To the thundering applause of an intimate audience, Bruce Dern shuffled onto the Bay Street Theatre stage in Sag Harbor and plunked into the empty chair waiting for him opposite moderator Josh Rothkopf.“Jesus Christ,” he said, pulling the microphone closer as he gestured to the screen behind him, which had just shown a 10-minute clip reel highlighting some of the 77-year-old actor’s indelible moments. “That editing job was a lot better than a lot of the films you showed. I’m quite thrilled by that. So whoever had anything to do with it is wonderful.”
For the next hour, Mr. Dern showed no restraint during the Hamptons International Film Festival’s “A Conversation With …” talk on Sunday, October 13. And Mr. Rothkopf, the senior film writer for Time Out magazine, was prepared for him.
“You seem like a no-bullshit kind of guy, so I’m going to ask you a no-bullshit kind of question,” he said. “Watching this clip reel, you—my friend—have played a lot of psychotic characters.”
He paused for a reaction from Mr. Dern, who didn’t object.
“You have,” Mr. Rothkopf continued. “And so, I have to wonder, why do you think you were so good at it?”
“Well, because I had a lot of asshole game,” Mr. Dern said. “I was good at it probably because, first of all, I had to be good at it.”
In his early acting days, Mr. Dern at first played non-speaking roles, he explained, after studying with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in Manhattan. But in Hollywood, everyone has a day when the door opens a crack, he said. His finally did in the early 1960s with episodic television, working alongside “legends” who were “bigger than life,” he said, in “Gunsmoke,” “Surfside 6” and “The Fugitive,” to name a few.
And, though he’s been called “legend” himself and declined the title, Mr. Dern made the opportunities count. If he was the fifth cowboy from the right, he would be the “Goddamn most interesting” fifth cowboy from the right they’d ever seen, he said.
“Mr. Strasberg told me just before I left, ‘You’re gonna be over 60 years old before they get who you are and what you do. Because you become the characters you play. A lot of times, they think you’re just some real jerkoff they got off the road and put you in a movie.’ So the easiest way to work was to be a prick.”
After a string of more than 30 minor character roles, Mr. Dern thought he’d turned a corner when he landed the that of Captain Bob Hyde in 1978’s “Coming Home,” for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He starred opposite Jane Fonda, who portrayed Sally—a loyal and conservative military wife—and Jon Voight, a paralyzed Vietnam War veteran she meets while her husband is overseas.
After the film’s premiere, Barbra Streisand approached Mr. Dern and asked, “Why do you always play such a prick in films?”
“What do you mean?” he responded.
“You’re always such a bastard, going to Vietnam,” she said.
“Well, talk to Jane!” he said. “She went to Vietnam. Go with her! Take Neil Diamond and all the flowers you can find with ya!”
The audience burst into laughter at the story.
“So, I guess I wasn’t done yet,” Mr. Dern murmured of his typecasting. “I felt I couldn’t get out of it, you know? It was difficult and I got a little more panicky.”
Finally, those days are behind him. The seasoned actor has truly reinvented himself in director Alexander Payne’s newest film, “Nebraska,” a black-and-white comedic drama that screened as a HIFF Centerpiece film and earned him the Best Actor prize at the Cannes International Film Festival.
“There are two directors you always don’t say ‘no’ to. Well, three,” Mr. Dern said. “Walter Hill is one. David Lynch is the second. And Alexander is the third … I put my arm around him and he just went to me, he said, ‘Let’s make magic.’”
Mr. Dern stars as Woody, a taciturn curmudgeon convinced he’s won $1 million from a generic sweepstakes letter. Determined to collect his prize, he wrangles his down-and-out son, David—portrayed by Will Forte, who fist-bumped Mr. Dern as he took his seat on Bay Street stage next to him—into taking a road trip to claim is fortune.
“One of the magical things about this movie is the fact that we never thought it was funny. We never laughed during any of the scenes,” Mr. Dern said. “I was bored shitless with what they were saying. I didn’t think it was funny. I just wanted a nap.”
Every moment in the film was on the page, according to the veteran actor, who is known for “Dernsies”—unpredictable behavior or dialogue, coined by his pal, Jack Nicholson, that are not in the script.
“I will say, there are definitely some Dernsies,” Mr. Forte said. “I think it was your idea to do the peeing …”
Mr. Dern cut him off, placing his left index finger over his lips with a quick “ssh.”
“Excuse me,” Mr. Forte abruptly corrected himself. “No Dernsies in this movie.” He smirked and continued, “Those shots when we’re peeing on the side of the road, I don’t know if they were his ideas or if he just needed to pee.”
“A little of both,” Mr. Dern deadpanned.
The audience laughed as Mr. Forte continued, “He was my chaperon through this whole process. It turned this into the best experience of my life.”
He paused as Mr. Dern patted his costar’s knee with his right hand.
“I take issue with what he said earlier,” Mr. Forte said of his costar declining to be called a legend. “I did work with a legend. If you think you’re not a legend, you’re crazy, Bruce.”
Coming on set, the 43-year-old comedian was intimidated by the thought of working alongside the seasoned actor, he said. That fear was quickly extinguished. They got to know each other as people first, he said, and their chemistry in the film naturally followed.
“If you have a buddy and your buddy happens to be as brilliant as him,” Mr. Dern gestured to Mr. Forte, “you know that you have a friend. And you can’t make a movie like this without a friend. Because this is about friendship and love.”
For a moment, the audience saw a softer side of the grizzled actor as he made eye contact with his co-star. A moment that was drowned out in applause. A moment that was only broken by Mr. Dern when he was ready. On his own time.
Only then did he acknowledge the audience and their praise—sincerely humbled.