“Wait a minute, let me tell you about this first,” says Bruce Dern, embarking on what I think is his fifth discursive anecdote in six sentences. “Did you ever see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? Do you remember when Brad Pitt comes in and tries to wake me up?” he asks.
You mean when Pitt (playing the fictional stuntman Cliff Booth) visits your character (a fictionalised version of the real-life George Spahn, who owned the ranch where the Manson family set up camp)?
“Right, right. So I wake up eventually and start talking. But Brad laughs, which he’s not supposed to do, and Quentin [Tarantino] yells: ‘Cut!’ and says to Brad: ‘What are you doing?’ Brad says: ‘He’s not sticking to the script!’ And Quentin says: ‘Brad, that’s why he’s here. No one can write the shit that comes out of his mouth.’”
Dern loves this story and tells it with the kind of relish that strongly suggests I am not the first person to have heard it. But after just a few minutes of chatting with him, my sympathies are with Pitt. He was not wrong: Dern, 84, very much does not stick to the script. Before our interview, I made a list of all the things I wanted to discuss with him from the course of his 60-year career: do John Wayne fans still hate him for killing their hero in 1972’s The Cowboys? How does Hollywood today differ from in the 70s when he worked with everyone from Hal Ashby to Alfred Hitchcock? Was it more fun to go to the Oscars in 1979, when he was nominated for his performance in the anti-war drama Coming Home, or in 2014, when he was nominated for Alexander Payne’s Nebraska?
However, within 10 seconds, it is clear that any attempt to control this interview will be as successful as pinning a wave upon the sand.
“Howdy, ma’am, how are you, I’m doing good, sliding by in Pasadena, which is where I live. And where are you?” is how he greets me.
I am in London, I say.
“London! Well, I know London a bit,” he says, and he is off for a solid 16 minutes of London-related anecdotes, which somehow take in his encounters with Israeli movie stars and spies in Egypt. It is all fascinating; if I were seated next to him on a long train journey, I would be enthralled. But when the half-time mark of our allotted interview slot sails by and I haven’t asked a single question, I start to worry. At one point, he mentions that he got to know London during the filming of the 1974 adaptation of The Great Gatsby, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, in which he played an especially menacing Tom Buchanan. I grab on to this like a frantic commuter seizing the closing doors of a train before it pulls out of the station.
With his wild, close-set eyes and skittish energy, Dern has always been great at playing complicated heroes and villains. I ask whether it is more fun to be good or bad on screen.
“The first thing about the way I act is: I don’t distinguish between good or bad. Buchanan doesn’t know he’s a bad guy. Everything is real to him. He doesn’t know he’s unscrupulous.” He has a theory about acting, he says: “Acting is about having the ability to be publicly private. Everyone is unique, so always be yourself, but put yourself in the character. Always leave a piece of yourself on the screen or stage, because people don’t forget uniqueness.”
I think those are at least three theories of acting, but I seize on one of them. You say that line about leaving a piece of yourself behind in The Artist’s Wife, I say, which is the film we are meant to be discussing today. I can hear the film’s PR breathe a sigh of relief, as we now have only about 10 minutes to go.
“Yeah, that scene when I tell the kids that if a piece of yourself isn’t on the canvas then what are you doing here? It’s not a question of trying to be original. You are original. So go with it, don’t be afraid of it. The terror for all of us, men and women, is that we’re not interesting, and that ego gets in the way and so you start performing. I don’t perform,” he says, all but spitting out the word.
The Artist’s Wife is a small film, but one with interesting depths, thanks to the layered performances from Dern and Lena Olin, who plays his wife. Dern plays Richard, a revered but notoriously difficult artist, whose encroaching Alzheimer’s disease is testing the stamina of even his devotedly loyal wife. Dern is terrific, teasing out the separate strands of his character’s innate selfishness and his dementia, while simultaneously showing the creativity and passion that made Richard so attractive to his wife in the first place.
In one scene, Richard accepts an award for his art and rambles on in his speech about how all his friends are dead now, so who cares about awards? It is a real punch in the heart and it is hard not to wonder if Dern was thinking, while he said it, of his great friends who are no longer around: Burt Reynolds, Elia Kazan, Lee Strasberg. I also wanted to ask Dern if he knew superstars who pulled the “I’m a genius, so I can do what I want” card, as Richard does, or is it only wannabes who do that, while proper professionals do the work? But this being Dern, direct questions are hard to slip in, so instead we talk about whether sex scenes – and he has a few in The Artist’s Wife – ever get less awkward.
“I don’t have a good body and when I did that movie I was 82, so I’m not a surprise to anyone. But I’ve never really been disposed to love scenes. I’m uncomfortable watching them when they’re too raw in movies; I don’t think we need to see the whole thing. I still think the greatest love scene ever filmed is On the Waterfront between Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint. She drops her glove, he picks it up, and it’s a love scene because when he’s touching the glove he’s touching her. That’s Kazan,” he says reverently, referring to the film’s director, his onetime mentor.
With his hardscrabble demeanour, I had assumed Dern came from a blue-collar background. In fact, his family was gold-chip. “My father’s father was the governor of Utah and then in 1933 he became the secretary of war in [President Franklin] Roosevelt’s cabinet, and my uncle on my mother’s side was Archibald MacLeish, who won three Pulitzer prizes,” he says.
Is it true his godfather was Adlai Stevenson, who ran for president twice?
“Yeah, he was my father’s law partner and best friend. But I had no idea about any of it,” he says, still sounding a little bemused by it all.
Dern went to college for a few years, decided it was not for him, dropped out and went to drama school. He then made his way to New York, where he drove a cab while hoping to get an audition at the legendary Actors Studio, run by Strasberg, a great champion of so-called method acting and the teacher of, among others, Al Pacino, James Dean and Robert De Niro.
Eventually, Dern got a coveted audition: “I did this little scene from Waiting for Godot and afterwards Mr Kazan and Mr Strasberg said to me: ‘Congratulations, you’re a member of the Actors Studio. For your first year, you’ll act in as many scenes as you can, but you won’t have any dialogue.’ I said: ‘What?!’ They said: ‘We don’t want you to learn how to act; we want you to learn how to behave.’ So, wait … did you ever see Nebraska?”
“Oh good, you’ve done your homework. OK, well, that’s an example of what I’m talking about, the behaving. When Al Pacino saw it, he called me the next day. He said: ‘So I saw your film,’ and I said: ‘Yessir,’ and then there was silence for 15 seconds. And he said: ‘How did you do it? Because I couldn’t see the work,’” Dern says with pride. His one regret about Nebraska “was that Mr Kazan was not alive to see the performance”.
When people talk about method acting now, they generally think of Daniel Day-Lewis insisting he is addressed by everyone as Hamlet. But, for Dern, it simply means seeing no distinction between the character and himself. That means when he is playing the character, he is not performing; he is reacting, or behaving, as Kazan and Strasberg would say. This also means throwing in some little ad-libs as the character, something he has become so known for that his close friend Jack Nicholson calls them “Dernsies”.
“I behave and every now and again the words I say are better than what the writer wrote, because I’m in the moment, but when he’s writing it down while eating a peanut butter sandwich at four in the morning he’s not in the moment,” Dern says. It was the Dernsies that threw Pitt at first, but Tarantino, who cast Dern in Once Upon a Time, The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained, can’t get enough of them: “Quentin is the best with me, because he allows me more freedom than anyone,” says Dern. So, eventually, Pitt came round. “Brad said to me: ‘My God, I get it. We don’t know when you’re acting!’ And Quentin said: ‘He’s not acting, he’s behaving!’” laughs Dern.
By this point, we have now gone about half an hour over the interview’s time limit and the PR tries to end things. It is like a raindrop arguing with a snow plough: “What? No, we’re not done. Are you worried about the time or money? Don’t worry about it!” Dern tells her. And so, like Pitt, we sit back and let Dern be Dern.
He was married to the actor Diane Ladd from 1960 to 1969 and they had two daughters. One, Diane Elizabeth, died young; the other is the actor Laura Dern. I ask if he can see the work when she acts.
“Well, I’ll tell you something: she always had – wait, this is a preamble to what I’m going to tell you. Diane and I – incidentally, Diane and I and Laura are the only family that all have stars on Hollywood Boulevard. There’s plenty of other families – the Fondas and so on – but no other mother, father, child. So that’s nice. The thing with Laura was, Diane and I lost a child. She was 18 months old and she drowned in a swimming pool and neither of us was home at the time. Five years later, Laura was born. When Laura was seven years old, she and I are driving in a car and she says: ‘I miss my sister.’ I didn’t say it out loud, but I thought: ‘My God. That’s a soul talking about another soul,’” he says, his voice low and rumbling.
I feel like I am about to cry, but Dern doesn’t even pause.
“So, from that point, I didn’t encourage her to act, but I never discouraged her, either. She has had a good career and has been very good in several movies. She’s won an Oscar [for Marriage Story] and been nominated once before” – in fact, Laura has been nominated twice before, for Rambling Rose and Wild – “and I’ve been nominated twice and Diane’s been nominated three times, and always for movies she was in with Laura: Wild at Heart, Rambling Rose and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. When Laura was getting ready to do Marriage Story, she told me she was playing Scarlett Johansson’s divorce lawyer and I said: ‘Who’s playing the other guy’s lawyer?’ And she said: ‘Ray Liotta,’ And I said: ‘OK, here’s what you do: you find out, privately, on your own, any not-cool stuff that Ray Liotta might have done and you talk to that the whole movie whenever you speak to him. So she learned that he was not a criminal, but occasionally he’d been rude in certain situations. And then she went in there and ripped his balls off. Ha ha ha ha!” he laughs.
By now, time has definitely run out. Dern and I say goodbye to one another, which takes about another 15 minutes, because he starts talking about all of his favourite British things, which range from Alistair Cooke to Trainspotting.
“I’m sorry, I probably answered none of your questions,” he says. I tell him he has – and, really, he did. You just have to sit back and ride the ride. You might not get it at first, but by the end you will see that the man really does know what he is doing, and he brings the goods better than pretty much anyone.
The Artist’s Wife is available digitally.