Interview: Alexander Payne on 'Nebraska' and Finding Its Incredible Cast

Director Alexander Payne’s Nebraska follows Woody (Bruce Dern), an aging alcoholic who receives a mail offer touting him as the recipient of $1 million. He stubbornly refuses to trust the postal system with such winnings, instead insisting on traveling to Omaha to pick up his prize. His son David (Will Forte) is roped in as his unwitting tour guide, much to the chagrin of brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and mother Kate (June Squibb). Along the route, the two are waylaid in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska where Woody’s past comes full circle to humorous and poignant effect.

Shot in black and white and set among the bars and homesteads of creaky Midwest towns, Nebraska (the fourth film set in Payne's home state and the first directorial project he didn’t write) is a moving story of regret and legacy Payne makes fresh and relatable, with terrific performances all around (Squibb in particular is brilliant). We talked to him at this year's New York Film Festival, where he enlightened us about hiring a comedian for a dramatic role, his rule of casting real people as extras, and the patented Dern acting style--having worked with Bruce’s daughter Laura in his 1996 directorial debut, Citizen Ruth.

Fandango: Bruce Dern made an interesting comment about your use of nonactors in supporting roles being key because it forces your actors not to act, but to find the truth. Is that your intention in casting real people?

Alexander Payne: I remember when I was doing About Schmidt and I had Jack Nicholson ordering a Dilly Bar or something from Dairy Queen, and there's Jack Nicholson acting with the gal who actually works at that Dairy Queen in Omaha. I thought, “Each is making the other seem more believable.” And maybe that's true – I think when you put highly seasoned, recognizable actors in a genuinely real milieu, it does something interesting. If everyone is an actor pretending to be a normal person, or a real person, I don't think it's quite as effective. I don't think it's quite as funny and I don't think it's as interesting.

One reason I like to shoot not in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles is that when you shoot in those major cities where there are a lot of SAG members, they force you to use SAG members as your extras and I can't stand that! I want to use real people as my extras – much less the speaking parts, but extras are a big part of the believability of your film. One extra can save a scene or tank a scene. And with my casting director, we handpick all the extras from real people. So SAG doesn't hold your feet to the fire when you're shooting on location where there aren't any SAG members.

Fandango: Will Forte is fantastic in what is essentially his first dramatic role. You've said that casting is key for a great film, so what did you see in him that made you certain he could be a dramatic actor?

Payne: You know, I believed him! I never would've thought about the guy in a million years. I'm a little bit resistant, not always, but sometimes, to using Saturday Night Live or skit actors who are brilliant at what they do, but inviting them to be in a dramatic piece – or even a deadpan comic piece – because often those guys when they smell comedy they can't help it, they have to play the comedy. I didn't get that at all from Will Forte. I don't even believe him as a comic guy anymore, I just think he's a very, very good, believable actor. And he reminds me of somebody I might've gone to high school with!

Fandango: His presence seems almost symbolic, because the tone of your movies often reveals drama hidden within comedy, and vice versa. He's the comedian hiding within this amazing dramatic encasing.

Payne: Well, along with what I just said about resisting certain comic actors, I also like casting comic actors in dramatic parts – even including Clooney, who's pretty funny, because when they're doing something dramatic they still have timing, and they don't take it into bathos, they don't play it too heavy. A lot of times you see that in auditions, these dramatic actors come in and just chew the scenery off the walls and it's just like, "Oh Jesus. Who wants to watch that?" So somebody doing a dramatic scene has to have a little pizzazz about it.

Fandango: Speaking of pizzazz, June Squibb is just legendary in this. When did you become aware that she'd steal the show?

Payne: Well, it's a well-written part – it's a scene-stealing part even in the screenplay. And it was just a matter of finding the right gal to play it. And there was no also-ran when I was auditioning. Even though I had worked with her before, she still had to audition. And boy, I just thought she was terrific.

Fandango: Bruce Dern, as well, is incredible. How do you make an older actor feel safe and grounded playing someone growing feeble and a bit senile?

Payne: Oh, he doesn't care about feeling safe. Those Derns just want to do what's truthful! I mean, safe is knowing that they'll be protected in the cutting room. And also that I'm not going to move on to the next shot until I know I've gotten something good – that's where they feel safe.

Fandango: Well, now that you've worked with two Derns, Bruce and Laura, would you say that's the similar acting style between the two of them – the pursuit of truth?

Payne: Very much so. If you see Laura's work even going back to what she did with David Lynch and on her recent HBO show and what this guy does, they want to do what's truthful, period. They're not interested in always feeling pretty or good looking while they're doing it.

Nebraska opens in limited theaters on November 15.

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