As far back as she can remember, Bridget O'Brien dreamed about being in the movies.
She cast herself as the lead in a garage production of “Barefoot in the Park” when she was a kid in Norfolk, Neb.
She produced a neighborhood newspaper featuring her movie column, Reel News.
“I really did think I'd be a movie actress,” said Bridget, now 38. “There was no doubt.”
Instead she became a second-grade teacher and married David O'Brien, then became a stay-at-home mom to three kids. But her movie star dream never died, and her husband knew it.
So with a push from Dave, Bridget followed her dream — followed her own personal Yellow Brick Road. And just like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” Bridget learned that, all along, she had everything she wanted in her own backyard.
The tornado landed in Bridget's life last fall when Oscar-winning screenwriter Alexander Payne chose Norfolk as the hub for filming his next movie, “Nebraska.” Bruce Dern and Will Forte star in the father-son road-trip movie.
Dave spied a casting call ad in the local newspaper and brought it straight to his wife.
As an engineering manager at a medical supply company, he's gone a lot. He thought his wife deserved to be in a movie, in part to thank her for managing their home life.
He insisted she answer the ad. If she wouldn't fill out her application, he said, he would. He went along to her first interview for moral support.
It went well. They wanted someone who could get along with others, be responsible and have a good attitude. Bridget knew she could do that.
Still, she was stunned to be called back. Casting director John Jackson noticed Bridget's similarities to actress June Squibb, who plays Bruce Dern's wife.
“For stand-ins, we want someone with similar height, weight and coloring,” Jackson said. “She was younger than June, and she had a flexible schedule, so we knew she could do it. She didn't need to be a 70-year-old.”
She had a choice: Play a bit part with one line, giving Forte the brush-off, or be Squibb's stand-in while technicians set camera angles and lighting for each shot.
“OK, five minutes of glory, or be part of the crew and get to see everything,” Bridget told herself. “I definitely want to do the stand-in.”
The family suddenly found itself planning for several weeks without Bridget — on very short notice. When she got the job, they told her to report at 6 the next morning. Bridget hadn't spent much time away from her kids, though she did hire a sitter each Wednesday so she could go to the movies. She had always taken care of the homefront, Dave the factory.
Dave was flexible.
“It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing, to be part of a major motion picture. We found proper child care and just made it happen.”
She soon discovered that life on a movie set is as colorful and otherworldly as Oz.
Director Payne made her the stand-in for lots of actresses throughout the shoot. She hit it off with him right away, and he became her new all-time favorite boss.
At lunch one day she told Squibb how fun it was when people asked what she was up to lately. Her blithe reply: “Oh, I'm working for Alexander Payne.”
When Squibb made her repeat that to Payne, he corrected her. “No, no, no,” he said. “You say 'I'm working with Alexander Payne.'”
Payne heard about O'Brien's weekly movie outing. He asked what she'd seen last.
“Paranormal Activity 4,” she said quickly, then “could have died on the spot.”
To recover, she asked Payne what he had last seen and enjoyed.
“Paranormal Activity 3,” he said, turning on his heel and leaving her laughing.
She said Payne reminded her of Bob Ross, the late PBS oil-painting teacher who talked in a soft voice and made art look effortless. Payne, she said, does that with directing.
“You watch him and think, 'Well, I could do this,' knowing full well what a complicated craft it really is. He's just a good storyteller.”
Payne wants every moment in the film to be as natural and real as possible, she said. He has a vision of how he wants it all to look. When a cellphone went off in the middle of a take, she said, Payne just asked that it be shut off. No tantrum. His calm, patient guidance made her think of teaching.
The director returned the compliment. Bridget, he said in a recent email, brought great enthusiasm to her role as a stand-in.
Bridget's teacher switch never was switched off. When a lighting assistant played an R-rated song on his iPhone, she grabbed it and turned it off, saying, “No, thanks.”
The lighting crew referred to her as the language police.
The first thing Teresa Seina noticed about Bridget was how innocent and naive she was about film sets.
“People use the F-word as a noun, a verb and an adjective,” said Seina, a veteran van driver for Payne films. “Curse words seemed to physically hurt her. You forget there are people out there like Bridget.”
Nobody pulled rank on the language police. Bridget was a huge Bruce Dern fan years before working on “Nebraska.” When he introduced himself, she was so starstruck she couldn't speak.
That soon wore off.
“Great guy, but he's got a foul mouth,” she said. “I snapped my fingers at him a lot.”
The mom in her noticed a lovely woman on the set one day, sitting on a stair and looking a little lost.
Bridget, in her Midwestern zeal to make others comfortable, went over to meet her. It was Judy Howard, whose husband, Rance, has a part in the movie. Judy and Bridget started talking about missing their kids. Now director Ron Howard's stepmom, a published author whose book editor was Jackie Onassis, is Bridget's e-mail pal.
“She was so cute and bouncy and adorable,” Judy Howard said of Bridget. “Rance gets on the set and becomes the character he's playing, so kiss him goodbye for the next three weeks. Bridget took care of me. She's Grace Kelly with a sense of humor. We couldn't stop talking. I'm sure the director raised his eyebrows at us.”
Bridget's biggest anxiety came over a scene in which Dern's character, in a hospital bed, kisses his wife. Bridget would have to kiss Dern's stand-in. She froze at the thought.
Payne asked her to imagine it was Bruce. Would she have a problem then? Nope, she had to admit, she wouldn't.
Still, her mind raced as she walked into the hospital room. What had she gotten herself into? She didn't think she could do it.
There, in the bed, was Dern. Payne just smiled at Bridget.
“I said to Bruce, 'Sir, it was a pleasure to kiss you.' He said, 'Honey, we're just getting started,'” Bridget said.
Prepping for another scene at a restaurant, Dern leaned toward Bridget and said, “Sweetheart, I really enjoyed that kiss.” She mockingly pursed her lips, and he dove for it.
Every day after that, whenever he saw her, he'd plant one smack on the mouth. It became their running joke.
Dave, who describes himself as the jealous type, had to remind himself that a 78-year-old movie star was not a serious threat.
“Sounds like he was a little flirtatious, but with good reason. Bridget is a beautiful woman.”
Moviemaking, Bridget learned, is hard work. Days were long. Dave learned the same thing, from another angle.
Some days Bridget had to be on the set in some nearby town as early as 5:30 a.m. Dave had to be at work by 7. The first time he left son John, then not quite 3, at day care, the boy pitched a fit and dad left weeping. Day care called as he drove to work to say John was playing and fine.
Dave began to realize what he'd been taking for granted. He felt even more blessed that Bridget could stay home and take care of their kids.
He took a week off at one point so the kids wouldn't have to get up so early. He got bonding time playing with John while daughters Mary Clare, 10, and Cecilia, 6, were at school.
“It was a lot less stress than going to the factory,” he said.
For Bridget, it was a lot more stressful, at least at first.
“It was so hard to turn off the mom in me,” she recalled.
The job ended when Cecilia got bronchitis. Bridget quit three days early, returning to the more familiar role of nursemaid. When Cecilia said her prayers that last night, she said, “Thank you, Jesus, for giving me my mother back.”
Bridget realized the shoot was hard on the kids. They had to get up early, adjust to a new schedule. Mommy couldn't bring a forgotten book to them at school.
“I did something for myself, after 10 years,” she said. “The kids said they wanted me to do it, and it was good for them to see me do that. But when it was over, I was so grateful for everything I have here, how blessed we are.”
She has a new respect for working moms. Never again, she said, will she sign up to bring napkins to a school event. She'll bring “the hard stuff,” and leave the napkins for a working mom. And she'll offer to pick up others' kids. Because she can.
She now knows the lifestyle of a movie actress wouldn't have suited her. She's clear-eyed about that after seeing the rough edges on a working set.
Like Dorothy, she's thrilled to be back where her family loves and appreciates her. And like Dorothy loved Kansas, Bridget loves Nebraska.
“Her pride in being a Nebraskan is unique,” Dave said. “I've never met anyone who lets out a deep sigh of relief when they get home — every time we cross back into Nebraska from Yankton or Sioux City, or touch ground at Eppley (Airfield). And it's truly heartfelt.”
So he's glad she got the chance to help make a movie called “Nebraska,” directed by Nebraska's most famous director.
And to learn, once and for all, that there's no place like home.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1269, firstname.lastname@example.org