Just Be Dernsy - Bruce Dern
"Beer's not drinking."
-- Woody Grant
"When I first read "Nebraska," I knew that I had to go after it as hard as I
could," recalls Bruce Dern.
The role was unlike any for which he had ever been considered -- and ern was
especially gratified that Payne asked him to leave behind his iconic film
persona and explore entirely new directions. "I think it was a lot like when he
worked with Nicholson on 'About Schmidt,'" Dern observes. "For so many years
I've been told, 'just be Dernsy, give us that.' Jack is the same way. Well, he
doesn't want to be Jack in every movie. And I don't want to be Dernsy, and
Alexander has brought something more and demanded that of me. He wanted to see
the qualities I could bring within Woody, not the qualities Woody brings to me.
I relished the chance to do that."
"With Woody, I was able to do something I've never done before. He's not an
angry rebel or a nasty killer. He doesn't involve all those Dernsies," he says
referring to all the sly mannerisms of the dark-hearted which he once honed.
"He's a guy who lives like he lives and he isn't interested in changing. In a
way, he's a monument to a lot of people like him who built America."
In casting "Nebraska," Payne was interested in just one thing: authenticity.
That's how Bruce Dern wound up in the role of Woody Grant. It was an especially
fitting match for Dern, a man legendary for playing the irreverent and
malevolent but now a septuagenarian. His six decades-long career includes a
diversity of unforgettable performances and an Academy Award nomination for
"Coming Home" - yet he has never had a leading role anything like Woody. With
this role, Dern was able to sink his teeth into an ordinary man's living,
breathing soul - and the result garnered him both joyful analyses from global
critics and the coveted Best Actor Award when the film premiered at the 2013
Cannes Film Festival.
From the minute Woody Grant first existed, people started envisioning Dern in
the part. "Bruce was actually the first person Alexander mentioned, but then he
went through 100 possibilities before he finally determined that indeed, Bruce
was absolutely right for the part," recalls Berger.
Once he was sure, Payne never looked back. He watched as Dern dove into the
role with a gusto and originality befitting his experience - yet going beyond
that to something both starkly human and transcendent. "It was up to Bruce as an
actor how to approach him. He told me he saw Woody as a guy who checks out for
about 20 minutes of every hour,'" Payne recalls.
For most, Woody's particular mix of confusion and clarity, disgruntlement and
hope, would have been tough to make believable and authentic. Dern, however,
found that precarious balance. "It's an extremely challenging role," notes
producer Ron Yerxa. "Bruce walks a tight-rope between being repressed and
emotionally open, between being curmudgeonly and sympathetic, between being
comical and true. There are so many ways he could have fallen off the wire, but
he never lost a step."
Dern has always been somewhat of a rule-breaking actor, having come to the
fore in an era of counter-cultural anti-heroes. After auspiciously cutting his
teeth with two masterful directors - in Elia Kazan's "Wild River" (1960) and
Alfred Hitchcock's "Marnie" (1964) -- he starred in a series of darkly comic,
character-fueled stories that defined a shifting American cinema. He shot John
Wayne in "The Cowboys," played Jack Nicholson's con man brother in Bob
Rafelson's "King of Marvin Gardens," became an offbeat space hero in Douglas
Trumbull's environmentalist sci-fi hit "Silent Running," undertook satire as a
beauty pageant sponsor in Michael Ritchie's "Smile," and brought the devastating
experience of a soldier returning from Vietnam to audiences in Hal Ashby's
He became renown for playing heavies, villains and criminals - recently
playing a brutal slave owner in "Django Unchained" -- but he also carved out his
own space as a kind of consummate iconoclast. Still, he was stunned to find
perhaps the best, and perhaps the most movingly iconoclastic role he's ever come
across at the age of 76.
Dern sees Woody, at bottom, as a man trying to believe he's finally going to
be lucky in life. "Woody's someone who stopped dreaming a long time ago," the
actor observes. "But he's determined to finish out his life living it his way.
Maybe he's lost a little bit upstairs. But as far as he's concerned, he's really
going to get that million dollars. Maybe for the first time in his life, he
really wants something, and it just happens to be this."
He also relished exploring fatherhood - albeit a fatherhood as full of flaws,
misunderstandings and bewildering behavior as any in real life. "I never really
had much of a relationship with my own father," Dern notes, "but by they end of
the movie, I felt I found him through Alexander."
For Payne, Dern brought the all the contradictory qualities he sought. "He
was able to be ornery but heartbreaking at the same time," he says. "The thing
for which I was most grateful to Bruce is that he trusted me, a phenomenal gift
to any director. He would try anything. At one point in the car, my only
direction was 'please put yourself in a pathetic, crumpled heap,' and he did
Dern gives a lot of credit to Payne, who he first met when his daughter
starred in Payne's debut film, "Citizen Ruth." "I've never been given a role
this fabulous in my entire career," Dern says. "I also have never been this
blessed with a director. I've worked with several geniuses in my career - Kazan,
Hitchcock, Trumbull, Coppola and Tarantino - and Alexander Payne just joined the
list. What you need from a director is assurance to take risks and he is all
about risk taking, but he also gives you faith that you always have a guide. He
lets you go for it, but he's there to support you."
He goes on: "Every single day you go to work for Alexander, you feel you just
might do something that's never been done before. A lot of days he captures
lightning in a bottle."
Part of the way Payne worked with Dern was simply to create an early bond. "For many, many weeks before shooting started, we hung out together and talked
about everything but the film, so that by the time we were shooting, everything
was just able to flow very naturally," the director says.
Screenwriter Bob Nelson was exhilarated to see the way Dern embodied moments
he took from real life, including the scene that turns from wrenching to
hilarious when David takes Woody in search of his lost teeth on a desolate train
track. "In that scene, Bruce shows there's still a lot going on upstairs with
Woody. You aren't sure but then you realize he's still got that spark. You see
he still has moments of absolute clarity and part of him is trying to make
amends," says Nelson.
His fellow cast and crew members were equally struck by how deeply Dern buried
himself beneath Woody's tough old hide.
"Working with Bruce was a pleasure on so many different levels," says Will
Forte. "On a professional level, it was like going to acting school each day
with a master. I learned so much and I soaked in all these amazing stories about
Alfred Hitchcock, John Wayne and Jack Nicholson. On a personal level, he is such
a fun, sweet person. At times he's playfully cantankerous, but he's actually a
big softie beneath that exterior."
"I think Bruce has created one of the finest comic characters on screen,"
comments Bob Odenkirk. "He's extremely entertaining to watch at every moment."
Says Stacy Keach: "Just as Jack Nicholson gave one of his greatest
performances for Alexander Payne, I think this is a truly great performance from
Sums up Albert Berger: "Bruce really delivered the cherry on top of all the
work he's done over the years. He is wonderfully unpredictable as Woody. On the
one hand he came to the set fully prepared. On the other hand, he was able in
the moment to bring so many different flavors to Woody, Woody at times seems
lost, at times he seems angry, at times he seems like an innocent child.
Alexander wanted to see all of those aspects of his character and Bruce gave him
every color and dimension."
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