NEW YORK — In Alexander Payne's new film, "Nebraska," Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a gruff, cantankerous man of few words. Convinced that he's won a million dollars in one of those junk-mail sweepstakes contests, he stubbornly insists on traveling from Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb. to collect his prize money.
Despite the thinning, untamed white hair gathering like a snow squall atop his head, and a slightly hunched posture, Dern, 77, strikes a very different figure from the taciturn, ornery old alcoholic he plays in "Nebraska." In person, he is a garrulous raconteur, regaling interviewers and audiences with stories about studying at the feet of Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, working with legends like Alfred Hitchcock, Bette Davis, and Robert Mitchum, and palling around with friends and costars like Jack Nicholson.
June Squibb, who plays Woody's tart-tongued wife, Kate, attests that Dern was a charmer on set. "He was talking a mile a minute when the lights weren't on," she says.
A former competitive long-distance runner, Dern is also sprier than his doddering character. (The actor still runs every day, though he calls it "rickety.") But he's a decade older than he was when he first read Bob Nelson's "Nebraska" script, which he believes helped him to land the part.
"I got age that I didn't have at 66 — I mean frailty age. Wendy Guerrero, my business partner, she's on me all the time, 'My God, stand up straight. You look so old!' " says Dern, his voice rising and face scrunching up in mock irritation. "Well, I didn't forget that when they turned on the switch in 'Nebraska.' Then I get it at home, too. 'Get your hair cut! Get rid of the nose hairs! Get rid of all this old man [expletive]!' But it paid off for the movie."
With Woody, Dern knew he had the kind of richly detailed role that doesn't come along often, especially in the third act of one's career. The part has led to a watershed of renewed attention for Dern, who nabbed the best actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May and is among a crowded field of top contenders, including Robert Redford and Chiwetel Ejiofor, vying for Oscar nominations for lead actor this season.
"Bruce Dern would have had to be an absolute moron not to read that script and know, 'This is your big at-bat, bud,' " says the actor, dropping one of his frequent sports metaphors. "And it's not a big payday kind of film. But it's a big payday for my career."
In the film, shot in austere black-and-white, Woody's family has become exasperated at his increasingly erratic behavior. But younger son David (Will Forte), perhaps in a last-ditch effort to bond with his aging father, decides to placate the old man, and they embark on an impromptu road trip to Lincoln. Along the way, they detour to his dad's rural Nebraska hometown to visit family — soon to be joined by Kate and Woody's older son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk).
Dern says that he sees "Nebraska" as Payne's salute to the people of the Midwestern heartland, where the director grew up.
"With Woody, his mind is fading and all the right-field lights are probably out by now. And you see how down and defeated the guy feels. But he's there. And I think, to Alexander, Woody is kind of a monument to the type of men out there who endure, who hang in there."
Dern knows a thing or two about the art of enduring.
A famed character actor with more than 140 film and television credits, Dern has made a five-decade career out of playing "the second bananas," as he calls them, to big stars in films like "The King of Marvin Gardens," the 1974 version of "The Great Gatsby," and "Coming Home," which earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in 1979 opposite Jane Fonda. He was frequently typecast as malevolent psychos and unstable whack-jobs: the deranged lunatic who plans to crash an explosives-laden blimp into the Super Bowl in "Black Sunday"; the gun-slinging villain who kills John Wayne in "The Cowboys." More recently, he played Bill Paxton's scheming, sinister polygamist father on the HBO series "Big Love."
Still, he did score the occasional lead role, including the aging former marathon runner in "On the Edge" (1986) and the spaceship-dwelling rebel ecologist in the 1972 dystopian sci-fi flick "Silent Running." But in the fickle land of Hollywood, the parts got smaller as he got older (though he's continued to pop up in such major films as "Monster" and "Django Unchained").
Payne first sent Dern the "Nebraska" script more than 10 years ago. Dern replied with a note saying, "You may not see this, but I am Woody." At first, he didn't hear back from the filmmaker. But Laura Dern, Bruce's daughter from his marriage to actress Diane Ladd, ran into Payne, who had directed her in his 1996 film, "Citizen Ruth." Payne told her, "Your dad sent me the most wonderful note, and I really appreciated it," Dern recalls. "But that was all I heard. So I figured, well, they're never going to make this movie."
But Payne did eventually circle back to "Nebraska" — and to Dern — after eyeing other actors, including trying to coax Gene Hackman out of retirement. "They saw every [actor] in Hollywood over the age of 70 that was alive for this part," Dern says. "I knew when I read it that would be the case."
On the first day of shooting, Payne said to him, " 'Before we start, can you do [cinematographer] Phedon Papamichael and me a favor? Don't show us anything. I want you to let us find it,' " Dern recalls. "Because he didn't want me to perform. Of course, it's acting, but he didn't want me to let people see I was acting. So I didn't embroider anything."
It was at the Actors Studio that Kazan, Strasberg, and Co. first instilled in Dern the kind of naturalistic, internal acting approach that he displays in "Nebraska," what he calls "consecutive, moment-to-moment honest behavior."
"If you start real, it calls out another real moment, and then another real moment," he explains. "And everything is honest if you do that."
Says Squibb (who plays Woody's wife), "I was surprised and in awe of how little 'acting' he did. He took it down to the smallest kernel in his gut, filled with all these feelings and emotions that he's allowing us to see. You knew what he was thinking. You knew what this man was going through, even though he doesn't say much."
While Dern says that he's previously played characters who were close to his own personality, including the aging marathon runner in "On the Edge," he says that "none of them are anywhere near as close as this role is to me."
"Like Woody, I felt detached a lot of my life. I felt not included. I felt out there. Sometimes of my own doing," says Dern, who was born into a wealthy, patrician family in Chicago. (His grandfather, George Henry Dern, was Secretary of War under Franklin Delano Roosevelt; his great-uncle was the poet Archibald MacLeish; and his godparents were Adlai Stevenson and Eleanor Roosevelt.)
"So the biggest thing I had to deal with in this film was Woody's detachment and to not be aware of what was going on around me. I had to find the vacant places in his mind where he goes, but that aren't vacant to him. . . . If you have the ability to start with your heart and call out honest things from your own life that you can feed into the character, then you're on the right track."
With Oscar buzz heating up, Dern is relishing an unlikely career resurgence and says it's always gratifying when your peers recognize your work.
"I'm always very touched by it and thrilled by it," Dern says. "But the one thing I never lose focus on is that the biggest win in this whole journey was getting the part. Because I got a chance. Without that, none of the other stuff can come into play."
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.