OSCARS Q&A: Bruce Dern Talks 'Nebraska'

Anna Lisa Raya is deputy editor of AwardsLine.

AwardsLine.LogoBWWoody 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.

Related: OSCARS Q&A: June Squibb On The Road To ‘Nebraska’

AwardsLine: You’ve said that this was the role of a lifetime. You always were the frontrunner, and NEBRASKAyet 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.

NEBRASKAAwardsLine: 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

  1. Bruce, Thanks for the Elia Kazan comment…don’t act, BE…I was there at SHERWOOD EXPERIMENTAL COLLEGE on Hollywood Blvd. in 1975-76 when you were a guest speaker and am very happy for you today. First saw NEBRASKA at Hamptons Intl Film Festival in Oct. and just knew it was “special”…pulling for ya…Mike Coolik

  2. At first, I thought Redford was going to win Best Actor, but now I believe that this is Dern’s year. Alexander Payne carries considerable cache in Hollywood and Dern earned his dues long ago. A wonderful performance in a strong movie. Great interview, but I agree that it was too short.

    1. Say “AMEN” sombody. I totally agree. I loved this performance from a great actor. Give him the dang award.

    1. I concur, Pete. I don’t fault Dern or any of the great actors in this film for how much I disliked it. The ponderous quality was unearned by the skin-deep treatment of mortality, poverty, strained marriage, father-son dynamics, alcoholism, small-town collapse, you-name-it. The comedic elements were way too blunt and the characters ended up exactly where they started. Probably had the makings of something great but Payne seems either to have lost his touch or to be without the kind of collaborators who can tell him he’s phoning it in.

  3. Even though I have yet to see this film, I cannot help but root in advance for Bruce Dern to win the Oscar. He has been, in my opinion, such an unsung tour-de-force for so long. Like Robert Duvall, even going back to their early years in television you can see and feel their magic and magnetism. And after the sad passing of Peter O’Toole, I pray, the Academy will be sensitive about not repeating the mistake of not recognizing greatness while it is still with us and able to enjoy the accolade.

  4. I was too offended by the NEGATIVE IMAGES of the MIDWEST. The foul language by the elderly ladies. This movie populated Nebraska with unemployed, or ex-felons. Oh yeh the brother who was on the community service gang even though he was not sentenced to be !!!! LOSER – LOSER And Dern the HERO, is so stupid he drags his entire family through this ridiculous chase for a non-existant pot of gold. One phone call to the marketing outfit in Lincoln would have resolved any debate. But these are stupid Midwestern Hicks. The story for me was a total put down and ethnic / culture slur against the MIDWEST culture. If these were Jews or Blacks there would shouts of racism and ethnic hate speech.

    1. Cornhusker…Alexander lives in Omaha…he was born and raised in Nebraska. This is what a “slice” of the mid-west IS like. I lived there for 7 years and I met every one of these characters. I also met some amazing, nice people too. But unfortunately, many more like what is in this movies. That is why I live in Montana now. So I was happy to see that Montanans were played as nice common sense folks. Just like they really are and not “hokey” like a lot of others might think.

      Alexander Payne nailed it.

  5. Dern, the Hero, is an Alcholic. How much screen time and key dialogue occcured in Dive Bars ? The locations were just trash buildings. Dern’s boyhood home was this abandoned wreck. The graveyard scene jumped the shark. Dern’s wife pulls up her skirt at the grave stone. If that was a Latino there would be protests by La-Raza !!!
    You can bet on a best script nomination. ohy

  6. Cornhusker, I too love the Midwest and…the cornhuskers. But I have to say Alexander Payne and Bruce dern both absolutely nailed it. So much so I can’t stop thinking about the amount of talent it took to understand the complexities of the area and the characters. I can see why it might appear at first blush to be negative but it is a sweet endearing movie about simple folk ( who are not) and the very real and interesting reactions of family dynamics and money or lack of it. I really hope it he gets an oscar for his performance. It was outstanding.

  7. Alcoholism – the gift that just keeps on giving, generation after generation. This sad and tawdry story plays out every day, in small towns and rural communities all across this country – it certainly isn’t limited to the Midwest. Having first hand experience dealing with alcoholic family dynamics, old drunks, dementia, senilty and toxic family relations – I did not enjoy watching this film. The cinematography is stark and lovely, and Dern’s portrayal of Woody Grant is masterful, but the total experience is far from uplifting.

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