He describes a chilly home life of social climbing and little imagination. When he told his family he was leaving to be an actor, "I became persona non grata. So I said, 'Archie is an artist!' And they said, 'Archie is a man of letters, and you are no artist.' They told me, 'Give up acting or don't bother staying in Chicago.' "
He said he wanted to be an actor because he had spent a childhood trying to communicate. He attended the University of Pennsylvania to run track; he left after two years and was accepted into the famed Actors Studio in New York. His father died the same week he started classes, and within a few years ... "A door cracks open," Dern said. "Which means you have three minutes, so when this one casting director was on the phone while I was in his office, I got angry: 'You've taken two minutes of my life here, and, if you're looking for a piece, I can get you better than you'll find on the phone.' He told me to get the hell out. But in the outer office was Jack (Nicholson) and Harry (Dean Stanton), and the guy was so mad he threw us all out. Then he said: 'Wait. There's this TV show. They need three (expletives). You guys are perfect.' "
By the '70s, Dern was known for what Nicholson later coined "Dernsies": off-kilter little twitches and improvisations."But the way I see it, dad was really a pioneer at showing empathy for a character's heavy flaws," Laura Dern said. "As a kid, he never talked to me about acting. Only history, Illinois politics, maps of the world. People would say, 'Your dad killed John Wayne!' Or 'I saw your dad's head roll down the stairs in a movie!' But it was only when I became an actor did I appreciate what he had been doing. He had taken in everything he grew up around and decided that he would play troubled characters. And it became his thing, of course. But he would play them without judgment. It's a reaction to his background, and it was brave."
"Nebraska," not unlike the landscape on which it unfolds, contains few Dernsies. "Those only used to come -- the overacting, the pushing, the selling -- because maybe the dialogue was not as good as I had wanted," Dern said. Payne, however, is a two-time Academy Award winner for best adapted screenplay ("Sideways," "The Descendants") and was nominated for "Election." Though "Nebraska" was written by a relative unknown named Bob Nelson, early into its production Payne pulled Dern aside. Anticipating the scene-stealing instincts of his lead actor, he recalled saying: "I want you to do something you haven't done: Let me do my job. Don't show us anything. I am the director; trust me to find you in this picture."
For Payne -- "I needed a guy you could believe as an old prairie dog" -- the part had been tricky to cast. "I just know that when casting a well-known actor, I encourage him or her to become the unique person being portrayed, relax into the part and not reach into any bag of tricks," he said. "Mr. Dern himself refers to certain things he has done in the past as 'Dernsies.' ... I adore Mr. Dern's previous performances, but in the moment of making this film, I wished to see only the character of Woody Grant. My wish was granted."
The picture, which was shot in black and white (though charcoal and gray is more accurate), opens on Dern trudging along a highway, eyes bewildered, chest thrust forward, pushing ahead as though walking against a gale-force wind. His hair curls away in white waves, his awareness of his surroundings looks questionable; a fog of age has settled on Woody, whose watchfulness and persistence suggests more scarecrow than man.
"Bruce has been around so long, he knows how a simple look registers on camera," Squibb said. Laura Dern said Payne -- who cast Dern as the title character in "Citizen Ruth," his 1996 feature debut -- had wanted her father to play Woody for many years. Perhaps fittingly, though, the role was offered initially to Gene Hackman, who, like Bruce Dern, was an alum of New York's Actors Studio.
Indeed, Bruce Dern considers the role of Woody "basically (an Actors) Studio exercise. The first year I was there I did my scenes without dialogue because they didn't want to give me the responsibility of words. I was trained to just observe, watch, think. I suppose my generation of actors suffered because we thought it was all about behavior, grit and loudness. Everyone wanted to be Dean and Brando, who were Actors Studio members. So by the time I went there, everyone had bad habits, and teachers there didn't want that to happen to me. I became their Frankenstein."
A cobbled-together actor of competing instincts, who could pull authentic, surprising moments from often thinly conceived villains and transients, Dern become better known for his loudness and unpredictability.
Woody, though, brings Dern back to day one, class one. The role suggests the traditional, leading-man career Dern might have had. Tellingly, before "Nebraska" played Cannes, the film was shown to Nicholson, who directed Dern in "Drive, He Said," which earned Dern a best supporting actor award from the National Society of Film Critics.
"Later, while making 'Marvin Gardens,' Jack left a gold statue on my dresser," Dern recalled. "It read 'Your First Gold.' After 'Nebraska,' he turned in his seat and said, 'Dernsie, I'll get you your second gold.' " Which is why Nicholson is hosting the Los Angeles premiere of "Nebraska." As Dern said this, his eyes filled with tears again. Two women at a nearby table, eavesdropping, batted at their own eyes.
Asked if he's looking forward to Oscar season, which promises to reunite him with another old friend, Robert Redford, who is getting strong notices for his own nearly wordless performance in the shipwreck adventure "All Is Lost," Dern sidestepped the question a bit, reaching for a familiar metaphor, but inserted a Dernsie:
"Look, I'm no way near the finish line yet. I don't know what the finish line looks like. Woody doesn't know what the finish line looks like. He's trying to get through the day. As am I, and so I run. I still run. I started running long distances years ago, because, as an actor, when you're not working, there's nothing to do. My career is like that. Running long distances, you catch people. ... You think, '(Expletive), I can catch up to that fatty.' And, 'Oh, I can definitely catch up to that girl.' So you start picking people off, which keeps you going 10 miles, provided God doesn't say, 'No, you're done.' It's like Wrigley Field, where you could play as long as you liked once, provided that you weren't playing at night: Find yourself at twilight and you're (expletive)."
He let his mouth hang open, that familiar toothy smile large and expectant. Talking to him is like talking to an old friend leaving a party: He hovers at the threshold, lapsing into just one more story, unwilling to leave.
"To answer your question," he said, returning to the Oscars ("Finally!" a publicist whispered to the ceiling, within earshot, jokingly), "to respond to what you're asking, to tell you the truth, I'm not dreaming of the Big One." Meaning, he's not dreaming of winning an Academy Award for best actor.
"I just want to be invited to the dinner. I like the peas! I want to keep working. See" -- the publicist threw her head back in happy amazement, anticipating another epic digression -- "I was involved with this documentary, 'A Decade Under the Influence' (about the Golden Age of American cinema in the '60s and '70s), and as (Martin) Scorsese was coming out of the interview room, I was going in. And Marty says, 'You going to retire?' And I said, 'I'm going to retire now? So that Jimmy Caan can take all the parts I should be getting? Well, (expletive) that!' "
Glencoe would be shocked.