Although Bruce Dern has delivered consistently fine performances throughout his 53-year acting career, including his Oscar-nominated turn in 1978’s Coming Home as a marine whose wife ( Jane Fonda) falls in love with another man, the actor is most commonly associated with his crazy, over-the-top portrayals of villains and loonies: the coward who shot John Wayne in the back in The Cowboys; the terrorist who hijacked the Good Year blimp and tried to blow up the Orange Bowl in Black Sunday; and an assortment of outcasts and shady types in 1960s counter-culture films such as The Wild Angels, The Trip and Psych-Out.
Part of the reason that Dern’s portrayal of Woody, a 70-something alcoholic father and husband in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, feels like such a revelation is that the actor, now 77, had never been given the opportunity to play such a quiet, internalized character.
“Alexander sent me the script a few years ago, telling me he had decided to direct it and I was the first person who came to his mind to play Woody,” Dern said during a recent visit to Miami to promote the film. “He still went out and met with every other working actor in their 70s, but he eventually came back to me.”
Dern thinks part of Payne’s initial hesitation was that he didn’t know whether the actor could turn the volume down low enough to play the introverted Woody, who is obsessed with claiming a million-dollar sweepstake prize he receives in the mail.
“I was the right age and I had the right qualities for the role, but I had never proven I could play someone like this,” Dern says. “I often embroider a lot as an actor. My characters love to talk and talk. But there’s none of that in this movie. Alexander wants you to be the same person in front of the camera that you are when you’re sitting alone in a room with him talking. On the first day of shooting, he introduced me to the cinematographer and told me ‘Don’t show us anything. Let us find it.’ ”
Dern admits he wasn’t familiar with previous Payne films other than 1996’s Citizen Ruth, which starred his daughter, Laura Dern. But he decided to trust his director and quickly discovered Payne’s style of filmmaking was a godsend.
“Part of what makes Nebraska as good as it is is Alexander’s faith in his actors,” Dern says. “He lets the camera run and shoots long enough for us to find the behavior and gradual changes in Woody. He knows that if you’re there, then you are the right person for the role. We figured out a way to depict a man who’s got an entire bank of lights out — all his backfield lights are out — and yet he still lives his life, he’s not dejected, he’s not counting the days down, he’s not on his last lap. In his mind, he’s not down for the count yet. I just think it is lovely filmmaking.”