Bruce Dern and Lena Olin star in “The Artist’s Wife,” a drama about a painter dealing with the onset of dementia. (Courtesy Strand Releasing)

Ad-libbing Bruce Dern makes the most of his dialogue

Acting veteran stars as man facing dementia in ‘The Artist’s Wife’

Bruce Dern refuses to see the original “Star Wars” — or any of its sequels or prequels.

“Excuse me, it’s not because I wasn’t excited about it,” says the 84-year-old actor. “But when I first started acting, I was told by [“On the Waterfront”] director Elia Kazan that if it’s not really happening, then it’s not worth doing.”

That’s why Dern— who’s best known for roles in 1974’s “The Great Gatsby,” 1977’s “Black Sunday” and 1978’s “Coming Home” — was eager to play a character battling the real threat of Alzheimer’s disease (rather than Siths in a galaxy far, far away) in Tom Dolby’s “The Artist’s Wife,” which premieres virtually in select Bay Area theaters on Friday.

In Dolby’s new film, based on his own experience watching his late father’s demise from the deadly disease, renowned Hamptons-based painter Richard Smythson (played by Dern) is diagnosed with dementia while planning for his final art show.

His wife, Claire (Lena Olin), a promising painter in her own right who gave up her own career for her erratic husband, is forced to decide whether to continue standing by her man as his memory deteriorates, or put herself first for the first time in decades.

“I wanted to do a movie that examined the beginnings of dementia — and this is it, ‘The Artist’s Wife,’” says Dern. “I liked the idea that we could begin to see a guy losing it, who’s never been told by his wife or doctor that he’s losing it. So all he could do was paint white on canvas because he had difficulty describing his current life with paint.”

To deal with this dilemma, Smythson, under immense stress to deliver 10 paintings for the show as his memory fades, eventually rips the stuffing out of every cushion and pillow in his house and throws it all on a canvas.

When his wife asks him what the installation-style painting is meant to represent, he simply answers, “Stuff,” because what’s in his deteriorating mind now is just a lot of stuff that he can’t make sense out of.

This line was developed on the fly by Dern, who’s never been shy about ad-libbing in his films.

Rising to prominence in the early 1970s as part of an American New Wave of actors including Al Pacino, Robert Redford and Jon Voight, when authenticity was prized above technical wizardry, Dern quickly became known for “Dernsies” or injecting scenes with spontaneous dialogue or behavior that isn’t on the page but that adds depth and humanity to his characters.

This methodology comes, he says, from 20 years of never having more than 12 to 13 lines in a movie and wanting to make the most of them.

Although his fellow actor Jack Nicholson coined the term “Dernsies” in 1971, it was Kazan who originally encouraged their liberal usage.

“Any time a director gives you the freedom to be the real human being and not worry how lines come out because you are the real human being — that’s really what it’s about to me,” says Dern.

If the actor can couple that with what he calls “honest moment-to-moment behavior” (as opposed to obvious “acting”), then he knows he’s achieved his goals of humanizing his character and telling a credible story.

While he admits to being in awe of blockbuster directors like George Lucas, Chris Columbus and Peter Jackson, who’ve collectively made billions of dollars bringing fanciful tales to the silver screen, he still finds something lacking in their work.

“After that American New Wave era, we became too technical — into mechanics and what the camera can do that it’s never done before,” says Dern. “Well, it’s done an amazing job, but it doesn’t necessarily tell human stories. My problem is that I miss the people. That’s why I did ‘The Artist’s Wife.’ It’s about real people.”


The Artist’s Wife

Starring: Bruce Dern, Lena Olin, Juliet Rylance

Written and directed by: Tom Dolby

Rated: R

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

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