At 77, Bruce Dern comes of age

Veteran actor Bruce Dern has become an awards season favourite for his performance in the darkly comic movie Nebraska. He talks to Dominic Corry.

Bruce Dern says he's waited his whole career to get a part this good. Photo / AP
Bruce Dern says he's waited his whole career to get a part this good. Photo / AP

Bruce Dern is nothing less than a Hollywood legend. Along with Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda, he came to prominence in the late 60s under legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman, often playing bikers and hippies in popular exploitation flicks.

Although he never quite ascended to Nicholson's heights, he's since built up an impressive body of work in films like The Great Gatsby (1974), Coming Home (1978); and more recently as the twisted patriarch in the television series Big Love, among innumerable other roles.

But now at 77, Dern is getting the best reviews of his career playing the lead in Nebraska, the new film from Alexander Payne the Oscar-winning writer-director of Sideways and The Descendants.

Dern stars as Woody Grant, an ageing grump who undertakes a road trip with his son (played by Saturday Night Live's Will Forte) from Montana to Nebraska to claim a sweepstakes prize he's convinced he has won.

The darkly comic film is peppered with the kind of well-observed character humour that defines Payne's work, and Dern is nothing short of astounding in the lead role.

When TimeOut spoke to the actor about the film recently, he employed a unique analogy to illustrate his perspective on all the positive buzz surrounding the movie.

"If you make an all-star team one year, that's wonderful, and that's kinda how I look at all of this. I mean, you guys have to play the Springboks every goddamn year, sometimes you'll get 'em and sometimes you won't. I don't wanna be on one of those international rugby teams that's never been to a play-off game. I'd like to think I've been to some play-off games, but I'd like to be there again."

Thanks to Nebraska, Dern is currently a front-runner for the Best Actor prize at the next Academy Awards. Is an Oscar important to him?

"You know, in order of business of my 55 years, what's always been important to me is that I felt wonderful if people discovered that I could play - that I just had game. If anything like that came to me that would be wonderful but that's not why I got in the business. But it would be very nice to get that kind of recognition."

As is often the case in Hollywood, Nebraska took a long time to come together.

"Alexander Payne sent me the material 10 years ago. He didn't send me the material with an offer, he just said 'what do you think?' Then the next thing I knew he was making Sideways, and the next thing I knew he was making The Descendants. So I figured well, maybe I'm in the way of getting it made.

"And then two and a half years ago, he wanted to see me. We talked a little about the role and who I thought Woody was. And then I read that the studio was thinking of Gene Hackman, and so I figured I was right about getting in the way [of the film being made], and then Gene Hackman retired. So then a year and a half ago, [Payne] came to me and said 'Let's go. I always originally had you in mind when I first read it and I want you to do my movie'. It's probably better for me it took 10 years to get made because I got to be 10 years older."

Had he been searching for a "showcase" role?

"No. I would just say that I've waited my whole career to get a part this good. It wasn't a question of searching for it, it was a question of feeling that I was running out of time and wondering if I would ever get an opportunity again like this and I did so I'm very grateful."

Why does Dern think Alexander Payne cast him as Woody?

"I think he thinks I have a little irascibility in my game; I think he thinks I'm a bit of a prick; I think he thinks I can be a nice guy; I think he thinks I'm all the things that he wanted Woody to be. So he just left me alone, told me the very first day he did not want me to show him anything, he wanted me to let him find it."

He's worked with many of the greats, but Dern remains in awe of Payne's working methods.

"When Alexander directs a scene, he will not print the scene until he believes it in its entirety. So he's only gonna believe honest behaviour. The guy can flat-out make a movie. And I'll hold him up against anybody I've ever worked for in my career.

"If I'm gonna start making a list I'll start with Alexander Payne, and the list includes Mr [Alfred] Hitchcock and it includes Mr [Elia] Kazan and it includes Hal Ashby and John Frankenheimer and everybody else. It's not that he's better, it's that he's more approachable."

As a huge fan of Dern's performance in the 1978 movie The Driver, TimeOut can't resist bringing up the cult film as our conversation draws to a close.

"It was maybe one of the fonder experiences of my life. [The Driver's] Walter Hill is the only director I would go any place in the world to work for. Walter gets it. When Walter saw Nebraska he gave me the most wonderful compliment I've ever had in my career and I'll cherish it forever. And as far as The Driver goes, I think it is the most under-appreciated movie that I've ever been in."

Who: Bruce Dern
What: Nebraska
When: Opens at cinemas on January 16

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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