Payne was born in Omaha, Nebraska, the son of Peggy (née Constantine) and George Payne, restaurant owners. Payne is the youngest of three sons and grew up in what is now known as the Dundee-Happy Hollow Historic District, the same neighborhood as billionaire Warren Buffett.
His father is of Greek and German descent, and his mother is of Greek ancestry. His paternal grandfather, Nicholas "Nick" Payne, anglicized the last name from Papadopoulos. His family comes from three areas in Greece: the island of Syros, Livadia, and Aegio.
Payne's family was part of the fabric of Omaha, which he references as part of his upbringing. His grandfather was a founder of The Virginia Cafe, with Payne's father taking over the restaurant. Payne went there regularly as a child. The restaurant was destroyed in a fire in 1969; the W. Dale Clark Library is now located on the site.
Payne's paternal grandmother, Clara Payne (née Hoffman), was from a German Nebraska family from Lincoln, Nebraska.
In Omaha, Payne attended Brownell-Talbot School, Dundee Elementary School, and Lewis and Clark Junior High. He graduated from Creighton Prep for high school in 1979. At Prep, Payne wrote a humor column for his high school newspaper and was the editor of the high school yearbook.
Payne then attended Stanford University, where he double majored in Spanish and history. As a part of his Spanish degree, he studied at Spain's University of Salamanca and later he lived a few months in Medellin, Colombia, where he published an article about social changes between 1900 and 1930. Payne got his MFA in 1990 from the UCLA Film School.
In the 1960s, Payne's father received a Super 8mm projector from Kraft Foods as a loyalty reward, and eventually passed it on to his son when Alexander was about 14 years old.
A short time after getting his MFA from UCLA Film School—and after his successful thesis film, The Passion of Martin had attracted industry attention—Payne got a writing/directing deal with Universal Pictures. The ensuing screenplay, which was turned down, would ultimately become About Schmidt. He says that he cleared about $60,000, which was enough to fund his simple lifestyle at the time for about five years.
Payne sees his talent as being one of learned economy. He refers to the essay written by Tennessee Williams on The Catastrophe of Success.
Payne worked in various capacities on films and television before he co-wrote and directed his first full-length film, Citizen Ruth (1996).
His second film, Election, starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon, which takes aim at politics and education in America, attracted attention when New Yorker film critic David Denby named it the best film of 1999. Payne was nominated for an Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay for Election.
In 2003 he received a Golden Globe for his screenplay for About Schmidt, which was also nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. To the surprise of many who kept track of Hollywood news, Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor were not nominated for an Oscar for the About Schmidt screenplay.
He won both the Academy Award and Golden Globe in 2005 for Best Adapted Screenplay for Sideways, while the film also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. In total, Sideways received five Academy Award nominations.
Payne returned to directing in 2011 after a seven-year hiatus with the film The Descendants, starring George Clooney. He also co-wrote the screenplay, winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Payne's Nebraska, starred veteran character actor Bruce Dern and SNL comedian Will Forte. It was released on November 15, 2013.
According to The Guardian, Payne revealed to Anne Thompson that during his seven-year hiatus between Sideways (2004) and The Descendants (2011), he, along with Jim Taylor, was working on another film project titled Downsizing. Payne has described the project as "a large canvas, science-fiction social satire" and "an epic masterpiece." The film was to star Paul Giamatti and Reese Witherspoon as an impoverished married couple who decide the way ahead lies in shrinking themselves. The project was superseded by The Descendants and Nebraska. Downsizing is Payne's next project, and Matt Damon is set to star. The film will be distributed by Paramount Pictures. In March 2016 Witherspoon was replaced by Kristen Wiig. Alec Baldwin, Neil Patrick Harris, and Jason Sudeikis have been added to the cast in currently unspecified roles. On October 2, 2015, it was announced that Paramount Pictures has acquired distribution rights and have planned a release date in 2017. It has been confirmed that Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau have been added to the cast.
Payne executive produced the short film RUN FAST. Anna Musso, his long-time assistant and protege, wrote and directed the film, which shot in March 2014. The project was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign.
In 2000 he did an uncredited polish-up of the screenplay for the comedy hit Meet the Parents. In 2001 Payne wrote a draft of Jurassic Park III.
Payne served as an executive producer on the films King of California and The Savages. He also teamed up once again with writing partner Jim Taylor to write a draft of the screenplay for the film I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, a comedy directed by Dennis Dugan, and starring Adam Sandler and Kevin James. Payne disliked the final product, stating that Adam Sandler rewrote so much of the story that almost all of what Payne and Taylor wrote was gone.
Payne was also executive producer of the acclaimed 2014 film Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter directed by David Zellner.
Payne's films often revolve around middle-aged or older men who reach a breaking point in their lives, enter into transformative existential crises, and then emerge in the end as changed people, for better or worse. Some unexpected life experience forces the central male figure to "crack" and see the world in a new and surprising way. This theme appears in Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and to a lesser extent in Nebraska, via the main character's son. His movies also tend to involve infidelity, road trips or travel, tragedy, despair, disappointment, and crises of masculinity. He has set many of his films in Omaha, which happens to be his home town. His films sometimes include scenes of historical landmarks, black and white photographs, and museums, and he often uses amateur actors for minor roles. His films tend to have a strong connection to a physical environment, for instance California wine country or midwestern plains or Hawaii, and have a gentle and sedated pace to them, often aided by ambient or atmospheric music. Nearly all of his films are dramas that nonetheless incorporate significant comedic elements and portray characters that are vulnerable and flawed but also likable.
Payne is on the short list of directors who have final cut rights for their films.
In 2005, he became a member of the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Directors Branch).
In 2012 he was named as a member of the Jury for the Main Competition at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. His 2013 film Nebraska was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. With the "Nebraska" Academy Awards nomination in 2014, Payne has been nominated for the 6th time.
In 2014, The Location Managers Guild of America honored Alexander with their inaugural Eva Monley Award for his masterful use of location as another character.
Payne married Korean-Canadian actress Sandra Oh on January 1, 2003, after dating her for three years, and directing her in Sideways. On March 12, 2005, a publicist announced their separation. The divorce was officially finalized on December 22, 2006, although the former couple took more than two years to settle their finances. In 2015, Payne married Maria Kontos.
Payne is on the Board of Directors of an Omaha non-profit film theater, Film Streams. He maintains a passion for preservation. In recent years, he helped preserve a historic film theater in Scottsbluff, Nebraska.
Payne is co-owner (along with friend Ann Beeder) of King Fong, a Chinese restaurant in Omaha.
Payne is a long-time supporter of the Nebraska Coast Connection, a social networking organization that meets monthly in Culver City, CA. In November 2013, he held a special screening of Nebraska for the group's members at the Sherry Lansing Theatre on the Paramount Studio's lot.Carmen (1985)
Paris, je t'aime (segment 14th arrondissement) Also appeared as Oscar Wilde in the segment entitled "Père-Lachaise"
The Passion of Martin (1990)
Levinson, Julie, ed. Alexander Payne Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 2014. http://www.upress.state.ms.us/books/1714Payne, Alexander, and James Zemaitis. The Coffee Table Coffee Table Book. London: Black Dog Pub, 2003. ISBN 978-190-103304-5
Payne, Alexander, and Jim Taylor. The Sideways Guide to Wine and Life. New York: Newmarket, 2005. Illustrated by Rex Pickett. ISBN 978-155-704686-4