Bruce Dern, shirt untucked, white hair mussed (“I have always been a fan of attractive disarray,” he says, chuckling), is between bites of his grilled cheese sandwich, holding court inside Paramount Pictures’ executive dining room. Everyone knows him here. And it’s not a stretch to say that everyone who knows him here also loves Dernsie or Brucie, the terms of endearment by which the 77-year-old actor is best known.
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 Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” has been running for election ever since the movie premiered last year at Cannes, where Dern won the award for best actor. “I didn’t realize that after Cannes all this would last nine months. Baseball season’s six months. The Olympics are over in two weeks. This ... this is an endurance contest.”
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 Jack Nicholson, have given Dern the reputation for being able to turn the mundane into magic. But they didn’t belong in “Nebraska.”
Dern discovered Payne meant business early on when he was shooting a kitchen scene with June Squibb and Will Forte, who play his wife and son in the movie. The scene had the family members arguing about an air compressor that a neighbor borrowed and never returned. In the middle of it, Dern leaves the kitchen and sits down in the living room, but the camera stays on him as he listens to the discussion in the other room.
“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 [Martin] Scorsese, ‘How come you never found anything for Bruce?’” Dern says. “And he answers, ‘It’s very simple. You can’t waste Bruce Dern. If you’re going to hire him, you have to make him the linchpin of your movie.’ And I always thought that was a great compliment. But this is the first time that I felt that the responsibility of the movie working was up to my minimal Dernsies, my minimal pushing, not trying to show something that isn’t going on just to try to be entertaining. And when you start like I did ... ‘Gadg,’ that’s Mr. [Elia] Kazan, taught me very early that when you go out there, you’re going to be the fifth cowboy from the right. And you better be the most interesting fifth cowboy we’ve ever seen. So this is something different for me.”
“What’s beautiful,” Dern’s daughter, the actress Laura Dern, says by phone, “is that after all this time he was ready and knew exactly what to do with this linchpin character, creating this complicated man who could still be celebrated despite his many faults. The honesty, which has always been found in Dad’s work, could be discovered.”
Dern has a million stories and anecdotes and will happily regale you with tales of John Wayne and Lee Strasberg, Robert Oppenheimer and Robert Redford. There’s the time in 1959 he played bartender in the Broadway play “Sweet Bird of Youth,” by Tennesee Williams, starring Paul Newman and Geraldine Page, when Kazan, the director, told him that he was the “most interesting bartender he’d ever seen.”
“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 Bob Dylan sang, have changed.