Bruce Dern helps tell a story from the heartland in Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’
By Carl Kozlowski 11/20/2013
Like far too many men in their 70s, Woody Grant spends most of his time remembering the past. But when he receives a mailer informing him that he may have already won a million dollars from a sweepstakes scam, Woody suddenly starts thinking about the future, determined to collect the bounty by traveling from his home in Montana to prize headquarters in Nebraska.
That madly determined journey forms the basis of “Nebraska,” the latest character-driven film about idiosyncratic Americans from director Alexander Payne. Building on a growing legacy of average people with unusual ambitions (“The Descendants,” “Sideways,” “About Schmidt,” “Election”), this black-and-white film presents a vision of small-town America and its colorful denizens that is par for the course in Payne’s series of sterling productions: funny and sad, haunting and hilarious, and guaranteed to be nominated for Oscars.
For longtime Pasadena resident Bruce Dern, Woody represents the best role that the veteran character actor has seen in decades, a part that has earned him the top acting prize at this year’s prestigious Cannes Film Festival, as well as a good shot at an Academy Award.
Speaking recently with the Pasadena Weekly at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, the 77-year-old Dern clearly had plenty of fire left in him.
“I’ve never played a movie starring role, and Woody is not a movie starring role, though he is certainly the lead character,” says Dern, bouncing excitedly on the couch with an almost palpable energy. “Woody actually is just another character in a long line of character roles, but he’s the most full-bodied and is the linchpin of the movie. That’s kind of new to me.
“That’s what I like about this: Alexander doesn’t make movies with movie stars in them,” Dern continues. “George Clooney, much to his credit, made you forget he’s a movie star in ‘The Descendants.’ That tells you how good Alexander can be, and he’s an extraordinary talent.”
Dern was born in Chicago and possesses an impressive family lineage. While his father was a utility chief and attorney, Dern’s grandfather was a former Utah governor and Secretary of War. A great-uncle was famed poet Archibald MacLeish, and his godparents were two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Dern quickly broke into a thriving acting career on numerous TV shows before earning his big movie break in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 thriller “Marnie.” It was through these early film and TV roles that Dern was able to learn from numerous veteran character actors, among them Charles Bickford, who taught him to always work rather than concern himself with stardom.
That attitude has paid off with a career in which Dern has never stopped working, racking up more than 145 film and TV credits. While he didn’t become a movie star, he nonetheless scored an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for the 1978 film “Coming Home.” He is also proud to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame alongside his daughter, actress Laura Dern, and his first wife and Laura’s mother, actress Diane Ladd. In fact, they are the only father-mother-child combination of performers ever to be honored together on the entertainment landmark.
Yet, despite the fact that Laura Dern and Diane Ladd have worked together several times on films, Bruce notes that he and his daughter have never played opposite each other. That finally was rectified in a unique way on “Nebraska.” Laura launched her own career by starring in the vastly under-seen abortion-issue Payne satire “Citizen Ruth” in 1996 and had stayed close to the director ever since.
“I’ll tell you something that no one knows,” Dern says, laughing. “As I’m driving down the street in the truck near the end, there’s a blond girl walking on the other side of the street in that shot. Alexander came to me and said, ‘I’m going to put Laura in the shot. It’s not going to detract from the movie, but now you can never say you and Laura didn’t have a movie together.”
Dern notes that it’s that sense of family that permeates “Nebraska” and the rest of Payne’s body of work. When his character, Woody, refuses to give up his stubborn ambition to claim the million-dollar prize, his son David (in a career-changing performance by former “SNL” actor Will Forte) decides to take a long weekend and drive his dad to Lincoln, Nebraska’s capital city.
The heart of the movie’s seriocomic misadventures takes place in Hawthorne, Neb., however, as Woody convinces David to detour into his childhood hometown and visit old friends and family members. But comical trouble really comes to a boil when Woody runs into his old nemesis, played by hard-boiled veteran actor Stacy Keach, and his wife and other son, who all follow Grant and his son to Hawthorne as well.
“One of the things that’s wonderful about a movie like ‘Nebraska’ is that it really shows families in the Midwest, that part of the country where they are more family units, where they pull for each other, and even if they don’t like what you’re doing, if you go down they have your back,” says Dern, who moved to Pasadena from Malibu a decade ago.
“Everybody in this movie gets a false sense of entitlement and thinks they should get a piece of the pie. They’re saying to Woody, ‘We were there for you, now be there for us.’ I love that in a movie. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen ‘Nebraska’ or how many more times I will, but every time I see it I see new things.”
Another major aspect of the movie lies in its depiction of how dismissively people treat the elderly, especially those suffering from some form of dementia. In fact, the most memorable part of the movie lies in its homestretch, when his son David decides it’s time to show his father simple love and give him a dramatic chance to reclaim his dignity through a series of simple yet beautiful actions.
“We don’t treat them well,” says Dern, who personally remains in shape through frequent runs around the Rose Bowl and into town from his home in the city’s San Rafael neighborhood. “Because someone can’t get through a conversation with you, we’re too quick to lose respect for that disability. You give respect to the vet who’s missing a limb, but you don’t give respect to the grandfather in your house who isn’t thinking as quickly as he should. In terms of nobility in movies, I’ve not been in one where someone did something more noble than what Woody’s son does here.”
With all the attention he’s currently receiving for the role, Dern is hoping that “Nebraska” will help spark a return to the character-driven movies of the 1970s . That era of films, such as “The Last Picture Show,” “Five Easy Pieces” and “The King of Marvin Gardens,” offered strong slice-of-life stories that spoke to viewers’ hearts and minds much more than the special-effects-driven fare that has dominated the marketplace in the past two decades.
“I hope it’ll help, and the reason why is this: The new people who run studios are much more family-oriented men and women than before,” says Dern. “Because of that, they’re struck by films like this and they’re willing to let there be an atmosphere where a Woody can evolve.
“I was shocked. They call movies likes this sometimes independent movies, but my God, I made independent movies with [low-budget producer] Roger Corman for $114,000 that we made in 10 days, brother,” adds Dern. “And there were 50 people on the set and we got paid in gum and candy bars. I think it’s now the beginning of an era that had to eventually happen, to go back to making movies about people. Movies about people like Woody are getting the attention now. Our biggest battle as a little movie allowed to get this far is we’re embracing those kinds of people and Hollywood is reinventing what we did in the ’70s.”