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Laura Dern on Growing Up With Bruce Dern, the Only Actor to Kill John Wayne

Laura Dern has impeccable acting pedigree: Her mother is actress Diane Ladd, who has memorably played her daughter’s mother twice, in the film Rambling Rose and on Dern’s regrettably canceled HBO series Enlightened. Dad is Bruce Dern, who, thanks to his poignantly funny and spare performance as Woody Grant in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (opening October 8 at the New York Film Festival), is earning the kind of praise that remakes careers. His daughter isn’t surprised, and is touchingly proud. We spoke to her about what it was like growing up with the only actor to kill John Wayne.

When I talked to your father for our New York Magazine profile, he spent a lot of time raving about you and Enlightened. And, by the way, you were robbed at the Emmys. 
That’s very sweet. Dad’s very funny about it. He likes to quote [her Enlightened character] Amy Jellicoe a lot. I think she and Bruce Dern have a lot in common. [Laughs.] They’re fierce advocates for other people who sometimes, in the way they present their advocacy, can be misunderstood.

He did get emotional during our interview, mostly about people who he loves or who have helped him. He’s remarkably generous toward other actors.
Yeah, he really is. He’s never had that frankly tragic edge of competitiveness, which comes with some artists.

He ordered a Shirley Temple at the bar, which was a priceless image. You wouldn’t expect that from a guy who came up in the sixties and seventies — and particularly the best friend of Jack Nicholson. He told me he’s never had a drink or smoked a cigarette or had a cup of coffee.
Yeah. It’s really amazing, and possibly was isolating for him a lot, when he couldn't party with his buddies. But running was his best friend. My son just signed up for the track team today, and dad came to his first meet. It was so adorable. And it’s funny the kinds of people who gravitate towards a self-awareness, and I think dad has that. He knows what he needs to keep himself centered and stable in kind of a bizarre business with a lot of ebb and flow in someone’s career, particularly if you’re going to do it for as long as dad has. So it’s great that he knows that. He knows what hasn’t worked and he knows what has worked, and he keeps doing the good stuff. 

I assume you’ve seen Nebraska?
I’ve seen it several times, and I fell madly in love with it. 

He does something really extraordinary. I wonder if you think there’s a generation gap of a sort, between people who grew up watching, say, Henry Fonda or Clint Eastwood or Gary Cooper — the strong and silent ideal in their day — and the more flamboyant performances of today. Is it possible that some people won’t appreciate the power of so quiet a performance?
I’d love to say that it’s only a generational gap. I think there is the challenge of the young actor who is starting out and thinks they have to do a lot or play a drug addict or someone with a disability — that that’s what you have to do to get an award. But I fear that it sometimes happens with age as well. There are artists or filmmakers or cinematographers who have had long careers who, maybe to reinvent themselves or just to stay in a secure place, layer it on or ham it up, if I can use that expression, or make grand choices that don’t feel as authentic as what they did to make us fall in love with them in the first place. To stay true to your art is such a complicated journey, and dad clearly has done it. Particularly with Alexander [Payne], he could have thought that he needed to be funny, or not be too mean because it’s a comedy, or make sure he’s likable in the end, or search for empathy somehow.

You created an indelible character with Payne as well, in 1996’s Citizen Ruth.
Oh, thank you. It was one of the great times in my life. He became my best friend and my partner in crime. I’ve watched Alexander’s progress and his choices and incredible talent as closely as I would a relative.

Your father played a lot of sociopaths and generally nasty dudes, a lot of them in Westerns, and he came to some sorry ends. Your dad told a funny story about you watching Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. You’d crawled into your mother’s bed late one night when it was on TV.
Yeah, I saw his detached head roll down a staircase. I was 5! [Laughs.] It’s been talked about in therapy. [Laughs.] My mom was like, we’re going to call dad and he’s gong to tell you his head is still on. And she passed me the phone and he said, "Yeah, kid, it’s still on. I still got my head." And I was like, Okaaaaaay. That was the generation where you thought your kids could see anything. [Laughs.]

What was it like growing up with him? What did you pick up both as a daughter and an actress?
To stay true to what’s right for you. Stay true to your own voice, and don’t worry about needing to be liked or what anybody else thinks. Keep your eyes on your own paper. I remember in fifth grade going to a boy’s house for a play date and the dad saying, "You’re dad’s a real son of a bitch — he killed John Wayne. When I heard my kid was bringing you over, I was like, Whoa, I don’t know about this play date." [Laughs.] And I’m thinking, I almost didn’t get a play date because my dad killed John Wayne? Wait a minute, what’s happening? Or after Coming Home — there was a lot of controversy around that film and around dad’s characterization of an emotionally broken war hero, which spoke so deeply to the times and PTSD, which had rarely been done in films. So I was a witness to how there would be a judgement or an opinion or dad pushing the envelop and people going, Oh, that was deplorable. Is your dad really like that, is he as crazy as he is in the movies? But he was having a blast and it had nothing to do with who he was.

Do you have a favorite role of your dad’s?
Nebraska is on the top now, and, preceding that, probably Coming Home. I loved it so much because it was so brave.

It’s an underrated film.
As an American, I feel proud it was made, because it’s an endless teacher to us all. But I always took such delight in dad’s work, even when he played the meanest, funniest cowboys in Westerns. He’s hysterical, and yet there’s no one who can be more evil. When I first met Jim Carrey years ago, I was working on Wild at Heart, and he and Nicolas Cage were good friends. And Nic said, "My friend Jim wants you to watch him in The Tonight Show" — it was his big stand-up break. So I watched and his first impersonation was of Bruce Dern. [Laughs.] It was hysterical. He did dad as one of his menacing and terrifying cowboys tucking me in by telling me horrific stories. [Laughs.] But that’s what I mean. Dad’s been in this class of iconic guys of a certain generation, but he’s always done his own thing and been apart from everybody else. He has great humility, and he’s stayed loving what he does. I rarely get to talk to people who have a long sitdown with dad, as you did, but don’t you find his lack of cynicism amazing?

Yes. He remains so enthusiastic about film and acting. And he knows who everyone is, so he’s clearly still watching everything. He’s got this encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood, sports, American history ...
He’s kind of a genius. Shockingly well-read. He knows every map and road in America. I didn’t really know that about him until I had kids. My son was studying the Donner party, and dad said, "Okay, what point in the trail are you?" He knows every point, every summit, how they crossed the west, where the first gold mines were. That made his pairing with Alexander interesting as well, because Alexander is interested in so many things other than film. So they were a really good team. It wasn’t just about film or knowing me. There’s a bond in the way their brains work, which gave them a private language all their own to create the performance you see in Nebraska.

Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty