Though he's thousands of miles and months away from when he won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival this spring for his role in "Nebraska," there was no one else at the Savannah Film Festival that we spoke to with as much light, energy and enthusiasm as the 77 year-old Bruce Dern. In town last weekend to help open the festival with "Nebraska," and present director Alexander Payne with the Outstanding Achievement in Cinema award, Dern was some of a force in Savannah. The generous time he spent with students of Savannah College of Art & Design in a masterclass already caused a small amount of chatter, and when we sat down with him not long after, Dern was eager and happy to keep sharing his stories and experiences. But what came through most was how proud and genuinely grateful he was the opportunity to perform in "Nebraska."
In the film, Dern plays Woody Grant, a father and married man whose mind is slowly slipping with his advanced age, who is determined to travel to Lincoln to claim the millions of dollars he thinks he's won in a sweepstakes contest. Even as everyone tells him he's dreaming, his youngest son David agrees to drive and accompany his Dad on this pipe dream. And what unfolds is a road trip that allows both Woody and David to bond, while looking at their own fractured family history and trying to make some amends. And Dern plays his role near effortlessly, physically and emotionally channeling a man whose been wearied in body and spirit, but he gives full credit to the material he was able to work with.
“It all begins with what’s on the paper, and what was on the paper to me was as good as I’ve ever seen...It was the best role I’ve ever been offered, period,” he said to us, adding: "It was basically all there. And that’s what excited me about it. And I knew also it was an opportunity for me to be somebody I’ve never been asked to be in a film before.”
But translating a great character in a script into a performance that resonates, often requires trust between an actor and director, and in Payne, Dern found a true collaborator and someone who provided a framework that allowed for taking chances. “Alexander said to me, ‘When you get on the set we’ll have about 80-85 people there, just know that 47 of the crew will have worked every day on every movie I’ve ever made.’ So it’s a family," Dern said. "So you can dare to risk and do things that you’re not going to be punished for or criticized for, because everybody’s got your back.”
Throughout his career, Dern has been able to work with no shortage of great filmmakers — Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola, Elia Kazan, Sam Peckinpah, Bob Rafelson and more — and for him, Payne ranks right up there with them. “I’m put him on the same level as [Elia] Kazan and Mr. [Alfred] Hitchcock, without a doubt. Because his approachability on the set to every member of his crew, his naturalness, his keeping a sense of reality with all of us about the whole day’s work, and work we’re doing,” Dern praised his director.
“And I suppose if I was to say why Alexander on the level with those guys, he casts brilliantly — and I don’t mean with the choice of me — and yet he casts surprisingly, and this movie is filled with people that’ll surprise you,” he added, noting that all of those elements of Payne's approach culminated into something special. “He put together a team of guys that has given us an opportunity at this stage where we have a shot at the playoffs. And I don’t mean Oscars or anything else, we can be one of the most important films of the year.”
But Dern doesn't forget others who helped shaped what has become "Nebraska," from the committed crew to the non-actors who help fill out the texture of the picture, and he has some big words of praise for his co-star and "Saturday Night Live" alum Will Forte, who plays his son in the film. “He’s certainly in the top group of the most courageous actors I’ve ever worked with because, he’s made a living for 18 years doing a certain kind of comedy thing….And he became a certain kind of an entity [and] he sacrificed that in this movie to be real, to be honest, to be simple, and he’s the lynchpin to the movie for me," Dern stated. "I couldn’t have gone where I go in the movie without his help.”
Dern's positive and pure appreciation for "Nebraska" was deeply felt and palpable throughout our conversation, and you can see the result of his experience working Payne and Forte when the film opens on November 22nd.
The Savannah Film Festival continues through November 2nd.