Laura Dern doesn't want to draw attention to herself. She lowers her voice as she settles into a red-and-white vinyl booth at Jones Hollywood, where only a few early-evening diners share pizzas in the front cafe. But Dern blows her cover when she exclaims, "Is Rian Johnson not the greatest person you've ever talked with?"
He is, of course, but so is the effusive and charming Dern, who's enjoying a welcome career boom. Just in this year, the actress has significant roles in Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi, HBO's Big Little Lies, John Lee Hancock's The Founder, Craig Johnson's indie comedy Wilson, Jennifer Fox's chilling personal drama The Tale and Showtime's Twin Peaks reboot, the latter being so hush-hush that she's been absolutely forbidden to say a word about her fourth collaboration with David Lynch.
This might be the busiest she's been since her streaks in the late '80s and early '90s, when she did strings of high-profile projects: In Mask (1985), she was a blind girl in love with a man with physical deformities, and in Smooth Talk (1985) and Rambling Rose (1991) a sexually curious teenager, while Blue Velvet (1986) had her playing a cartoonish goody-goody. Her spastic lover-on-the-lam in Wild at Heart (1990) then gave way to the ever-curious scientist in one of the most profitable films ever made, Jurassic Park (1993).
Now as then, Dern can imbue even the most tarnished characters with a gleaming heart, even as she defies typecasting. In many ways, she is a conduit to the renaissance days of the 1970s, when risk-takers and renegades brought to Hollywood the kind of spirit we'd today call "indie." Those artists were still supported by the remnants of the studio system, and since Dern began as a child actor back when the studios were still taking chances on auteurs, that indie spirit is what she sees as normal. Now, when she finds that a set's missing that passionate, egalitarian openness — even on mega-budget productions — she'll bend over backward to bring it herself.
Calling from a visual effects session in the U.K., Rian Johnson says, "[Working with Dern on the upcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi] was like two indie kids getting away with something. We kept catching eyes, like, 'Are they really letting us do this?'"
"When you're around her," Johnson continues, "it's like sunlight. I'm sure you're getting a lot of people who've worked with her struggling to put it into words. I'm trying to describe it without being too cheesy. She's a force." He laughs, like he can't believe he's actually saying it. "She definitely has the Force."
Like the Force, talent is in her blood. Dern's character-actor parents, Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, raised her on their ideals. She, too, has sought out the daring roles snubbed by actors worried over the trajectories of stardom.
"If you don't feel longing," Dern says, "or if you're already casting a lot of other people in the part while you're reading the script, maybe you know it's not yours."
Her father recalls one of the roles she initially felt unsure about, one anyone else would have leapfrogged through traffic to land. "She called me up and said, 'Dad, do I really have to do a dinosaur movie?'" Bruce Dern says over the phone, as he's driving through Malibu. "I said, 'Well, your mother's doing one for Roger Corman [Carnosaur], but you don't have to.'"
He says she took the role because she trusted that their family friend — "Steven" — could bring his pioneering spirit to the behemoth blockbuster. Growing up in Hollywood, Dern had some pretty A-list family friends, like Spielberg.
When she was a child, legendary teacher and Actors Studio director Lee Strasberg would come to the house to chat about craft, and on any given day she might be telling hammed-up stories for Hal Ashby, Rip Torn, Lee Grant, Jon Voight or Martin Scorsese, who famously made her eat 19 banana-flavored ice cream cones in a row in her first turn as a movie extra. In that world, there were no "types" or big roles or small roles. Just actors and characters.
"[Being a type] is a commodity," Dern says, talking with hands that are forever trying to catch up with the speed of her brain. "In the language now, it's about a 'brand' you've invented that gives you more followers." She's never met an actor who wanted to be a brand but acknowledges that it can be difficult for young actors — particularly women — to avoid the trap of simply doing what people expect of you. Dern, like her mother and father, is simply a master craftsperson plying her trade in her hometown.
"It's a shame when actors like Laura are working in modern cinema," director Alexander Payne says. He directed Dern in his feature debut, the daringly hilarious abortion satire Citizen Ruth (1996), and also worked with Bruce Dern on 2013's Nebraska. "There aren't enough roles worthy of her talent and of her pickiness. In yesteryear's Hollywood, female actors were much more valued and written for. I tremble when I think about these great actors' lack of opportunities to do quality roles."
Yes, women are getting less than a third of the speaking roles in movies today, but Dern still manages to find and embody complex characters, and directors are still dying to work with her — Johnson even calls casting Dern in Star Wars a "selfish move" on his part. "I just thought she was the coolest person on the planet since I saw Blue Velvet. It hit me right between the eyes, that shot of her coming out of the shadows — oh my God, that film."
In last year's quietly powerful indie Certain Women, Dern played a frazzled, small-town lawyer who gets caught up in a hostage situation but wants nothing more than a relaxing night at home with her dog and a pizza. Director Kelly Reichardt laughs as she struggles to describe the somewhat ethereal quality Dern brings to a set, but then offers a more concrete example of the actress's wisdom and experience. "There's something in the take," Reichardt says. "We might say, 'There's a dead spot in this scene,' and she would go, 'Oh yeah, it's on this word.' And she could intuitively sense exactly what was missing in a scene."
Payne credits Dern as the actor who convinced him he should be a collaborative director. He even invited her to see early cuts of Citizen Ruth, rare for a director — the kind of practice you'd see back in the 1970s when people who acted were more often writers and directors on other projects. But Payne says Dern would often remember or recommend a take other than the one he had used. And he would find she was right: It was better.
Dern — who dropped out of college multiple times to take on some of the most rewarding roles of her career — learned everything she knows about film and life through the act of doing. Other former child stars haven't always been so lucky in their careers. She laughs as she wonders aloud if anyone ever considered her a "Hollywood casualty," but Dern insists her grounded nature wasn't by mistake: Her parents strove to give her the normal, fulfilled life any kid should have in sunny L.A., regardless of any challenges they faced.
Bruce Dern hesitates to tell this story, because it's particularly painful.
"It's heavy but it's true — Diane and I lost a child," he says, from his car.
"She drowned in a swimming pool. Laura was born years later. When she was 7, we were driving out to my home in Malibu, and she turned to me on a rainy day just like today and straight out said, 'Daddy, I miss my sister.'?" He pauses, and through the phone there's the sound of cars honking and tires slashing through the water on the roads. "We never talked to her about her sister. But she knew. And I knew right then that she was tremendously special."
Laura Dern thinks of herself as being like a sponge — for better or for worse — sucking up all emotions around her. She doesn't remember the story her father told me: "God, I did miss her though. It's so funny that I learn this stuff from the press." Though Dern's parents divorced when she was 2, her impressions from childhood are happy.
"We lived in an apartment across from Chasen's restaurant." For decades, the Beverly Boulevard hangout was the place to be for the Hollywood elite, like Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant. "My grandmother and I would walk down the street to go to the market and we'd see icons — Jimmy Stewart! — and we'd get so excited. We got to have my birthday at Chasen's when I was 15. My three best girlfriends and I dressed up like grown-ups. And my mom gave [me] the credit card and left!"
In 1995, Chasen's was torn down. The location is now a Bristol Farms grocery store. Dern says she'd start weeping if she talked about all of her favorite long-gone Angeleno landmarks
"They should be here, and they're not. I saw David Bowie twice in my life, once when he was buying records with Iman in Tower," she reminisces, "Tower Records, Tower Video, Rocket Video... Thank God for Vidiots."
Then she hears the bad news: Vidiots just moved out of its physical location and won't be reopening for at least another year.
"No! But they're going to be OK?"
I tell her they will.
She sinks back into her seat, relieved. "The loss of the video store and bookstore, to me, is a tragedy. It's where you discover the artists you would not otherwise have known. I don't need for the airport to define to me the three best-selling books, or the one movie everyone's seen. I want to find what I don't know." That impulse reflects the way she selects her film roles — she looks for the one that tells her what she doesn't know.
With infectious wonder she describes walking to the long-gone Beverly Park and Ponyland — now the Beverly Center. Remember, though, that the kid who was so psyched on a pony ride, the track star and student council president, was also already a movie actress, appearing with Jodie Foster in Foxes and Diane Lane in Ladies and Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains, the story of three angsty teen girls in a Slits-like post-punk band.
Lane fondly remembers their time on set: "Watching Laura at 12 years old explore her own insolence and petulance toward her on-screen mother [Christine Lahti] was so liberating," she says. "She didn't have to be liked! Or that dreaded word: sympathetic." Dern herself, of course, was those things her character didn't have to be. "Laura could cut the cord so easily when Lou Adler said 'cut!' and laugh at herself. I had never worked with a peer until then, and it was exhilarating."
At the time, Lane says, they didn't know they were feminists, even though they probably were. "Labels are for the rear-view mirror. ... We just understood how to fully show up and had a sense of justice. Period."
Dern credits Ladd, her mother, with that sense of justice — but also that Hollywood community.
"My mom took me to marches when I was 12, 13. Predominantly in the women's movement, focused on choice and the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment]." Her mother couldn't make it to one rally they had been anticipating, but Ed Asner insisted Dern come anyway.
"I will never forget seeing faces of these seniors who were losing health care and support and seeing them see advocates — that other people cared enough to stand up for them. I realized in that moment that if you have a voice, you have to speak up."
Dern brought that spark, that impetus to do the most good and to speak your mind, to one of her signature roles: Amy Jellicoe, the character she co-created (with Mike White) and played for two seasons, in 2011 and 2013, on HBO's Enlightened.
After Al Gore lost the 2000 election, Dern was re-energized by her role in HBO's Recount (for which she won a Golden Globe), but everyone she dealt with at the cable network was depressed at the country's apathy. "There was clearly voter fraud, but nobody took to the streets. Definitely not like they are now," she says. So, she tells me, she pitched Amy as "What if Lucille Ball became Norma Rae?" In the show, Amy's an emotional wreck, but by God she will stand up to the corporations and make a difference.
"I love Amy. I wish she were here right now." She means now, these days of anxious protest. Dern tells me that she cried the last time she stood at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, that it's awe-inspiring to be reminded of what this country is built on, that actually she's cried every time she's been there — this was the eighth. Like Rian Johnson, she's worried that all her genuine sentiments might sound "cheesy." And, like Johnson, she continues anyway, because she's that moved by ideals, and by people who have had the courage to act on theirs. Who better for a sponge to soak up?
"Am I an empath?" she asks. "Oh, God, probably. My mother and grandmother certainly were."
She laughs, remembering a dinner party many years ago, where everyone went around expressing their greatest fears and "by the time they got to me, I'd adopted all their fears, every single one, like I was plagued by so much terror that I couldn't even articulate a fear [of my own]. It's worse than hypochondria."
This happens all the time. If you say you love Indian food, Dern suddenly feels that she does, too. But this also means she's up for anything, the tag-along buddy who will say "yes" to outlandish ideas, a trait that's come in handy when she's playing "dance partner" to some notably eccentric actors, such as Nicolas Cage in Wild at Heart.
"You're locked in," she says. "The characters have to be in sync every second. If they're gonna go insane ... well, you've gotta go insane."
"Those Derns, they give it all," Payne says, the respect heavy in his voice. "They don't have that stupid actor vanity you see a lot today."
Laura Dern is not afraid of looking stupid, and she doesn't have a brand to ruin. At 50, she's ready now to take even bigger risks.
After wrapping 2014's mother-daughter drama Wild, Dern took a trip to Big Sur with Cheryl Strayed, the author of the book on which the film was based. Dern had played the role of Strayed's mother, a rollicking, fearless woman and the backbone of the story. On the trip, the two were with their children out in the woods on a rocky trail in the dark when they heard howling. Dern felt from everyone else a growing sense of trepidation — everyone except Strayed, who wrapped an arm around Dern's son, one of two children she shares with her ex-husband, musician Ben Harper.
"[Strayed] said to him, 'Are you going to let courage be your guide or fear be your guide?' and that stuck with me."
Dern has made a kind of personal vow to either be that courageous guide or surround herself with emotionally brawny people. Now, in David E. Kelley's HBO drama Big Little Lies, she's joined up with a power team of actresses — Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Zoë Kravitz — from whom she can gather strength.
Her father pointed out with touching pride that although Dern's not top-three billing on Big Little Lies ("She's absolutely ego-less."), she's getting rave reviews.
In the pilot episode, Dern's character, Renata, a not-quite-likable businesswoman, stares into the sunset with a glass of wine in her hand. She's telling her husband (Jeffrey Nordling) about a tense moment at their child's school. The husband offers supportive platitudes at first but then slips and says something pretty sexist. Dern doesn't speak, but her face shifts to reveal a full narrative of emotion: What did he just say? He definitely said that. Oh my God, who did I marry? Fuck this guy, I'm out of here.
Dern needs only minimal dialogue to convey maximal emotion. Even in that "dinosaur movie" her face prompts us to believe that these majestic beasts are truly roaming around Earth — remember, this is the first time CGI effects on that scale had figured into a Hollywood production, and she cued the world on how to regard them. Dern's look as she stands up in that Jeep and stumbles out into the grass is one of absolute wonderment. She can't remember what she was thinking at that moment, but she knows Spielberg had described the scene with such clarity that she felt she could see it. And then we could, too — her belief grounded the fantastical.
In Citizen Ruth, Dern did the reverse, making a very human woman into a larger-than-life character. Her pregnant drug addict, Ruth, pogo-bounces through one scene, then slumps like a wet blanket into a pile of trash the next. The film follows a woman considering getting an abortion in order to get a leaner jail sentence, when she's caught between warring factions representing the pro-life and pro-choice movements. It may sound odd but this is a comedy. And a great one, sold completely by Dern's loving portrayal.
Payne told her Ruth was like one of those lovable alley dogs that scrounges in the garbage "because she doesn't give a shit about anything else or anybody else, just a wild feral creature that's just surviving, without consideration of other life around them."
But Dern talks about Ruth as a mother would; she wants to protect her. Comedy, to Dern, involves a certain amount of love and pain, something she learned from her heroes, like Lucille Ball.
A worry line cracks on her forehead when she tells me she won't have the opportunity to play Ball in a biopic. (Cate Blanchett was already cast in Aaron Sorkin's upcoming film on Ball's life.)
"She really was my greatest inspiration ... and broke my heart, too. I just remember as a kid always feeling such hopefulness in I Love Lucy, and The Lucy Show [Ball's postdivorce follow-up] had a very different kind of energy. I loved it, but it made me feel sad," she says. The Lucy Show was the first on TV to feature a divorced female lead character, and it offered a more biting kind of comedy. "She taught me that you have to play the truth of the character. And the more emotional or true or even heartbreaking it is, hopefully, the funnier it is."
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She may even bring that heartbreaking humor to her now-secret role in Twin Peaks — she does credit Lynch with teaching her comic timing, "even if it's a bizarre brand of humor."
As we wait for the check at the cafe, Dern lists off a few more of her acting idols of classic Hollywood: Thelma Ritter, Eileen Heckart, Beatrice Straight. Sometimes she'll fall in love with a character actor and watch every movie he or she ever made. She wants "to honor their careers, not just the stars'."
On the walls at Jones Hollywood, framed photos of celebrities partying it up in the 1970s club scene abut black-and-white snapshots of regular Angelenos living their lives. Jones is the kind of throwback neighborhood spot where a union worker can hop in for spaghetti and meatballs and sit next to Robert Plant with little fanfare — everyone's an equal. It's the kind of place that feels like home for a kid who grew up with parents who are "deeply unaccepting of stature games" and who worked on the film sets of the '70s, where everything was "messy and familial and nobody was making more money than anyone else." That's a less glamorous kind of Hollywood, far from the Walk of Fame, where Dern's and her parents' names are emblazoned on adjacent stars.
Dern's continued success is a reminder that a career founded on risks — not top billings or leading-lady roles — will never go out of style. Hollywood may tire of stars, but it adores characters. So as young hopefuls find themselves unwitting participants in an industry indifferent to their dreams, Dern is the radiant messenger straddling the past and present while holding an important secret: It doesn't have to be like this.