"Nebraska" star Bruce Dern at the Cannes Film Festival. (Gareth Cattermole )
CANNES, France -- Older actors have been playing crotchety geezers since the days of radio. But very few have done it with the gusto and honesty of Bruce Dern in “Nebraska,” the black-and-white Alexander Payne dramedy that is shaping up as one of the breakouts of this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
As Woody Grant, a retired Montana mechanic who has settled into a kind of leave-me-alone stasis, Dern plays one of the more memorable older characters to grace the screen in a long time.
His character is prone to shuffling around quietly, semi-present. His favorite word for drivers on the road and plenty of others who don’t tickle his fancy is “morons.” But maybe most important, he avoids the easy redemption or soulful transformation that magically seems to happen to many older characters in the movies.
VIDEO: Cannes 2013 trailers
“The demand with playing Woody is that it’s easy to do extra things, to try to win extra points,” Dern said in an interview Friday. “But you can’t do that. Woody is someone who’s not really aggressive and not really passive. He's a guy who doesn't change. He's a guy who sees it like he sees it, and nothing is going to change him or how he lives.”
The same might not be said for Dern. After toiling in character-actor obscurity for a long time -- outside a bit part in ‘Django Unchained,” it’s been years since anyone has seen the Oscar nominee in a mainstream hit -- he’s suddenly back in the conversation.
The “Coming Home” actor was candid about the difficulties he’s faced in his career since his 1970s heyday. Dern talked about coming to Cannes with other movies and not saying a word at a news conference, wondering if people even registered his presence in the film.
“Alexander gave me an opportunity to revive a career,” he said Friday. “I’ve had a career, but even in the movies I’ve starred in I’ve never felt like I’ve been at a level like this. I felt more like an appendage.” He added, “Not to be an ... but it’s nice to be back in a place where people are moved by what I'm doing.”
Woody isn’t trying to move anyone in the film. He’s on a far more single-minded mission: He’s received a junk-mail solicitation saying he’s won $1 million, and he’s not going to let family members, good sense or an inability to drive stop him from making the trip to his home state of Nebraska to claim his prize.
PHOTOS: Scenes from Cannes 2013
What follows is a road trip he takes with his intelligent but underachieving son (Will Forte) and an eventual extended family meet-up in his Nebraska childhood town, where Forte’s character learns much about his dad that the old man never told him himself. In another breakout turn, June Squibb costars as Woody’s straight-talking wife and receives her own comeback moment; more on her separately.
Dern, 76, grew up among influential figures -- his godfather was Adlai Stevenson and his paternal grandfather was a former secretary of War -- but said that there’s a down-to-earth candor to Woody he felt was absent in his upbringing.
“Woody is monument to his time,” he said. “If you think about it in terms of professional sports, as a pitcher, he would have gone 6-15. He wouldn’t have made the all-star team or the all-rookie team or anything like that. But he’s enjoyed the ride, and he had hope that if you could be honest with each other that would be enough. And that’s something I never had in my home life.”
Dern also talked about Payne, a quarter-century his junior, as a surrogate father figure.
RELATED: Alexander Payne's 'Nebraska' draws strong notices at Cannes
Dern met Payne through his daughter, actress Laura Dern, who starred in the director’s debut, “Citizen Ruth,” in the mid-1990’s. Payne gave the elder Dern the script for “Nebraska” nearly a decade ago, and just as Payne said the years it took to make it broadened his experience and led to a richer movie, Dern’s own transition into his seventies lent him the same benefits, he said.
The movie has more than family on its mind. With its depiction of a working-class small town that can feel left behind in modern America, “Nebraska” (Springsteen overtone perhaps intentional) also depicts a down-on-its-heels part of the U.S. without patronizing it in the manner of, say, a modern country song.
“One of the beautiful things about the black-and-white format is that is tells you something about the place. There’s no color, no hope, no dreams,” Dern said.
As for his own place at the margins, Dern admitted the challenges. “It hasn’t been easy. But I’m a runner, and I’ve always been fairly good at endurance. Sometimes the race doesn’t start until the 16th mile.”
Cannes 2013: Ryan Gosling, Croisette superstar
Cannes 2013: Alexander Payne feels at home in 'Nebraska'
Cannes 2013: J.C. Chandor's "All is Lost' is unusual survival tale
PHOTOS AND MORE
VIDEO: Upcoming summer films
ENVELOPE: The latest awards buzz
PHOTOS: Greatest box office flops