Bruce Dern plays Underground Railroad figure Levi Coffin who helps runaway slave Shields Green … [+] escape in the antebellum drama ‘Emperor,’ from Sobini Films.
Two-time Academy Award nominee and avid runner Bruce Dern knows a little something about endurance—whether it’s working as an actor virtually non-stop for more than 60 years or competing on the track. The Winnetka, Ill., native was competing in 1,500-meter races with other seniors at 82—and that was two years ago. Runners World calculated that throughout his lifetime he has run 105,000 miles around the world.
Age hasn’t slowed Dern’s acting career either. In 2019, the workhorse thespian appeared in nine films including Quentin Tarantino’s acclaimed Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (10 Academy Award nominations, two wins) and two TV series. He was set to star in the upcoming fourth season of Amazon’s popular Goliath, when the coronavirus pandemic all but shuttered Hollywood production. Still, Dern has plenty of completed projects in the pipeline, and he’s optimistic about getting back to work on Goliath sometime after Labor Day.
In the meantime, the octogenarian has a small but pivotal supporting role in the antebellum drama Emperor, due out on Digital, DVD and On Demand Tuesday Aug. 18. He plays Levi Coffin, a heroic leader in the Underground Railroad movement, who aids fleeing runaway slave Shields “Emperor” Green (played by Shades of Blue star Dayo Okeniyi)—a descendant of African kings, thus the nickname—with a sizable bounty on his head, escape to the North. The historic drama, inspired by Green’s story, is directed and co-written by Iranian ex-pat Mark Amin, best known for producing Hollywood films including Frida and Eve’s Bayou. As an abolitionist, Coffin hides Green from a relentless bounty hunter (Ben Robson) and promises to secure Green’s son’s freedom—a promise he keeps. Green ultimately joins forces with abolitionist John Brown (James Cromwell) who attempted to take over the U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry in hopes of inspiring a slave uprising. The film also stars Kat Graham and Mykelti Williamson and Naturi Naughton. Emperor’s producer, Sobini Films, has pledged to directly donate $1 for every digital transaction during the first month of release to the NAACP in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Catching up with Dern by phone at his home in Pasadena, Calif., a scheduled 15-minute interview expands into a free-wheeling 90-minute conversation safari through the remarkable actor’s career and family history. His paternal grandfather was the first non-Mormon governor of Utah and later FDR’s Secretary of War, whose wife was a college roommate of the future Mrs. Chaing Kai-Shek (First Lady of the Republic of China) and his maternal granduncle was the noted poet Archibald MacLeish.
Nominated twice for Academy Awards (1978’s Coming Home and 2013’s Nebraska), Dern is regarded as a living legend in Hollywood. His ability to ad-lib a line and play a scene as no one else can has come to be known as a “Dernsie.” A recent example of a “Dernsie” can be found in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, in a scene where Brad Pitt as stuntman/stand-in Cliff Booth checks in on Dern’s George Spahn, the aging owner of a former movie ranch taken over by Charles Manson’s followers. Toward the end of the scene as Cliff wants to make sure the hippies, led by future would-be Presidential assassin Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, aren’t taking advantage of the old man, Dern’s Spahn responds, “Squeaky? She loves me.” And then, after a beat, adds with a tone of contempt, “So, suck on that.” That’s a “Dernsie.”
A track star from his early days living in the Chicago suburbs, Dern attended the University of Pennsylvania where he ran track before dropping out of school to pursue acting full time. He studied with Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. Encouraged to head out to Hollywood by Kazan, who directed him in the Broadway production of Sweet Bird of Youth, Dern arrived on the Left Coast and kicked off his career doing guest starring roles in series including Route 66 , Surfside 6 and Ben Casey. In 1964, he landed his first credited movie roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie and in in Robert Aldrich’s Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte, starring Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland. He is the proud father of daughter Laura Dern, an accomplished actress in her own right, who won an Academy Award earlier this year for her supporting performance in Marriage Story.
Over more than six decades, Dern has worked with some of Hollywood’s most iconic filmmakers, from Alfred Hitchcock to Douglas Trumbull to Roger Corman, to modern masters including Alexander Payne and Quentin Tarantino, who has cast him in three of his films.
Angela Dawson: What did you know of Levi Coffin before portraying him in Emperor?
Bruce Dern: I’d never heard of him. My grandfather, George Dern, was Secretary of War under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from ‘33- ‘36. He died in office. He was the first non-Mormon governor of Utah from ’24-’32. When Roosevelt took office, he made my grandfather Secretary of War. As I was growing up, I had the privilege to look at (historical artifacts) that other kids didn’t get a chance to look at. I never ran across the name “Levi Coffin,” but I understood that a lot of the slaves that got out (of the South) and moved north went to Chicago.
Dawson: How did you get involved in this project?
Dern: I love trivia. Not just movie trivia but any kind of trivia. In the scene (in Emperor) wher