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Bruce Dern: Five Performances I Couldn’t Have Given
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Bruce Dern
Actor

Two-time Oscar nominee Bruce Dern has starred in films including Nebraska, Coming Home, The Hateful Eight, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and more. His latest crime thriller, The Gateway, is in theaters Sept. 3. For A.frame, he shares memories of his 60-plus-year career, and five performances he loves.


I was very lucky when I began as an actor because I’d never acted. I started going to movies when I was in college. We had a group called the Flick Team, and you had to see seven movies a week to be in the Flick Team. We were all athletes, so we had nothing else to do but go to class and train—so we went to movies. Philadelphia had a lot of theaters then. After maybe a month, I realized these people [onscreen] are touching me. How do they do that?

So I found a little dramatic school in Philadelphia for two weeks. And after two weeks, I realized that you have to do three things: You have to go to New York, you have to try and become a member of the Actors Studio, and you have to work with Mr. Kazan. This is 1957 now. So I did those three things.

When I auditioned for the Actors Studio, I did my audition on a night that they were having the finals, and I didn’t know that. It wouldn’t have made any difference anyway. You only do a five-minute scene, and I was the last scene of that night. When the scene was over, Mr. Kazan came up to me, and Mr. Strasberg was right next to him, and they said, “Bruce, welcome to the Actors Studio.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” They said, “We’ve not seen anybody do what you just did.” Kazan said, “I want you in my office at 11:00 Monday morning.” So Monday morning, I go to his office at 11:00, and he puts me under contract.

I told them I’d never acted before. The five people he had under contract were Rip Torn, Pat Hingle, Geraldine Page, Lee Remick and Brucie from Winnetka. I was the youngster in the group.

The Actors Studio met on Tuesdays and Fridays from 11:00 to 1:00, so I went on that Tuesday. And while I’m there, walking up the stairs to go in the session, both Gadge [Kazan] and Lee were there. They took me aside and said, “We want you to do us a favor. We want you to work on scenes here in front of Lee, in front of the audience, as often as you can, for one year.”

Well, there are 64 members there, and they all want to do the same thing, but I’m being invited by these guys. And he said, “But we want to do something we don’t even think Mr. Stanislavski did.” And I said, “Jesus, what’s that?” They said, “For one year, we want you to do scenes where you have absolutely no responsibility to dialogue. You will be a silent partner for one year, in every scene you’re in. And we will do nothing but make you learn to behave from yourself.”

So before I ever had to say a word of dialogue, I learned it was okay to behave any way I felt. They felt that I had no bad habits and wasn’t spoiled, so why not take a guinea pig? Why not be Frankenstein? That was where all the work came from.

They got a limo for me to go to California. Mr. Kazan was in the limo with me when I went. And he said, “Now, look, you remember two things. When you get out there, nobody’s going to know who the hell you are, nor are they going to give a shit, because you’re going to be the fifth cowboy from the right for a long, long time. You just make sure you’re the most honest, unique fifth cowboy from the right anybody ever saw.”

“And number two, don’t ever tell a director what you’re going to do before take one.” I said, “How in the hell am I going to get away with that?” He said, “It’s quite simple. He’s got something you’ll never have: take two. So make sure yours gets recorded.”

About 15 years after that, I did a movie Jack Nicholson directed called Drive, He Said, which I won the National Film Critics Award for Supporting Actor for in 1971. And he’s the one that named [my improvisations] Dernsies. 

The last Dernsie on record is in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. When Brad Pitt comes in to wake me up and tries to shake me awake, “George, George, George,” and I finally turn over, I say, “I’m kind of foggy. What’s going on?” And he laughed. [Quentin Tarantino] said, “Brad, what are you doing?” He said, “But that’s not in the script.” [Quentin] said, “I said it on The Hateful Eight, and I’ll say it again here. Nobody can write the shit that comes out of his mouth when the switch is on.”

I don’t rehearse. Kazan said, “Never rehearse behavior.” Rehearse for the moves of the camera and the dialogue, but not the performance. The reason I don’t do that is because then the other actors will anticipate where you’re going, and it won’t be moment to moment.

I’m 85 years old, and you know what I’ve never done? I’ve never walked out of a movie, because 80 people go somewhere for eight weeks, become a family and then make a movie. And even if it’s not very good, I’m not going to walk out on those 80 people.

Below, Dern shares five performances by other actors that have moved him.

1
F. Murray Abraham in 'Amadeus'
1984
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To me, the best movie ever made was Lawrence of Arabia because it’s perfect in every single category, from writing to acting. All my life, I’ve been fascinated, excuse the expression, by people that get shit done. The guy did that. My second movie like that is Amadeus. A guy did that, and they put it in a form that enveloped us as we watched it.

I’ve watched Murray Abraham for a long time, but I’ve never seen him do that. I didn’t know who he was. Just the whole way he did it, and allowing himself to look—you see the pockmarks, you see everything. One of the great scenes I have ever seen in my life—and again, we’re reminded the 24-year-old kid did this—is when he couldn’t keep up with Mozart when he’s dictating to Murray Abraham that great piece. Because he’s going fast. [Abraham as Salieri] said, “Slow down, slow down. You’re going too fast.” Mozart says, “Now, you got all that. You got all that. And now the voices, 400 voices.” And Murray Abraham looks like he had a heart attack. He’s saying, “But it’s not possible, the voices.” That whole scene is one of the great scenes in the history of the theater and movies.

2
Geoffrey Rush in 'Shine'
1996
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I’ve always said that there were three performances given by actors in my age area that I couldn’t have given. They were Geoffrey Rush in Shine, Murray Abraham in Amadeus and Roy Scheider in All That Jazz. I have seen [pianist] David Helfgott in concert once. He’s sick and Geoffrey Rush showed us that.

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Roy Scheider in 'All That Jazz'
1979
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Well, I knew Bob Fosse. Roy Scheider was as close to Bob Fosse as I ever saw: the frenetic energy, the cocaine highs and lows, the won’t talk to a girl if she’s under six feet tall. [Fosse’s] auditions were considered tougher than Michael Bennett’s, the Chorus Line guy. I mean, he knew what he wanted, and then he made five movies. Here’s an unappreciated genius. In his time, he had Agnes de Mille, he had Michael Kidd. He had great choreographers. I mean, Twyla Tharp went to school studying those guys.

4
Natalie Portman in 'Léon: The Professional'
1994
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I think Natalie Portman was 13 when she made it, something like that. She was the most intriguing character I’ve watched on film since Mozart or Lawrence. And Jean Reno. I mean, come on. He’s as good as it gets. But it’s a fabulous job by Portman.

5
Jason Robards in 'All the President’s Men'
1976
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Where to watch

Everything you watch during this pandemic on TV, all these quick-fix movies that are made for streaming, the acting is okay. You don’t see Natalie Portman in The Professional, and you don’t see even Al Pacino in Scarface. You don’t see Jason Robards in anything. I mean, All the President’s Men, come on. That’s a cameo basically, and he’s got three little scenes, but he makes the movie because he was Ben Bradlee. And that’s the point.

© 2021 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences