CANNES, France -- For the aging, gruff patriarch of his father-son road trip "Nebraska," Alexander Payne tried to lure Gene Hackman out of retirement and considered the likes of Robert Duvall and Jack Nicholson. Bruce Dern calls them "the obvious guys."
"He said to me, `I got an idea. Let's surprise them with you,"' Dern recalled of learning from Payne that he had the part. Payne, he says, continued: "`You haven't done this. You haven't done anything like this. Let's have fun. Let's knock their socks off."'
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Though the part, reticent and cantankerous, isn't the typical socks-knocking kind of stuff, Dern's unadorned portrait has been one of the most hailed performances at the Cannes Film Festival, where the black-and-white "Nebraska" premiered to warm reviews Thursday. For Dern, whose days as a leading man were largely in the 1970s, working with Payne on "Nebraska" was deeply meaningful.
"All during your career, you look for a certain kind of security from the people you're working with, people that believe you're talented, that you can do what you can do," says the 76-year-old Dern, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in 1978's "Coming Home." "I've been overrated sometimes and I've been underrated, probably more than I've been overrated."
Dern is an eager storyteller, and during an interview Friday, his conversation took detour upon detour, ranging from the directions of Alfred Hitchcock to how best to cheat at boarding school. His co-star in "Nebraska," the former "Saturday Night Live" player Will Forte, calls him, with understatement, "a bit of a talker."
In the film, Dern stars as Woody Grant, a retired, alcoholic veteran showing signs of senility. When he receives a mass mailing promising him a $1 million award, he sets out down the road from his Montana home to collect it in person in Nebraska. His son (Forte) placates him by driving him, including a stop his father's old hometown: "The guy needs something to live for," says the son.
It's a sweet but unsentimental tale of a son giving his father a sense of decency late in life. It will be released in November by Paramount Pictures amid the fall award season.
Dern calls Woody "a monument to the people like that, that still exist in this country -- a guy that's not going to leave, that's not going to get out." Dern risked, he says, "trying not to act."
"I said: `I'll give you whatever you want. I won't give you what other directors want, because it's sparse,"' says Dern. "It's not a career-making role. I never smile. I never laugh. He never really gets angry except once. But there's no self-pity with Woody."
This is the second time a Dern has starred in a film by Payne. His 1996 feature debut, the abortion debate satire "Citizen Ruth," starred Laura Dern, Bruce's daughter. The actress lobbied Payne to cast her father.
"Both Derns will do anything you ask them to do," Payne told reporters. The director said he was as much drawn to Dern by his talent as by "who the man is."
"I like actors who can be ornery but heartbreaking at the same time," Payne said.
Dern, an avid lifetime runner, compared Payne's interest to him as coming on the 24th mile to the marathon of his career.
"I'll love him forever for that, for seeing in me that I could pull this off," Dern says of Payne. "He's different folks."
When Forte, early in the production, told Dern that he was having trouble adjusting to dramatic acting and establishing their relationship, Dern gave him some advice.
"I put my hand on his arm and I said, `Just look at me every time in the movie and realize you may be working with a guy who's never going to make another movie,"' Dern says. "He got big tears in his eyes and said, `Are you serious?' I said, `No, it's all bull----. But you don't know that and I don't know that because if this fails, I'm done. They'll never let me play another lead in a movie."'
The two spent weeks together in the close confines of a Subaru, says Forte: "I could just listen to him forever. He has the best stories. We became very close."
"I've been in some pretty good movies," says Dern. "This is the best movie I've been in. I hope it's as good a work as I've done."