Bruce Dern needs to be at the top of his game to play Frank Harlow, the ornery, manipulative, possibly demonic polygamist the veteran actor plays on HBO’s “Big Love.” It’s not a role for the faint of heart.
The father of the show’s protagonist Bill (Bill Paxton) and a lifelong member of the Mormon sect at the Juniper Creek compound, Frank kicked his son out at age 14 and they’ve been bitter enemies ever since. The rascally Frank also has a love-hate relationship with Bill’s mother, Lois (the equally off-the-wall Grace Zabriskie), the second of his five wives.
“The first two years they were trying to kill me,” says the lanky 73-year-old Dern, his blue eyes dancing. “In the first episode I was poisoned and in the third year, Lois tried to put a bag over my head and asphyxiate me. This year it’s a little bit more risky, dangerous and honest.”
In the first episode of the fourth season, which aired Sunday, Frank tries to strangle Lois while giving her a kiss. He then follows her to her apartment and attempts yet again to murder her. Let’s just say his plans go awry.
“I think she’s realizing I got a little more game than she credited me for having,” Dern says. “And maybe her son isn’t that perfect person after all. I am the guy in the show who tells it like it really is.”
It helps to have some game when interviewing the always colorful Dern, who made his name playing wild-eyed crazies in such films as “The Wild Angels” before segueing to starring roles in such films as “Silent Running,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Family Plot” and “Coming Home,” for which he earned an Oscar nomination. He also played one of the few villains to kill John Wayne, in 1972’s “The Cowboys.”
Talking with Dern is like a master class in acting, life and storytelling. Just bring plenty of coins to feed the parking meter because Dern will wax poetic for hours. It’s an exhausting but revelatory experience.
Born in Chicago, Dern went to New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill. “It’s supplied Hollywood with a huge amount of stars,” explains Dern, on a recent afternoon in his publicist’s Century City office. “You had Rock Hudson, Charlton Heston, Richard Widmark, Hugh O’Brian, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Perkins.”
So they must have had a great theater department?
“Not really,” he says. “You have households of people who are affluent in which you are made to communicate vocally every day of your life. A lot of our tests in high school were vocal tests and you had to get up and be entertaining, even in chemistry.”
He went to the University of Pennsylvania for two years. “I wanted to make the Olympic team as a runner in 800 meters and I didn’t,” says Dern, the father of Oscar-nominated actress Laura Dern.
“I was disappointed. I really wasn’t that good. I came back to Penn to start the beginning of junior year and I realized nothing was happening to me.”
So he went to Philadelphia and began an acting class five days a week with a former member of the Actors Studio.
Dern hails from a patrician background. Ironically, his paternal grandfather was the first non-Mormon governor of Utah and Secretary of War. His uncle was poet Archibald MacLeish. His godfather was Adlai Stevenson, who ran for president in 1952 and ’56, and his godmother was Eleanor Roosevelt.
“They were grooming me to be a lawyer,” he says.
But Dern had other ideas. After he completed a year at the acting class in Philadelphia, the teacher took him to New York to audition for Lee Strasberg, director Elia Kazan and Cheryl Crawford who ran the Actors Studio.
“They saw my audition and put me in the studio that night. I didn’t have to have a second audition.”
Though he hadn’t started classes at the studio, he was cast in the group’s 1958 Broadway production of Sean O’Casey’s “The Shadow of a Gunman.”
“It was only a 1-minute part, but it was the linchpin to the play,” Dern says. “In those days, you had four goals in mind -- one was to go to New York, two was to become a member of the Actors Studio, three was to work for Kazan -- you never dreamed of being in a movie -- and four was just to get better.”
His career choice made him persona non grata with his family.
Dern recalls that after divorcing Laura’s mother, actress Diane Ladd, and marrying his current wife in 1969, he wrote to his mother asking for $500.
“She said, ‘I can’t give you $500 because you chose to go into a business where here we don’t feel it’s important to support you. It’s frivolous.’ ”
His mother, though, offered to send him $500 so he and his wife could fly back to Chicago and live with her. She would put him through law school.
Dern didn’t treat his daughter the same way when she got her first job on a TV special at age 9. “We didn’t discourage her at all. But we really didn’t help her. I think she was proud of us and we were proud of her.”
One of Dern’s catchphrases is, “What’s the drill?” And just before her 10th birthday, Laura came to him and asked: “Dad,’ what’s the drill if I want to be an actress?”
His fatherly advice was to take risks. “Go on the edge of the cliff and walk on the edge with the roles you play. Take other roles people won’t take. The ability to act is really simple. To learn to do it is not hard, but doing it is very hard.”
Dern says an actor must be “publicly private” while performing. He believes that 99% of the actors aren’t willing to open up their hearts and souls for exposure.
“A lot of people have said about me, ‘He’s too personal.’ Some people have said that Laura’s work is too personal. Your soul is your heart and you have to go there.”