Dern, Baby, Dern
Blue Velvet, Jurassic Park, Big Little Lies. Laura Dern has been bridging Hollywood genres and mediums in distinct roles since day one — and blowing our minds every step of the way. Hot off one of her most successful years ever, she opens up about the #MeToo movement, finding her tribe, and why we need more women running the show.
Laura Dern’s voice is mellifluous and cozy as we chat. It’s a late summer evening, and she laughs honey-like from the back of what I imagine to be a sleek town car winding through hidden highways. “We have a long drive tonight,” she says casually. I envision a romantic location worthy of Dern’s sensibilities waiting at the other end: rural Mexico or a tasteful adobe mansion in Joshua Tree. As she goes on to thank me for my time, the first of many instances during our conversation when her overt sincerity leaves me fumbling for the right words, I notice my eyes darting repeatedly and compulsively toward the recorder’s blinking red light. Though it’s actually happening—and without the proverbial wrench, according to the recorder, whose counter floats steadily and effortlessly upward no matter how many times I check—I cannot fully believe that I’m talking to Laura Dern.
And not solely because Laura Dern is Laura Dern, the four-time Golden Globe winner and two-time Oscar nominee whose career has spanned decades, landing her iconic roles in canonical films like Wild at Heart, Blue Velvet, and Jurassic Park. Also not only because her work in television is among some of the most highly lauded, with roles in Tina Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, HBO’s woefully short-lived cult favorite Enlightened (which she co-created and starred in alongside Owen Wilson), and the made-for-TV movie Recount, a historical drama that nabbed her one of those four Golden Globes. And not just because the past two years have been some of the most prolific and diverse for the actor, as she reunited with auteur David Lynch via the 2017 resurrection of Twin Peaks; co-starred alongside late fellow heavyweight Carrie Fisher in Star Wars: The Last Jedi; gave a gut-wrenching star performance in HBO’s painful, twisted, and true story of childhood sexual abuse The Tale; and, of course, portrayed the ostensibly ruthless, high-powered executive Renata Klein in the HBO nail-biter Big Little Lies, for which she earned an Emmy last year. Not just because of all that—but also because Laura Dern’s extensive career has rendered some of the most complex explorations of the female psyche. From aching naivety to lascivious abandon to maternal grace to hardened cynicism, she deftly navigates the secret, inner worlds of women, making even the most offbeat characters relatable. Their wounds are the vulnerabilities we mask; their longing, also ours.
It’s a skill she began honing early on. Her parents are actors Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd. They and her Los Angeles upbringing set the stage, so to speak, for those future dissections of interior landscapes. “The conversations I heard at the dinner table were about ‘How do I make this famously bad cowboy someone you could laugh with?’ Or, in my mother’s case, ‘How do I find the heart of this angry, complicated woman?’ That was their life’s work, and they loved it deeply,” she says. The impact of those conversations is clear on Dern’s CV, but the female-led cast of Big Little Lies combined with the series’ psychological thrill-ride scripts have allowed her to excavate in new ways. The show, based on Liane Moriarty’s novel by the same name, pits Dern’s Renata Klein against Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline Martha Mackenzie and Nicole Kidman’s Celeste Wright. Season 2, set for a 2019 release, brings Meryl Streep into the mix. With that setup, an indelicate eye might reduce the show’s premise to catty vengeance among the ultra-elite mothers of Monterey, CA, where the story takes place and is filmed. But that would miss the mark pretty egregiously. “At its core, this story is as much about sisterhood as it is about the judgment of women upon other women,” Dern asserts. “Because it’s painful to be labeled ‘the bitch,’ but what we don’t often talk about is that it’s also painful to be her.”
The gift of Dern’s sensitive exploration of “the bitch,” a role too often relegated to one-dimensional, soap opera-esque interpretations, is the insight it affords us into the collective experience of being a woman. When, in Episode 3, she wearily delivers the lines “I spend all day long never letting my guard down. Just let me be a scared mom,” even those of us who include plant-sitting on our list of maternal accomplishments immediately—and deeply—get it. That universality is a reflection of Dern’s interest in Renata as the jumping-off point, rather than the end point. “I’m fascinated to be in the skin of this character and look at where we stick to our own stereotypes and where we break free from them—to look at how women take care of each other and how we protect the one spot at the table we might get by alienating or disparaging other women,” Dern says. Those nuanced undercurrents, as she sees it, do the enduring work that reaches beyond ratings and Emmy nods. “It’s part of the cultural culpability we have to have as women effecting change. We have to look at how we treat each other.”
Turns out they treat each other pretty well. The cast is famously tight-knit; Dern and Witherspoon have vacationed together numerous times (if you haven’t stalked Instagram for their (very) cute beach-getaway shots, it’s worth the rabbit hole). But the bond, however wine-and-sunset-filled, goes beyond friendship. “We have a tribe,” Dern says of the BLL women, “sharing in this one story but also sharing together in what life brings—raising our families and everything that comes with it.” That, she explains, is a privileged Hollywood experience, one previously reserved for the myriad male-led casts. “We all know friends who are male actors who’ve had this experience many times. I’d always felt such a longing to have it, too.”
She’ll only have more of it, if her recent string of subversive roles is any indication. Dern appears to be at the heart of a movement in film to claim space for women. Even the Star Wars legacy, whose origin story acknowledges the existence of women only peripherally, is getting on board. “I think it was intentionally radical,” Dern says of the dynamic between her and Oscar Isaac’s characters in The Last Jedi. “It was very much written to look at how women are perceived—the way [Isaac’s character] presumes she can’t be a good leader because she’s wearing a dress.” Though that assumption is about as outlandish as any piece of science fiction, it’s not, of course, uncommon. When audience members at the world premiere cheered as Isaac’s character took a gun to Dern’s, the subtext was clear: “They really thought he was going to put me in my place,” Dern says.
If putting women in their place is the spirit of a dying zeitgeist, Dern has positioned herself amidst its rising-phoenix counterpart. Hers isn’t political art, per se, but the actor is acutely aware of the power she wields in her roles and what she wants to do with it. “Part of my work is about finding empathy for all women who are misunderstood or pigeonholed. Hillary [Clinton] was a primary example of that, but we see it in every cultural aspect of [the Trump] administration, from Breitbart [News Network] to the response to the #MeToo movement: this desperation to stick women into a category. When we see a strong woman in film and television, it can wreak havoc.”
Culturally, this is a new kind of feminist shakedown: mutiny by empathy. But it’s not new to Dern. In fact, it might well encapsulate the motivating ethos throughout her work. At the very least, it’s not something she takes lightly. “I see empathy as an act of activism. Whether we’re trying to tell a person’s story or marching the streets, if we’re focusing on compassion, we’re effecting change politically and globally,” she affirms, adding in an unfaltering tone, “And it’s threatened. Empathy is deeply threatened these days, and it’s all we have left.”
The sense that we’re witnessing the demise of empathy is pervasive for a lot of reasons, Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement being top-tier among them. When I ask Dern if she’s seen a shift within Hollywood’s parameters as a result of the movement and subsequent arrest of Harvey Weinstein, she doesn’t skip a beat. “I see definite shifts,” she says. But the shifts she’s referring to are less about men behaving badly on set and more about the source of long-term, generational change. “My 13-year-old daughter and her friends are aware that their voice matters and that they must speak out about that type of injustice.” For Dern, it’s a change that represents overarching transformation, a societal lean-in toward supporting victims rather than shaming them. “That’s why all of us, particularly men and women in the public eye, need to not get caught up in messaging like ‘This is a witch hunt,’” she says. “Sexual assault is sexual assault, and abuse of power is abuse of power.”
Creating change isn’t easy, though—not collectively and not individually. A case study of that struggle could be Enlightened, the HBO dramedy Dern co-created with Mike White (of School of Rock fame) in which protagonist Amy Jellicoe, played by Dern, fights to feel zen while picking up the pieces of a broken marriage, an affair with her boss, a work demotion, and a drinking problem. When I ask about the show’s source material, Dern reflects on the healing power of painful emotions—and reveals her ability to scatter light over what could easily be a source of darkness. “I hate to admit it, but it’s true for me: It’s taken deep rage, deep longing, and, at times, great grief to turn to a spiritual practice.” As arduous as it may be, unifying the sacred and the profane is a process Dern considers potent, sustaining, and necessary. “I won’t quote him, but Rilke has a poem that speaks to the idea of the one who hurt. It’s a profound consideration,” she muses, “that knowing tenderness comes from all we’ve been through, not necessarily from naivety. Because the shadow is always with us, and if we ignore it, we know exactly what happens.”
From the beginning, Dern has willingly taken on the theme of the shadow in her roles, maybe most recognizably in her work with David Lynch. But her recent performance in The Tale brings added dimension to the actor’s passage through dark terrain. The film, written and directed by Jennifer Fox, is Fox’s raw cinematic chronicle of the sexual abuse she experienced as a child in the ’70s at the hands of a 40-year-old man she met through her equestrian coach. More than that, it’s a study of memory’s role as shape-shifter, reconfiguring realities in order to guard our psychological security. Dern’s shattering translation of Fox as an adult, realizing for the first time that her prepubescent sexual relationship was not a consensual one, is as gutting as it is mesmerizing, evidenced by the Emmy nomination she earned for the rendition. The traumatic weight of such a role lingers. “It impacts you deeply,” she says. “That’s inescapable even if you say you’re a technical actor—your body’s going through that; your psychology’s going through that."
While The Tale is distinctive in its stark veracity, it’s actually not the first time Dern has broached the topic of child sexual assault. In 1985, a year before Blue Velvet was released, Smooth Talk, the film adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” hit theaters to wide critical acclaim (The New York Times compared it to The Grapes of Wrath). In it, Dern—a teen at the time—plays 15-year-old Connie Wyatt, whose budding sexuality and strict home create a schism in the young girl, resulting in the sullen persona she presents to her family and the coquettish one she presents to her girlfriends. The crux of the film centers around an older man who waits for Connie to be alone in her isolated farmhouse, then attempts to coax her into his car.
The echo of Smooth Talk in The Tale underlines not only the arc of Dern’s forages into caverns of human depravity but also the depth of cultivation in refining her craft. Of the differences in filming the two, she remembers, “[Smooth Talk] felt very different because there was so much I wasn’t aware of then. Our director had to sit with me to explain the meaning of the line when he threatens me out of my parents’ house.” Though she experienced the films in markedly different ways, the impact of Smooth Talk mimics that of The Tale in its endurance over time. “There’s a line where he says, ‘Wouldn’t you like to, my sweet, little blue-eyed girl?’ And I walk out of the screen door to his car and say, ‘What if my eyes were brown?’ I say it in a really disturbing way in order to flip the narrative,” she recalls. “I use flirtation to survive the moment and be in power instead of being a terrified victim. That’s really stuck with me.” It’s obvious—she recites the lines without hesitation.
But no matter how devastating her examinations of female trauma, they’re just not what we think of when we think of Laura Dern. In contrast to Helena Bonham Carter or Winona Ryder, actors who might readily be associated with cinema’s bleaker depictions of the female experience, Dern radiates an optimism that, on the whole, outshines the driving heartache behind so many of the women she portrays. As she talks, it becomes clear that the root of that indomitable spirit may be in the simple truth that she just really enjoys being a woman. “I love femininity, feminine sexuality, the female body and how it expresses itself—I just love being female.” She even views motherhood, something so many women wrestle with, or sometimes regret, as one of the greatest tools in her professional success. “Without question, it’s changed everything: my willingness to be wrong and flawed, to look at troubling parts of myself, to have patience with myself, to be brave. Motherhood has made all of that deeper and richer.”
Which isn’t to say that coming into her own as a woman in Hollywood’s limelight hasn’t doled its share of hardships. “I used to think it was my job to make everybody feel good about the work they were doing, or their awkwardness, or their inappropriateness,” she says, citing men’s abuse of power as a trigger for such a reaction. “I’ve had to learn that my job is just to sit comfortably in my own skin, to take care of myself. And,” she adds, “to be a boss. As a female, ambition was a dirty word in my business for sure.” Training herself to not fear the “boss” title has taken time, but it was time she spent learning about the type of leader she wants to be. “A kind one, a rallying one. We need women leaders. If we had more compassionately ambitious leaders, we’d be in a very different place.”
The sort of place that eschews cynicism for possibility. It’s the world Dern lives in, with a future of her very own making. “There are so many roles I want to explore, filmmakers I want to work with, stories I’d like to see told, ways to support getting those made. It’s exciting. I think about being a filmmaker, writing children’s books. I just—I do,” she says, floating away into the night, “I feel like I’m just getting started.”