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The Actor's Director - Alexander Payne
"I never knew the son-of-a-bitch even wanted to be a millionaire." -- Kate Grant

Often perceived as an "actor's director," Alexander Payne allows his actors to strip their performances down to the rawest, essential elements of comedy, tragedy and humanity.  Payne knew that the subtle, emotional story of "Nebraska" would only succeed if driven by risk-taking, naturalistic performances.

"Alexander is someone who says, go ahead, take risks and I'll catch you," says Bruce Dern. "He doesn't want you to act in the conventional sense - he wants all the characters to become real people. He gets to a level where you are pouring out what's in your heart - and all the emotions and baggage that come with it."

Payne could also relate to what has become a nearly universal experience in our aging society: watching one's parents grow older in ways that can be both confounding and revealing. "As someone with two older parents myself, I was able to relate to David. I haven't been in his exact situation of course, but I know those same emotions," he says. "One thing I really liked about the story was David's wish to give his father some dignity. That theme was important and personal to me."

And then there is the film's setting in Payne's home state, which he says just brings him that one step deeper inside the story. "In many ways, this story could be set anywhere in the U.S., but since it takes place in a state I know well, it gave me a chance to bring out a lot of details," he explains. "I'm from Omaha, which is more of a city than where the Grants are from, though, so the chance to explore rural Nebraska was almost exotic to me."

here was little doubt in anyone's mind that Payne would take the story of the Grants and make it inimitably his own. "When you see one of Alexander's movies, you immediately know it couldn't have been directed by anybody else," points out producer Albert Berger. "He has a unique way of revealing human behavior in all its warts and all its glory, and he revels in those moments when people are behaving badly, yet recognizably. All of us see ourselves in these characters."

That relatability in the characters emerges in part because of the way Payne works with his actors, accompanying them into that still rare territory of dead-true performances.

"He reminds me of Preston Sturges and Frank Capra," comments Dern. "He wants to examine what human beings do and why they do it. He is fascinated by human behavior and that comes out in the way he directs."

Co-star Stacy Keach points to two key elements that set Payne outside the mold: "He has tremendous attention to detail and an acute understanding of an actor's process." Keach continues, "Having been an actor himself, I think Alexander really understands what actors go through, and also what they are capable of delivering in terms of showing a variety of colors and different emotions all in the same moment. That makes him an inspiration."

Adds Will Forte: "Working with Alexander was an amazing experience for me. From a technical point of view, everything he does is magnificent. But he also taught me that it's about more than that. It's about building an inclusive, family atmosphere and about treating people in a way that gives them a wonderful, exciting environment to work in. The way he works, you can't imagine why anyone does it any other way. He really helped me to get out of my head playing David."

Executive producer George Parra ("Silver Linings Playbook," "Sideways," "The Descendants"), who has been working with Payne since "Election," and also served as assistant director on "Nebraska," says that as impressed as he was watching Payne direct on set, he's even more awed by how audiences respond to the indelible characters Payne brings to the fore.

"People look forward to his films because he has such a grasp on life's comedy and tragedy. His comedies are dramatic and vice versa," he summarizes. "There aren't many directors who can do that in every film."

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