Bruce Dern returns to Cannes by way of 'Nebraska'

05:00 AM, May 23, 2013

Alexander Payne and Bruce Dern arrive for the screening of their film 'Nebraska' in Cannes, France. Anne-Christine Poujoulat, AFP/Getty Images/


Written By by Bryan Alexander, USA TODAY

Bruce Dern uses one word to describe how he feels about being the center of Cannes Film Festival discussion: “Surprised.”

He might be one of the most respected character actors in Hollywood. But even he is not used to taking the leading role of a major film, much less one by Academy Award- winning director Alexander Payne.

Oh, and he’s 76.

But with Nebraska premiering at the festival Thursday, the white-haired Dern could not be more thrilled for his moment to shine on-screen.

I’m raring to go,” he said. “My God, after all this time, someone is saying, ‘Bruce, come on down!’ Well, I was ready.”

When asked to recall his last leading role during a press call Thursday, Dern cracked, “You mean lead in a movie witnessed by actual human beings? About 25 years.” An avid runner, he managed to work marathons into a metaphor for his sudden career resurgence.

In the marathon, no one starts to think about racing until we’ve gone about 16 miles. I was at about the 24th mile when I heard from Mr. Payne. I had not been able to race yet,” he said. “And I got this opportunity.”

Dern should probably keep the running shoes handy long after his Cannes premiere. With his last Academy Award nomination in 1978 (for best supporting actor in Coming Home), the instant narrative will be long established when Nebraska hits American theaters in awards-friendly November.

Hollywood and the academy love a comeback story,” says Scott Feinberg, lead awards analyst for The Hollywood Reporter. “And this is that great story.”

It was that role in Coming Home that intrigued Payne, who liked how Dern could breathe compassion and understanding into a “bad-guy” character, a niche Dern in which has specialized.

I like actors who can be ornery and heartbreaking at the same time,” Payne said.

Dern has both those characteristics on display in Nebraska as the sometimes-mentally-checked-out Woody Grant, who is determined to leave his Billings, Mont., home to drive to Nebraska to collect a sweepstakes prize he believes he has won. He finally enlists his son (Saturday Night Live alum Will Forte in his dramatic breakthrough) to take the trek with him, but the two get waylaid in Woody’s Nebraska home.

A good friend of Jack Nicholson (the two starred in 1972’s The King of Marvin Gardens), Dern said he was on his best behavior for the coveted part. There were none of the incidents of mischief that Nicholson has dubbed “Dernsies.”

There are no ‘Dernsies.’ Unless they were encouraged for the film. Like taking a pee along the side of the road,” Dern said. “I thought that was essential, and so did (Payne).”

As he was swept into a private festival elevator with his co-stars and daughter Laura, Dern talked about how he consulted Nicholson, who spoke highly about working with Payne — the two collaborated on 2002’s About Schmidt.

(Nicholson) was helpful and said that Alexander would be the best partner I ever had on the screen. I said, ‘After you?’ And Jack said, ‘Including me.’ But he said that I had to trust (Payne).”

He soon found the words to be prescient, with Payne guiding his nuanced performance.

I’ve been doing this a long time,” Dern said. “But this is different to the work I’ve done.”

The result has been Dern’s first Cannes Film Festival in more than 35 years. He clearly enjoyed the hubbub and that his daughter was on hand (“it’s fabulous”). After walking past a line of photographers and autograph hounds calling out his name, Dern gave a broad smile.

I love it. I love it,” he said. “The opera has not changed. And it is an opera.”