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Alexander Payne has, and always will be, an actor’s director. Throughout his career, he’s drawn out remarkable and unexpected performances from the likes of Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon, Jack Nicholson, Paul Giamatti, Virginia Madsen and George Clooney. Heck, Payne even took a chance on the normally rubber-faced Matthew Lillard in The Descendants, coaxing a transformative performance from the 90s icon. So it was no surprise when seasoned actors like Bruce Dern and one-time Payne collaborator June Squibb sung the director’s praises at the press conference for Nebraska last week at the New York Film Festival.
In Nebraska, Hollywood veteran Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, the protagonist of Payne’s 6th feature length film, a role for which he received the Best Actor Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Dern ’s Woody is a crotchety, senile alcoholic Korean war veteran who believes he has won $1 million dollars in a scam sweepstakes, much to the chagrin of his wife (June Squibb) and two sons, David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk). At the press conference, Bruce Dern could not have been more complimentary when asked about his director: “There's not an actor alive that doesn't want to work with Alexander Payne. He gives you opportunities to be in movies, like he says, that he just wants people to watch. That was exciting and a thrill for me.”
June Squibb is a revelation as Kate, Woody’s put upon, plainspoken and, at times, harsh wife. As their son David takes Woody on a road trip to “claim” his prize money, she is relentless in expressing her disapproval of Woody and his ways of life. Having worked with Payne before, she described the unique atmosphere that Payne creates on his sets: “Everybody on the crew has worked with Alexander film after film—so they are like a family. They all know each other. Some of them I worked with on About Schmidt. It makes a tremendous difference.”
Bruce Dern had much more to say about Payne’s unique approach to filmmaking: “Here’s what doesn't get said enough—he is a privilege to work for and work with. He's a guy who insists you work with him. He is so approachable, so natural, and so insistent on reality and being honest. He puts in all these non-actors who are so goddamn honest you can’t possibly act around these people.” Payne’s insertion of non-professional actors in his films (remember, he’s the guy who discovered actor Chris Klein back in 1999) is indeed legendary, and as Dern points out, he uses their natural performances to infuse his stories with an authenticity that does not feel manufactured or part of a glib Hollywood process.
As the award race begins to heat up this fall, you’ll no doubt be seeing Bruce Dern and June Squibb’s names among the predicted nominees. It’s a testament to their great skills as actors, but also, further proof that Alexander Payne is living up to his reputation as a director whose trademark is drawing genuine and straightforward performances from his cast. How refreshing.