Exclusive Interview: Bruce Dern talks Alexander Payne, Quentin Tarantino, Tom Hanks, WWE and more


As discussed in Part 1 of my Q&A with Bruce Dern, the man is like no other in Hollywood. As an actor, he is both prolific and critically-acclaimed. As a director’s actor, he has appeared in films directed by Quentin Tarantino, Alexander Payne, Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan, Jack Nicholson, Kirk Douglas, Francis Ford Coppola, Roger Corman, and Joe Dante. He has also been a part of dozens of TV shows in his six decades of acting, including Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Big Love, and CSI: NY.

In this section of my interview, I focused on specific roles of Bruce’s, specifically 1989’s The Burbs, 2011’s Inside Out, 2013’s Nebraska, and 2015’s The Hateful Eight. With regards to Inside Out, as a wrestling-friendly website, I figured it was a rare opportunity to hear an Academy Award-nominated actor talking about working with Triple H. Bruce shared great memories about these films, while providing insight into Roger Corman and how the “University of Corman” prepared him for long-term success.

For more info on Bruce and his Publicly Private production company, follow him and business partner Wendy Guerrero on Twitter.

Darren Paltrowitz: I think you’re probably the only person who was in classic western movies and also in a Tarantino western. How would you compare the experience of working in a modern day western compared to one of the originals? Was it entirely positive?

Bruce Dern: Yes and no. The no being that America, and I don’t mean this in jest, I mean it’s an election year and you’re looking at that and so forth and so on. But I think America misses the western. And I think it’s because the western was a great form for telling stories about people that did good things and bad things, and people that overcame unbelievable circumstances…All of that stuff was just very good. And Quentin is still hanging in there with it and, for some reason, you can’t get the executives to feel that they should make westerns because they don’t think people are going to see them. I mean, the last really good western I guess was The Unforgiven. That’s got to be, what? Twenty years…

So I miss it, but I started out, you know, playing pricks on every western on television which is what where Quentin discovered me. He was a kid, he was watching Gunsmoke and Wagon Train and Big Valley and all of those things that were on. You could always do one of those shows every year as long as you died in the show, because then they didn’t have to pay you residuals, so you could become a new character every year. I miss the westerns, but I never rode particularly well and Burt [Lancaster] and all of the guys, including all of the guys in my age group, were fabulous on a horse. I don’t do it. Even Jack [Nicholson] looked okay on a horse in Missouri Breaks. I hope it comes back, but I don’t care for Cowboys & Aliens, you know? I never saw it, but just the premise.

I’ve tried only one time in my career have I done a movie where you would have to really think if it could really happen, and that was Silent Running. Otherwise, I’m drawn really to movies about human behavior. And even in Silent Running, I tried to make it like we lost the three dogs…I was lost with three dogs in the forest and I named them all and we got along and so forth and so on. When I named the six geniuses I’ve worked for, one of the six is Douglas Trumbull and a lot of people say, “Why Douglas Trumbull?” I say, “Because when he looks through the eye piece he sees something no one else sees.” And they always say, “Well, what’s that?” He sees magic, because we did that movie for $820,000 on a fucking aircraft carrier, and the last part of it was right in Douglas’ garage…he basically did it at home. This is a kid, whem he was a senior at Huntington Beach High School, won an Academy Award for Special Effects at 17 years old. Everybody said, “Oh, what did he do?” He did the effects for 2001 so shut the fuck up.

Well, I don’t know if you ever saw Brainstorm and all of the tragedy around and everything, but there was some stuff in Brainstorm that’s absolutely incredible. When you go out to Las Vegas, you go to the Luxor Hotel, all those rides are presented by Douglass Trumbull. His name is over there when you get in the little cart and go around. I mean, the guy is a legend.

Paltrowitz: One movie of yours that I don’t see you talk about very much, but has lived on as a classic is the movie The Burbs. Do you look back on that one fondly?

Dern: Yeah, it was a lot of fun. I really have a passion for…Joe Dante. I think he was one of the smartest guys in his generation of directors that showed tremendous promise early on. Then for some reason got stuck as like a kid’s genre director. He did very well with them. I didn’t really work with him a whole lot, I just did a little good for him for a day or two days, I forgot what it was. And it was ingenious some of the stuff he had in that movie. No, I never starred, it barely even came out. Joe is a special guy…

[Tom] Hanks was wonderful. I remember one day while we were filming The Burbs, Big came out. And I wasn’t working that day and I went and saw it. I called him on the set, he was working. They said, “Well, Tom’s in a scene now.” I said, “Just tell him that I’m on the phone and he better fucking come here.” So he came to the phone and I said, “Sir, whether you know it or not, you are the new big star in Hollywood.” “Oh, come on, thank you very much.” [I responded] “On the basis of three things: you’re charming, you are believable, you are funny and you can flat out fucking act and you did without Peter Scolari.”

Paltrowitz: (laughs) At the time, was he trying to shake off the show Bosom Buddies? Was that a big stigma over him?

Dern: Well, we did it in ‘88. Bosom Buddies was, what – ’81?

Paltrowitz: ’84 maybe?

Dern: ’84, yes, it was only four years later…I just liked him. He was the first guy that made me see a movie star have fun making a movie. He made it fun for everybody else and was very cool to work for and very encouraging. The work that he did with Rick Ducommun and Diane Sainte-Marie, who is not with us anymore, was amazing the way he’d lend a hand and encourage him to be, you know, kind of a mess and everything else. He’d bring that out of himself, it was just wonderful. He was a class act and in my book, if you’ll notice, he wrote what I think was on the jacket or one of the forwards.

Paltrowitz: Yes, he wrote what was on the jacket and it was very nice what he said about you. I’m glad to see that. Another movie of yours on the opposite end that I’m curious about. that I haven’t heard you talk about. was the movie Inside Out that you did with WWE four or five years ago. Was that an enjoyable experience at all?

Dern: Yes, it was enjoyable. First of all, I knew who Vince McMahon was, but I didn’t know who he really was. His wife [Linda] and daughter [Stephanie] produced the movie because his daughter is married to Triple H.

Paltrowitz: Yes.

Dern: He introduced me to [wrestler] Big Show, and I once met Andre The Giant, but this was the biggest person I have ever seen in my life. He can’t even fly on a regular plane, he has to fly in a cargo hold type plane because he can’t get through the doors or anything. There’s no seat for him, but I’m sure they have on the private plane. But Paul Levesque, who is Triple H, he was fabulous to me. They all were fabulous to me. That kid, Michael Rapaport, was a good kid, I thought he was a good actor. I didn’t work with a lot of people, but him for the most part and Triple H. It was a good experience, I liked it.

They kind of made it on the run, the producer was a really good guy named Mike Pavone…He ran their movie division, but he also produced that particular one. And I liked him and I felt that he had a chance to do something, but it was very prolonged. It was basically a movie for television and I think, was it released as a feature?

Paltrowitz: Yes, it was in theaters and then it went to video-on-demand like a week or two later.

Dern: Right, right. Yes, I liked that a lot.

Paltrowitz: A thing that was very interesting about the movie. They were largely promoting it based on having Triple H in it, but then also it kept on saying, “Academy Award Nominee Bruce Dern.” In other words, you lent credibility to the film. I thought it was a lot better than people gave it credit for.

Dern: Oh, absolutely. The director’s name was Hamburger or Paul, I forget his name. Something to do with either Frankfurter or Hamburger or some last name like that. He was excellent, I’m sorry I forget his name because he was so good I shouldn’t have. I don’t have Alzheimer’s obviously, or the other things they accused my character of having in Nebraska — dementia. [Editor’s Note: The director was Artie Mandelberg, who executive produced 46 episodes of Saving Grace.]

Paltrowitz: (laughs)

Dern: Of all of the films I’ve ever done, when I read the script [of Nebraska] on paper…It took us two years to get the movie made, because first of all Alexander [Payne] is the only one that wanted me. Even though he didn’t write it, when he first saw it, he knew it was me and he picked it up and carried it for me. Paramount didn’t want me, and then finally he came across what they wanted to do. He said that he wanted me and he fought for me to the bitter end and finally he won me. And then at the bitter end, he lost the black and white battle and they said, “Okay, you can have Dern, but not black and white. It’s got to be in color.”

So Brad Grey and Adam Goodman, who were the two guys at Paramount who ran the studio down there, and Brad is still there. Adam was a wonderful shepherd for Nebraska, Adam was just amazing. What happened was they finally realized, “Okay, here, we’ll give you $11 million and go make it, but for $14 million [subtracted] out of his budget, which was just $25 [million].” So we made it for $11 million, but you and I both know that growing up at the University of [Roger] Corman, you can make quite a few movies for $11 million. 22, at least. (laughs)

Paltrowitz: I think so, I mean that’s a large part of your book. In interviews where they talk about Jack [Nicholson], a lot of those movies were done without permits and such. Don’t let me misquote you, but would you say that growing up with the leaner films and Corman makes all of that just seem like a luxury even if it’s just $11 million budgeted?

Dern: Oh, absolutely. I think two things. First of all, we made The Wild Angels and The Trip back-to-back, one for $284,000 and one for about $312,000. That’s $600,000 for two movies, both of which did extremely well in the marketplace. That’s number one. Number two, if there are three things in this business that really upset me more than anything else, it’s number one: they never let Roger Corman direct a movie with a budget of more than $1 million, and only once did he get that on St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Secondly, that they won’t let Jack Nicholson direct another movie unless he appears in it. He directed Drive, He Said and it won a National Film Critics’ Award for Best Supporting Actor in it. Nobody ever saw the fucking movie, but it’s a good movie and it’s written by Jeremy Larner who won the Oscar the year before for writing The Candidate. Jeremy Larner’s got great trivia. I love any kind of trivia, but sports trivia I really love. When Jeremy Larner was a freshman at the University of Cincinnati, his roommate was Sandy Koufax.

Paltrowitz: Wow.

Dern: So that was cool and [basketball legend] Oscar Robertson lived down the hall from him in the dorm, so he was there for a pretty good time. Then the third thing is the way the community has treated Michael Cimino since Heaven’s Gate. I mean, you can say whatever you want about Michael, about Heaven’s Gate or anything else. Yes, it may be a little too long, but there is absolutely brilliant filmmaking, hour after hour in Heaven’s Gate. How they just dismiss it and dismiss him like he’s nothing, I mean people forget he wrote Magnum Force. He wrote Make My Day. He wrote Silent Running with Deric Washburn, I mean, c’mon…He makes the Year Of The Dragon. Now how good of a fucking movie is that?

Paltrowitz: Sure, that’s another classic.

Dern: Oh my god. Those are three things, but the Corman thing and oddly enough on Thursday, I am going to his house with a few of the alumni. It’s Roger’s 90th birthday and the Academy is doing a tribute to him with all of his kinds of students, if you will, around him. So they’ll show that at The Academy Awards and that’s really nice. They wait 90 years before the fucking guy…When we did The Wild Angels in 1966, he was an undiscovered wunderkind, you know? There wasn’t really the independent scene then. There might be what you might call the “exploitation” independent film, but the thing that made it so classic was the fact that we were going to the University of Corman and most of us had never graduated college.

Paltrowitz: Right.

Dern: And we were in a college and didn’t realize it. Then when you were there running around the set with guys like Francis [Ford] Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Opie [Ron Howard]. Opie wasn’t called there yet, I got there a little later, and Joe Dante. You know, just a bunch of people. Chuck Griffith, a writer. Charles Eastman, my god, there was just men. He he had a following and his following was simply because of the things he did for us. He let us star in movies and he put us above the title, which is something no one ever did for me until 1973 when Walter Matthau allowed me to go above the title with him in the The Laughing Policeman. That’s something that you need somebody to step forward for you. I remember when I became a member of the Academy, I had to have two people stand up and vouch for you.

Paltrowitz: Sure.

Dern: Well, my two were Bette Davis and Charlton Heston. So I felt privileged there.

Paltrowitz: It sounds like that production company should do a documentary about Mr. Corman.

Dern: I think they tried, I think Monte Hellman tried one time or I don’t know what the lineage is there, but Corman is a real good friend of Monte’s. Monte is another guy, I mean Monte made two or three films, but The Two-Lane Blackup is a pretty goddamn good movie. I lost the part to Warren Oates. I had the fucking part, but my agent said, “Let me think about the offer at lunch.” And during the lunchtime he was offering me $1,200 a week for eight weeks. During the lunchtime the agent then called back after lunch, Michael Laughlin, a producer who was married to Leslie Caron at the time, he passed and went with Warren.

Paltrowitz: So what is coming up for you? I know that you have a production company, but do you have any projects that you can talk about that are coming up?

Dern: Well, I have three projects, well four actually. One is called Coast. Our company is called Publicly Private, which is incidentally my theory of what acting is. If you have the ability to open your heart and try the big lense when they turn the switch on, then you can be publicly-private. It simply means exposing your real self, your heart, your soul to the camera. If you can’t do that, then think about Alex Trebeck and what he does. It’s like we need more moment to moment behavior in movies.

Al Pacino gave me a great compliment when he saw Nebraska. I’d never met him, but he said to me, “How did you do that?” and I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I never saw the work.” And that was the greatest compliment I ever had. For him to say he didn’t see any acting going on, he just saw the character. I said, well, out of that is Alexander Payne, who the first part of the movie said to me, “Is there anything here this late in the morning on opening day” he said, “Is there anything here this morning you’ve never seen before?” and I said, “Yeah, I do. I see that everybody seems to be pulling their oar first morning, first day.” He said, “Well, hopefully, that’s because we have a 90-member crew here and 58 have worked every day on every movie I’ve ever made. So, you sir, can dare to risk.” And this is [cinematographer] Phedon Papamichael, the cameraman, and I wonder if you might do something for Phedon and I, that we’re not sure you’ve ever done in your career.”And I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Let us do our job.” I said, “Meaning?” He said, “Meaning don’t ever show us anything, let us find it.”

I knew I had a partner for life and a director who would cover my ass, because I didn’t need to do extra stuff and push and perform and stuff, because he would be there with the camera to see behavior even though I had nothing to say.

Paltrowitz: Sure.

Dern: And that’s who Alexander Payne is. See Quentin does much the same thing in a totally different style. But Quentin is all about the honestly and the behavior. He writes kind of overblown characters sometimes, but it’s up to you to bring them down to the reality of what they really are. That was the excitement for me in my role in The Hateful Eight, was to try and find, not necessarily humanity, just a human being of who General Smithers really was over and above what he did in a battle in the Civil War. It worked out good.

Then the most wonderful that I seem to think he did, kind of looking with a wink toward me, he made the intermission in the movie right after I’m killed. So that the audience can go out for a few minutes and think about what they just saw and it doesn’t get lost after three hours later. You know what I’m saying? That was very nice of him to do, I thank him for that. He was a bit surprised, but he acts surprised sometimes when he knows exactly what he’s up to.

Paltrowitz: So, I guess in closing, is there anything that you wish more people knew about you? Like a concept or a fact? Do you think there are any misconceptions?

Dern: You know what? In my book and when Laura and I and Diane [Ladd] got our stars on Hollywood Boulevard, I said the same thing at the end of the Star ceremony: we’re the only family in Sodona that has stars on Hollywood Boulevard — mother, father, child. There have been other families, but never mother, father, child. We also have seven Oscar nominations between the three of us. So even though I’ve been long gone from Diane since the late 60s, so to speak, she can bring it. And the kid can bring it. And I can still bring it. And at the end of that ceremony, I said the same thing I said as the last line in my book, and that is that at the end of the day, I just hope that folks can look at Bruce Dern and say he could play.

Paltrowitz: Sure.

Dern: That’s all it is. I mean you can’t say, should I have won an Oscar? Should I have won this? You know the winning for the Oscar is the nomination. Nobody’s better than everybody else. Ever.

Paltrowitz: Right.

Dern: I don’t care and Leo’s very good in his movie. He’s wonderful. He was wonderful in Wolf Of Wall Street, he’s always very good. He’s the best of the young stars moving up that’s taking advantage of his power by daring to stand on the edge and take risks movie to movie to movie, and that’s the most admirable thing that I can find. He has got that in spades.

However, I say as a little antidote for those that are going Revenant crazy as I guess they should, I saw almost the same movie 45 years ago made by Richard Sarafian called The Man In The Wilderness, starring Richard Harris and John Huston that was about Zach Bass, the same guy that Leo played. If you ever see the movie, if you haven’t seen it, look at it. It’s an amazing piece of movie-making.