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Real-Life Nomad Bob Wells Poured His Own Grief Into Nomadland

Photo: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Around this time last year, Bob Wells was wrapping up hosting duties for the 2020 Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, the largest gathering of nomads and van dwellers in the U.S. To say February 2021 looks different for the man behind the popular CheapRVliving YouTube channel would be an understatement. Thanks to an ongoing pandemic, the RTR has gone digital. (“We can’t put 10,000 people from all across the country in one spot,” Wells explains. “It’s all outdoors, but it’s still — that would be unreasonable.”) And thanks to Chloé Zhao’s casting of Wells in her Golden Globe–nominated film Nomadland, the longtime proponent of transient living is campaigning for his own statues in a very strange awards season. Wells appears opposite Frances McDormand and David Strathairn in Zhao’s neo-Western based on Jessica Bruder’s book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. He’s one of several real-life nomads, recruited by the director famous for her utilization of nonactors. In the film, Wells plays himself, a facilitator of the broader nomad community who, after surviving divorce and the death of his son, found solace (both financial and emotional) in a life on the road. Ahead of the 2021 Golden Globes ceremony, Wells got on the phone with Vulture to discuss how he became involved in Zhao’s project, what it was like “time traveling” with McDormand, and how an improvised scene detailing his own grief made it into the final film.

This interview has been edited and condensed from a conversation conducted during the writing of New York Magazine’s Chloé Zhao profile.

I know you participated in the Nomadland book, but at what point were you approached about this as a movie project?
I’m not very good with timelines. It was probably in ’18 or maybe late 2017. The book had come out and was very, very popular. And the word got around that it had been optioned. And then through the grapevine — I knew Linda May, although we’re not in touch a lot — but through the grapevine, [through] people that know Linda and know me, I’d heard that Chloé was [onboard]. In fact, my friend Sue Ann was at Linda May’s when Chloé was there. That was the first introduction that I’d heard about it. I believe it was late 2017. I could be wrong. I don’t know dates very well. Chloé contacted me directly at some point.

What was it like when they approached you? “Hey, do you want to be in a movie?”
Surreal, of course. Never in a million years, would you ever think your life would be in … well, I never would’ve thought my life would be in a book, much less a movie. How can you describe it? Very surreal, very bizarre. I always took the attitude, “Well, let’s just see.” This is the attitude I took right until I actually saw the screening a few months ago. I thought, “Well, they say I’m going to be in the movie, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”

You’re very much in the movie. I mean, you’re essential to the ending. So how was the role described to you? Were they like, “We want you to play yourself”?
Well, I researched Chloé, because she’s done a couple of movies previously. I knew her style. Her style was to take the real people and create a fictional story around those people, and they basically play themselves. So based on her first two ventures, I knew basically what was coming. I knew it would be a fictionalized story, which it was. It really doesn’t follow much at all with Nomadland. But it’s still very true to the spirit. I thought there was a good chance I was just going to play myself. Then when I learned that they were just going to simply re-create the first RTR [Rubber Tramp Rendezvous], I knew, I’m just me.

How did you prepare for your scenes? When you are addressing the crowd at the RTR, is that your normal spiel?
Absolutely. That was just me talking. I was teaching seven or eight, nine classes, every RTR for ten years. So standing up — you wind me up, and I’m a doll. You just wind me up, and I start talking and do my thing. What you saw at the RTR was just one of those things. If she gave me a topic, I could just go on and start talking. We shot a lot that day and a few seconds of it made it into the movie. But I talked a lot of my standard spiel. She just picked the parts that were useful to her.

Were you ever given a script? Or was it more just like, “This is what we want to talk about,” and then you would improvise?
It was mostly improvised, but there was a scene between Fern [Frances McDormand], the fictional character, and I, where she wanted me to memorize a script. And it was very, very hard for me. I’ve never had a particularly good memory, and now that I’m older, it’s poor. I mean, my memory is well into the poor range. So I was never really able to fully memorize it exactly how she wanted it, I don’t think. But I guess it was close enough, because she got what she needed.

And on the other hand, I’m watching Frances, who’s got this whole thing memorized and is just going off and acting. Working with Frances was a life-changing experience. It really was. I almost have to say we time traveled. She created a story, and I entered it. I mean, being an actor is a real deal, and I’m not, but she created a world with her face — literally with her face and voice and a slight hint of her smile. She created a world that I entered into and felt and lived. And I could be me and respond in that world, because it was real. It wasn’t words I was saying on a script. It was a world I was living.

And the story I told about my son was true. I mean, those were my experiences. And so, it was easy to find [the words], because they’re me.

Was that something you had known you were going to talk about? It pulls up some really personal pain that’s clear onscreen.
No. It is something I have never talked about. Before the movie, there were 20 people in the world I’ve ever talked to about it. Chloé knew nothing about it. About two, three days before the scene, she came in and I told her. That was the first time she knew anything about my son. And of course, she asked if I would be willing to share that. I have not handled the death of my son at all well, and it’s been a very private thing. And actually, I think the movie was very, very healing for me — actually saying it, telling the world. It was a gift to my son’s life and of my life to the movie.

Do you remember what it was like to shoot that scene?
It was kind of odd at first. The first time we went through it, I was crying the whole time, because I was just being me, talking about my son. But then after that time, I couldn’t do it again. I couldn’t find that deep connection again. But she had that. I don’t think that makes it on the screen. She didn’t get a lot of what we shot on the screen. It was probably just too much. Once that initial release was over, then it became work.

What you say is so beautiful. I was really moved by it.
The movie is set so much in nomadic living, but it’s really the age-old story: the hero’s journey through grief and loss. It’s really the story of Fern’s grief and many other people’s. Swankie talks about her grief, her losing her life. And at one point, Linda May talks about being prepared to take her own life. I mean, that’s kind of the ultimate in grief. I was ready to take my own life at one point. A friend of ours, who was in the military, talked about his just briefly around the fire — about the grief of battle and war and post-traumatic stress. It’s a movie about grief, and so it’s dark and moving, but it’s very, very true to nomadic living. I think that’s why a lot of us are out here. We’re recovering through a life of grief and loss.

One of the things that strikes me about the film is that it does capture the idea that a lot of people are looking to heal, but also that there are many different reasons for people to be drawn to this life. Sometimes it’s economic necessity. Sometimes it’s emotional needs. Do you feel like this is an accurate portrayal of the nomadic community?
Yeah. You have the young people, and that’s becoming more and more common. People who are …

The van-life people?
They’re not chasing healing from grief. That’s not yet part of their journey. I think they don’t know it, but [the lifestyle is] an inoculation against the grief that is to come. That is really how I would describe it — an inoculation. It’s coming. It’s coming to all of our lives. But for most young people, they haven’t experienced it yet. So, yeah, I think there’s just healing. I think that is really the true story, even if we don’t know the story. Like David Strathairn’s character — we don’t know his character’s story at all, but he’s there and he’s found healing. And out of that healing, he’s able to go back to be reunited with his family and made solid.

When did you first see the finished film?
At the screening in Pasadena, in L.A. The Telluride Film Festival put on a screening there, and they brought in most all of us. Swankie was there, Linda May was there, I was there.

Do you remember what you thought seeing it?
Well, my first thought was I was kind of bored with it, because it was just my life. I mean, all the stuff that you are and everyone else is learning about nomadic living — that’s my life. All the unique little details — the scene where Frances goes to the bathroom in the van. I couldn’t believe they put that in there, but that’s real life. I have gone to the bathroom a million times in my van. So, that wasn’t anything to me. But it was also kind of shocking, I’m sure, to the whole world.

Yeah, I thought it was very, very true to nomadic living. They caught it completely. It’s dark, because grief is dark. Becoming a nomad is about, for many of us, going through the darkness of the tunnel, looking for the light at the other end. And [Nomadland author] Jessica Bruder kind of left the book in the darkness. But I think the movie shows she comes through to the light on the other end. She wouldn’t give up being a nomad for anything. At the end, you’ve got the feeling there’s a real healing here and she’s moving on to the best times of her life.

How does it feel now to be part of a Best Supporting Actor campaign?
Bizarre, surreal, impossible, crazy. How did I slip into this alternate universe? There’s no one more average than me or less deserving than me. But many years ago, I made a decision to turn my life over to the … there’s a quote that I love that says, “The force that guides the stars wants to guide you.” And so I made a decision long ago, that whatever that force was that guides the stars had a pretty good idea of what it was doing. I don’t know what that force is, but it seems to be pretty successful. And this is where it’s led. I had nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with it. I just listened. I obeyed. And who knows what’s next?

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Real Nomad Bob Wells Poured His Own Grief Into Nomadland