Bruce Dern is celebrating 60 years as an actor, having made his Broadway debut in the 1958 “Shadow of a Gunman” while studying with Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan. This year, his film work includes playing two real-life characters: Joseph Kennedy in “Chappaquiddick” and Roman Wershe in Studio 8’s “White Boy Rick.” The latter film, about a 14-year-old who was arrested in 1980s Detroit, opens Sept. 14.
What drew you to “White Boy Rick”?
It’s real. I play the grandfather of the young boy, Rick Wershe Jr. He had to take a package across town and police busted him. He was just released this year after 29 years. He was 14 [when he was imprisoned], so to lighten his sentence, they made him an informer. Wershe was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The movie shows that “It ain’t fair.” My whole life is about trying to be fair. My aunt married Herbert F. Goodrich, a judge on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. He said to me: “I have the best job in this country. Because every day, I have the chance to be fair.” That really got me.
What’s the best acting advice you received?
When I was heading to California, Mr. Kazan put his hand on my shoulder and said: “Just remember. When you get there, you are not a movie star. You are not a leading man. But you have an ability. When the switch is on and something hits you, it works. It’s not on the page; it’s your behavior. But when you get out there, nobody will know who you are until you’re 60.” I was 25 at the time. He also said, “Never tell a director what you’re going to do in a shot or a scene.” I said, “How the hell do I get away with that?” He said, “The director has something you’ll never have: He’s got ‘Take two!’ ”
Did you give advice to your daughter?
When Laura was very young, she was cast in Adrian Lyne’s “Foxes” and she said, “What’s the drill, Dad?” I said, “The greatest crippler of actors is behind the camera: intimidation. Somebody at 5 p.m. starts walking around with a watch, saying ‘Hurry up.’ And then it gets to be 6:30 and they all want to get out of there, to go home or to the Lakers game. It’s not you. Disassociate yourself from that. Stay in your own zone, be your own person. And the other thing is take risks. Go to the edge and take roles that others don’t want.”
What’s the secret of acting?
Acting is having the ability to be publicly private. On the first day of shooting “Nebraska,” Alexander Payne stood next to DP Phedon Papamichael and Alexander said to me: “I wonder if you can do something for us. Never show us anything. Let us find it.” I knew then I had a real partner. I think the greatest compliment I have ever received was after Al Pacino saw the movie. He said: “How did you do that? You seem to go deeper than a lot of people, and yet I never see you doing the work. It just comes out of you.”
After 60 years, your career seems to be stronger than ever.
I’ve enjoyed the ride. I enjoy being where I am now. Now I hear “the legendary Bruce Dern.” I’m not a legend; I’ve just gotten better roles, which makes me luckier than the next guy.
No thoughts of retiring?
I wouldn’t know how to retire. I want to continue coming up with parts of me that haven’t come out yet.
Things You Didn’t Know About Bruce Dern:
AGE: 82 BIRTHPLACE: Chicago GODFATHER: Adlai Stevenson FILMS HE’S ESPECIALLY PROUD OF: “Coming Home,” “Nebraska” ADDICTION: Running ESTIMATED MILES HE’S RUN IN HIS LIFE: More than 100,000 CIGARETTES, COFFEE AND ALCOHOLIC DRINKS CONSUMED IN HIS LIFETIME: Zero AUTOBIOGRAPHY: “Things I Said but Probably Shouldn’t Have” (John Wiley & Sons, 2007)