Bruce Dern’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing since he returned home to Pasadena from the Cannes Film Festival in May.
The first call, which abruptly woke him, turned out to be his daughter Laura. She’d heard from director Alexander Payne that good news was on its way. “I said, ‘Laura, don’t shit me,’ ” Dern recalls, with his typical histrionic flair. Twenty minutes later, she called back to tell him he was the festival’s best actor winner.
At 77, Dern delivers a career-best performance in Payne’s “Nebraska,” a story about a confused old man on a road trip with his son (played by Will Forte). Dern says it’s the first time in his long career he’s had the chance to fully display his chops, which he fine-tuned at the Actors Studio in New York, working with Elia Kazan.
“I guess I felt a sense of unbelievable pride and slight relief that I had finally done a piece of work that was embraced by my peers,” Dern says, sounding wistful. “I’m very lucky to be where I am today.”
The Paramount Pictures film, which debuts Nov. 15, is the rare starring role for Dern. A studious character actor who has appeared in dozens of TV series and more than 80 features, including “Black Sunday” and “The Cowboys,” where his gun-slinging villain famously killed John Wayne, Dern has always struggled to get Hollywood to see him as anything but a supporting prop.
“You are not a leading man,” director Sydney Pollack once told him on the set of “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” That exchange brought tears to his eyes, he wrote in his 2007 memoir, “Things I’ve Said, but Probably Shouldn’t Have.”
“I haven’t been in a studio movie for I don’t know how many years,” Dern says. “I guess they thought I wasn’t good enough or I wasn’t big enough or I wasn’t entertaining enough. Immediately, Bruce will go to all the negative things,” he says, referring to himself in the third person.
Dern’s role in “Nebraska” as Woody, the elderly father, wasn’t originally intended for him. He read the script nine years ago, when Payne told him he “always had one actor in mind when he saw the material, and that was Henry Fonda,” Dern says. Payne also tried to meet with Gene Hackman, but he couldn’t lure the thesp out of retirement.
“Bruce had a lot of the right essence of Woody Grant,” Payne says. “Sweetness and orneriness, emotional availability and being distant at the same time. On the set, he’s fantastic. Like his daughter, he’ll do anything.”
Payne knows Laura Dern, having worked with her on one of his first features, “Citizen Ruth,” where they became close friends. Notes Laura: “During the process of making (‘Nebraska’), I felt as involved as I have on any movie I have been part of as an actor. It’s funny not being in the movie.”
Of course that’s not exactly the case: She has a cameo at the end, during a scene in which Woody is in his car, marking the first time the father and daughter have appeared onscreen together.
“I think he is hard on himself — and the business, the commerce part, is hard on actors who love the art,” Laura Dern says, when asked about her father’s career. “I think dad also had the challenge of wanting to make fearless choices and do interesting roles. Suddenly there were more box office and effects movies and fewer ‘Dog Day Afternoons.’ ”
Bruce Dern arrived in Hollywood in 1961 as a stage actor who had cut his teeth on Broadway. When he got into town, the only person he knew was Paul Newman, whom he was too shy to ring.
“One of the advantages, when I first came to Hollywood — we still had the legends,” Dern says. “Those people were legends to me, whether it was John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Bette Davis. They were bigger than life. We’re not bigger than life.”
Dern says that what’s changed is the amount of exposure of an actor’s life. “You never knew what John Wayne did when he left work,” Dern says. “The studios protected all that. When the studio system went down,” so did boundaries of privacy.
Dern, who speaks in soliloquies about all his years in Hollywood, has a history of forming close-knit bonds with his crew. “Some people hide in their dressing rooms all day,” Dern says. “I was taught, because I began with Mr. Kazan, that you were on set the whole time you were in a scene, and you don’t leave.”
He isn’t above sometimes taking a swipe at a co-star he didn’t get along with. He says that on the short-lived ’60s TV series “Stoney Burke,” Jack Lord continually accused him and another supporting actor of stealing his lines. “We weren’t,” Dern says. “We were just trying to be cowboys.”
He also recounts the roles that could have been. Francis Ford Coppola asked Dern to screen test for “The Godfather,” but the actor declined, since he knew Robert Duvall was also up for the part. “I said, ‘Francis, why wouldn’t you give Bob Duvall the role?’ ” he recalls.
Later, when courted by Richard Attenborough for a supporting part in “Gandhi” (ultimately played by Martin Sheen), Dern wanted to know if he could engage in one of his favorite activities — long-distance running — on the film’s India shoot. It turned out he couldn’t, because of a personal phobia. “I’m terrified of snakes,” Dern says.
Even after a lifetime of credits, Dern has been nominated for an Oscar only once — a best supporting actor notice for 1978’s “Coming Home.” But his performance in “Nebraska” puts him in the conversation in this year’s crowded actor race alongside Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club”), Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”) and Robert Redford (“All Is Lost”).
Dern remembers telling his daughter how important an Oscar nomination can be for a career. “ ‘Understand, you have a seat at the table for the rest of your life,’ ” he told her when she was nominated for 1991’s “Rambling Rose.” “She got it early on. She knew it was about risk taking, trying to do things in roles that other people wouldn’t do.”
There’s just one problem as he heads into awards season. “I don’t know what campaigning means,” Dern says. “I don’t know how to do it.”
That, and there’s likely to be snakes out there.