Adam Goodman, president of the studio's film group, stops by to say hello. "Your dad has a handshake that almost broke my hand," Dern tells him. "He's got a father who looks like he's 45. I understand where Adam gets his ability to do what he does because his dad can work a room, let me tell you. He can fill a doorway too." Dern turns to his lunch guest. "Have you met the dad?"
Goodman loves it. "Why doesn't he run for office?" he asks. "This man could be president ... of the country or a studio. His pick."
In a sense, Dern, Oscar nominated for his turn as the delusional dad taking a road trip with his son in
Dern deeply appreciates the Oscar nomination, the second in an acting career that has lasted more than a half century. (He was nominated 35 years ago for his supporting turn as an emotionally damaged Vietnam vet in "Coming Home.") But Dern's gratitude to Payne for casting him as "Nebraska's" taciturn, fragile father runs even deeper. Dern has often talked about Payne pulling him aside on the first day of filming, asking him to let the camera find his performance. Nobody had ever told Dern that. For most of his career, in fact, it has been just the opposite, with directors relying on Dern to embroider characters, often unhinged, off-kilter crazies who weren't fully alive on the page. These unscripted bits of business, "Dernsies" they're called, a term coined by longtime friend
Dern discovered Payne meant business early on when he was shooting a kitchen scene with
"I realized that day I had found a guy who fit my personality," Dern says of Payne, "because I don't have to push to show him how tired the character is. I can just be me because he's going to be there. And after that scene, I had tears in my eyes. I felt for the first time in my life I was the linchpin in a movie."
Which is why, when some advised Dern months ago to campaign in the supporting category rather than lead, he bluntly told them he wouldn't go along with the idea.
"My agent, Fred Specktor, once asked [
"What's beautiful," Dern's daughter, the actress
Dern has a million stories and anecdotes and will happily regale you with tales of John Wayne and
"But then he says, 'Take a nap. Go to sleep. You're not the star of the play.' That made me realize right away, 'Oh, there's a place for me. But it ain't to be so busy all the time.' Even though it was real and it was motivated and I've seen bartenders do that stuff all the time. But we weren't making 'Paris, Texas,' you know."
At least Kazan allowed Dern to come out for the curtain call. The year before, making his Broadway debut in "The Shadow of a Gunman," Strasberg wouldn't let Dern come on stage for the final bow because his character had died during the show and Strasberg didn't want to break the image for the audience.
"So that's my opening week in the theater and having a guy say, 'No recognition for Brucie,'" Dern says.
Just then, a small army of publicists arrives to escort Dern to a photo shoot. Things, as