In an acting career that’s already stretched beyond the half-century mark, Bruce Dern has played a wild array of parts on stage, TV, and the big screen. Dern broke in at The Actors Studio in New York, working with director Elia Kazan in a production of “Sweet Bird of Youth,” then went west to find guest parts in every TV show from “Route 66” and “Sea Hunt” to “Bonanza” and “Land of the Giants.” Movie roles allowed him to shoot John Wayne in the back in “The Cowboys,” nab an Oscar nomination for “Coming Home” and be directed by longtime pal Jack Nicholson in “Drive, He Said.” Tom Hanks (“Cast Away”), Sandra Bullock (“Gravity”) and Robert Redford (“All Is Lost”) have nothing over Dern as far as handling a movie all alone. Dern worked opposite only two small robots in “Silent Running” back in 1972. Now, in Alexander Payne’s new film “Nebraska,” he plays Woody, a slightly addled fellow who believes he’s won a million dollars in a sweepstakes contest, and is determined to claim it. With this starring role, there’s not much doubt that he’s on the very short list for another Oscar nomination, and maybe even the gold. Dern, 77, recently spoke in Los Angeles about getting started in the business and about “Nebraska.”
There’s a story going around that Elia Kazan predicted you wouldn’t be well known as an actor till you had been around for a long time.
My first film was “Wild River.” Mr. Kazan directed it, and I only had a small, meaningless part. When I went to see the movie, at the end of it there was no credit for Brucie. I was heartbroken. I complained to Gadge (Kazan), who I was under contract to, and it pissed him off. He said, “Your performance is your billing.” I said, “Well, I’m not that good in the movie.” He said, “It’s not a question of how good you are; it’s a question of who you are, and what you lend to the film. Your name doesn’t mean anything yet. And as far as your career, you won’t really ever have a leading man kind of career because you’re not a conventional leading man. You become the characters that you play, which is your gift. That’s what we’re trying to develop with your work. So you may be in your late-60s before anyone really knows what you can do.”
All these years later you’re working for another great director, Alexander Payne. But didn’t he offer you the part of Woody 10 years ago?
Not offered. He sent me the script before he sent it to any other actor. He had met me back when my daughter Laura was starring for him in “Citizen Ruth,” and I think he wanted me to see the material and see what my response would be. Well, my response immediately was that I had to do this role. But he didn’t offer it to me then. Instead, he went off and did “Sideways,” and then he went off and did “The Descendants.” After that, he went off and sent the script to Gene Hackman. But Gene was retired, and didn’t want to do it anymore. Once Hackman was out, the movie fell apart. Then I heard on the grapevine that Alexander was seeing everybody who’s 65 or 70, and that I was in the mix. But then he asked me to do a little scene on tape for him. When I finished, he asked me to sit on the couch – he was on one end and I was on the other. He had smiled and laughed a couple of times when I was doing the scene. Then he said, “I’m gonna give myself a compliment. When I first saw this material, you were the first person that came to mind.” Then he turned to me and said, “I want you to do my movie.”
Alexander Payne seems to be the guy everyone wants to be directed by these days.
You do anything you can do to get in an Alexander Payne movie. When I began, you did anything you could to get in a Kazan movie. Well, they’re not unsimilar in that way. For “Nebraska,” it was a bunch of people coming together at the right time in their careers and in their lives, with a guy we didn’t know, who presented us with a rule of thumb that there are folks out there that are like this and are worth a story.
Laura starred in “Citizen Ruth” for him, and your buddy Jack Nicholson starred in “About Schmidt” for him. Did you get any advice from them?
When I got the role, I called Laura. I said, “What am I getting with Alexander?” She said, “Trust him, follow him, believe him.” Then I called Jack, and he said (he puts on a perfect Nicholson imitation), “Dernser, here’s what you’re gonna get. You’re gonna get the best partner you’ve ever had in your whole career. And you’re gonna get a guy that goes diva on ya one day a week.” Well, Alexander is a bit academic, and at times he looked professorial to me. But I never really saw the diva part in him.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.