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Nebraska role brings actor late-in-life kudos

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Los ANGELES -- Sometimes, you can tell a lot about an actor by the company he keeps.

In the '60s and '70s, Bruce Dern kept very good company indeed. Dern and Jack Nicholson had a bond, forged when they were both hungry young actors doing motorcycle/drug movies for Roger Corman before hitting the Hollywood big leagues.

As Nicholson's star rose, so did Dern's, albeit less spectacularly. He was frequently cast by important old-school directors such as John Frankenheimer (Black Sunday) and Alfred Hitchcock (Family Plot). In 1972, director Mark Rydell chose Dern to be the guy who would kill John Wayne onscreen in The Cowboys.

Fortunately, Dern also worked with the upstarts of the Hollywood Renaissance -- guys who didn't have a problem with his shooting The Duke -- including Bob Rafelson (The King of Marvin Gardens, alongside Nicholson), Hal Ashby (Coming Home) and Michael Ritchie (Smile).

If enduring stardom proved elusive, the Illinois-raised Dern has stayed a working actor, appearing on TV (CSI NY, Big Love) and the occasional movie. And if the parts got smaller, he was still shown appreciation by directors such as Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained), Francis Ford Coppola (Twixt) and Joe Dante, who gave Dern the role of "Creepy Carl" in the juvenile horror movie The Hole.

Dern, now 77, sees his star rise again with Nebraska, a sweet and salty road movie from director Alexander Payne (The Descendants, About Schmidt). Dern plays Woody, a retired mechanic who has been left on the borders of senility by alcoholism, war and a troublesome marriage. When Woody gets sent a notice about a potential million-dollar prize from a mail-order company, he believes it is as good as cash, and compels his estranged younger son David (Will Forte) to join him on a trip to Lincoln, Neb., to claim his prize.

Dern already claimed his prize -- for top male actor -- at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and in this last week has been nominated in best-actor categories by the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes. An Academy Award nomination is likely, and Dern, who was last nominated 34 years ago for playing a damaged Vietnam vet in Coming Home, is not one to shrug off a possibility for an Oscar.

"It would mean everything," he says at a press conference, adding that the movie is still very much an ensemble work.

"The thing I'm proudest of in this movie is the group effort, and I include the people behind the camera," Dern says. "Alexander's got an 85-member crew and half of them have worked on every movie he's ever made. So he's got a family there.

"That's what made it exciting," he says. "It was an at-bat for all of us."

To some extent, Dern was cast because he brings a Midwest authenticity to a role that plays on the stoicism and determination of that generation of Midwesterner. He recalls westward road trips from his native Winnetka through the same country in which Nebraska is set.

"The people were monumental to me. They were bigger than life, not in size -- although they were bigger size-wise too, because the kids are hauling ice or shucking wheat or whatever it is that they do," he says.

"There was an honesty and integrity, even at the gas station," he says. "So I always felt that once I left Illinois, everyone was fairer than where I lived. That was the quality I picked up on more than anything else in the script.

"If there's one ingredient that Woody has -- and I don't know if he knows he has it -- he's a fair man and he believes everybody else is going to be fair.

"And when they're not," Dern says, "... there comes the story."

Dern has high praise for Payne -- and keep in mind Dern's first ever film work was for Elia Kazan in an uncredited role in Wild River, among all those other superstar directors.

"The excitement of it is you have a director who is standing right next you, and you can feel his pulse," Dern says. "He knows the scripts works. Eighty per cent of his job, he feels, is accomplished in his casting.

"He'd sit there watching the movie. He's the first one seeing it. He's like the guy in the huddle with you, calling the plays, and then he's going to sit back and see if you run them well.

"It's an experience I've never had before in my career, and I've worked with plenty of people who have major game as directors," Dern says.

"I'd never been in a piece of material where it was all there to begin with," he says. "We didn't have to add anything.

"And I'm Mr. Add, trust me," he chuckles. "I'm the guy who puts in anything I can to make Brucey look a little better."

Nebraska opens in Winnipeg Dec. 20.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2013 G3

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