By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“Without that relationship, that friendship, I think, we couldn’t have had the experience of this film.”
The experience, as she puts it, required that Dern lend herself to the director’s vision without asking mundane questions about motivation. “I know to him there’s a plot, a very clear one. But I don’t know any more than anybody else what it is. And I know what it is to me versus what it may be to you, or to my mother.
“But if one can watch this movie and truly surrender to it,” she advises, “and let it take you on a journey, and see where it takes you on a visceral level, on an emotional level, as opposed to trying to figure out that plot . . . we’re so locked in to trying to figure things out right now. We’ve so got to use our brains 24/7. The e-mails and the politics and the news — I feel like David has given us a 1940s musical. We just get to go in and be washed clean by it all.”
Two years ago, when Dern starred next to Mark Ruffalo as a soon-to-be-jilted wife in We Don’t Live Here Anymore, a journalist asked her whether as an activist and an avowedly political creature she thought she ought to be making more political films. “Maybe I see politics in everything,” she says. “But I told him that I was making political films. I told him that we’re living in a country that has forgotten what truth looks like — we’ve gone and got so lost in cops and robbers and good guys and bad guys that we need some honest, flawed human beings to sort of witness onscreen and go, man, we need to redefine what we mean by truth.”
Her dedication to authenticity — a word she lingers on as a mantra — has become a way of expressing convictions about the state of the country. Those convictions, she says, “in the last six and a half years have begun to follow me everywhere.” She would like to see filmmakers tackle more stories about the hidden and the voiceless — not just the homeless people Kaiser Permanente notoriously kicked out of their hospital beds and deposited on Skid Row, but the guy who drives them there.
“Who’s the person who takes that job?” she wonders. “Is it someone who has little money on the table, so little bread, that they are actually going to take someone who is deeply sick and take them out of the hospital and dump them on the street? I mean, those are the stories to tell in the movies, in documentaries, in journalism. Those stories are all around now.”
They were also the stories she fondly remembers from the films she saw during childhood. As the daughter of actors Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd (they divorced when Dern was 2), “I grew up watching my parents work with Scorsese and Hal Ashby and Hitchcock and all these extraordinary filmmakers,” she recalls, “but also watching all these films in the ’70s, in which you only found flawed protagonists in films, and there were only extreme circumstances surrounding that character. No one, no one, broke your heart more than Al Pacino sitting on the floor of that bank [in Dog Day Afternoon], and yet the circumstance around it was insane — somebody was asking us to feel empathy, and even love, for a bank robber.
“And that,” she says, “is a great political act. If you can make a movie, a documentary, write a song, or do anything that reflects authenticity — if you, in your journalism, can write a story about somebody in your work that connects us to the truth in ourselves — that’s a great political act. And that’s the kind of work I’ve always wanted to do.”
As she heads into a period of her life when many women in Hollywood fear they’ll end up desiccating in the desert of obsolescence, Dern feels certain her quest for the Authentic Character has entered an auspicious new phase. A determined foe of Botox and all forms of plastic surgery (“It’s tragic we haven’t found a better way to honor ourselves as we age,” she gripes), she plots a future as one of the few women in Hollywood who actually look their age at 60 — and swoop up choice roles because of it.
“I remember when I was 13, a director said to me, ‘Well, your 20s aren’t going to be easy, because you aren’t going to play the ingénue. But when you hit your 40s, you’re going to be having the time of your life.’
“And it’s true,” she confirms. “Just in the last couple of years, I’ve been given the opportunities I’ve always dreamt of. So now I’m getting all geared up for my 40s. I’m looking forward to it. I’m finally at an age when I actually get to play grown-ups.”