Alexander Payne tried to lure Gene Hackman out of retirement and considered the likes of Robert Duvall and Jack Nicholson for the ageing, gruff patriarch of his father-son road trip Nebraska.
Bruce Dern, who got the part, calls them "the obvious guys". Recalling when he learned from Payne that he had the part, Dern said: "He said to me, 'I got an idea. Let's surprise them with you. You haven't done this. You haven't done anything like this. Let's have fun. Let's knock their socks off'."
Though the part - reticent and cantankerous - is not 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.
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, 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."
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 one million dollar award, he sets out down the road from his Montana home to collect it in person in Nebraska. His son (Will 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 is a sweet but unsentimental tale of a son giving his father a sense of decency late in life.
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.