At 82, Bruce Dern remains one of the in-demand actors in Hollywood. The multiple Oscar nominee, who over 60 years has worked with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Hal Ashby, Brian De Palma, Eliza Kazan, Alexander Payne, and Patty Jenkins, has more than 10 projects currently in development, most of which hit theaters and streaming this year. The highest-profile of those will be Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, which marks his third time working with director Quentin Tarantino, and in which he plays George Spahn, owner of the Spahn Ranch, which was the onetime home of Charles Manson and his followers. But perhaps Dern’s most celebrated role of 2019, when the year is done with, will be his performance in The Mustang. In the film, Dern plays horse wrangler Myles, who leads an equine therapy program at a Nevada prison and who takes an interest in the rehabilitation of the movie’s central character, Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts). The drama has been in limited release for a few weeks, earning plaudits for Dern’s work and rave reviews all around – it’s Certified Fresh at 95%. As The Mustang expands into more theaters, we spoke with Dern about his Five Favorite Films, and what drew him to his latest role.
First of all, [for something to be great] there’s magnificence in every single department. Whether it’s genre, whether it’s locations, whether it’s cinematography, whether it’s performances, whether it’s script, whether it’s sound – that’s number one. I saw Lawrence of Arabia in theaters. I’d been an actor for about a year and a half; I was under contract to Elia Kazan. I went to the movie and I was absolutely blown away. But the thing that blew me away more than anything else was that the guy did that. I mean this isn’t “once upon a time;” a guy did that. A guy wrote the book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He was there, he did it, and I don’t think he ever saw 40 years old. Excuse my language, but I’ve always been quite impressed with people that got s—t done. And he got stuff done.
The second movie that stuck with me more than any others was Amadeus. Because that guy did that. You know what I mean? I remember when Prince died a few years ago, I had a Twitter at that time (I don’t have it anymore). But all I put out on my little Twitter was, “We lost our Mozart today.” And I think that’s true. I look at Bohemian Rhapsody and they did a very nice job with it — the kid is very good, this Rami Malek. It was a good movie, but [Freddie Mercury’s] not Mozart. I think [with Amadeus] they did as good a job [as they could] without doing a documentary in the era of 400 years ago or, actually, however many years ago it was.
I go back to when Lawrence climbed on a motorcycle at the end of Lawrence of Arabia. And that’s the same thing [with Amadeus]: When Mozart is writing the piece at the end of the movie and Salieri cannot even keep up with him. He’s that quick and he’s that ahead and Salieri says, “No, no, you go too fast, you go too fast, you have to slow down, slow down.” But there’s no slowing down. “Are you with me, are you with me?” And he says, “Yes, yes, I think I get it.” And Mozart says, “And now … 400 voices,” and Salieri just drops the pen and says, “Well that can’t be done. We can’t do that.” And then within five minutes, we see him lying in a potter’s field grave at 26 years old.
I’d say Godfather 2 was up there. (And I did a movie for Francis…) After Godfather 1, I wouldn’t know how he would make a Godfather 2, but he did it. Because of the time span and what it covered, it’s an opera. I mean, there are acts, and it just worked, and I hadn’t seen that done really well. I’ll go see a movie because of moments, and I’ll go to see that movie again. I mean, like The Killing, the movie that Kubrick made when he began. Sterling Hayden is in it, where they robbed the racetrack, you know? And Sterling Hayden is in the locker room getting ready, putting the mask on, and realizing they’re not flowers in the box but a machine gun. It’s just before kick-off and he takes a long deep breath, and Stanley Kubrick was there for him.
I’m very proud of my movie, Nebraska. I don’t really know what a great film is. I don’t know what the ingredients should be. But I certainly think Nebraska is a credit to the industry of filmmaking and it’s done very, very well. And both he [director Alexander Payne] and Quentin [Tarantino, with whom Dern has worked three times] can make a f–king movie, trust me. Alexander said to me the first morning, “Do you see anything here, you’ve never seen before?” I went looking around – we were in Nebraska in some little town in the middle of October, cold, freezing – and I said, “Yes I do.” I said, “It seems like everybody here is putting their oar in before 8am.” And he said, “Well hopefully, that’s because we have 91 crew members here and 78 have worked every day on every film I’ve ever made.” He put his hand on my shoulder and he said, “So you, sir, can go take a risk.” And he said, “This is Phedon Papamichael; he’s your cameraman.” I met him the day before. And he said, “I wonder if you’d do something for Phedon and I, that we’re not sure you ever did in your career.” I said, “Well what’s that?” And he said, “Never show us anything. Let us find it.” And I knew for the first time in my life I had a partner.
Al Pacino came up to me — I’d never met him — at a party and said, “You know, I’ve not seen your movie yet, Nebraska. But everybody back at the Actors Studio – ’cause we’re both members – is talking about your performance.” So Brad Grey is at the party, and he ran Paramount then, and I said, “You know, Al Pacino has not got a screener,” ’cause it was Christmas time. So he said, “Tell him he’ll have one tomorrow morning with his newspaper.” At noon the next day my phone rings and I pick it up and he says, “Bruce, Al Pacino.” I said, “Oh wow.” He said nothing for about 10 seconds, and then he said, “How did you do that?” I told him what Alexander told me about “let us find it.” And he said, “I have tears in my eyes, because you knew you had a partner. I’ve never had a partner.”
He said, “Bruce, I never ever saw the work. You were just the character.” And that’s the greatest compliment to me I ever had.
I think the fifth greatest movie I ever saw was The Last Emperor. Again, it really happened. I mean he [director Bernardo Bertolucci] also could make a movie. The thing I’m leaving you with is this: I’m a runner. When you run, it’s about your training, and it’s the same way with filmmaking. If you miss a day as a runner, only you know it. If you miss two days, your opponent knows it. And if you’ve missed three days, the crowd knows it. All the movies I mentioned, you had, I don’t know, 60 to 150 shooting days. And every single day, everybody on the set brought it to work – everybody.
Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: Did you know about the equine therapy portrayed in The Mustang before you made the film?
Bruce Dern: No. Once I read the script, I told Laure [de Clermont-Tonnerre] I really can’t believe this goes on and more people don’t know about it. I’ve done Westerns all my life – I had to kill John F–king Wayne! And then a year later, blow up the Super Bowl [in Black Sunday]. I mean talk about all-time tricks! And then when she told me about [the therapy] and when I went there to shoot… everybody you see that goes into the ring with the horse and everyone in the movie except for Steven Mitchell and Matthias Schoenaerts and me, are prisoners. All the guys in the interviews are prisoners, too.
RT: You said you like movies for moments – is there a moment in The Mustang that sticks with you?
Dern: In the movie, Miss Britton – I think her name is Connie Britton, I never met her – she was the psychiatrist, and she sits [Roman, played by Matthias Schoenaerts] down, and she sits three or four other guys down, and she asks them three questions. And to me, it’s one of the purest moments I’ve ever seen in film, because the first thing she says is, “How long have you been in?” And he doesn’t say anything for a long time, and then he says, “12 years.” And she says, “And how long a time was it between the time you perpetrated the attack and the time you thought of perpetrating it?” And every single guy she talked to of the 12 never said anything more than three seconds. And Matthias says, “Instantaneously.” Then she said, “And what was it you did?” Well at the end of that, you understand what a violent offender is.
The Mustang is currently in limited release and opens in more theaters April 5.