There is a scene in David Lynch’s Inland Empire in which a character played by Laura Dern, breathless from having climbed a flight of stairs, sits before a chubby man with crooked glasses in a dank little room and tells a story. The precise narrative of the story, like so much of Lynch’s self-produced, self-distributed, hand-shot new movie, is nearly impossible to determine: It’s something about a woman having been beaten and raped, and then turning on her abuser — “he been a-reapin’ what he been sowin’,” she drawls — and the intent of the “meeting upstairs,” as Dern calls the scene, remains a mystery even to the actor herself.
But one thing does emerge clearly from this: a study of a woman, both familiar and strange, who survives by striking certain necessary deals, on the street and in compromised relationships with men, who claws her relentless way through to a future that always fails her, and who, despite all the hard luck and meanness, never for a moment considers herself pitiable. By the Band-Aid on her neck and the sneer on her face, one might judge her to have lived her better days in a trailer, but in Dern’s portrayal of her, she also comes off as a woman in sincere pursuit of answers to the puzzle of life. This is classic Dern: As with the glue-sniffer in Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth, you ultimately stop trying to figure out what she thinks she’s doing and simply appreciate who she is.
Dern says her character is “the core of the movie,” a movie that began with a 14-page monologue Dern memorized overnight and delivered the next day to an astonished Lynch, who touted her on a panel at the New York Film Festival as one of the great actors of her generation. Most who watch her performance in Inland Empire will find it difficult to dispute that.
After 33 years as a professional actress, Dern, who turns 40 in February, has at long last established herself as what every fan of hers knew she was long ago: that rare actor who can transfer a thoughtful interpretation of a life and a character to the screen without ever letting on that she’s making you think. Lynch’s new film, she says, is like a visit to a museum of abstract paintings: No two readings of it are alike, and none are wrong. But at least one of its threads traces a fretful line through Dern’s unusual career, from the sexually precocious teen in Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk (1985) through her two previous turns in Lynch movies, as the wide-eyed Sandy in Blue Velvet (1986) and the indomitable Lula in Wild at Heart (1989), and on into her sober portrayal of paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Satler — the moral voice of reason in a world gone mad — in Jurassic Parks one and three. She has suffered, vexed, fought, escaped and died, and she has probably spent a greater proportion of her screen time with her face twisted in pained confusion than any other actor alive. In Inland Empire, when a creature with long, blond locks and a heavily lipsticked tragedy-mask mouth pursues Dern’s fragmented movie star through sets and streets, the vision seems to have come straight out of the nightmares of an actor who has spent too many of her days running from dinosaurs.
“I’ve had a lot of fun getting all of my anguish out,” she says. “I don’t feel that I live my life in torment at all, so there’s probably something to be said for having an outlet to explore the drama, and minimize it in your own life.”
At this point in the early life of Lynch’s confounding opus, it’s clear that dozens of people have already asked Dern to answer for the film, which is at once maddening and rewarding, not least because of Dern’s startlingly clear performance through a muddle of surrealism. And when she shows up at the California Pizza Kitchen just downstairs from Laemmle’s Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, ebullient and gracious in her unpretentious flowy blue dress and long, blond curls, it seems uncharitable, not to mention boring, to press the issue too hard. At home nearby, there is a 2-year-old daughter, Jaya, with an ear infection to worry about. Jaya is the youngest of the two children (son Ellery is 5) Dern has with musician Ben Harper, whom she married last fall after five years of living together and raising a family. (“To actually take your vows when you’re staring at someone and you know it all,” she says, “I recommend it highly.”) Upstairs, in the Sunset 5, there is a question-and-answer period scheduled after the screening of Inland Empire currently in progress. Presently, the subject that seems most engaging to Dern is not the trajectory of her own career, or the various meanings early viewers have assigned to Inland Empire, but Lynch himself: her mentor, her friend, and the director who in some ways has defined her career.
“I met him in such formative years of my life,” she says, “at 16, which is how old I was when we did Blue Velvet. I turned 17 on that movie. And working with him was incredible training. He creates this unbelievably extraordinary and abstract world and expects you to be extremely authentic within that world. You’re both without boundaries and having to be quite simple in your work. And it’s been a mind-blowing, really profoundly important influence on my entire career.
“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.
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“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.”