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'Nebraska': Alexander Payne on Bruce Dern's 'perfect casting'

Bruce DernWill ForteScarlett Johansson

Sometimes a movie calls for a movie star — an outsized personality who won't be overshadowed by spectacular effects or a sweeping epic. And sometimes, as in the case of Alexander Payne's father-son road drama "Nebraska," a movie requires something more down to earth.

At a recent installment of the Envelope Screening Series, Payne discussed the qualities that compelled him to cast veteran actor Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, a crochety Montana retiree who enlists his adult son (played by Will Forte) to accompany him on a trip to collect his supposed winnings from a dubious mail sweepstakes.

"I just believed him," Payne said of Dern. "He doesn't look like a movie star. He looks like that guy. You can't put Warren Beatty in that part — wonderful actor for other things, but not for that part. Woody's an old prairie dog." The director added that he would've cast Dern "just for his hair," which in the film is a fly-away unkempt white shock. ("Nebraska," incidentally, is in black and white.)

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Although Payne described Dern as a talkative man off-screen, he said the actor "understood the laconic nature of Woody, [who] can be an ornery [curmudgeon], but with a real sweetness underneath. Bruce can play that very well — he kind of is that to a certain degree — and then it comes through in the part. It was really perfect casting in a way."

Forte, who called Dern "a great friend to me and a great teacher," upheld Payne’s characterization. "He does not stop talking," Forte said. "It's wonderful, though — these great stories about Alfred Hitchcock and Elia Kazan and John Wayne. It was like going to film history class."

Forte said that until shooting began, he wasn't sure whether Dern would be able to turn it off. "Beforehand I thought, 'Oh, we're going to have real problems.' Like, I don't know that we'll ever be able to start filming."

It seems he needn't have worried. For more from Forte and Payne, watch the clip above, and check back for daily highlights.

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Bruce DernWill ForteScarlett Johansson
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