Movies: ‘Nebraska’ a journey of the head and heart for Bruce Dern

There’s no half way with Bruce Dern. It’s why he’s worked consistently in show business for 55 years.

Dern said he passed on his strategy to Will Forte one day on set of their acclaimed new film “Nebraska,” opening Wednesday in Sacramento. Forte, who plays Dern’s character’s son, was battling an illness and struggling to get through the day’s shoot. He turned to his resilient co-star, 34 years his senior, for coping advice.

“I told him, ‘You want to give it all on every play,’” Dern said. “‘You are here 24-7 for all of us. If I let down, or you let down, or any of us lets down, the movie suffers.’”

This approach extends to interviews as well. Reached by telephone in Los Angeles, Dern doesn’t follow the question, answer, silence-in-between template of modern interviews. When he was coming up, stars engaged with the press.

Dern, 77, won the best-actor prize at May’s Cannes Film Festival for his “Nebraska” performance, and he’s on the short list for a lead-actor Academy Award nomination. He’s glad to talk about his career resurgence, but he also asks questions, and tailors some responses for The Bee’s local audience.

For nearly 25 years, Dern flew from Los Angeles to his second home on Fallen Leaf Lake so he could bet on sports, he said. Often, his flight would be diverted to Sacramento from Reno, and he would drive up Highway 50 to Lake Tahoe.

“Once you get a little beyond Sacramento to where the buffaloes are – there were about two buffaloes left when I was there – to the chain guard station and all the way up, I felt like that was a slice of America,” Dern said. “Much like Grass Valley and Nevada City on the other side. These are places that time hasn’t forgotten, but they are still rural enough you can feel the pulse of the land.”

It was the same way in the small Nebraska towns where director Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “The Descendants”) shot “Nebraska.” A wintry road movie photographed in black and white, “Nebraska” is a companion piece to the sun-dappled “Sideways” in some ways, but its spaces are wider and more open, its disappointments more entrenched.

Dern’s character, a wild-haired retiree named Woody, leaves his Montana home with his son after Woody receives notice of a $1 million sweepstakes prize awaiting him in his home state of Nebraska. The son thinks the offer is bogus, but views the trip, during which the audience meets much of Woody’s extended family, as a last chance to know a father who was emotionally unavailable in the son’s youth and now shows signs of dementia.

Dern’s performance plays on the wariness movie audiences long ago learned to feel for Dern characters, who lean toward the eruptive and disruptive; at best, they are unbridled enthusiasts, and at worst, psychotic. It’s been this way since 1972. In that one year, Dern’s Old West scumbag shot John Wayne in “The Cowboys,” his botanist character took environmentalism to the extreme in the sci-fi “Silent Running,” and his mobbed-up Atlantic City dreamer monologued with 1970s-style aimlessness in “The King of Marvin Gardens.”

But Woody, though ornery, isn’t dangerous, nor even half-cocked. He’s taciturn, coming by his shut-down personality naturally, as we see in a squirmy-awkward gathering of Woody’s many, mostly silent brothers in a scene that’s vintage Payne.

Woody’s quick to down beers but nurses grudges. He’s still after that air compressor his partner in an auto shop (Stacy Keach) stole from him years earlier.

“The one thing I began on with Woody was the fact that if there is one common thread that goes through everything he does, he believes in fairness,” Dern said. “And he believes that everybody should be fair.”

Such beliefs can lead to heartbreak, and Dern subtly shows how Woody has absorbed disappointments for years.

Dern always has worked, and in 2006 received an Emmy nomination for his performance as the sour, conniving grandpa on HBO’s “Big Love.” But his “Nebraska” performance has won him the most notice for his acting since his supporting actor Oscar nomination for 1978’s “Coming Home.” In “Coming Home,” Dern played a Marine captain struggling with the horrors he witnessed in Vietnam.

The recent attention is “wonderful, it’s tremendously gratifying,” Dern said. “To be given this opportunity at 77 years old was remarkable for me.”

Dern met Payne in 1996, when Dern’s daughter, Laura, starred in Payne’s abortion-themed satire “Citizen Ruth.” Payne, who is from Omaha, first alerted Bruce Dern to the “Nebraska” script, written by another local, Bob Nelson, 10 years ago. Payne discussed the part with other actors, Dern said – “There are a lot of great actors in my age range” – but went back to his first instinct.

“I just believed him” as Woody, the 52-year-old Payne said during an onstage interview in October that was part of the Los Angeles Times’ Envelope Screening Series. “He doesn’t look like a movie star. He looks like that guy. You can’t put Warren Beatty in that part. … Woody’s an old prairie dog.”

Before working with Payne, Dern consulted his daughter, who recommended the director heartily, and Jack Nicholson, his “Marvin Gardens” co-star and a friend since they both worked in 1960 Roger Corman B movies. Nicholson starred in Payne’s 2002 film “About Schmidt.”

“I asked Jack what the drill was with (Payne),” said Dern, affecting a Nicholson accent – the verbal equivalent of a squint – to recount Nicholson’s response.

“He said, ‘He will be the best teammate you’ve ever had; he is the absolute best partner you can have on a set,’” Dern said. “And he was absolutely right. Everybody feels the same way. You can ask Burt Reynolds (‘Ruth’) or George Clooney (‘The Descendants’).”

Once on set, Payne asked him to do something new, Dern said. After introducing him to cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Payne requested that Dern “let Phedon and I do our jobs,” Dern said. “He said, ‘Don’t show us anything. Let us find it.’ And what he meant was, just be Woody. Don’t show us how interesting Woody is.”

Shooting in rural Nebraska encouraged a sense of togetherness, Forte said.

“We were all away from home,” Forte said by phone during a publicity stop in San Francisco. “There are not a ton of restaurant options, so usually we all either planned to go out to the same place together, or you would just wind up at the same place without planning it.”

That gave Forte, who shares most of his scenes with Dern, even greater access to his co-star, whose work he has admired for years.

“It was like acting fantasy camp,” said Forte, the “Saturday Night Live” veteran venturing into big-screen dramatic acting with “Nebraska.” “It is like, I am with this hero of mine, and hear all these insider Hollywood stories about Alfred Hitchcock (Dern appeared in “Marnie” and was the lead in “Family Plot”) and Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne.

“And the whole time I am in acting fantasy camp, I am getting to know him better and better as a person,” Forte said. “In many ways, our relationship as people mirrors the relationship we have in the movie. ... We got really tight by the end of the movie.”

The father-son feelings on set spread in more unusual ways as well. The Chicago-born Dern comes from a prominent, well-connected family. His father, John, was an attorney and son of George Dern, one-time Utah governor and secretary of war under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Dinner at the Dern home was a formal affair.

“At the dinner table, I had to raise my hand to be called on,” Dern said. “And because I had really nothing interesting to say beside (stuff) I made up, they thought ‘Brucie’s not ready for prime time.’”

The family did not consider show business an acceptable career choice, Dern said.

“I didn’t have any kind of real relationship with my father,” Dern said. “And what happened on ‘Nebraska’ was after about four hours into the first day, I realized I had found my father in Alexander Payne. It was the first relationship I had – even though he’s 20 years younger than me – of someone who treated me like a father should treat a son. I felt safe, and I felt protected.”