Bruce Dern made a career of playing characters who, in his words, "live just beyond where the buses run." Dangerously out there, over the edge.
He killed John Wayne in a movie. Shot him in the back. Steered a Goodyear blimp loaded with explosives into a Super Bowl. There are too many outsiders to list. Even Dern's most sympathetic role, as a cuckolded U.S. Marine in Coming Home, led to ravings and suicide.
"I finally got to kiss a girl in (1974's) The Great Gatsby," Dern, 77, said in that distinctly nasal voice, by telephone. "I kiss Karen Black, and then I have to break her nose. I mean, one day, could I please win one?
"I think with Woody, I finally did."
It's looking that way. Dern is getting the best reviews of his 53-year career, portraying taciturn Woody Grant, in Alexander Payne's somberly comical Nebraska. Dern plays against his intense type, a frail man firmly convinced he's won $1 million from a publisher's sweepstakes. Woody demands a road trip to Lincoln, Neb., to claim his money, with a disenchanted son (Will Forte) in tow.
Nebraska opens Dec. 13 in select Tampa Bay theaters.
Dern's performance won a prize at Cannes, a first step toward a seemingly inevitable Academy Award nomination, his first in 35 years. A lot of actors Dern knew back then — including his daughter Laura Dern — went on to steady awards recognition. Now it's the elder Dern's turn, and there's a feeling around Hollywood that it's about time.
One pal since the old days is Jack Nicholson, lobbying for "Dernsie" to get Oscar votes by hosting exclusive screenings of Nebraska. Ryan O'Neal and Jane Seymour did the same. At Cannes, Richard Dreyfuss told Dern through tears that the performance took him back to acting school.
"That's big stuff for me," Dern said. "They have saluted me in a very positive way, and I'm being egotistical to say saluted me. But they are aware that I did something that makes me a member of their club. They're pleased that I finally got an opportunity to do something they got a lot earlier than I did."
Things changed when Dern met Payne on the first day of filming, recalled by the actor at the Telluride Film Festival, where Nebraska made its U.S. debut. The director introduced cinematographer Phedon Papamichael and asked Dern to let them do their jobs.
"He told me: 'When they turn the switch on, you are probably as entertaining from moment-to-moment an actor as we have. I don't want you to show us anything. I want you to let us find it,' " Dern said. "The risk for me was to trust myself that I could be interesting enough to leave myself the hell alone."
Woody turns down Dern's typically roiling screen presence to a low simmer, not saying much but bitterly when he does. As his quest continues to claim money that isn't there, Woody returns to the small town where life took a dive early. Dern's performance is a marvel of expressive blankness, allowing stillness and pauses to build meaning, with Payne patiently allowing it to happen.
"I never fully trusted anybody until Alexander," Dern said at Telluride. "I worked with directors who push you to the edge, to take risks take after take after take. They all have big butterfly nets that they catch you with, throw you back up on the ledge and do it again.
"Alexander Payne goes down to where you've fallen, picks you up in his arms, brings you back to the ledge with his hand in yours and says: 'Let's make magic.' "
On the phone, Dern continues praising Payne (The Descendants, Sideways), placing him alongside Elia Kazan — who hired him first, for 1960's Wild River — Hal Ashby (Coming Home) and Bob Rafelson (The King of Marvin Gardens) as directors whose collaborations he cherishes most. And this man acted for Hitchcock, Peckinpah and Pollack. Dern explained his preference.
"They are interested in the same thing I got into the business for," he said. "They study behavior in an entertaining way. They're interested in what makes people tick.
"Alexander may be the best at that I've worked with. From me to you, it was like being able to be at play in the fields of the Lord. Never once did I not feel like I had an arm around me and was headed in the right direction."
Dern offered a scene in Nebraska as an example, when Woody revisits his childhood home, where memories of abuse are made clear in a single terse statement: "There's nobody here to whip me now."
Payne gave Dern leeway to summon his own strict upbringing, that wasn't abusive but intimidating, including a grandfather who served as secretary of war, a Pulitzer Prize-winning great-uncle and Eleanor Roosevelt as his godmother.
"I used to have to wear white gloves at dinner," Dern said. "I had to raise my hand to be called on at my dinner table from the time I was 7 to the time I was 17. I guess there's nobody there who's going to make me raise my hand now. That's exactly where that moment comes from.
"Probably the hardest scene I've ever had to do in my career because of the nature of who I am as an actor. That's what acting is — taking from your own experience. A lot of people think they could never act? Well, g-- d--- yes you can act, if you're willing to be publicly private, to expose what's in your heart.
"If you can't expose that to the camera, you're in the wrong business."
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.