Bruce Dern, the 77-year-old star of Alexander Payne’s melancholy comedy “Nebraska,” has been a dedicated runner since he was 12. In May, when he was nominated for the Cannes Film Festival’s best actor prize, he said “show business in general is a marathon.” He won the award, crossing the finish line in triumph.
“Cannes was the biggest win of my career,” Dern said in a phone interview Tuesday. “But even bigger was getting the role.”
Dern plays Woody Grant, a taciturn retiree traveling cross-country with his adult son (“Saturday Night Live” veteran Will Forte) to claim a million-dollar sweepstakes he believes he has won. His performance is a marvel of understatement. It’s a far cry from the gallery of craven outlaws and vicious psychos he played on television and in Roger Corman biker flicks. He was the only actor to kill John Wayne onscreen, shooting him in the back in 1972’s “The Cowboys.” In “The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant,” he ate a baby.
Dern began as a Method actor in the 1950s, studying with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio and working on Broadway with Elia Kazan. Eventually, he escaped Hollywood’s villainous typecasting. During Hollywood’s Golden Age in the 1970s, Dern had showcase roles in films from Sydney Pollack (“They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”), Bob Rafelson (“The King of Marvin Gardens”), Alfred Hitchcock (“Family Plot”), John Frankenheimer (“Black Sunday”) and Hal Ashby (“Coming Home,” which earned Dern his only Academy Award nomination to date).
In the years since, Dern has worked steadily though not prominently. His marathon toward his Cannes win — and a likely second Oscar nomination — began 10 years ago this month. Payne, who had met Dern when he directed his daughter Laura in the caustic 1996 comedy “Citizen Ruth,” brought him Bob Nelson’s script for “Nebraska.” Dern, recognizing a plum role for an older actor, signed on, little suspecting that it would take so long to line up backers for a bittersweet, black-and-white slice of working-class Midwestern life.
Dern, who still runs every day, estimates that he has run the equivalent of four times around the world. “I’ve had every kind of injury you can have,” he said, and he brought that to his performance as Woody, who shambles along with effort.
“I tore my quadriceps off my knee seven years ago and never got full strength back. I’m not as competitive at 800 meters and 1,500 meters as I used to be. When I walk, it’s kind of a controlled stumble. I just unleashed all that into Woody.”
Woody is a man of so few words that Dern’s dialogue could fit on a postcard.
Creating a character in near-silence is “not as challenging as you would think. I was trained by Mr. Kazan and Mr. Strasberg without a dependence on dialogue. You’re still alive whether you talk or not. Some of the most interesting people I’ve met don’t say much. The biggest challenge for me was shutting the things out all around me that I usually pay attention to.”
Woody is a bit deaf, or maybe willfully hard of hearing when he wants to be. Dern, who wears hearing aids, turned them down while performing. “I just put all of that to work.”
Dern is quick to praise his co-stars and crew. He didn’t know Forte’s work as a TV comedian, but they developed a warm intergenerational rapport, he said. He paid tribute to Nelson’s deft script and Payne’s on-the-set inspirations. In one of the final exchanges between father and son, the young man calls to his dad, who replies, “I’m here.”
“He’s really saying ‘I’m not dead yet. I’m still present, bud.’ ” Next year, his 54th as a screen actor, Dern stars in the immigration drama “Fighting for Freedom” and plays a featured role in the thriller “Cut Bank.” He’s still present.