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Bruce Dern On Why Working on Alexander Payne's 'Nebraska' Was the Event of a Lifetime

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire November 14, 2013 at 10:55AM

Several months after winning Best Actor honors at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, 77-year-old acting veteran Bruce Dern is still basking in the glow of a career best turn in Alexander Payne's wry and sad character study "Nebraska," which opens this Friday in select theaters after touring the festival circuit to great acclaim.
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Bruce Dern in "Nebraska"
Bruce Dern in "Nebraska"

Several months after winning Best Actor honors at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, 77-year-old acting veteran Bruce Dern is still basking in the glow of a career best turn in Alexander Payne's wry and sad character study "Nebraska," which opens this Friday in select theaters after touring the festival circuit to great acclaim.

"It was the event of a lifetime in my career, being cast in this role," Dern told Indiewire shortly after the drama's New York Film Festival bow, where it was met with a standing ovation. That's saying a lo,  considering the actor has starred in roughly 80 films, not to mention countless TV shows. But in "Nebraska," Dern, who's typically cast as deranged villains (most recently in "Django Unchained"), is finally afforded a role that showcases his vulnerable side.

In "Nebraska," he stars opposite "Saturday Night Live" alum Will Forte as a father and son on an aimless mission to claim a million-dollar sweepstakes prize that doesn't exist. Having received a scam letter in the mail, Woody (Dern) continually wanders away from his home in Montana to claim his wealth, upsetting his wife Kate (June Squibb). Growing weary of picking up his father on random street corners, David (Forte) -- a down-on-his-luck electronics salesman -- decides to drive his dad to Lincoln, Nebraska while stopping at their relatives' home along the way.

Below, Dern talks about the film's Cannes reception, working with Payne, and why the role means the world to him.

Nebraska, Bruce Dern, Will Forte

How did last night's premiere in New York compare to the grand Cannes unveiling?

They were both shockingly wonderful -- for the movie and me. I had never been in a movie where people burst into applause at the end of it. They politely applaud and go on a certain amount of time and that’s kind of standard and then they’re out. They don’t stay for the credits or anything like that. And that’s the experience. I’ve had some that did better than that. Others didn’t.

But this was the first time that it was an entire group of people filling a gym who got up together and applauded what we all did, and then hung around for the Q&A. There must’ve been, I don’t know how many people seated in the theater, let’s say 350. 75% of them stayed for the Q&A. That’s because of Alexander. They wanna know who is this guy that makes this stuff up. Does these movies, you know?

But at Cannes, what it became was just more rewarding because the gym is bigger. There’s like 2,000 people in the Palais. And I don’t know what we had last night, but every festival we go to you have the same amount of people. I’ll tell you what I’ve had that I hadn’t seen before either place, and both places had it: unorganized group response, enthusiastically. In other words, they got the movie. They understand the movie. And hopefully they’re touched by the movie and laugh at the movie and so forth and so on. Alexander’s favorite phrase is, just make movies that people want to watch. And he came into the business for that. And I came into the business for that.

Nebraska, Bruce Dern

Martin Scorsese says it best at the end of "A Decade Under the Influence" which is a documentary about the '70s films. Did you ever see it?

I'm sad to say I have not.

Well at the end, he says, "I’m blown away by the technology and the wizardry of the directors today and the films. I don’t think I could ever make a film like that. Plus their propensity to make money fast." And he says, "But at the end of the day despite all of that, I miss the people."

Well I’m here because I’m about the people. And the movies I’ve tried to get to be a part of in my career are about people. The only time I ventured away from that really was "Silent Running" and that was again about the people. 

This article is related to: Interviews, Bruce Dern, Alexander Payne, Nebraska, Drama, Awards, Cannes Film Festival