“I Will Always Be a Nomad” — the Real Man Behind Nomadland‘s Sorrowful Evangelist
Viewers of Chloé Zhao’s visual masterpiece Nomadland will recognize Bob Wells, perhaps not by name, but through a welcoming demeanor, unwavering conviction, and benevolent eyes that graced the big screen during the Oscar-nominated film’s most poignant moments.
He once called Alaska home, but for the greater part of his life, Wells, now in his mid-60s, has wandered the country as a van-dwelling nomad—a lifestyle he embraced long before it became an Instagram-fueled sensation.
The decades-old foray into van life was one borne out of financial necessity. Life as a tramp, however, elicited feelings that quickly grew on Wells.
So, when Zhao began the production process on the adaptation of Jessica Ruder’s book of the same name, it seemed only logical to go directly to one of the lifestyle’s most prominent proponents.
Wells assumed, after speaking with Zhao, that he would serve merely in an advisory role, but the director had other ideas. The sage nomad embraced the opportunity, opting to share intimate details of his life in unscripted scenes opposite the film’s star, Frances McDormand.
Bob recently spoke with Sunset WildLands about his on-screen portrayal, the circumstances that plunged him into the nomadic lifestyle, how the van-dwelling community helped him heal, and what a demographic that takes pride in simplicity thinks of being highlighted in an Oscar-nominated film.
Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand, is currently available to stream on Hulu.
WildLands: How were you first approached about being in the film? What was your reaction when you saw your role featured prominently in the finished product?
Bob Wells: I had been featured in the book first, so when they decided to make the movie, it seemed like a logical thing to stay true to it.
I heard through the grapevine that it was happening, and Chloé contacted me and said, “Hey, let’s get together.” We talked about the details and made it happen.
I was originally thinking was I was just going to be a technical advisor, so when I found out I was actually going to be in the movie I was delighted.
And then I thought, “Well, I’ll get cut out. I’ll be left on the cutting room floor.” But when I saw the movie, I was just happily surprised.
Did your on-screen persona deviate at all from your real life experience?
It was 100 percent me—I’m not an actor. (Laughs)
I worked with Francis, and that was astonishing to watch her work. She’s amazing. But I’m not an actor. So, I just needed to manage being myself.
Going back well before the release of the film or the book, you entered this lifestyle under less-than-favorable circumstances. Can you discuss how that unfolded?
I was married at the time and was going through a divorce. Before we got divorced we were financially okay. But after the divorce, I couldn’t afford two households. I didn’t know how I was going to live.
Every day I would drive to work and pass this van that was for sale, and I’d think, “You know, I could live in that. I wouldn’t have to pay rent and could afford to live.”
I’d always been a camper and a backpacker. I knew how to live out of a pack for a month. So, one day I stopped and looked at it. It ran fine, so I bought it and lived in it for the next six years.
But it all started out of complete economic necessity.
Since those first moments of necessity, how has your perspective of the lifestyle or the community evolved?
Well, it didn’t take very long to change. There are a lot of problems with living in a van. How do you go to the bathroom? How do you stay warm? How do you cook? How do you shower? But because I knew how to camp, I figured it all out pretty easily. And then that first month, instead of paying a guy $1,000 for rent, I got to put it in my pocket. I really liked that. (Laughs)
After a year or two, instead of being broke and barely surviving, I could save. Instead of working 40 hours a week, I started doing 32-hour weeks. Every weekend was a three-day weekend. And man, that makes a huge psychological difference. I just fell in love with the freedom. My life got better in every way by living in the van.
And the people I worked with, you know, no one wanted to be working like that, but none of them would choose this lifestyle without economic necessity. I thought, “All these folks don’t know they have a choice.” And because of that, I started telling people. I felt if people knew they could be happy, they would choose it.
In addition to the financial benefits, how did becoming a part of this community help you grow? And were you satisfied with the way these elements were conveyed in the film?
The great thing about the movie is it’s never explicit. It’s right there in front of you for you to see and understand. And I think three main things happen in the movie.
First, Fern (Frances McDormand) reconnects to nature. Nature is healing. Then you see genuine connections made with other caring people who come to have recurring roles in her life. And last, what is not explicitly stated is that she has a reconnection to herself.
So, it’s really all about connection and that’s what all healing is. It’s tearing down the walls and bonding. And we see that slowly evolve throughout the film.
You tore down some of your own walls in the film by showing that level of authenticity during the final scene. How planned was that particular scene and what did it mean to you personally to show that?
The movie kind of existed only in Chloé’s head at first, but the day before we shot my scene I told her my story and she asked if I’d be willing to share it. I said I would.
I have not handled the death of my son well at all. And so, I chose to reveal it in the movie as a way of honoring my son and finding healing for myself. And I believe I did.
We didn’t script that. It was just something I decided I was willing to do … a part of me I was willing to share.
The film has been so positively reviewed, thanks to powerful scenes like that. What does it mean to the community to have their stories so widely appreciated?
The community has two reactions to it. And I would say the larger reaction is, “Stop telling people, Bob, because you’ll bring more people out here.”
I think most enjoyed it and think it’s well done, a true presentation of our lives. But a lot of people are angry at me and the film for telling people about it.
My response is, “Well, you probably heard about it from me, and what if I had refused to tell you?” And they’ll say, “Well, you should have told me and no one else.” (Laughs.)
I just can’t think that way. It’s just not a way I want to live my life. I tell everyone about this life that I can and I’ve been doing it for a long time. I’m going to continue to do it.
Do you ever plan on giving up the nomadic life?
I never plan to live in a house again. The only reason I would is when my body fails me, and of course it will, to some degree and some speed. But that’s what it will take.
I’m at my sister’s right now. She’s had some health issues and I came here to help her out. I’ll be here for another week or so, but even now, I still sleep in the van every night. It’s my home. It’s my bed.
I will always be a nomad.
Read the 2021 Gardening Issue
To read: Click on the right and left arrows at the edge of the box to turn pages; to make the text larger, click on the fullscreen icon in the lower-right corner (desktop) or in the center (mobile).