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Bruce Dern’s star turn in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska will silence his detractors for good. It could even bag him an Oscar|
Unlike the laconic, booze-soaked dementia case he plays in the film Nebraska, Bruce Dern is extremely chatty. At 77, having worked with everyone from Alfred Hitchcock and Bette Davis to Jack Nicholson and Charlize Theron, he is also an anecdote conveyor belt, with a lifetime of stories to share and a career that has endured enough jolts to resemble the readings on a hospital heart monitor, including occasional threats of flatlining.
In the cantankerous Woody Grant, however, whose son agrees to accompany him on a deluded interstate mission to collect the $1m prize he thinks he has won in a junk-mail sweepstake, so he can get closer to a man he has never connected with, Dern gets the role of a lifetime and the chance to shout the proverbial told-you-so at the naysayers. “I’m thrilled audiences are getting a chance to see my audition tape,” he says, as if Nebraska had come at the start of his career, rather than the end.
Our initial encounter takes place in a seafront hotel room in Cannes, with sun streaming through the window and Dern reluctant to pause for breath. He is fond, I learn, of speaking in lists, and I get a few off the bat, including his all-time on-screen “team-mates” (Jack Nicholson tops the list) and the three things he told his daughter Laura when she declared her intention to become an actress (taking dance lessons was one).
A tall man, he sports a baggy plaid shirt. The gait and appearance betray physical frailty, but he is acutely aware of Nebraska’s potential to catapult him back to a prominence he probably imagined he had lost forever. Dern had to wait nine years between Alexander Payne sending him Bob Nelson’s original script and Payne deciding to make the film, his first from another man’s pen. It’s an elegiac tribute to an America gone to seed, writ large in crisp, beautiful monochrome images of blighted main streets and Dern’s grizzled face. The actor felt a powerful connection to Woody, a man with a largely wasted life whose traumas and regrets emerge along the way, mixed with a few comic detours.
Having sent Payne the gift of a toy truck after reading the script, a reference to a bequest Woody makes, Dern then had to park his talent in bill-paying pap while Payne went off to make Sideways and The Descendants, and tried to coax Gene Hackman into coming out of retirement to play Woody. “I wasn’t sure it would get made,” Dern admits. “Maybe the black-and-white was an issue. I was definitely an issue. The studio didn’t want me.”
Payne was finally able to summon him, and for that the actor is nothing but grateful. His praise for the director is unremittingly effusive. But there is another side to Dern, and a reason he called his 2007 autobiography Things I’ve Said, But Probably Shouldn’t Have. In that dirt-dishing “unrepentant memoir”, he makes the ungallant claim that he and the actress Maud Adams weren’t faking the sex in the grotty thriller Tattoo, and takes swipes at Robert Downey Jr, Mia Farrow and Francis Ford Coppola.
Perhaps that occasionally glimpsed sourness comes from being a film actor whose life has been consumed by his profession. Dern confesses he has no hobbies apart from running; has never touched alcohol, tobacco or caffeine (“though I did lose a decade to Vicodin”). And while he saw contemporaries such as Hackman, Nicholson, Robert Redford and Robert Duvall scuttling up the ladder, he never could establish himself as a leading man, let alone a movie star – to his frustration.
To be fair, there was a healthy amount of self-scuppering: Dern told Coppola that he wouldn’t audition for Tom Hagen in The Godfather; he turned down Marathon Man and Bertolucci’s 1900 outright; he passed on Crimes And Misdemeanours, despite a direct approach from Woody Allen (or, as Dern refers to him, “the little clarinet player”). Yet the eccentric impulses that fuel him have also given him plenty to crow about in a long and varied career, particularly the meaty turns he racked up in the 1970s, in films such as The King Of Marvin Gardens, Coming Home and the cult sci-fi Silent Running. He railed against being shoehorned into villain parts, but the shoe also fits: he has always been terrific playing damaged, wild-eyed crazies, whether shooting John Wayne in the back in The Cowboys or attempting to blow up the Super Bowl in Black Sunday.
One of his best-known “prick roles”, as he terms them, was philandering snob Tom Buchanan in the maligned 1974 adaptation of The Great Gatsby, which sounds an odd fit until you understand that Dern is the progeny of American bluebloods. His grandfather was FDR’s secretary of war, his godmother was Eleanor Roosevelt; while Woody appears the blue-collar inverse, the character became a conduit for transporting Dern back to a pained childhood in which he felt neglected, before giving his upper-crust parents the ultimate flip-off by becoming an actor.
“No one encouraged me to do a lot, no one really gave a damn about my feelings or what I was interested in.” His family, he says, never “got” his chosen path. “I just felt on my own, and that I had to prove something to them, but I didn’t know what it was. I think it’s exactly the same with Woody. The scene where he returns to his childhood home was the hardest for me, because it took me back to my own home.”
Elia Kazan, who took Dern under his wing at the Actors Studio, told him his career was going to be an endurance contest, and that he would find his greatest success in the bus-pass years: “That’s not too thrilling to hear when you’re 24.” By the time he arrived on the set of Nebraska, this method man was ready to give himself over to Payne and do as he was told. Which, as it turns out, was virtually nothing. “The hardest part was the detachment,” he says. “But if you trust Alexander, he will lead you to the promised land. Because he’s right and you’re not. He said to me at the beginning, ‘If you let me guide you and push you into areas where you don’t show us that you’re acting, we’ll be OK.’ It’s the most honest performance I’ve ever given.”
It’s one that showcases both men’s fundamental sweetness and core sensitivity – Dern still can’t watch The Yearling or any film in which “the little critters don’t have a chance”. Following our Cannes tete-a-tete, he was named the festival’s best actor, positioning him nicely for a solid Oscar push. His good pal Nicholson timed Nebraska’s Cannes ovation at 11 minutes, three more than he had received for Payne’s About Schmidt. A nomination seems a lock. If – when – it comes, it will only be the second of his career, joining his volcanic turn as Jane Fonda’s cuckolded husband in Coming Home.
Six months down the road, it is clear Dern’s loquaciousness has cost him. He has been soaking up the spotlight like one of the sun-starved plants in Silent Running, seizing any chance to wax rhapsodic about the film and Payne. (“He’s our Preston Sturges.”) But it has wrecked his voice, which is now a raspy croak. Calling from his mobile en route to the doctor, however, he can’t stop talking, gabbing away about, among many things, his four-decade allegiance to Chelsea FC and what winning an Oscar would mean.
The greatest win of his career, he insists, is Payne letting him play Woody in the first place. Should that Oscar embrace come, though, it will be a welcome, if wistful, triumph. “What it would mean to me is that a bunch of my peers got together this year and said, ‘Bruce Dern can play.’ And that’s all I ever wanted.”