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Extended interview: Bruce Dern

(CBS News) No other actor can claim to have shot John Wayne in the back -- and if that were Bruce Dern's only claim to fame, it would be enough to ensure his status as a Hollywood legend. 

But Dern's resume for the past half-century -- more than 80 movies, including "Coming Home" (for which he received an Academy Award nomination), "Black Sunday," "The King of Marvin Gardens," "Silent Running," "They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?" and Alfred Hitchcock's "Family Plot" -- has proven his gift for playing characters slightly skewed, deviant, and off the trodden path. In other words, unforgettable.

A veteran of Lee Strasberg's Actor's Studio, Dern made numerous TV appearances in the 1960s while working with such film directors as Hitchcock, Elia Kazan, John Frankenheimer and Sydney Pollack. He also received continued education at the University of Roger Corman (a.k.a., B-movie production house American International) alongside Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda, burnishing his resume with such titles as "The Trip," "The Wild Angels," and "Psych-Out." 

Dern -- father of Oscar-nominated actress Laura Dern, and ex-husband of Oscar-nominated actress Diane Ladd -- received the Best Actor Award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival this year for his performance in Alexander Payne's "Nebraska."  He has been a leading contender for this year's Academy Award ever since.

In this web-exclusive extended transcript, correspondent Lee Cowan talked with Dern about his career, including his family's rejection of his pursuit of acting; his reaction to an award received for "Coming Home"; and why John Wayne gave him permission to "kick him in the ass" every day. 

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Lee Cowan: What's all this attention been like? 

Bruce Dern:  Well, it's wonderful.  I mean (laughs), I've done a long time, 55 years.  And I don't mean it like I've 'done time' (laughs), I mean it like, it's been the best ride of my life these 55 years.  It's what I do, it's what I wanted to do.  And I think it all begins with the fact, how did it all come to pass?  Well, it all came to pass because Alexander Payne asked me to come on down. 

Ten years ago now, first time, without an offer.  He didn't say, 'You're the part.'  He said, 'What do you think of it?'  And I read it, and I'd only met him an hour in my life because Laura was the star of 'Citizen Ruth.' 

And it was all on the page.  It struck me that it worked.  Every character worked, the story worked, it was wonderful.  And he was asking me about it.  And then I didn't hear anything. 

He went off and did 'Sideways.'  And then I didn't hear anything, and he went off and did 'The Descendants.'  So I figured, 'Wow, obviously, I must be in the way of helping this get made.  (laughs) But yet, he never said to me, 'I want you to do the role,' or anything like that.'

 [Then], 18 months ago, he actually gave me the role. That's the biggest win I'll ever have . . .  being offered the opportunity to have the role of a lifetime.

Cowan:  It is the role of a lifetime, you think?

Dern: Well, so far for me.  I'm not stopping, knocking wood, you know?  But, I mean, I got a lot to do that I still want to do as an actor.  I mean, I'm 77, but I still look forward to the kinds of roles that the opportunity to be in a movie like this let me have an opportunity to have a crack at -- that can still let me do stuff, you know?

I mean, yeah, I know there's limited roles for guys my age.  For women my age, it's really limited.  But in our movie, you look at June [Squibb], you look at Mary Louise {Wilson], you look at Angela McEwan.  I mean, those are three women older than I am, and they're fabulous in the movie, and they're being discovered.  They're in a movie that is opening all around America and is getting a certain kind of nice reception, and that was a treat. 

The big treat for me was I knew when I saw the script on paper that I had to play the role. I don't mean THEY wanted me to have to do it, but Bruce Dern had to find a way to be able to play this role.

Cowan:  You use a lot of sports analogies to describe your career.  And you've said this was your one at-bat, you thought.

Dern:  Well, all actors have at-bats, and all actresses.  There are certain times in their career where a role comes along that you have a chance to get a hit or need to get a hit in a certain situation.  And I don't mean make a hit, I mean just get on base.  It's an at-bat.  And this was clearly an at-bat for me.  I didn't hit a grand slam home run that won the World Series or anything.  But I got a chance to play a role in an Alexander Payne movie that was kind of a linchpin role in a movie.  And that is extraordinary. 

When I began, there were three things that you had to do as an actor back in New York in the late '50s.  You had to get to New York; you had to try and become a member of the Actor's Studio; and you had to try to work for Mr. Kazan.

Cowan:  And you did all three.

Dern:  Yeah.  And nowadays, I think you're gonna find that there's more and more kids (and older actors and actresses, too) that come to California, bypassing Broadway, putting the theater kind of on the back burner, and try and do anything they can to work for Alexander Payne or Quentin Tarantino, the guys that make movies about people and about situations.  And that's the thrill of having Alexander Payne say to Bruce Dern, 'Come on down.'

Cowan: But you don't think you hit this out of the park?

Dern:  It's not really for me to judge. I know on the basis of my work what I get. I got into the business as an actor.  And because I'd never acted before, when I first began, Mr. Strasberg kind of molded me as, like, a little bit of a guinea pig, if you will.  They didn't allow me to do scenes at the very beginning, where I had dialogue.

Cowan:  You couldn't do any dialogue?

Dern:  No.  I only played the silent partner in scenes, because I'd never acted.  So what they wanted to do was train my instrument, so to speak -- to start with everything from the heart and not put on layers of things that weren't real.  Don't pretend, and don't perform.  Being a silent partner, you don't have the obligation to [speak] dialogue. So the first thing you're doing is learning to react -- to look, to listen, to feel, to smell, to touch, all those things that you naturally do, and call on them when the switch is on or when everything is going on immediately, so that they happen. 

Then after a year, they allowed me to start doing scenes where I could speak. It was, like, almost I was in a deaf school or something, you know?  (laughs)

And after two and a half years of that, they finally said, 'Okay, go out to Hollywood and try and make a living,' 'cause you couldn't make a living in the late '50s and early '60s in New York, because Broadway didn't pay any money. Off-Broadway paid almost no money.  And all the television shows [like 'Playhouse 90'] had moved to California.  So the only way to work was do a 'Naked City' or a 'Route 66' or 'Armstrong Circle Theatre,' or be in a play and get the occasional movie that came.

Cowan:  One of the things that you've gotten a little emotional when you talk about, is your first day on set with Alexander Payne, he told you something that really struck you?

Dern: Well, I've worked for some pretty damn good directors, way up there with the cream of the crop. Throughout my career, I was lucky.  You start with Mr. Kazan, you're way up there.  And Alexander said to me the first day, he introduced me to Phedon Papamichael, who's cameraman, and whose work is just fabulous in the movie, I mean, that whole black and white. And he said, 'I wonder if you'd do something we're not sure you've done before in your career, meaning, let us do our jobs.' 

And I said, 'Huh?' 

And he said, 'Don't show us anything.  Let us find it.' 

So throughout my career, I have not had a lot of roles that are about my character.  They're about the other people in movies.

Well, you try and embroider to make your character have more of a beginning, a middle and an end throughout a movie, rather than just be a guy who twists the movie a certain way.  There's no arc, or line of the development of the character.  So, you embroider. You make it bigger than it needs to be. I don't mean you're drawing attention to yourself.

Cowan:  But you push it a little?

Dern:  Yeah, to try and make your role bigger than it is on the page, simply because when the camera's on you -- it's like Mr. Kazan told me: 'When you get out there, it's going to take you a long, long time, because it's an endurance contest.  And you are not an obvious leading-man movie person.'

Cowan:  He told you that?

Dern: 'You're kind of a character.  And nobody's going to appreciate what you do until you're in your late '60s.'  Well, that was thrilling to hear at 24 years old, you know what I mean?

Cowan: Very prophetic though, now, right?

Dern: Oh yeah.  Well, but who knows that then, you know what I'm saying?  I'm just trying to live 'tll Wednesday and get my unemployment check with all the tuna fishermen in Santa Monica. 

So the reason is that when he said, 'Let us find it,' I knew I had a partner for life.  I knew I had somebody I could trust who also trusted me, by casting me in the first place. 

Cowan: So why was this so personal to you? 

Dern:  It's personal to me because I think in this country we're rough on old folks.  And I think we're rough on old folks when they start to deteriorate.  Somehow, we'll revere the old folks, but if they start deteriorating and we have an obligation to take care of them, we have a tendency to move them off to the side. Especially if they're relatives. And we don't really say what we mean to say to them.  And we don't hug them anymore.  And we don't hold them because they don't hug us. 

But you gotta make an effort to come to them.  They're in different worlds.  I mean, throughout this movie Woody's in a different world, in a different place.  And he's not aware of that anymore.  Well, if you don't seek that out, it's not gonna happen.  And after those people pass out of your life and pass up to wherever they go, if we do go up, I'm not sure yet. (laughs) I got a basement on the elevator I'm in, so I don't know (laughs) that I won't go down.

But you beat yourself up the rest of your life 'cause you didn't say to 'em what you really wanted to say.  Good or bad, plus or minus.  You didn't say, 'Hey, I appreciate where you put me.'  It's, like, the scene in the movie when I go back to the old house. I've said this a bunch of times, but I guess Thomas Wolfe said, 'You can't go home again.'  You must go home again because when you go home, you realize who you are, where you came from, who they were, what they did for you. 

I wrote a book and in my book I was very rough on my parents. But as I look back on it, particularly on the journey that I'm in now, where I get a chance to talk to people like you that are hip and get it and ask wonderful questions, I realize that I never gave my parents enough credit for putting me in a situation where I had an opportunity to learn, and be around people that, you know, I don't know how privileged they were or anything like that, but got stuff done.

My family was all about, 'Well, what have you done?'  And a little of that is personal in the movie with Will [Forte].  A lot of times I'll say to Will in the movie, 'Huh?'  You know, he said, 'Well, when do you know -- how do you know?  I broke up with my girl and I wasn't sure and everything.'  'Huh?  What are you talking about?'  Or the other huhs are, 'Huh, when are you gonna tell me somethin' that means anything?  You know, when are you gonna do somethin' with your life? You sell record players? Give me a break.  Nobody makes records anymore,' you know?  'What are you selling?'

That's why it became personal to me. I don't think Woody's a monument to anything.  But he's still there.  He hasn't left.  He's 77.  And if it doesn't work out when they go to Lincoln, he'll wake up tomorrow.  He'll find somethin' to do. 

Cowan:  You had said that one of the hardest  things about doing this movie for you was to have that sense of being disconnected.  I mean, you say that Woody's always about 20 minutes away from takin' a nap, it seems like.

Dern: Every day.  I mean, if he could get a 20-minute nap every hour, he'd be fine.

Cowan:  So how did you give that distance where you did sorta look like you were off in your --

Dern: Well, the key ingredient to it as the human being, and as Bruce the actor, is to be detached from everything that's going on around you.  And I'm an actor throughout my career who has always had to be on it, be with it, be quick, do dastardly things, make them happen, make people afraid of me. I've never been cared for throughout a movie like here.

Cowan:  Did you really take one of your hearings aids out?

Dern: Well, the only time I took them out was when I walked up the freeway at the beginning, because we never rehearsed the dialogue with -- that's a real state trooper, that's not an actor.  So he pulls up behind me, and Alexander said to him (without me knowing it), 'Just pull up behind Bruce and get out of your car and walk up to him wherever he is and just ask him what's going on.' Didn't give the guy dialogue or line readings or anything like that.  And I took my hearing aids out 'cause I knew that a policeman was going to come.  I didn't know when, I didn't know how.  I didn't know if he'd be in front of me or behind me.  I was oblivious to it.  So I'm walking somewhere, I want to get there.  So I never hear the car behind me.  I never heard the little siren bleep.  And when I jump when he touches me, it's because I didn't know anyone was there.  And 'Where are you going?'  'Well, I'm goin' that way.'  That was the beginning of me understanding detached.  He's detached 24/7.  But every now and then, they slip back and they get more maybe than you think they get. 

I don't think Woody would know what dementia was or Alzheimer's was or anything like that.  I think he's aware he's not as quick as he was.  He doesn't get things. And everybody says, 'Well, Woody looks bored.' He's not bored.  He just doesn't get it like he used to get it.

Where he goes isn't that it's the dementia or he's going someplace other in his mind where there's a circus going on or in the coliseum in Rome or someplace like that.  He's not dreaming.  He's just kind of vacant spaces.  He's not looking around for anything specifically.  He's just getting by.

Cowan:  What do you think your parents would think of this now?

Dern: You know, it's funny.  My people -- my dad's from Salt Lake 'cause his dad was governor of the state and then the Secretary of War.  When we grew up, we never ever went back to Utah in our lives.  Never took my brother, my sister and I.  They went before we were born back quite a bit.  But then when I was born, the same month I was born, my Grandfather Dern died.

When we were shooting in Nebraska, a lady came up to me on the street one day.  You know, you don't put a lot of barricades up 'cause there's not a lot of folks interested in what the hell you're doing 'cause there's not a lot of folks to begin with, you know?  (laughs) We're shooting in Hooper, Nebraska, population about 680.  And a lady came up to me and she said, ,Mr. Dern, I'm so-forth-and-so-on, and I work in the little library here, and I teach at the school. Have you got ten minutes?'  And we were right on the street, in front of the old little schoolhouse where the kids were still in school that day, grade school kids.  She took me in there and on the wall was a picture of the classes since 1878 that had gone to Hooper.

Cowan:  Wow.

Dern:  And there was my Grandfather Dern: first grade, second grade, third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade.  I thought they were from Fremont, but they lived in Hooper, which is half an hour away from Fremont.  So he went to grade school there. I was stunned by that. 

Cowan: Your parents were really tough on you about going into acting.  They didn't want that at all.  They didn't think you were going to do enough for the Dern name, I guess?

Dern: It's not one thing.  My name's Bruce MacLeish Dern.  And the MacLeishes are every bit, in their minds, as powerful as the Derns are in what they've accomplished.  The MacLeishes own Carson Pirie Scott & Company in Chicago.  Archibald MacLeish is my great uncle, my grandfather's brother; [he] was poet laureate of the United States, was Librarian of Congress.  Won three Pulitzer Prizes as a poet and playwright.  Wrote a play Mr. Kazan did called 'J.B.,' which won a Pulitzer Prize. 

None of this acting stuff came up until I quit college. I never acted.  I never went in any scenes or dramatic schools.  I didn't go to a lot of movies or anything until just about the time I quit college and I started to go to them.  And what I realized was, at that time I would say I would say, 'Why does Uncle Archie always get a pass that he's an artist?'  'Because he's a man of letters, Bruce.  He's an artist.'

Cowan: So what did they think you were?

Dern: Well, I don't know what they thought I was then, but they sent me to camp every summer for five years and then shipped me to Choate for a year so I could get around the 'right' kind of kids. 

I think what my parents [thought], when I decided to become an actor, I was going to make a living 'pretending.' 

Cowan: That's what they thought?

Dern:  Yeah, they thought that that's what acting was, pretending.  And if you're not going to pretend, then you'd better be Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda or somebody who at that time were the big movie stars in America. 

Cowan:  So they just didn't really get it, did they?

Dern:  No.  Well, they never got it.

Cowan:  So what was dinner time like?  I mean, it was very patrician?

Dern:  Formal, without being formal.  I had to wear a tie and coat.  My sister had to wear a dress; my sister is a year and a half younger than me.  My brother had to wear a tie and coat.  My dad came home from work.  They had cocktail hour, which went on for about an hour and 15.  And there I am, counting drinks.

I know my dad had a couple of drinks at lunchtime. I never saw him drunk.  He wasn't an alcoholic.  But to me, they were kind of what I'd call social alcoholics.  I never saw the effect of alcohol on them that I was aware of.  But they drank their way through the day.  I mean, they weren't lushes or anything.  But on the weekends there's Bloody Mary with breakfast.  Then they play golf.  And then after golf there's a highball. And then they play bridge in the afternoon.

And then there's cocktail hour.  And then there's wine at dinner.  And then they'd play Backgammon or something at night.  And then there's a nightcap.  Well, at the end of the day, it's 11 drinks according to me.  And they hated it that I clocked that.  They hated it.

Cowan:  You would count?

Dern: Oh my God, I would clock.  And I said, 'And then Uncle Jim comes over and he does it.'  And at the end of the day, you've drank 50 drinks between the four of you.  I mean, I just don't get it.  And also the smoking.  That's why I've never had a drink really and I've never ever had a cigarette and I've never had a cup of coffee.

Cowan:  Not even a cup of coffee?

Dern:  No.  And that's not 'cause I'm Mormon, [because] I'm not Mormon.  We had a governess when I was growing up named Vera Hepworth who was brought from Salt Lake, who had worked in the Dern family when she was, like, 16, 17 as a young girl.  Now she was older and the family took her to Washington, D.C., with them.  And she came to help raise us.  And she was Mormon.  And she didn't do anything. But God, she was pretty!  (laughs)

Cowan:  So was there a sense that you wanted to kind of rebel from that very formal --

Dern: I never wanted to rebel.  I just knew that there was some kind of clock ticking in me that said, 'What goes on in my household isn't fair.'  We had help. Sometimes a black couple would be there to be the cook and the houseman and stuff. There were always couples.

 First they started as Swedish.  Then we had two black couples.  And I loved them.  I loved Lennox, I loved Ma Bryant, I loved the people that worked in my house.  And I would take my dinner sometime and go in the kitchen and eat with them -- outrage my parents -- because they got it.  They were hip. It's not that my family wasn't nice to them.  They treated [them] nice. But, why wasn't my mother cooking?  Why did they have to do it?  I mean, why is it that's what they do?  My mother forbade me to sit up with the chauffer. She says, 'You can't do that, Bruce.' 'Why not?' 'Because it's not proper.'  And that's a word that always stuck with me, I didn't care for when I was growing up.  Proper.  What's proper?

Cowan:  So you go to the University of Pennsylvania, and you mainly go to Penn because that's what your family did, right? 

Dern: Right.  They went to Penn and I went to Penn.  I was a runner.  I couldn't have a scholarship 'cause my dad was a trustee of the university.  I was offered a scholarship to go to BYU, and I'm not Mormon!  Or the University of Utah, 'cause I was a Dern and I ran. I was very good in high school and everything.

And then I went to college, I never won another race.  My times dropped a little bit, and I never got better.  So all the Olympic dreams and all that kind of stuff that I had, of thinking I was good enough to do that, I never got to that level.  And after two years at Penn I realized I was wanderlust and that I didn't know what was going on.

Cowan:  You were majoring in journalism?

Dern: Journalism, yeah.

Cowan: But that didn't --

Dern: I had a professor who was the night editor of The Philadelphia Bulletin. He gave us a story about a boy who was about 14 who was walking his dog up in North Philadelphia across the street, and the dog was hit by a car and killed.  And the boy was traumatized.  And he said, 'Put a headline on this.'  So I wrote this, like, 13-word headline that really told the story. (laughs)  I thought, 'Great!'

And after we handed them in, he said, 'Mr. Dern, you wanna step up here for a second?'  And I said, 'Yes, sir?'  And he had a big F on my paper.  He said, 'What'd I ask you to do?'  I said, 'You asked me to put a headline.'  He said, 'Do you understand what the newspaper is? (laughs) In the newspaper business, get it to 'em fast, short and quick so the headline gets 'em to read the article.  You don't need to write the article in the headline!'  (laughs)

'Well, what do I write?' I had written, you know, 'A young man who had a love affair with his dog,' something or other and so forth and so on.  'Then what's the headline?' 

'Dog Dies, Boy Cries.'  (laughs)

And I said, 'Oh, I can't do that.' 

He said, 'No, obviously that's not for you.  But you're very expressive and the most expressive student I've ever had.  What else might you be able to do?' 

I said, 'I don't have a clue.'

A runner in college, Dern was told by coach to cut off his sideburns or he would not be allowed to compete any longer. Dern refused.

Dern:  I said, 'I'm done running.  If I can't run, why am I in college?  I'm not learning anything here.'  It's not that Penn's not a great institution.  It's fabulous.  But it wasn't what I wanted to do 'cause I didn't know what I wanted to do.  And suddenly then, I couldn't run anymore.  And my father backed the university and their standpoint, because he was a trustee.

And I felt thrown under the bus. 

I found a little dramatic school in Philadelphia and I just went to sit in one night.  And the guy, Gordon Phillips was the teacher, was my first guy that ever saw me do anything or asked me to do anything.  He says, 'Get up.'  He said, 'Well, there's only five in the class.  And Charlie Dierkop was an actor, was one, Lyle Kessler was another one, guys that went on to have careers.

But then, none of us knew anything.  And he says, 'Sit in the chair, Mr. Dern.'  So I sat in the chair.  He said, 'You're driving a car, you're at a stoplight.  What's goin' on?'  So I pretended I was driving a car and was at a stoplight and I started acting all kinda different things.

You know, I started being interesting and pointing to myself, like, you know, trying to have people wanna look at me, sitting at a stop sign.  He said, 'Wrong!  All wrong.  Just sit in the car at a stop sign.  You're not pretending to be anybody else, just you.'  And I started getting that a little bit. 

And he said said something to me that changed my life:  'Next week I want you to come in, bring your track shoes in.' And in the scene -- this was me by myself -- I'm up there, I'm looking at the track shoes, and I'm just Bruce.  And he said, 'Why don't you take the knife on the table there and cut your track shoes in half?'  It changed my life because I realized what I had to do as an actor. I had to be that person.

Because the minute I picked the knife up, I knew I was severing my ability to be a competitive runner ever again in my life, because I had passed -- because of a moral decision I had made, that my sideburns and individuality were more important to me than the institutionalization of being at an Ivy League school or whatever the hell [it was].

And it wasn't that I was trying to be a rebel or anything.  He just said to me, look inside.  And if you're gonna get in this business as a true novice, start there.  He was a member of the Actor's Studio.  He's the one that said go to New York, get in the Actor's Studio, work for Kazan, and helped lead the way for me to go to this.

And that changed my life because it gave me something I knew I wanted to do. That began the ride to where I am today.  But the work that I've tried to accomplish and pull off in 'Nebraska' is from that very first day when he said deal specifically with something in your life that means something to you.  And so every time I've gone out as a character, that's the first thing I do: what are the things that really mean value to him that are in me? And then start with my own being and put that into the character, as much of that as I can take from myself that fits the character.

Cowan:  When Lee Strasberg sent you off to California, he sent you off with sort of, I don't know whether it was advice or a warning, but it was that you were gonna have a tough time.

Dern:  Well, that was what both Lee and 'Gadg' [Eliza Kazan] said.  'Gadg' told me it was gonna be a long, long, long endurance contest.  And Lee said, 'You know, I have no idea what kind of roles you're gonna get, but don't think you're gonna get what the other guys five years ahead of you are gonna get, 'cause that's not gonna happen again.'

They did two plays [at] the Actor's Studio, that went off-Broadway and then went on Broadway.  One was 'A Hatful of Rain,' which starred all the Italian guys -- Guardino, Franciosa, Ben Gazzara, and Michael Gazzo wrote it.  The second one was a play called 'End as a Man,' which was written by Calder Willingham, Jack Garfein directed.  And out of that play you had George Peppard, Ben Gazzara, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman.

Cowan:  Geez.

Dern: All those guys went to Hollywood off either 'Picnic,' 'Bus Stop,' or 'End as a Man.'  Those were the Broadway plays that sent them.  Well, there was nothing like that around for Brucie from Winnetka, 'cause Brucie from Winnetka in Tennessee Williams' brand-new play 'Sweet Bird of Youth,' directed by Mr. Kazan, had five lines.

I was a bartender, onstage for 40 minutes in a scene, but only had five lines.  And after the first hour of rehearsal the first day, I saw Paul Newman and Geraldine Page go over to Gadg and say something, and Gadge came over and he said, 'Bruce,' he said, 'This is Mr. Newman. He's in this play because he's perfect for the role.  Mr. Williams right here, Tennessee, wanted him for the play, helped develop it with him in mind, and he's a huge movie star.

'And this is Miss Page, the queen of the theater.  Now, what I want you to do is be the laziest god-damn bartender anybody ever saw.  Take naps, sleep, don't be makin' bets.  Don't be writin' things down on the page of everything.'  Because Paul Newman had gone over and said to him, 'They're looking at him and they're not watching the scene.' (laughs)

And that was my introduction to -- well, too much embroidery doesn't always work. 

But I wasn't embroidering; he said have a life.  So I had a life.  And then he said, take the life away and just take a ****ing nap. (laughs)

Cowan: And that happened frequently.  You write in the book about, I think it was an episode in 'Gunsmoke,' where you're shot and you're just supposed to die, but the director said, 'Just die already.'

Dern: Yeah, oh, yeah. (laughs) The director was Mark Rydell, who later directed me in 'The Cowboys.'  And you know, I got shot and I had to fall on the bar floor.  And I twitched and I went, 'Oh, God, my-- oh, why did the bullet go in there?' (laughs) or something like that. And Jim Arness looks down at me and he says, 'My God. That's pretty interesting, but who gives a **** about how you die.  Just die already.  Get it over with, you know what I mean? Otherwise we're gonna cut away and you're still alive.'  I said, 'Well, that's the point, because then I can come back in another episode (laughs), 'cause I'm not dead!'

Cowan:  But that's what you meant by embroidering.  That's what you meant by always trying to push it.

Dern:  Oh, absolutely.

Cowan: But didn't Lee Strasberg tell you that you're going to go to California, you're going to end up being the fifth cowboy?

Dern:  Oh, well, that was Kazan. [He said], 'And if you're gonna do that, then you be the most god-damn interesting third cowboy from the right anybody ever saw.' 

And Lee said, 'He's right, Bruce.  But when you do it, don't go tell the director what you're gonna do before he takes one take because he's got take two.  So invent and don't ask permission.  Don't ask permission to do what we've worked with you to do because it's going to be turned down, because they're not going to know what you're talking about.'

I went to work for the guy who had directed 'Death of a Salesman' and the motorcycle movie with Brando ['The Wild One'] -- Laszlo Benedek was his name.  And I said, ' I'm just trying to find the behavior for my character.'  He says, 'How about no behavior? (laughs) How about you just come in, deliver the paper, and go out, okay?  That's all you have to do.'

Cowan:  You were supposed to be unnoticed.

Dern:  Oh, absolutely. 

Cowan:  So is that the birth of the Dernsy?  Is that where that started?

Dern:  Well, yeah.  I mean, 'Just put the paper on the table and go out.'  You're giving him his paper, he's in a club, just put it on the table and go out.  Well, I came in, put the paper down, and I went and I said, 'Eggs benedict, very nice.'  (laughs)  He didn't like that. 

Cowan:  You talk a lot about going to the University of Roger Corman. What did that teach you?

Dern: Well, I don't think any of us -- the Corman undergraduates, if you will -- knew where we were and what we were doing.  We just knew something different was going on.  We were given leading roles, we were starred above the title, we were paid less than $200 a week, we got a box lunch, and we were working with real Hell's Angels and real bikers.

We were kind of overly influenced by that whole culture and everything.  And Roger was excited because he could shoot it and get it. He hired the bikers for $10 a day -- these were real Hell's Angels, for (laughs) $10 a day you got them wearing their colors.  You got their old lady for the same $10, not extra.  They got a box lunch and you got their machine, which you couldn't rent or buy anywhere, not those choppers, not 75 choppers on a road going down.  And they loved it, and they loved him.

And then you got on the set and then you have Bogdanovich, you have Coppola, you have Jonathan Demme.

Cowan: Was it hard for you though to see Jack Nicholson or Warren Beatty or Robert Redford go on and get these big roles and become these huge stars?

Dern: When you talk about the guys of my generation that were there at the beginning, they were blessed with a certain kind of persona, personality, looks, whatever it takes, and they were good.  I'm not one and I never became one, but it's very hard to be a movie star, yeah, very hard.

Cowan:  You don't think you're a movie star?  Even now?

Dern: No, my definition of a movie star is, A, someone who dominates a decade above the title, starring in movies; B, someone who gets money raised because he decides or she decides to do the movie.  Well, Bruce is not the first person they've been going to to get a movie made.  Brucie gets movies when 17 other guys pass on the role and the studio, or whatever it is, is already invested in a certain amount of money.  So they say, 'Okay, well, I'll choose Dern.'  Seventeen guys turned down 'Silent Running' before it came to me.

Cowan:  But didn't that get discouraging?  I mean you've got your parents who don't want you to do it, you've got Lee Strasberg even saying, 'This is gonna be a tough road ahead,' and you just kept plugging.  I mean a lot of people would have bailed.

Dern:  Well, you keep plugging because you get a chance to do something because you are an individual and you're unique, to be involved with a group of people that just might do something that's never been done.

Cowan:  That's what you thought?

Dern:  That might -- yeah, I still think that to this day.  You go on a set and on 'Nebraska,' every single day you're excited to go to work.  Why?  Because the guy just might do something that hasn't been done before.  Or the cameraman might do a shot that nobody's tried or seen. And that's been true with 10 or 11 of the directors I've worked for.  I was excited every single day. 

The most wonderful story I ever heard another actor tell me: Charlton Heston, he had gone to New Trier, the same high school I did, so he took kind of an interest in my career when I first started. And he said, 'When I was doing 'Ben Hur,' William Wyler shut the movie down for two days in Rome, in the middle of the film.  We'd been shooting for ten weeks.  And he was looking for a face.  And he looked at 1,100 faces in two days and finally chose one. Because he wanted a face of a guy [for the scene] where I'm being marched in chains across the desert to go work in the slave ship. And I stop at the water well, and there are Roman soldiers there.  And a Centurion comes up and says, 'No water for him.'  And a man comes up to me and tries to wash my face, put water on it, give me a goblet of water.  And the man stands up and looks the Centurion in the face.  And William Wyler needed an actor's face that looked into the face of God, because that man was Jesus Christ, and he knew he had to find somebody who could show that.'

That's what you go in this business for.  That's why every day, I don't care if it's on 'CSI: Brooklyn' or whatever (laughs) the hell they are, 'CSI: Amarillo,' you know? You go to do it 'cause you're getting an opportunity to do something where if you really get it together on that day and pull everything from yourself and are honest, you might do something certainly you've never done before.

The excitement of 'Nebraska,' for me, is what might be next.  Heston always told me an actor is only as good as his next role.  You can't look back on things.  And I don't look back well on things.  I've never made a movie I've been embarrassed with.  I've made a movie that wasn't very good once, but we had fun making it and 90 people are there every day for nine weeks.  You can't dismiss that.

Cowan: So was one of those things-that-have-never-been-done-before moments when you shot John Wayne? 

Dern:  Well, you got a guy who's, for me, the biggest living legend I was ever in front of.  And also physically, he was big, big person.  And he had never had bullet hits put on him, you know, when a bullet shoots in your chest and goes off.

And he leaned into me with a little bit of Wild Turkey 101 on his breath at 8:15 in the morning (laughs) and he said, 'Is this gonna hurt?' I said, 'Yeah, bud, they're gonna blow your chest off.  I mean you better get some armor plate or something under there, 'cause it's gonna hurt!'

And he grabbed me by my lapel and he said, 'They're gonna hate you for this.'  I said, 'Maybe.  But in Berkeley, I'm a god-damned hero!' (laughs)

Cowan: What was the reaction -- you talked about even going to restaurants afterwards, people were like, 'You're the guy who shot John Wayne!'

Dern:  Oh, in Nebraska, even though it's, what, now 40 years later, they still come up: 'You killed my buddy!'

Cowan: Still?

Dern: I said, 'Hey, bud, he died of cancer.  It was a movie.  Can you get over it?'  'We'll never get over it.'

One of the luckier things our generation had when we came to Hollywood, there were still legends and we got to work with the legends. And why were there legends?  Because they were bigger than life. Because you didn't know what they did after work.  You only knew what you saw on the set and you only saw a certain kind of demeanor.  Bette Davis sitting there smoking a cigarette on 'Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte' down to the nub.  And then taking another one and lighting it and then flicking it in a can on the floor.

And I go to work on a 'Gunsmoke,' and Walter Hill, who's a wonderful, fabulous director, I'd go anywhere for Walter Hill to work for him.  And I've done three [films] for him.  He comes up to me, it was the second 'Gunsmoke,' he says, 'Wait 'til you see who your mom is today.' And I walk and there's Bette Davis sitting a chair. And I get tears in my eyes.  And she said, 'And what's the matter with you, Brucester?'  I said, 'Bette, it's a "Gunsmoke."'  'Who's gonna pay for my cigarettes?  I took an ad out in the trades, said seven-time Oscar nominee looking for work, nobody cares.'

It was their endurance. 

Then years later Marty Sheen and Stacy Keach and Paul Sorvino and myself get to do a movie with Robert Mitchum called 'That Championship Season,' which Jason Miller directed and wrote. And we just sit at Mitchum's feet for five weeks.  I mean, how can you not listen to the guys -- the things that he said?  He was a legend.  And the wonderful thing about the magnetism that they gave or shared with us was they dared us to risk every day. They pushed us more out on the edge to take risks and chances that they never really allowed themselves to make.

Wayne said to me the very first day on 'The Cowboys,' 'I'm giving you permission to kick my ass every day because I want these little kids to be terrified of you.  And if they think you can kick my butt, they're gonna think you're bigger than I am.  And any day you don't do it, I'm gonna kick you in the butt.'

Cowan:  Really?

Dern: Oh, yeah.  So I went wild for two months.  I mean, I just made every kid think, 'Oh, my God, Dad! Mom!'

Cowan: Did you ever get tired of playing the wacko, psycho, terrorist?

Dern: No. David Letterman one time asked me, 'Why do you always play those psychos and terrorists, those whatever they are?  They're really sick.'  I said, 'No, I always think they're just guys that live just beyond where the buses run.  (laughs) And that's the way I've always looked at it.  I mean, who knows who's out there? I just know that they're out there.'

Cowan: How much did 'Coming Home' change your career?

Dern: Well, it worked out kind of as a double situation.  I was thrilled to be in the movie, thrilled to be a part of it, thrilled to be asked to come on down by Hal Ashby.  It was a team movie.  I mean, clearly it was John and Jane's movie, but I had a part in it and it was integral.

And I was thrilled that when the movie came out I was billed up above the title -- Fonda, Voight and Dern.  The ad was in the New York Times the day that the movie opened, and in it are Jon and Jane holding each other in a wheelchair with an image of my face looking down on them like, you know, I'm watching something. And I was still asleep and my wife Andrea brought in the New York Times to show me the ad, and my picture was gone. She took an eraser and erased the whole thing of me in the back so it would look like just they screwed me (laughs), you know what I mean? And it's the neatest thing anybody ever did to me in my life.  Gotcha! (laughs)

But when the movie came out, the difficulty for me was I started getting a lot of congratulatory stuff for the performance and for the movie, and I never served myself.  And I remember winning the Army Archerd Award  -- it was called the People's Choice Awards for best supporting actor. And when I got up, it was the first time I had to thank people and stuff.  And I said, 'I really don't know what to say except I want to thank every guy or girl who ever put a uniform on for this country because I didn't have the courage to do it.'  It's not that I ducked it in 1956, '57; no one was going anywhere [at that time]. Some Marines went to Suez, I think, but that was it.

But I felt bad about the fact that I hadn't done that -- I'm the grandson of the Secretary of War -- and I was being somebody who had done that, and the effect on them.  And their support of me and of Jon and ultimately of Jane was fabulous.

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