Anna Lisa Raya is deputy editor of AwardsLine.
Woody Grant, the cantankerous, not-entirely-there patriarch chasing a dubious lottery payoff in Nebraska, is a character Bruce Dern embodied heart and soul. Though always considered a first choice for the role, Dern had to wait almost a decade—and amidst rumors that Gene Hackman would steal the character from him—to sink his teeth into it. His patience paid off with a best actor statuette at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and might lead to his first Oscar nomination since 1978’s Coming Home. While Woody’s quiet, silent type is a far cry from the psychopaths that have characterized Dern’s career, he knew that the role was right for him. His understated take has critics and awards prognosticators buzzing.
AwardsLine: You’ve said that this was the role of a lifetime. You always were the frontrunner, and yet there was a long delay in getting the film made. What was that like for you?
Bruce Dern: It’ll be 10 years since the script was sent to me through my agent at CAA. I started reading at about 9 o’clock at night, and I was done by 9:50. I read that fast because there was no mistake that this was something special. I was overwhelmed that it came to me. I mean, I pulled my oar for 50-odd years, and I’ve been in good films and everything, but I’ve never had a part that just hit me immediately, like, “This is something I can do.” I responded by going out the next morning and I bought (Alexander Payne) a little red truck. With the truck I sent him a long letter, and I was told he responded positively to the letter. And then the wait began. The next thing I know, Alexander was in production on Sideways! You know, the guy’s making a movie, and I’m not in it. I never got my hopes up; I just kept doing the best I could. But then the next thing I know, Alexander’s in Hawaii! He’s making a movie with George Clooney and all the other folks in The Descendants. Then I got discouraged. I just kind of said to myself, “It’s a business of ups and downs. It’s a business of some do and some don’t. Sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not.” I was lucky to have been privileged enough to be considered for the role.
AwardsLine: How did you finally get the role?
Dern: I was in Vermont last year in April and May when I got a call from Alexander Payne’s office. I bullshitted my way out of the movie (I was on), and I let them shoot me for 18 straight hours over two days to get me out of it. Alexander’s office called and said he might want to put me on film. And that’s not cool with me. I have enough work out there—if somebody thinks I can do a role, I can do it. I don’t read well. I asked what the camera was for, and Alexander said, “You know what? I don’t need it, but it helps me with the studio.” And that’s valid, so we read two scenes. After, Alexander asked, “What do you think?” I said, “You know, Alexander, I’ve gotten to the point where I want to keep doing this, but I don’t want to act anymore. I don’t want to perform—I want to be a real human being, and this is an opportunity for me to do that. He said, “Ten years ago, when I first looked at this, I had you in mind. Now, today, I want you to do my movie.”
AwardsLine: What were your first discussions about the film like?
Dern: Alexander came to my house one day for six hours. When he left, I knew I’d found a friend and a dream director. We were on the exact same page about the way we would attack, if you will, this piece of material. He called about once a week, and we’d have nice talks about what he was up to, what he thought. We went to Nebraska on a Tuesday, and were going to start shooting that next Monday. June Squibb, Will Forte, Alexander and his assistant and I were staying in this house and we read through the script once, then again an hour later, and never had another rehearsal. During the first day of shooting, I put my arms around (Alexander) and I said, “I have a partner and I will just trust you, believe you, follow you through whatever it is. If I’m not doing it and you don’t appreciate it or like the way it is, just rip me a new one right here in front of everybody. I can take it. I’ve taken it all my career. Don’t let me act; just let me be a person.” You wait all your life for that.
AwardsLine: Your character has a big moment of clarity in the film when he reveals to his son why he’s chasing this lottery money. Can you talk about that scene?
Dern: In terms of acting, that’s a trap scene. In other words, if you are not 100% honestly talking about real stuff there, you’re screwed. I was devastated by what just went on in the bar (in the previous scene). The one friend that (Woody) had, regardless if he really was a friend to him, just dumped on him royally. I carry that out into the street, and when (David, his character’s son, played by Will Forte) says it’s over for the 19-billionth time, it hits (Woody) right there. He just has to say very simply, “I’d just like to do something for you.” Through the whole movie, we never rehearsed anything because I don’t like to do that. (Elia) Kazan told me to never tell the director what you’re going to do in a scene until he records it once. And once it’s been filmed, he’s got take two, you don’t. I’ve always cherished that in my career.
Photo credit: Merie Wallace