November 15, 2013 by
Photography by Martin Magnuson

When you watch Alexander Payne’s acclaimed new film Nebraska, keep in mind that each and every acting part was cast in a collaboration between the two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker and his casting director, John Jackson.

Under the name John Durbin, Jackson long ago established himself as a character actor in Hollywood and beyond. IMDb.com lists 61 credits in the filmography of the Council Bluffs native and resident. Jackson returned home in 1988 to run a local casting service while taking acting gigs here and on the coast.

For Payne’s first feature, Citizen Ruth (1996), Jackson was hired to do Omaha location casting. He filled 32 speaking roles, plus all the extras. From the start, Jackson says, “We had a great working relationship. The same thing happened when Alexander came back to work on Election (1999). And then he began slowly to include me. The New York casting people would send him tapes and he’d say, ‘John, why don’t you watch this and tell me what you think,’ and that built.”

On About Schmidt (2002), Jackson says Payne entrusted him with ever more responsibility and increasingly sounded out his advice. “Until finally the producer of Schmidt said to Alexander, ‘Why do you hire these people in New York and L.A.? Why don’t you just get this guy?’ Meaning me.”

Jackson was back home directing and playing a supporting role in a Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre Company production when Payne called to say he was casting Sideways (2004), and he needed Jackson in 
California immediately.

“So that started a process of me being in L.A. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday,” recalls Jackson. “Then Friday morning, I’d get on a plane, fly back home, land, grab something to eat, go to the theater, do the show Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Then Monday fly back.”

Jackson says Sideways “was a new experience for both of us in many ways.” It found Payne shooting his first feature away from Neb., and it marked the first time Jackson served as the filmmaker’s sole casting director, a role he has continued for The Descendants (2011) and Nebraska (2013).

“In honing our working method over the last 18 years,” Payne says, “we just have developed a very similar aesthetic of what we want to see in a film, the type of reality we want. Also, I think the two of us have developed a pretty good eye for spotting acting talent in nonactors.”

The pair filled a large number of roles in Nebraska with real-life farmers and small-town bar denizens. As with any project, they painstakingly searched for the right needle-in-a-haystack fit for characters. Payne’s particularly proud of the challenges overcome in casting Nebraska. To make it all work, he asked lead actors Bruce Dern and Will Forte to “flatten” their performances to be in synch with the low-key non-actors.

Jackson says the cast immersed themselves in the story’s “magnificent simplicity.” He says his job was to “build the world” Payne envisions for the characters in the script. “We paint with people. We want it to be as authentic as possible.”

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Alexander Payne (left) provided by Alexander Payne. John Jackson (right) by Martin Magnuson.

Payne is often praised for his casting, and he always deflects credit to Jackson, whom he calls “my secret weapon.” Jackson now finds himself in-demand as a CD and is currently casting two new films, Car Dogs and 
Phantom Halo.

“Everybody told me when I left L.A. in ’88 I was throwing away everything I’d built,” Jackson says, “but I never believed I was throwing it all away, and it was because of moving back here the greatest thing from a creative and professional stand-
point happened.”

He says Payne engenders loyalty by “building a rapport that ends up showing up in the work.” The entire crew is encouraged to speak their minds.

“If Alexander and I didn’t have that commitment,” Jackson continues, “I would cave to the pressure of the producers who say to me, ‘You need to convince Alexander these are the people he needs.’ Instead, I’m like, ‘That’s not my job, my job is to support, encourage, and grow his vision.”

Nebraska will premiere Nov. 22 at Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolof Theater. A Nov. 24 Feature V fundraising benefit for Film Streams will feature Studio 360  host Kurt Andersen interviewing Payne, Dern, and Forte on the Holland Performing Arts Center stage.

In their “give and take,” the pair always aims to serve the script and its characters ahead of commercial considerations. It’s all about fleshing out the universe of the actors who best inhabit those characters.

With a work like Nebraska, Payne says, “It’s as much anthropological as it is cinematic. I knew that this film would really live or die on his casting.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.