Oscar-Bound Bruce Dern Talks Career and Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’

Oscar-Bound Bruce Dern Talks Career and Alexander Payne's 'Nebraska'

Let the Oscar drum-roll begin for 77-year-old actor Bruce Dern, who gives a wonderfully heartbreaking performance as Woody Grant, an aging man on a quest for a dubious sweepstakes reward of $1 million, in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska.” Woody is as stubborn as a mule as he refuses to go gently into that good night. He represents our aging parents’ lost dreams as well as an America gone to seed. But there’s bedrock too, as Woody takes his wife and kids to visit the old Grant homestead built by his father and brothers. 

Will Forte as Woody’s passive son and June Squibb (Payne’s “About Schmidt”) as his impatient wife–whose depths are eventually revealed– offer superb support, along with Stacey Keach as the villain of the piece. But make no mistake. This is Dern’s show. The wily old coot has been in Hollywood long enough (see “Silent Running,” “The King of Marvin Gardens,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Smile,” “The Driver,” “Coming Home,” for which he won a supporting actor nomination) to know how to play the game. He knows this is his big shot. “I always wanted to be in the Super Bowl and hopefully I got there now,” he said at Telluride. “I got some game.”

His Best Oscar Oscar campaign started at Cannes in May, where Dern beat out an expectant Michael Douglas (“Behind the Candelabra”) for the Best Actor win. Douglas had to settle for an Emmy. After Payne tweaked the edit a bit, this gorgeous black-and-white film played like gangbusters at the Telluride Film Festival to warm, appreciative laughter. (This movie is as American as Mt. Rushmore.) Afterwards Dern and Payne sat down for a chat with Jason Reitman.  

Dern was the first actor that came to mind when Payne read Bob Nelson’s script (which he felt no need to rewrite). As soon as Dern read the script he went to Toys ‘R Us and bought a red truck and sent it to Payne’s office with a note saying, “I think I’m Woody.’ “And nine years later here we are,” he said.

The movie was on the back burner as Payne made “Sideways” and “The Descendants.” But the Nebraska-born auteur came back to it. And he insisted, over protestations from his financiers, on shooting in black-and-white. “It was a modest budget with fewer shooting days,” he explained. “We made it work. The script was austere, I thought of early Jarmusch. I didn’t do all single takes, but as much as I could.” 

Dern first met Payne through Laura on “Citizen Ruth.” For “Nebraska,” Payne “gave me the best set of teammates I ever had in my life,” said Dern. “He came up on the first day of shooting and said, ‘let us do our jobs.’ I think I get it: ‘Don’t show us anything, let us find it.’ I trusted him. It’s not easy. Other directors push you to the edge of the cliff and dare you to take risks with big butterfly nets. They’ll pick you up and put you back on the edge. This prick he goes down to where you are and picks you up in his arms and brings you back up to the edge with him, he puts his arms around you and says, ‘let’s make magic.'” 

For an actor used to trying to pop and be entertaining, Dern found it hard to “just sit there.” But he had to fit in with Payne’s non-pro actors who tend to play flat. “I had to go back 40 years,” said Dern, to “Silent Running,” a movie he had to carry alone. “There’s something about Alexander, you can’t let him down.” Besides, most pro actors study their director and figure out how to give them what they want. And that he did. “I’ve had 55 years of anxiety trying to get here,” said Dern. 

Ahead of “Nebraska” playing the New York Film Festival, Dern is profiled in New York Magazine, who talked to Dern, his daughter Laura, director Walter Hill and others. Highlights from the NYM interview, below.

Dern on his first day on set in “Nebraska”:

“I tend to get emotional when I talk about this. First day
of work, he came to me, put his arm on my elbow, and he said, ‘Bruce, this is
Mr. Papamichael. He’s your cinematographer. My name is Alexander Payne, and I
am your director. I want you to do something that you’ve probably never before
done in your career: I want you to let us do our jobs. I want you not to show
us one thing for eight weeks; we’ll find it. We’ll find you, because you’re
Woody, and that’s the story we want to tell. Without dialogue.’ I hugged him. I
said, ‘I get it.’ And I realized I couldn’t let this guy down. I couldn’t cop
out. Even when there were lines I could’ve danced with, or made funny or made
more specific or anything else, I didn’t do it. I always went with the other
choice.”

Dern on his advice to Will Forte, who plays his son in the film:

“I told him, ‘You have to start within yourself and be a person
and build from there. Drama’s no different than what you do in your skits.
Movies should be fun, so have fun. Talk to Woody through Bruce, and I’ll talk
to David through Will, and if you get scared or intimidated, cut that shit out,
because I don’t need to hear it. I’ll rip ya a new one.’ ”

Dern on the film’s reception at Cannes:

“We had an enormous ovation for three minutes. And then the people started really clapping. Alexander [Payne] said to me,
‘Where are you going? The other ovation was for all of us, but make no mistake,
this one is for you.’ Jack [Nicholson] told me that he timed it: ‘You got about eight
minutes,’ he said. And I said, ‘Yeah, well, what did you get for Schmidt?’ And
he said, ‘I think it was eight total. But you had the first three and then the
eight. That’s pretty good for a fucking kid from Winnetka who doesn’t know
shit.’ ”

Laura Dern on her father’s ability to stay centered:

“It was possibly isolating for him, when all your buddies
are partying. Running was his best friend. He knows what he needs to do to keep
himself centered in a bizarre business with a lot of ebb and flow, particularly
if you’re going to do it as long as Dad has.”

Laura Dern on her favorite scene from “Nebraska”:

“There’s a scene where Woody is walking through his parents’
bedroom to a window, when he takes his boys back to see the family farm,” she
says. “As an actor, he doesn’t attempt to tell us anything, and yet you know
the whole story of Woody’s childhood. I don’t know what that is; it’s not
acting, it’s really transcendent. There is no self-awareness. Particularly with
Alexander, he could have thought that he shouldn’t be too mean because it’s a
comedy, or that he should be likable in the end or find empathy somehow.”

Walter Hill on Dern:

“Bruce has the power of using excessive politeness to
disguise malevolence. He’s always fun to watch, even in those lousy movies in
the sixties. He’s never tried to steal a scene. But even when he’s underplaying
it, as he does in Nebraska, he seizes and dominates the scene. The camera loves
him in a very certain way—not the way it loves everybody, and Brucie’s aware of
that. He knows his skills.”

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