I hear Bruce Dern before I see him, that unforgettable, surprisingly high voice. He lopes into the bar of the Langham Huntington hotel in Pasadena, pitched slightly forward like Woody Grant, his character in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, for which he picked up the award for Best Actor at Cannes in May. Dern plays a taciturn crank with early signs of dementia, determined to travel from Montana to Nebraska to collect the million bucks promised in a junk-mail flyer, much to the fury of his wife (June Squibb) and the exasperation of his elder son (Bob Odenkirk). Only his younger son (Will Forte) will bother with him, and they embark on a road trip of bittersweet consequence, with Dern, at 77, earning the sort of praise that makes and remakes careers.
After he settles into a chair, the waiter stops by. I order an Arnold Palmer. “Is that an adult beverage?” Dern asks. I tell him there’s no liquor involved, just iced tea and lemonade. He thinks on this. “I’ll have a Shirley Temple,” he tells the waiter, who appears unfazed by the request. “Never had a drink in my life,” Dern tells me later. “Never had a cigarette. Never had a cup of coffee.”
This makes Dern something of an anomaly in his generation. He came up in the sixties and seventies, co-starring in cheapo counterculture flicks like Roger Corman’s The Trip and Bloody Mama. His best acting pal was Jack Nicholson. “It was possibly isolating for him, when all your buddies are partying,” says the actress Laura Dern, his daughter with his second wife, Diane Ladd (he has remarried). Her father, a competitive runner in high school and college, still trains religiously and in his prime could clock 50 miles in a weekend. “Running was his best friend,” she says. “He knows what he needs to do to keep himself centered in a bizarre business with a lot of ebb and flow, particularly if you’re going to do it as long as Dad has.”
To date, Dern has starred—though mostly co-starred—in roughly 80 films and countless TV shows, particularly Westerns early on, often playing seriously deranged individuals; he’s tried to blow up the Super Bowl (1977’s Black Sunday), shot John Wayne in the back (1972’s The Cowboys), and done all manner of nasty polygamist shit on HBO’s Big Love. It’s something to do with that voice and face—the icy-blue eyes and wolfish grin—but also with the way he slides into the meanest line. “Bruce has the power of using excessive politeness to disguise malevolence,” says his three-time director Walter Hill. “He’s always fun to watch, even in those lousy movies in the sixties. He’s never tried to steal a scene. But even when he’s underplaying it, as he does in Nebraska, he seizes and dominates the scene. The camera loves him in a very certain way—not the way it loves everybody, and Brucie’s aware of that. He knows his skills.”
The long road to Nebraska was predicted back in 1958, when Dern began studying with Elia Kazan at the Actors Studio in New York. “It’s my second day,” he tells me. “I’m sitting in the back row, and Marilyn Monroe comes over and sits down next to me. She leans over with her little babushka on and says, ‘You’re Gadge’s new wonder kid, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Please, you shouldn’t tell people that.’ She says, ‘Oh, no, he goes on and on about you. Gadge said you had something that they hadn’t seen before, but nobody will realize it in the business until you are in your sixties.’ So I asked Gadge,” Dern continues, “ ‘What are you telling Marilyn Monroe shit like that for? I’m not trying to fuck her, but I’m at least trying to shake her hand and say hello to her.’ Gadge said, ‘Because it’s true. You become the characters that you play. You’re not a conventional leading man; you never will be. You absorb what it is you’re doing, and we identify you as that guy or that guy.’ ”
Kazan, it turns out, knew what he was talking about. Dern was 76 when he was cast as Woody. Nebraska (which debuts at the New York Film Festival on October 8) recalls the elegiac wit in some of the films of Hal Ashby, who directed Dern in Coming Home, arguably his best performance pre-Woody. Squibb, whose Nebraska character is as broad as Dern’s is spare, says, “When I see him as Woody, I realize how you can take something down to its kernel and let the audience still see everything.”
Laura Dern, who starred in Payne’s first film, Citizen Ruth, highlights one moment in particular. “There’s a scene where Woody is walking through his parents’ bedroom to a window, when he takes his boys back to see the family farm,” she says. “As an actor, he doesn’t attempt to tell us anything, and yet you know the whole story of Woody’s childhood. I don’t know what that is; it’s not acting, it’s really transcendent. There is no self-awareness. Particularly with Alexander, he could have thought that he shouldn’t be too mean because it’s a comedy, or that he should be likable in the end or find empathy somehow.”
Payne sent Dern the script nine years ago. “The next morning, I went out to Toys ’R’ Us and bought a little red truck and sent it to his house,” says Dern, whose character needs the winnings to buy a new pickup. All I said in the letter was, ‘You may not see it, and nobody might see it, but I am Woody.’ No reply. Next thing I see, he’s making Sideways. Nothing. Then he’s making The Descendants.” Dern heard the role was offered to Gene Hackman. “Hackman didn’t want to do a movie, he was done. But I figured they weren’t going to hire me.”
Eight years after he wrote to Payne, in April 2012, Dern’s agent called to say that the director wanted to see him. Payne, who is from Omaha, told Dern that he was immediately attracted to Bob Nelson’s script. He began to tinker with it, and as he did so, he had Dern in mind for Woody. The studio seemed less enthusiastic; Dern suggests Payne had to exhaust other options before circling back. “I tend to get emotional when I talk about this,” Dern says, his voice catching. “First day of work, he came to me, put his arm on my elbow, and he said, ‘Bruce, this is Mr. Papamichael. He’s your cinematographer. My name is Alexander Payne, and I am your director. I want you to do something that you’ve probably never before done in your career: I want you to let us do our jobs. I want you not to show us one thing for eight weeks; we’ll find it. We’ll find you, because you’re Woody, and that’s the story we want to tell. Without dialogue.’ I hugged him. I said, ‘I get it.’ And I realized I couldn’t let this guy down. I couldn’t cop out. Even when there were lines I could’ve danced with, or made funny or made more specific or anything else, I didn’t do it. I always went with the other choice.”
Payne was speaking Dern’s language. Every day he’s gone to work, Dern’s intention has been “to do something that hasn’t been done much,” to surprise the audience, to be real, moment to moment. He remembers a director telling him, “Some day, somebody’s going to give you an opportunity to do a role where you don’t perform.” Which is essentially Dern’s definition of good acting—something he likens to being “publicly private.” Here’s how he explained it to Forte, who was struggling to understand dramatic acting after a career in comedy: “I told him, ‘You have to start within yourself and be a person and build from there,’ ” says Dern. “ ‘Drama’s no different than what you do in your skits. Movies should be fun, so have fun. Talk to Woody through Bruce, and I’ll talk to David through Will, and if you get scared or intimidated, cut that shit out, because I don’t need to hear it. I’ll rip ya a new one.’ ”
Fellow actors and critics have been marveling over Dern’s own ability to pull authentic moments seemingly out of nowhere since his 1958 Broadway debut in Sean O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman—52 seconds that theater critic Brooks Atkinson called one of Broadway’s most illustrious performances in years. Walter Kerr wrote that the production’s one saving grace was Bruce Stern. This still makes Dern laugh. “Jack [Nicholson] coined the phrase ‘Dernsie’ during The King of Marvin Gardens,” he says. “It basically means coming up with something that hasn’t been written.” Ashby requested a Dernsie for the last scene of 1978’s Coming Home, in which the actor plays an emotionally destroyed Vietnam vet. Without spoiling it for you, the critical moment wasn’t in the script, and the role earned Dern a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
Possibly the most apt casting of his career was Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, the one starring Robert Redford. Jack Clayton intuited something no other director had: where the actor came from. Dern grew up with pedigree in Winnetka, Illinois, the great-grandson of a department-store magnate. His family is riddled with boldface names, including Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of War and his maternal great-uncle Archibald MacLeish, poet and Librarian of Congress. Adlai Stevenson and Eleanor Roosevelt were close family friends. His feelings for his parents aren’t overly fond; he had no time for the pretentiousness of their life, or the prejudices of his mother, who essentially disowned him when he quit UPenn after two years to join the Actor’s Studio. “The first childhood memories that come to mind are of me at the dinner table, having to raise my hand to be called on,” says Dern, who describes a stifling home of old-world luxury that included wearing white gloves to dinner. “I tended to push my peas onto my fork, so I had to wash them out every night, from 6 to 17.”
Dern hosted Saturday Night Live twice, in 1982 and 1983 (Buckwheat’s death made the second episode iconic). The applause he got from the audience shocked him: “I’d always thought of myself as a second-banana guy from the seventies.” Dern has read the bloggers who complain that his performance in Nebraska is too laconic, that it’s not big enough for a Best Actor nomination. It rightly pisses him off. “They say Will’s onscreen for seven minutes longer, so why [aren’t I] going for Best Supporting Actor? They don’t see me as a leading man. Well, I’m not a leading man, but I’m sorry. Was Art Carney a leading man when he did Harry and Tonto? Pretty fucking good movie.”
Hill has a theory that Dern might have been bigger if he’d focused on being funny rather than bad, only those weren’t the parts directors were offering. “He’s got a great sense of humor about himself,” says Hill. “But he’s restless and wants to work. He doesn’t like to sit endlessly around and be a careerist.” And Dern always made the most of an opportunity: “Like Kazan said, when you start out as the fifth cowboy from the right, you be the most interesting fucking fifth cowboy we have ever seen.”
Dern acknowledges periods of discouragement when he wasn’t working as much as he wanted—the late eighties and early nineties were bleak. And that makes the praise for Nebraska particularly sweet; the phone should keep ringing, which is all Dern cares about. Nicholson, who starred in Payne’s About Schmidt and directed Dern in one of his few starring roles, 1971’s Drive, He Said (for which he won the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actor), was one of the first to see Nebraska. “At the end of the screening,” says Dern, the emotion thickening his voice, “he turns around and says, ‘Derns, I got you your first gold and I want to get you your second fucking gold. Whatever you guys need from me for this film, you got it. And you’—he pointed to Alexander—‘you’ve done it this time.’ ”
After Nebraska screened at the festival, “We had an enormous ovation for three minutes,” says Dern. As he was preparing to leave the theater, he noticed his face up on the screen. “And then the people started really clapping,” he says. “Alexander said to me, ‘Where are you going? The other ovation was for all of us, but make no mistake, this one is for you.’ Jack told me that he timed it: ‘You got about eight minutes,’ he said. And I said, ‘Yeah, well, what did you get for Schmidt?’ And he said, ‘I think it was eight total. But you had the first three and then the eight. That’s pretty good for a fucking kid from Winnetka who doesn’t know shit.’ ”
*This article originally appeared in the October 7, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.