The actor: When your parents are Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, it’s easy enough to imagine that you’re going to end up as an actress, but Laura Dern’s career in Hollywood has been built less on genetics and more on a willingness to step outside the box with the parts she plays. Dern grew up on screen, starting in the early ’80s with roles in such films as Foxes and Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, but by the early ’90s, she had built a career where she was known to art-house audiences through her collaborations with David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart, and Inland Empire) and to fans of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, thanks to her work in the Jurassic Park films. Now, she’s taking on a new challenge: starring in her first television series, HBO’s Enlightened.
Enlightened (2011-present)—“Amy Jellicoe”
Laura Dern: I worked with HBO on Recount, and we had a wonderful experience together. I’m such a fan of HBO and how much flexibility they give in character as well as schedule. Mike [White] and I had done his first directorial feature together, which was Year Of The Dog, and really wanted to do more together. HBO had asked me if there were characters or things I really wanted to do, and I talked along the lines of things that inspired me. I talked about how aware all of us had become of our cultural apathy in this country, and I thought it would be really interesting to play a character who was a rager that somehow turned that into becoming a whistleblower, with Network—my favorite film—being an influence on that. People may think he’s crazy, but he’s the one person opening windows and saying, “I can’t take it anymore!” From that place, with HBO’s support and hope, and them wanting Mike to do something as well, they threw us in the ring together to see if he could create a vision around that idea. And from that came this story. It was a really cool, wonderful collaboration. Not only did Mike write the show, but he was able to go away as a screenwriter first to really write all the episodes. That’s unheard of in television. We had the episodes first, and then we filmed them as a block, as we would a feature. That was an amazing way to do it, the way you’d pray you could do it, and it was great for us because we were working on films as well. Doing this, by the way, was like doing one movie for four months.
AVC: Just before I turned on the recorder, you mentioned that The Onion also informed you when it came to taking on this role. How so?
LD: The country’s angry, but I wasn’t seeing it anywhere. But thanks to The Onion, and sites like truth.org, I realized how angry so many of us were and how little voice there was in the country. It was, like, “Okay, so it exists, because it exists with The Onion. We’ve got the voices there. But now where are the people in the streets?” But the streets have transformed into the Internet now, which is what’s so interesting. It’s a new time. Marching on The Mall might not mean as much as what you can do on a blog, or on a site like The Onion. I realized how livid so many of us had become. I felt I wanted to play a character, see a character, be a character that couldn’t help but tell the truth, someone who would refuse to not use her voice if there was an injustice, who required the best of the people around her and was going to be no-bullshit. That life is untenable in corporate America. That life is untenable with an unconscious mother. That life is untenable with an addict ex-husband. So here she is, she can’t get through, but she’s determined to do it. That was really interesting to me.
White Lightning (1973)—“Sharon Anne, Maggie’s Daughter” (uncredited)
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)—“Girl Eating Ice Cream Cone” (uncredited)
LD: [Laughs.] That’s hilarious! White Lightning. I was 5 and visiting the set, and they kind of threw me in the scene. I remember something scary happened in the scene and I grabbed my mom’s leg. Everyone was very complimentary of that, as though it was a choice and they didn’t know I was scared. But it kind of intrigued me about acting. And there was a girl… It was a hot summer day, and a little girl took off a wrapper of a Popsicle and licked it, and it stuck on her tongue. And it was stuck there frozen, and they had to pour burning-hot coffee to have it release off her tongue. So all I remember from White Lightning is the girl with the Popsicle stuck to her tongue. And Burt Reynolds. [Laughs.]
And then Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was watching Martin Scorsese work. And that was a big influence on me, and that was the summer I really became in love with the idea of acting. He asked me to be in this scene where I ate an ice cream cone, they asked what flavor I liked, I said, “Banana, one scoop on a cone.” And the scene is very long, because it’s this climactic scene between Kris Kristofferson and Ellen Burstyn, and I’m sitting right behind them, which means even in their close-ups I had to be in the shot, which means 19 fully eaten ice cream cones. So the story that is told, and that Marty and I have talked about since, is that he said, “If you can eat 19 ice cream cones and not throw up, you should be an actress.” And so years later when my mother was, like, “Don’t be an actress,” I was, like, “Martin Scorsese told me I should be an actress.” She was, like, [Scoffing] “Because you didn’t throw up. Sort it out.” [Laughs.] But that was a very memorable moment.
AVC: So your mother was not necessarily in favor of you becoming an actress, then?
LD: Especially not when I was kid, because I wanted to do it so young. And I understand now that I’m a mom why she would be so nervous about that. I think also as a woman she thought that there was so much bred insecurity about body type and age and everything else. I don’t think anybody wants their daughter to go through self-esteem issues because of their careers. [Laughs.] Life is hard enough.
AVC: Did your dad have a position on it?
LD: He’s always been really supportive of it, but when I was a kid, he thought it was a lot, and that I should be in school. But I didn’t really listen to him.
Mask (1985)—“Diana Adams”
LD: Aww… I mean, talk about feeling like the luckiest girl in the world. Every 15- and 16-year-old actress should be blessed enough to have Peter Bogdanovich there to guide them toward subtlety and kindness and… I mean, I use the word “compassion,” but he really taught me a lot about expressing and connecting to compassion through a character and to a film. He loved Rocky, the character that Eric Stoltz played, so deeply. And Rusty [Dennis], his real mom, who Cher played, was on the set with us. To be able to play a character who gave him love and saw his beauty was just incredible. He’s one of our great directors. Truly. I’m very lucky to have made a movie with him.
Jurassic Park (1993) / Jurassic Park III (2001)—“Dr. Ellie Sattler”
LD: Oooh, and maybe more… [Laughs.] I would say Steven Spielberg is family to me. He’s a genius. We survived a hurricane together. I ran from half-puppet/half-nothing creatures. It was months of our life as this family. It was the wildest movie I’d ever worked on that way. It was enormous. My leading man was very temperamental; he broke often, that dang T-Rex. We waited hours for him to come out of his trailer. [Laughs.] It was pretty insane. I’m only sad that I didn’t have kids when I made it because, oh my God, my children would have been in heaven. Because you come to work, and it’s pretty wild when there’s something new to look at that blows your mind. It was pretty exciting, even though at the time I wasn’t really computer-savvy, so I wasn’t quite as aware as I have become as a movie fan how that changed cinema, that movie. How the film used CGI in the way that it did was a new moment. It was really cool to be a part of.
AVC: So based on that opening line, if they asked you to do IV, it sounds like you’d be into it.
LD: We’ve talked about it over the years a lot, and God bless Michael Crichton, he had some ideas, and at the time, Steven had said that that was a possibility. Now there are new ideas. But with Steven involved, are you kidding? I’ll go wherever he says. If all I’m doing is bringing him coffee, I’ll still be there.
The West Wing (2002)—“U.S. Poet Laureate Tabatha Fortis”
LD: Oh! Well, God, I mean, Aaron Sorkin is a genius, with this crazy brilliant brain that works a million miles a minute. And I had never worked around someone who, as you’re filming, can give you three more pages. ’Cause I’d never really worked in television, and it moves so quickly. It was just an amazing experience to watch someone continue to stop at nothing to come up more or new or different, and keep trying and working and creating as you’re shooting. So all I can say is just that Aaron Sorkin is brilliant, and it’s wonderful to be around his brilliant brain.
AVC: As you said, you don’t really do a lot of TV. Was he the one who sought you out to play that part?
LD: I believe so. I believe he did so directly. Shortly before that, I had a very lovely meeting with John Wells, who I really respect and admire and like so much as a human being, let alone as another brilliant, creative producer and, uh, brain. [Laughs.] So I think it was sort of between everybody knowing each other and Aaron. And my great uncle had been a Poet Laureate, which I think they knew. But it was a nice connection, anyway.
AVC: Who was your uncle?
LD: Archibald MacLeish. He’s my great uncle on my father’s side. So that made it kind of cool.
The Larry Sanders Show (1998)—“Laura Dern”
LD: Highly complicated. [Laughs.] No, I was such a huge fan of the show, and Garry [Shandling] is so hysterical, so I felt super-excited to be on it. And it was funny, ’cause you’re in theory playing yourself, but what was great about the show was that he’s sort of creating characters within it. So I was sort of playing his girlfriend, who I think was jealous of Heidi Klum, who was also on the show. And Betty Thomas was directing. It was just a blast. I loved it.
Blue Velvet (1986)—“Sandy Williams”
LD: First time working with David Lynch, 17 years old. I think I met him at 16, starred in the movie at 17. I went into meet him for an audition. I think he had either seen a film, or heard of a film called Smooth Talk, which had come out shortly before that. It was family instantly. I don’t know how—I don’t think he’d ever seen me act, I didn’t audition for him—but he knew I was Sandy and cast me. It was the miracle for my career, really. He invited me to Bob’s Big Boy for fries and ketchup with Kyle MacLachlan to talk about the movie and meditation, and it was off to the races.
AVC: What was the experience doing the film like for you? It was a more than a little bit different from what you had been doing at the time.
LD: If you took the girl from Mask and put her in the worst violent crime you could think of. I was, like, “How did I get here?” [Laughs.] And I kind of was Sandy in a lot of ways. I think the greatest memory I have of the movie, other than that it was the best time ever… I saw David yesterday, actually, and we were remembering how we did night shoots, and on weekends we would try to stay on schedule, so we would stay up late. I told him The Elephant Man was my favorite movie at the time, and asked if he would he watch it with me. And I was reminiscing about sitting with him, watching Elephant Man together, which he hadn’t seen since he made it. And so many sweet memories of Isabella Rossellini, who’s become one of my best friends since then. She’s such a great person. I feel very lucky to have found family on that movie. That’s one huge memory. The other memory would be that, having been raised by actors in the ’70s on films where characters were complicated and stories were not only elusive but themes were ambiguous, that to me was filmmaking. And when David Lynch luckily found me, I was right where I belonged.
Wild At Heart (1990)—“Lula Fortune”
LD: Well, Wild at Heart was… I feel like it was my college years. I didn’t do four years of university, I just went to the School Of David Lynch. Lula was my… [Clears throat.] …y’know, my coming of age. But I loved it. I loved Sailor and Lula. I loved that movie. It’s troubling and brave and super-funny and really weird and dreamy as anything you’d ever want from David Lynch’s brain. I mean, let’s be clear: Glinda The Good Witch shows up. [Laughs.] And my mother rides a broom.
Inland Empire (2006)—“Nikki Grace/Susan Blue”
AVC: Inland Empire actually found you serving as both actor and co-producer.
LD: I was, but by David’s generosity. I think, frankly, it was just for hanging in there for three years to make a movie. In fact, I think it should be a template for agents. If an actor spends three years doing a movie on a camcorder, you should give them a producer credit. [Laughs.] I really think that’s how I got it. But we were very involved, and it was a really collaborative experience. Deeply collaborative. And not that working with David isn’t generally, but this started as a monologue and continued to evolve. And we did work on it over the course of enough years that I started the film with a newborn, and when I finished, I’d had another baby. [Laughs.] That kind of sums it up, I think.
LD: Oh, wow. Amazing. Hilarious. Huge moment in history to be part of. And really fun to be with Ellen at that moment in her life, with all the people involved on that episode. Other than Jurassic Park, probably the thing I get the most fan mail from consistently. Families really rediscovered each other and allowed each other to be themselves and felt like that show was really pivotal for them. So that was really beautiful to be a part of. And Ellen is so hilarious, and I love the idea of her trying to share something private with me, and her pressing on the intercom in the airport was one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever seen.
AVC: How did you guys approach that episode? I’m sure everyone was fully aware that this was going to be groundbreaking television.
LD: I think there were a lot of writers and producers involved. I don’t know how she came up with the idea, but Ellen had seen Citizen Ruth, a movie I did, and loved that movie, and asked me if I would do this. They made me very involved, allowed me to be very involved in the rehearsal process and getting it right. We ad-libbed, and had some freedom in it. It was amazing. I loved it.
Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982)—“Jessica McNeil”
LD: I’m now in a fantastic mood because of the interview, so I’m going to give you word association. Ready? Had my 13th birthday on it. Diane Lane, still one of my best friends. At 12, turned 13, made a movie with Sex Pistols and The Clash. Learned about a lot of things I never knew and hope will never know again. Don’t know how my parents let me do that. Who knew that if you want your child to never use drugs, you should send them for five months on a movie with The Sex Pistols? Because they’ll never do drugs. Most fun ever. I got to be in a rock band, and we sucked, and we were still famous. It was like the precursor to everything that was about to happen in the music business. It’s kind of its own masterpiece. And having spent the last 11 years of my life with a touring musician [Ben Harper], it’s the most talked-about movie by touring bands. They all have it on their bus. It’s so fun.
AVC: Have you revisited it since then?
LD: Diane and I did the commentary for the DVD, so that was my revisiting, which was hysterical. And because it was reissued, Ben, my husband, toured with Pearl Jam, and all those guys are like, “Oh my God! You’re in Fabulous Stains!” Courtney Love: “Oh! You’re in my favorite movie ever made. Ladies And Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains. Oh, my God!” It’s hysterical to me.
Rambling Rose (1991)—“Rose”
LD: Bliss. But sad somehow. I found her sad and misunderstood, so in a way, it was a hard movie to work on. But it was really beautiful working with my mom, working with [Robert] Duvall, and with Lukas Haas, who’s remained a friend since then. I remember being at his 14th birthday party. And it gave me a real connection to my grandma, who’s from Alabama. So I’m really proud to be a part of that movie.
Citizen Ruth (1996)—“Ruth Stoops”
LD: Well, you know, I love her. Other than Amy, she’s my favorite girl. An unparalleled experience of my work life and life in general. It was pure family and the best time of our lives. For all of us, I think. We just collectively had an amazing experience, and it’s my favorite kind of moviemaking and my favorite kind of movie.
AVC: And a chance to get political, too.
LD: Oh, yeah. [Laughs.] In the best, most subversive way.
AVC: Do you remember what took you down the path of politics for the first time?
LD: My mom. I think my mom exposed me to the concept of using your voice for anything you care about. But I remember being in L.A. for an ERA rally when I was probably 11 and that having a big impact on me. It was my mom and Jane Fonda and Ed Asner all there speaking, and I knew them as actors, but they’re all deeply political people, and they were there speaking about the absurdity of there not being equal rights in the workplace for women. I remember being really affected by people using humor to discuss the absurdity of something. Like, “It doesn’t even make sense” was sort of their tactic. “How does any of this make sense?” Instead of raging into vigilantism, it was more like, “C’mon, guys, let’s not be idiots here. We need more people to run these companies. Why wouldn’t we use women?” [Laughs.] So I remember being really affected by their presence and their willingness to rally the masses, and that affected me a lot. Jimmy Carter was also a turning point. He was and is noble and deeply empathetic, and I suddenly felt excited to see humanity on the face of a politician. It made me really proud to be an American as a kid and really want to help my president. I really liked that feeling.
Recount (2008)—“Katherine Harris”
LD: It taught me a lot about having to dig deep to understand someone in order to play them. I felt very lucky being part of the project but went in with a lot of strong opinions. When you’re playing someone who has a strong ego about themselves, you can’t play them when you have the opposite opinion of the one they have of themselves. [Laughs.] So I had to dig deep to learn everything I could about her to try to understand her.
AVC: Was it challenging to find the way to play the role, making it real while playing up some of her more comedic aspects, but without taking it over the top?
LD: Yeah, you know, it’s an interesting challenge when MadTV and SNL have sent up the person. It’s like, “That’s been done.” So how do you make this person human and find the compassionate place in her? Well, I have compassion for desperate people who go to desperate measures to win. You’ve got to understand their point of view in order to get your brain around it. So it taught me a lot to play her. It taught me a lot about how easily I can go into an experience with just a one-sided judgment of someone.
Grizzly II: The Concert (1987)—“Tina”
LD: [Bursts out laughing.] Okay, first of all, dude, that is fucking hysterical! I didn’t even know what it was called until you said it, and yet I know exactly what you’re talking about.
AVC: Yeah, it’s listed elsewhere as Grizzly II: The Predator.
LD: Well, either way, I’ve never seen it, I can tell you that. The last I heard from George Clooney, who is also one of the cast members in the film, is that the whole movie is all of 40 minutes long, and no one’s ever actually seen it. It’s not even really long enough to call it a movie. [Laughs.] The only thing I can say about it… I mean, I’m 16 years old, it’s six weeks in Budapest, Hungary, at the exact second Communism is ending, and it’s me, George Clooney, and Charlie Sheen. That’s all I’m gonna say. I’m not gonna say another damned thing. [Laughs.] Except that it was the craziest time. And the paprika chicken was outstanding.
LD: Oh my God. Okay, I’m 11 years old, it’s my first real professional movie, I’ve got scenes with Jodie Foster and Adrian Lyne’s directing with the very brilliant David Puttnam producing. David and Adrian had to explain my dialogue to me, because there was some description of birth control, and I didn’t know what that was. [Laughs.] It was the late ’70s, and Scott Baio was in the movie. I was working with Chachi!
AVC: Were you swooning?
LD: Let’s just say it was quite a day at school for me when I came back to tell stories about working with him. [Laughs.]
A Perfect World (1993)—“Sally Gerber”
LD: I love Clint Eastwood, and I wish to work with him again. He’s completely irreverent about everything, including his own beautiful work. It was a tribe of boys—crew and cast—and I remember us being in an Airstream in August in Texas on black asphalt, shooting long days of extreme heat that led to some very hilarious humor that I think I would never be allowed into if I hadn’t been stuck in the Airstream with the boys. So for those weeks, I felt like I was my dad working on a Western with Clint. [Laughs.] He was just such a beautiful director. And I was directing my first short film and needed a couple of extra days, and he said, “You should do it here, it’s beautiful. Here’s the crew. What equipment do you need?” So generous and supportive of other people’s creative interests. I’ll never forget that.
Fight For Your Right Revisited (2011)—“Café Patron”
LD: Oh yeah, wow! Well, the Beastie Boys are legends for our generation, but they’re political legends, too, and we’d spent time doing Rock The Vote campaign and supporting Barack Obama in his campaign for president. I very luckily got to spend time using their voices in a very powerful way, so I was happy to be part of and support that.
LD: I love that movie! I’m happy that, other than Jurassic Park, there’s a movie that I can actually show my son. [Laughs.] And that he’ll connect to. My character goes through a very sad tale, so I can’t show it to my kids too young. But I have teenage boys coming up to me all the time saying how much they love that movie, so I’m very happy to have been part of it. I love Joe Johnston, who also directed Jurassic Park III. Such a sweet man. And Jake [Gyllenhaal], I knew a little bit as a kid, and that was his first big film, so it was really fun to be with him on that.
Little Fockers (2010)—“Prudence”
AVC: It was almost jarring to see you turn up in such a slapstick film. How did you find your way into the cast?
LD: I would say by good fortune. Ben Stiller, who I love and who is a friend and is such an incredible actor—he’s hilarious, obviously, but I thought his performance in Greenberg was extraordinary. So I really love him. He’s just the most malleable artist. I’ve never had so much fun. Unfortunately, I was making comedies in my 20s, but other people didn’t realize they were comedies. But I think I’m a comedy actor, so when people are like, “Oh, your characters are so heavy,” I’m like, “What are you talking about? Citizen Ruth is hilarious! Rambling Rose is hilarious! Wild At Heart and Blue Velvet are hilarious.” Okay, so it’s a certain kind of hilarity, I guess. [Laughs.] Not everybody connects to it that way. But I love finding the humor in things. To get to work with Ben and Owen [Wilson], who is just hysterical, and to get to work with a personal hero, Mr. [Robert] De Niro, was just amazing. I would’ve been there for three lines. I was just so happy to party with them.
Fallen Angels (1993)—“Annie Ainsley”
LD: Alfonso Cuarón, I love him more than I can describe. Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki], our cinematographer, who is one of my favorite cinematographers of all time in film. Rodrigo Garcia, an extraordinary filmmaker now in his own right, was also on the film crew. It was just an amazing group of people, including the ever-brilliant Alan Rickman. So I just had a blast. We worked in this beautiful Lloyd Wright house, and I have great memories about it. And Diane Lane was in it, who I saw briefly, because we didn’t really work extensively together, but Diane has been my true friend since age 12. Anybody you make a movie with when you’re 12 and they’re 14, you’re going to know them your whole life.
AVC: Especially when the movie is with two Sex Pistols.
LD: True. I left that part out. But exactly. That’s the addendum, for sure. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was that the first time you’d worked together since Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains?
LD: It was, yeah. We’ve remained very, very close, but we haven’t worked together truly extensively as adults, so I hope that happens one day. ’Cause Lord knows we know each other. [Laughs.]