12/03/2013 09:14 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2014

Lunch with a Legend: Bruce Dern

After a best actor award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, there's no stopping Bruce Dern. As Woody in Alexander Payne's masterpiece "Nebraska," featured in Toronto, New York, and the Hamptons Film Festivals, he's a doddering but endearing old fool who takes seriously one of those announcements that he's a sweepstakes winner, and convinces his son to drive him from Billings to Omaha to pick up his millions. With old school modesty, Dern says that the obstacle to making this film which took a long time--he received the script 10 years ago this week--was not about casting him, a quasi-bankable character actor in the lead role, but that it's shot in black and white. At lunch at Il Gattopardo this week, he applauded Paramount for letting Payne make his film the way he wanted to make it. And now, there's no question that Dern will join a line-up that includes Robert Redford for "All is Lost," contenders for the Best Actor Oscar.

A fount of film history, with stories galore, Dern will tell you he met Redford when they did "The Great Gatsby" together in 1974, and that was not even the first movie made of that novel. He leaps from one anecdote to the next dotted with names like Jack Garfein,--oh that's when he was married to Carroll Baker, to Lee Strasberg who said if you're going to be the fifth cowboy from the left, be the best fifth cowboy to the left, to actresses he admires like Lee Remick, Janice Rule, Kim Stanley, and Jane Fonda, his onscreen wife in "Coming Home" who will present him with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.
In a supporting role, Stacy Keach is in "Nebraska" too, an old drinking buddy who thinks he should get a piece of Woody's millions. When you ask Dern what's it like working with Keach, he says, oh our performance was informed by our work together in "That Championship Season" (1982) and then he challenges you to name the director, giving you hints about his famous actor son. That's Jason Patric son of Jason Miller. But before he lets you go, he becomes a charming liar: he looks you in the eye and asks, "Does your husband tell you every day what a pretty face you have? He should, you know. Tell him, Woody knows!" And as you take this in, you find out he's just paid the same compliment to the woman on your left.

Laura Dern, who starred in Alexander Payne's directorial debut "Citizen Ruth," (1996) and who most recently starred with her mother Diane Ladd in HBO's "Enlightened" as a hopeful but clueless woman who you know will never make much of her life, introduced her dad at the lunch. What was it like growing up in this home? "Well, I was never bored, it was magic, a lot going on all the time. I'm so proud of my dad as an artist because every moment of his performance as Woody in "Nebraska" is the truth."

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.