NEW YORK - You know it's Oscar time in Hollywood when a hunger to win wafts off glad-handing actors like a sticky drugstore musk.
And yet, everyone sticks to the same script: No, they're not even thinking about it and anyway, it's just an honor to be in contention.
Not so with Bruce Dern. He's one of this year's favorites heading into awards season for a career-making performance in director Alexander Payne's intimate, funny, sad father-son drama Nebraska(out Friday).
"I hear a lot of wonderful things. It's a process that goes on. It's wonderful if you're included. I would love to be," says Dern. "I went once (to the Oscars) as a supporting (actor nominee) and it was very, very nice. Overall, the honesty of it all is, there are not five people who are better than anyone else. I knew George C. Scott fairly well and his point was, acting is not a competition. I'm not fond of that."
And please don't get Dern, who has sat throughNebraska two dozen times, started on the faux-humble actors who claim they can't watch themselves on screen and don't see their own movies.
"They're lying pieces of (expletive). They're saying that because they're either embarrassed about it or it didn't turn out like they wanted," says Dern.
"Keep talking. It's the best thing of all time," says co-star Will Forte, 43, sitting across from Dern over a late dinner.
At the ripe age of 77, he is getting some of the best notices of his lengthy and varied career for playing Woody, a disgruntled, delusional boozer in Nebraska. Desperate to claim a $1 million prize he's convinced really belongs to him, he goes on a road trip with his appeasing, amiable but perplexed son (Forte). Putting himself in Payne's hands for a seven-week shoot paid off; Dern won best actor in Cannes.
"I called him up to tell him congratulations and he was about to go for a run. He had just heard the news. At this moment, he picks up the phone, 'Hey, what's up bud?'" recalls Forte. "I cannot tell you what that guy means to me. We got to be very, very close and that is every bit as special as this movie. We're family now. We talk on the phone. He'll always pick up the phone."
You'd think Dern, who has appeared in movies as varied as Django Unchained,Monster and They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, would be drowning in film offers. At the very least, you'd assume directors would be clamoring to work with the guy.
Not remotely the case, he says.
"I've been given nice roles before. But a lot of time they were roles eight or nine guys turned down and they finally came to me," says Dern. "Nobody ever came to me and said, 'Here, be Woody,' and have it be a movie where the story line follows this character. And it's Alexander Payne. That was the win."
He and Forte, a former Saturday Night Live cast member, didn't know each other before being cast, so they broke bread to break the ice. Forte was dazzled by Dern's candor and colorful stories, which can reference Nancy Sinatra, Peter Fonda and Howard Hughes in one throw-away sentence.
"We had a three-hour dinner moderated by Mr. Payne," says Dern. "He was studying whether we would get along or not. I got his drill, he got my drill, and we were fine before we started shooting. The first day of shooting, I didn't know that much about who Will Forte was - I hadn't seen MacGruber but I'd heard about it from every (expletive)," says Dern. "He has approachability. He's open. There's nobody who gets left out. He gives everyone a win."
As for Dern? "Well, I'm not like that."
But Forte's sunny demeanor hides an at-times-crippling self-doubt. He put himself on tape, never thinking he had a shot. After four and a half months, he got a call from Payne's office saying he wanted to meet. The two sat down and Forte drew on every shred of confidence he had, but he never thought it would go any further.
"Getting the call a month later was one of the most exciting things that's ever happened to me. I still can't believe it. The biggest challenge was getting out of my own head. Once I was cast, it was very intimidating going in. It was a matter of not over-thinking things," says Forte. "I haven't developed that thick skin. I get really nervous. I am a worst-case-scenario person. I got so in my head. Would I be the one thing that brought this down?"
Dern looks at Forte and pays him the ultimate compliment.
"We sat in that car for six or seven hours a day at times," says Dern. "I always felt that, outside Jack Nicholson in The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), he's the best partner I've ever had."
Talking to Dern is like sitting down for a master film history class. He's old-school polite, with a bawdy charm. And the stuff he says in passing is enough to make your eyes pop.
Dern was nominated for a best-supporting-actor Oscar for the 1978 Vietnam dramaComing Home, a film that elicits another casual remembrance. "We wore no makeup. Jane (Fonda's) going to work in the hospital (in the film) and when Jane was out doing all her stuff in North Vietnam, she wasn't big on makeup in the morning when she went out there," he says.
Forte, sitting across from him, laughs. "This is what it was like the entire time. We didn't know each other before we started filming. Now we're like family," he says.
Payne is an admirer as well. "He's very uninhibited. He'll say anything to anybody," he says of Dern.
Dern has no airs and graces, at least any that are visible. In Nebraska, his relationship with his two sons is best described as strained. He's verbally abusive, obstinate and dismissive. In real life, he's the father of actress Laura who, says Dern with pride, "has got game."
Was he a better father in real life than Woody, who elicits scorn and resentment from his adult sons, was in the film? Not really, says Dern, although he tried his best.
"It was iffy. I'm not good with little kids," he says. "I gotta have a kid who can answer me back, who can play with me verbally and who gets it quickly. I wasn't good with Laura. I wasn't as attentive into what a 7-, 8-, 9-year-old girl wanted. I loved sports and I'd take her with me sometimes but she didn't want to go. One time I got very frustrated. She said, 'How come we don't go to an amusement park?' So I said, 'Let's go.'"
He picked her up and did every facility near San Diego in one day. "Two hours in every place. We left at 8 a.m. I'm not nuts about zoos. I don't want critters in cages, nor do I want to eat them. We took one road trip together, Laura and I. Laura became a great friend."
He gets emotional when discussing Laura's visit to the Nebraska set. Payne included her in one of the final scenes in the movie - because she'd made more than a dozen films with her mother, Diane Ladd ("a great dame," says Dern), and Payne wanted Dern to have the memory of being in a film with his daughter.
"She was on this movie for about 12 days," says Dern. "Alexander came to me one day. He said, 'You've never worked with Laura. Watch this.' As I'm driving down the street, Laura is the blonde girl walking with the black coat on."
As for Forte, he still seems shell-shocked that he's the co-star in a Payne movie.
"I learned a huge lesson from MacGruber. It did not do well in the box office. I am fiercely proud of that movie. At the end of the day, it's all about how you feel about the work you've done. And I'm so proud of Nebraska. I don't care about anything else," says Forte. "Anything that happens from there is gravy."