In 1977, Bruce Dern received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Captain Bob Hyde in "Coming Home" -- a film that includes a now-iconic scene of Dern swimming out into the ocean in an effort to commit suicide. It was one of the most memorable moments of Dern's career.
Which is why it's noteworthy that Dern now considers his role in Alexander Payne's new film, "Nebraska," his "role of a lifetime."
In the film, Dern stars as Woody, an older man with a drinking problem who thinks he's won a great fortune after receiving a Publisher's Clearing House "You've Already Won!"-type notice in the mail. This prompts Woody to walk from Montana to Omaha, Nebraska, to claim his "prize." Eventually, Woody's son, David (Will Forte), agrees to drive him there thinking it will be a good excuse for some father-son bonding. Though, after a stop in their old hometown along the way (where Woody makes the mistake of telling anyone who will listen that he's just won a lot of money), both men get more out of the trip -- and their relationship with one another -- than they expected.
When you meet Dern in person (an incredibly sweet man, by the way), he makes it abundantly clear how lucky he feels right now -- that he was taken off a proverbial scrapheap and given this plum role in a movie directed by one of the best guys working today. Then again, Dern brought something to the role himself. He won Best Actor at Cannes earlier this year, and he's likely on his way toward a Best Actor Academy Award nomination.
Dern was in a reflective mood when we met at Paramount's headquarters near Times Square. Though, perhaps it's easier to talk about your perceived failures when you're on the brink of something really special.
Bruce Dern: You're the guy with the second-neatest haircut I've seen.
Honestly, this is "I'm running late and didn't have time to comb my hair."
The only time I've ever seen hair like that ... was when I was growing up, we had a butler -- excuse the expression -- and he had grown up in Milwaukee and went to high school with Liberace. So, he took me up to meet Liberace and Liberace came out with even much more dramatic hair than that.
I would hope so.
I said, "God, have you been out in the wind?" He said, "Bruce, I blow dry it." This is 1947, or something like that.
What was meeting Liberace like in 1947?
There was no television yet, so he wasn't on it ... If I describe all of the wacky people that I've played in my career, I would put him in the same way. Which is: They're not "wacky," they're people who live just beyond where the buses run. That's who he was, and he knew who he was, and he knew where he was going.
Alexander Payne has said that you were his first choice for "Nebraska," then he reached out to Gene Hackman, then wound up getting you. Did you at one point turn this down?
Well, I didn't turn it down. Yes, I won the award at Cannes and that was a big thrill. And who knows what will happen from now on, but, since then, that was a huge thrill. But the biggest thrill of this whole scenario for me was getting the role. Number one: Alexander Payne says, "Come on down." Then you're actually in the movie and you get the role ... and you're in a studio movie. I haven't been in a studio movie in 35 years.
Though you were certainly around. You were in "Big Love."
"Big Love" isn't on the big screen. "Big Love" was Bruce Dern playing "in little love." Because not only did Frank get little or no love, he got little to do. I mean, I would do just three or four episodes a year. I never did more than that. They had so many people to pay off every week, character wise, by the time they got to Frank, there wasn't much left. And it didn't start out supposed to be like that, but it did. It got like that. I was doing films and they didn't like that I went to do films.
The narrative right now seems to focus on your "comeback." Do you like that word?
[Pauses] Anytime they're putting adjectives with my name, I like 'em. Because I've had a lot of the other kind of adjectives said, too. So, I like that. I don't consider it a comeback. No. Because I'm not sure that I ever left the room. It's just that I was in the little chairs in the back for a long time and moved up. And this was a chance, frankly, to get what some people would call "the role of a lifetime" ... so, the victory for me was just getting the role. And I'm sure Will Forte would tell you the same thing -- the nicest man I've met in my career. He's the lynchpin to the movie. Without his dedicating himself and to give up a familiar way of working -- to let the humanity come through, rather than running down the street with a piece of celery up his ass.
You've had success in the past, but I feel quite a few of your movies became popular long after they were in theaters. "Silent Running" became popular after its theatrical run...
Well, they didn't get a chance to see it. It opened at the Cinerama Dome in L.A. and before it was "Blue Water, White Death," which was a shark documentary -- and then "Silent Running." Then, two weeks later, they opened "The Cowboys" across the street. Thank you very much. Well, I did them at the same time, going between the two. I don't know, the movie I'm most disappointed that people didn't ever find... well, there's three. One is "On the Edge," a running movie I did. The second is "Harry Tracy," which is a western I did. And the third and the thing that makes me sad the most is "Smile." Nobody discovered it. It never had a play-date in New York City to this day. It just didn't catch on and people didn't go to see it.
I'm going to add one more, that has gained popularity in recent years from people my age, which is "The 'Burbs."
Oh, yeah. We shot it while "Big" came out.
It's very different than "Big."
Yeah, so Tom Hanks was just really arriving. You know, from Peter Scolari and him in "Bosom Buddies" to that -- it was just a little later than that. But, it's a gem. Another one is, I did a really good movie nobody saw, "The Driver" -- the Walter Hill movie. And "After Dark, My Sweet" directed by James Foley, who did three movies in a row and doesn't get work much. He did "At Close Range," After Dark, My Sweet," and "Glengarry Glen Ross."
I am a fan of "At Close Range."
Oh my God! Big stuff.
And a great Madonna song, "Live to Tell."
Well, James Foley was the best man at Sean and Madonna's wedding.
I did not know that.
And he directed a Madonna movie, the one where she had the tiger in New York City.
"Who's That Girl?"
Yeah ... I got lucky. I'm here because I got lucky.
I feel it's more than just that.
Well, thank you. But it takes getting the role to do that. And when I read [Nebraska], I knew, Godammit, I can do that. And then you finally get the role and they put Will and I together and all you read is people saying, "Oh, don't do that to us, Paramount. Don't let those two guys in a movie together! One is really not funny and the other one is not that good an actor."
I don't remember reading anything like that.
Oh, on the blog things. Not the blogger, but when they ask for comments.
You shouldn't be reading those.
One of them said, "I know Will Forte and he looks good running away from you with a piece of celery sticking out of his butt."
A "MacGruber" reference.
Well, that's what they thought he was going to do in this movie. And they thought, "Oh, Bruce Dern, he plays an aging alcoholic -- you know halfway through the film he's going to kill everyone and his family."
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.