Bruce Dern has been acting for more than a half century, with much-heralded movies like "Coming Home," "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" and "The Great Gatsby" to his credit. The Chicago native knows a few things about working in front of a camera.
But nothing he's experienced in all those years of TV and film projects was like shooting "Nebraska" with director Alexander Payne.
"The first day of shooting, he told me, 'I am your director and this is your cinematographer. Will you do something for us? Let us do our jobs.' Payne told me that he was sure they could get a magical quality out of my performance as long as I wasn't trying to show them the emotions of the role but just acted naturally and let them find the emotions," Dern says.
Dern did just that.
He focused on giving life to the character of Woody Grant, a man in the twilight of his life who's desperately looking for the proper legacy. He thinks he's found it when he gets a letter telling him he's won $1 million. Although everyone tells him it's just a ploy to get him to buy magazines, Grant is so convinced the financial windfall's real that he's willing to walk hundreds of miles in freezing weather to claim his prize. His son David (Will Forte) finally agrees to drive him to the sweepstakes headquarters to settle the issue.
When Dern read the script, he knew this was a role he wanted to play. It took a decade for the movie to finally get made, but Dern held on to the hope he would one day get to walk in Grant's shoes. It wasn't problems with "Nebraska," but that the project got bumped for Payne to direct "Sideways" and "The Descendants."
"Without a doubt, I have been given good roles in my career. The remarkable thing about this script was that everything I needed to do the role was on the page," Dern says. "The entire story was there. I didn't need to add anything extra. No Dern-isms. All I had to do was behave myself and not try to do too much.
"Alexander told me all I had to do was trust him. I put my arms around him and said, 'Let's go and make magic.' I haven't felt this way with any other director since maybe Elia Kazan."
Dern worked with Kazan on Broadway, where the chief lesson he learned was how to work without depending on dialogue. Those lessons come through in "Nebraska," since Grant is a man of few words.
Making "Nebraska" was the first time Dern had felt like everyone on the project was "pulling their oar."
He learned the secret was Payne's way of working. The two-time Oscar-winning director uses almost the same crew on every film. That movie family has created such a bond that filming goes smoothly. Dern quickly learned he could trust the crew and that helped him become even more comfortable in the role.
One of the final pieces of playing the character came from Dern's own past. The one thing about Grant that stood out to the actor was that he was all about fairness.
"I had an uncle who was a judge, and he told me that he had the best job in the U.S. because he got up every single morning with a chance to be fair," Dern says.
Had Dern's mother gotten her way, the actor would have followed his uncle's career path. Even after Dern had been working as an actor for a decade — mostly on TV — his mother offered to pay his way through college if he would become a lawyer.
The appeal of bringing characters to life — such as the one he plays in "Nebraska" — was too strong for Dern to even consider leaving acting.
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.