The veteran actor talks about Nicholson and Corman, Kazan and Coppola — and that surprising Emmy nomination for “Big Love”
He's worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood in a career that has stretched more than 50 years. And he's part of the only Oscar-nominated father-mother-daughter combination with his daughter Laura Dern and his ex-wife Diane Ladd.
But only now, at age 75, has Bruce Dern received his first Emmy nomination.
"I'm flabbergasted," Dern told TheWrap on the occasion of his Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series nod for the final season of "Big Love."
In that season, his monstrous patriarch Frank Harlow shows a soft side as he finds his wife Lois (Grace Zabriskie) succumbing to dementia – never mind that they'd tried to kill each other in earlier seasons, or that he gave her the STD that caused her condition.
For four seasons, Dern's role as Bill Paxton's dad, the domineering overseer in a polygamous religious community, had seemed to be one more addition to his lengthy resume of psychos, weirdos and villains – but in the end, the guy showed a heart that made him unexpectedly touching.
Dern's career encompasses close to 80 films and 60 television appearances, and shows few signs of stopping: he's in Francis Coppola's upcoming thriller "Twixt," and in the fall he hopes to start shooting "Hart's Location," in which he'll appear for the first time with his daughter and his ex-wife.
In the past, Dern has worked with everyone from Alfred Hitchcock, John Wayne and Elia Kazan to B-movie mavens Roger Corman and Sam Arkoff. In conversation, one topic flows into another: an anecdote about "Big Love" will spur memories of Corman, while a question about Coppola will prompt stories about Kazan.
A sampling of the Dern experience:
"Big Love," Little Role
I was surprised by the nomination, simply because in the five years [the show was on the air] I never really had that much to do. But this was a satisfying season, because there was, if you will, a directional change in the character. For four years, I was the asshole on the show. I was supposed to be the bad guy. Well, in the last year, when Lois got sick, I don’t think anybody expected Frank to love her and care for her and try to make her have the best life she could have. So that was nice. That made the last season worthwhile.
Those Darn Mormons
I don't think they knew it when they hired me, but my grandfather Dern was the first non-Mormon governor of Utah, from 1925 to 1933. And then FDR took him to Washington and he went on to become Secretary of War and died in office.
I didn't grow up in Salt Lake, I grew up outside of Chicago, but I was always interested in the Mormons that I knew. One of the things I found growing up and meeting them is that they had a lack of ability to look you in the eye. And I always felt that was because every one of them was up to something. So that's what I brought to the series. [Laughs] When you walk 2,000 miles and settle in a place where you can't even drink the fucking water, you must be up to something.
I was extremely proud of the last scene in "Big Love" [between Frank and a dying Lois]. Although I have had people come up to me and say, "Was that a double suicide?" God no, we went to great lengths to show her bottles on the side of the table. And earlier, she had said, "If I ever get so bad that I'm missing three or four days at a time, I went you to put me out." That's what that scene was about.
But, you know, I have a previous adventure in that kind of situation in "Coming Home." There are people who think that when my character goes into the ocean at the end of "Coming Home," it's some kind of cleansing. No, the cleansing is that he doesn't belong in the triangularity of the situation anymore, and he went out.
Any young actor in 1957, '58, '59 had three goals that we wanted to achieve. One was to go to New York, two was to become a member of the Actors Studio, and three was to work for [Elia] Kazan. You never thought of being in a movie, you never thought of doing anything else – but if you could do those three things, you thought, goddamnit, I'm an actor. And I was lucky that I achieved them.
My first play on Broadway, the director was released the tenth day of rehearsals, and Mr. Strasberg [Actors Studio director Lee Strasberg] directed it. That was my Broadway debut, and then Kazan put me under contract for the next three years. I did my first movie with him ["Wild River"], and my next play, and bunch of stuff.
The Fantastic Four
In my career, I've been lucky enough to work with four geniuses. The four are Mr. Hitchcock (right), Mr. Kazan, Francis Coppola, and ["Silent Running" director and special effects pioneer] Douglas Trumbull. Spielberg once said to me, "Why do you always say that Douglas is a genius?" I said, "When he looks through the eyepiece, he sees something no one else sees." "What's that?" "Magic." He sees something magical, day after day after day.
I worked for some fabulous other directors, too. You could easily put [Hal] Ashby in there, [John] Frankenheimer, all kinds of people. But the thing that the four guys had that I don’t get every time out is that every day I went to work with any one of them, I felt just maybe we might do something that had never been done before.
Professor Corman and Director Nicholson
Luckily for me and a lot of other guys and girls, we got the chance in the '60s to go to college when we either never went to college or never finished. We were in the university of Roger Corman. That's what he was: a university who happened to make movies. And if you put your ear to the sidewalk and listened to the vibe that went down, there was a pretty amazing group of graduates that came out of his college.
One of the big regrets that I have is that Roger Corman was never really allowed to direct a big budget movie – and by big budget, I mean at least $2 million. That's always been kind of disappointing to me. The same with Jack Nicholson. He was a great partner as an actor, like in "The King of Marvin Gardens" (right) and all the biker stuff and the drug movies that we did. But he was also as good a director as I worked for when he directed me in "Drive, He Said." And it doesn’t seem they want him to direct a movie unless he appears in it. That's a shame, because he was a fabulous director.
TV or Not TV
I've never been in a television series except for the first year of my career in Hollywood, when I was in a series called "Stoney Burke." Jack Lord was the star, and Warren Oates and I were his two little sidekicks who ran around and had a sentence a week, saying, "Stay with him, Stoney!" or whatever it was that week.
But television excites me much more now than it did before. But I'm not sure it didn’t begin, really, with Jane Fonda when she decided to go do "A Doll's House" [in 1973]. That made it okay for everyone to do it. I'm going to say something crass here: it made it okay to be in the living room of the buyer for free. In our business, you're always worried about asking people to buy something that they get for free, which is a reason why movie actors didn't want to do TV for a long time.
I saw a trivia question a long time ago. It asked, "Since 1954, how many television stars who had their own series became movie stars?" And the answer was 18, I think. The first guy was Steve McQueen. And until the 1980s, you were talking about James Garner, you were talking about McQueen, you were talking about Burt Reynolds, you were talking about Clint, and three or four others. And then all of sudden you had George Clooney and Will Smith and Tom Hanks. Since then, the floodgates have kind of opened.
The magical thing about Francis [Coppola] is that he makes these movies in his yard. His yard is 800 acres or something, and he's got a studio there. We went and shot "Twixt" all around central California, but we also shot a lot of it on his property. He financed it and he wrote it and he directed it and he produced it. He's not particularly tough – he's very open to what you bring to it. In all the stuff that we did, Francis took so much care with everything. [Laughs] And then he goes to Comic-Con and another Francis Coppola takes over: the P.T. Barnum Francis Coppola. The guy is an impresario.
I met him around the time of "The Godfather," and we talked a little bit about me playing a part in that movie, but it didn't happen. And then a year later I went to the premiere of "The Great Gatsby" [in which Dern starred with Robert Redford], and there's Francis on the stairs with me. So we ended up working together even though I didn’t do "The Godfather," because Francis wrote the screenplay for "Gatsby."
No Regrets, Except …
I don't look back on any film I've done, or any experience I've had, with any kind of trepidation or hesitation. The only movie I ever made that I probably wouldn't do again was "Black Sunday." Only because if you really think about it, somebody could do that [stage a terrorist attack on the Super Bowl in a blimp].
At the time it was the number one bestelling novel in the world, Paramount bought it, it seemed okay. But if you look back on things now, it’s a training film.
The Family Business
When Laura was ten years old, she came to me and she said, "Dad, I want to be an actress, there's no question about it. What's the drill?" And I remembered a time when I wrote a letter to my uncle Archibald MacLeish, who was a poet and a playwright and the Librarian of Congress and lots of other stuff. I wrote him a letter and said, "I'm in New York trying to be an actor, and I'm 100 percent convinced that this is what I want to do. Is there anything you can do?" And he wrote me a letter on tissue paper, in which he said, "Bruce, I'm thrilled that you made up your mind to go into the theater, but as far as me helping out, I stay totally out of that area." And he added, "and don’t ever use the words '100 percent '" [Laughs]
Anyway, I said to Laura that you have to learn how to dance – meaning, dance around the problems on the set all day long, because it's never really directed at you, even though we all think it is. The second thing I told her was to go out on the edge of the cliff when you make choices, both in the roles that you choose to do and in the work that you do within those roles. And she heard me loud and clear. I'm extremely proud of her, almost more than anything else, for the choices she's made.
You know, last November Laura and Diane and I got stars on Hollywood Boulevard, and I think we were the first family to get consecutive stars. We're hardly the Barrymores or the Fondas, but we've done our thing, and we continue to do it.
Photos for TheWrap by James Acomb