Alongside a young Diane Lane, as well as members of The Sex Pistols and The Clash, Laura Dern had her first major film role in the 1981 cult classic Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. By the time she hit the multiplexes in 1993, running for her life in Jurassic Park, she'd played a blind girl in Mask, the embodiment of innocence in Blue Velvet, and a lover on the lam in Wild At Heart, and she'd been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance as a sexually demonstrative lodger in Rambling Rose.
Good breeding partly accounts for Dern's ability to take on such a variety of characters, as has good taste. The daughter of Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd (who has acted beside her in several films), Dern seems to thrive on challenges. In the '90s, she appeared in films by Clint Eastwood and Robert Altman; as the unrepentant, fume-huffing protagonist of Citizen Ruth, Dern became the amoral center of a satire that takes on all sides of the abortion issue.
More recently, Dern has appeared in Novocaine and Focus, and has taken time off to have a child with her boyfriend Ben Harper. Baby number two is on its way, but in between, Dern has returned to the big screen with We Don't Live Here Anymore, an unsparing character study directed by John Curran and adapted by Larry Gross from a pair of Andre Dubus short stories. Dern plays an unhappy housewife whose husband, Mark Ruffalo, takes up with Naomi Watts, the wife of Ruffalo's best friend Peter Krause; the move drives Krause and Dern closer together, prompting an emotional hurricane. In a recent interview, The Onion A.V. Club spoke to Dern about acting, politics, and how the two work together.
The Onion: You do a lot of yelling in We Don't Live Here Anymore. Is such a verbal performance as exhausting as it looks?
Laura Dern: I don't know what my answer would have been a few years ago. But this is the first time in my life that I took time off for at least a year and a half—I had a baby. This was my first movie back at work, and I had such a voracious appetite for acting. I had been waiting and was so excited to do something that I love. Luckily, just at the time I felt ready to go back to work, this came my way, because it's such a great acting piece for all of us. I was so inspired and excited to do it that it fed me more than exhausted me, honestly. But in general, having played parts that have all kinds of emotional volatility and challenge, it can be exhausting.
O: When you play a role like this, in a piece like this, where everyone is ugly and compromised on some level, is it a temptation to make your character more sympathetic than the others?
LD: I think it's a huge temptation. In any film I've done, it's something that one always considers. When you're first reading the script and thinking about playing the part, it's slightly daunting. It's easy to question, "Is an audience going to like me? And is that my job?" Having been raised by actors who love moral ambiguity and flawed protagonists, I feel like it's sort of in the blood to want to take it on. The simplest way I can say it is, I was raised by a guy who killed John Wayne in a movie, so I feel like anything goes. When you kill John Wayne, you're taking it all on.
It excites me to go to a movie and be reminded that I'm human, and I'm filled with opposites, and I'm built with flaws. Part of growth and healing is recognizing that. So I feel like the most conscious effort there can be in art is to remind people of what's human, and not create archetypes. I get really excited by it, and think it's really worthwhile. It's how you get supported in your acting career, if you're building a body of work. If you're looking to be loved for a part, it's great and enticing to be adorable in a romantic comedy. But then, as an actor, you get stuck. They're going to want you to be that same great gal, and it's going to be hard to ever do a Citizen Ruth, because you wouldn't want to do certain things after that. But if you start out your career saying, "I'm going to be an actor, and my favorite thing is to play completely different people," then you're given a little more license.
O: Would you say that's what you've done?
LD: It's certainly what I've tried to do. I say it not from a place of ego that I embrace all kinds of movies. I mean, it was thrilling to work with Steven Spielberg on Jurassic Park, equally thrilling—and a totally different experience—than some of the small independent films I've worked on. I don't think you have to be in these serious, heavy, independent little movies to be an actor. Some of the most interesting acting I've seen is on cable television. I think the best acting I've seen in the past several years is on The Office. I mean, there's no better acting around. Ricky Gervais is just unbelievable. All of them are amazing. I love when actors can let go of where and how they have to do it, and just that we do it. That we are flawed and human, and don't worry about how we look or who we are, or that it seems too old of a character if we're still young. Then we're in our 50s and there are fewer parts for women. It is daunting and scary, but to be pigeonholed is a lot scarier.
O: What's the best kind of direction for you?
LD: Well, my favorite direction… If I have to choose one moment as my favorite, it's definitely the words "I have what I've imagined in my head, and now surprise me. Do whatever you want, explore this, tell me what you guys feel is honest, and just keep going until the end."
O: That sounds like Robert Altman.
LD: It is. And David Lynch. I've had the privilege of working with several filmmakers who work like that. It means you get to explore on film. It's not that hard. I think directors feel terrified that it's going to mean 18 takes. You can do it in a few. But if you've got a couple: The first one was bad for the camera, the second one was bad for the focus, the third one, they got what they want and they move on… You never have time as an actor to explore your own work. It's amazing how they'll light for two hours, and then you act for three and a half minutes. They'll be like, "It's lunch, we gotta move on." It's just unfair. So I like when it's set up for actors to have time, their time, to try stuff. Because I don't think I could have done this part, in terms of what we see in the movie—Citizen Ruth is good example, too—unless I'd had a few takes. What you were asking about before, discovering the empathy of a character: In a way, you have to play with how extreme they are in some of the choices they make.
Like with Citizen Ruth, there are a couple of different movies in the editing room, one in which I am more vulnerable, and maybe even have more compassion toward a few people in the film, and one in which I have no intellect, no interest in anybody, and everything is self-serving. In one take, I was always just completely brain-dead. Hopefully, [Citizen Ruth director Alexander Payne] used a little bit of all those choices. It's probably putting it together in the process to try to discover it. With Citizen Ruth, or with this movie, you have to kind of pick and choose where you want, as a filmmaker, a moment to let someone inside the person. The gray area is so interesting and honest.
O: Is it harder to act an emotion you haven't really experienced in your life, or harder to act against a dinosaur that isn't really there?
LD: They're probably similar, because it is up to the imagination. Although what's interesting is, you're never going to see a dinosaur, and the interesting thing about the preparation for a film is discovering the piece that you relate to. I mean, I've never huffed paint. Nor have I been addicted to any drug in my life, so to take on that part seemed challenging. I had to start to understand what my addictions were, to understand what that is. There are so many different kinds of addictions. So I feel like any emotion can be played honestly by an actor, if they discover that part of their life or something they experienced with other people's lives that they can tap into.
But the dinosaur thing was just pure imagination. In a way, it is the hardest thing, to act terrified or in awe in a movie like that, and want to be an authentic actor. It's tricky work. Steven makes it so much fun, and I was very lucky on that movie, unlike a lot of big action movies, that the cast was so great. I was working with Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum, and Richard Attenborough every day. All they were interested in was staying honest.
O: It seems surprising that Citizen Ruth didn't get more attention. Do you think that has something to do with the fact that it came out during the Clinton years, instead of under a Republican presidency?
LD: I don't know if it would have been more seen because of its controversy if it were out now, or if merely the world of Right To Life in this country is so extreme, if you will, that anything that could potentially be perceived as a comedy about the abortion issue would be hard to put people in the chairs for. I know that Harvey Weinstein shared with me the challenges for Miramax releasing it shortly after they had released Priest, and gotten such an attack from the Catholic Church. Trying to find the balance to market that film was tricky. But I do I think it's sad, because we all love the movie so much, and now on DVD, it's having this huge success. It got a limited release, which is sad, because it missed good timing. A few years later—with Monster, for example—a lead woman doing reprehensible things can be successful, and supported by the Academy and all. It's changed. At the time, it seemed a little trickier.
O: Do you see elements of your parents' acting in your acting?
LD: I don't know the answer to that. I think it would be better for them to answer, or you, or someone else watching, because I'm not sure. I think they're so committed to being honest actors that if anyone perceived that in my work, it would be an honor to be thought of that way. I know that I've seen a mannerism, or a way I've cried, or something, where I see a flash of my parents.
O: You've taken on a lot of parts that have to do with political and social issues. Is that important to you?
LD: It's very important for me to be that, to feel that, to be involved, and to constantly ask questions. To become more educated politically. I think it's my duty, especially right now. I was just saying to John Curran yesterday that this movie, to me, is as highly political right now as Citizen Ruth felt at the time.
O: In what way?
LD: In a completely different way. Right now… With a documentary film, you know what its job is. It's served greatly and made millions of dollars with Fahrenheit 9/11, so that's great news. In the area of film, I feel what's been missing in the past 20 years that we had so much of, almost exclusively in the '70s, are films that portray honesty. People with moral ambiguities and people struggling and people trying to get to the truth. Sadly, tragically, that's become a highly political point of view. There are people who consider it almost unpatriotic to be inquisitive, and to be truthful about your opinions. There's been a horrible backlash. So I feel like for artists, writers, journalists, actors, filmmakers, musicians who speak their voice through their work—even as an actor, to play characters who seek the truth—that's a very political thing. It's probably the most political thing you can do. Because the truth is staring right at us, which is "Something's not adding up right now." We were told this thing, they were told that thing, this person says they're that, but they're this. That's just the current administration. It's an exciting time to be reminded that in every aspect of life, we have to inform ourselves, ask questions, question our government, vote, and be active. Be responsible.
O: What movie of yours had more staying power than you would have guessed?
LD: Maybe Rambling Rose. I'll probably be saying the same thing about Citizen Ruth a few years from now. And David Lynch's movies were that way a few years later, and that really surprised me at the time. Now, I'm kind of used to it. But I think Citizen Ruth will continue to find a life, and may even become its own little time-capsule classic for that kind of story. But Rambling Rose is exciting, because a lot of people come up to me, given that it was a smaller movie, saying it was their favorite movie, or that they were touched by it. I hope that everything I do gets to find its own life. It's so fun when that happens. The fact that I did the coming-out episode of Ellen. More people probably come up to me about that than Jurassic Park. It's so funny what lasts and what affects people. I just hope that I keep doing things that affect people, even if it makes them angry. It's all about asking questions.