stop dreaming, it’s over. And second, I realized that acting is a marathon. Early on in my career I realized, there is the top of the building and on the side of the building is a huge ladder. You’ve got to climb that ladder a step at a time. So it became very clear to me that acting is a marathon, the career is a marathon. And in the marathon, no one starts racing until we’ve all gone at least 16 miles.

It seems like patience is a virtue in the film industry.

You have to put in time, learn more and more about yourself as an actor and what the medium can give you. When I first went to Hollywood, the last thing that Mr. Strasberg and Mr. Kazan said to me after they wouldn’t let me go for three years was: “Now when you go, you are not a conventional leading man, so it’s going to be a long, long haul for you. You know you are going to go out there and play the fifth cowboy from the right. You just make sure you’re the goddamn most interesting fifth cowboy from the right anybody ever saw.”(Laughs) But also — you don’t come here to get an Oscar, for Christ’s sake.

Quentin Tarantino introduces the Bruce Dern tribute reel at the American Film Institute Festival in 2013, followed by highlights from Dern's iconic film career.

Well, they were right. It wasn’t until you were 77 and you played the lead role in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska that you received wide recognition and your first Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

And it took us 10 fucking years to start making it! (Laughs) First Alexander couldn’t convince the investors of me, but I was his only choice so eventually he got his way. And then we wanted to do the film in black and white. But they wouldn’t do it for the initial budget of 25 million. So finally they said, “Go ahead and make your movie about an old guy in a flyover state, hire Dern and shoot it in black and white — but make it for $11 million!” Alexander and I looked at each other and the decision was easy. I mean, we learned to make movies in 10 days for $180,000. We could’ve made five films for a million! (Laughs)

It seems like age suits your acting very well. It adds another layer.

When I first came to Hollywood, I remember seeing these actors that were really old men and used to star in John Ford’s films. And I said, “You know what? I want to do a quarter of a century longer than they did because nobody’s ever really bothered — except two or three times — to tell stories about 80 to 95 year old men!” And why not? Goddamn it, I’m still here! I can still remember my fucking lines; I don’t need cue cards or anything like that. I’m not in an alcoholic stupor or whatever it is. I want to go on! It’s down the road, it’s what’s ahead of you, not what’s behind.

Another quarter century? You weren’t kidding about it being a marathon…

Well, for me running is a metaphor for life. Look at the dynamic of an 800-meter run: everybody runs together the first lap and the second lap you have to make a move! And when you make that move, you better be able to sustain gathering speed all the way to the finish line, because if you guess wrong, they are all going catch you before the line. And so you’ve got to keep accelerating! And that’s what makes it fun.

“I am never happier than when I’m on film.”

Do you still run?

I was one of the grandfathers of the ultra-long-distance running movement in America, taking it way up above a marathon. I’ve probably run over 300 marathons in my career and I still run every day. I still run in competition in the 75 to 79 age group. I’m excited now because I just turned 80 and I’ll be in a new fucking age group. I’ll be the youngest guy in the age group! Before I always had to beat guys that are 75, 76.

You seem to still have quite a lot of energy.

I have a great excitement about what the future holds in the business, and me as a part of it. Do I get calls every day to be in something? No. Would I like that? No. But at the same time, I want to work, I am never happier than when I’m on film. Runner’s World did a big story on me and the guy asked me at the end of the interview: “Why do you keep running? You did everything in this sport, there is really nothing more or new you can do.” And I said, “You’re wrong. There is still something you can do.” And he said, “Well, what would that be?” I answered just two words: “Run farther!”