The oral history of Laura Dern—in her own words
It’s easy to think that Laura Dern is “having a moment.” Her widely acclaimed role as a cutthroat divorce lawyer in Noah Baumbach’s Netflix film Marriage Story just earned her a fifth Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. She wholly reinvented the nurturing matriarch Marmee in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women adaptation from Sony. Dern wrapped a gangbusters second season of HBO’s Big Little Lies. And she’s also slated to reprise her role as Ellie Sattler in the forthcoming Jurassic World 3.
But on closer examination of her 40-year career, Dern, who’s also now a prolific producer, has never not been having a moment. Since her first official onscreen role, in Adrian Lyne’s coming-of-age drama Foxes in 1980, Dern has neither ceased to work, nor make decisions that belie both the marketplace and those of her peers. From her unlikely early partnership with director David Lynch in 1986’s Blue Velvet to her masterful awards-contending work this season, Dern has shattered any and all precepts of what a female actor should and shouldn’t be.
Dern, 52, sat down with Fortune at a SAG-AFTRA Foundation event in Los Angeles in November to discuss her life and career milestones. What follows is an edited, condensed version of that conversation.
I was born just before my parents [actors Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd] filmed a western in California. So by 6 days old, I was on-location for the first time. We stayed in a motel room, and they used a drawer for my crib. I was definitely born into a working, acting family and subsequently raised by a mother and maternal grandmother who cared deeply about their community. It’s wild for those of us who grew up in Los Angeles in the 1970s with actor parents because there were maybe two movie magazines and two talk shows? Actors barely did press. They were just “workers.” Sure, there were glamorous moments, but I had a fairly simple upbringing. My parents’ focus was the craft, and they continued to study as members of The Actors Studio. They simply loved being actors. I was actually naturally a shy person, and it was my mother and grandmother’s deep empathy and activism that made me outgoing—not becoming an actor, per se.
My favorite subjects in school were all things revolution. I also loved storytelling, history, and great writing. And, as a good Catholic girl, my first role onstage was playing the Blessed Mother in my first-grade Christmas play in Beverly Hills. [Laughs] I was very proud because I got to hold the Baby Jesus. He wasn’t terribly animated because he was my doll, but I pretended that he was! I was around 6. Then when I was 7, I was an extra in my mom’s film [Martin Scorsese’s] Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. That was when I became really interested in acting. I loved watching Scorsese work with his actors; how they invented and improvised take to take. It was a team. Also, the scene I was in, Ellen [Burstyn] and Kris Kristofferson finally kiss, and I totally fell in love with him. I decided then that I wanted to be an actress who got kissed by Kris Kristofferson. [Laughs]
[Adrian Lyne’s 1980 film] Foxes was my first official role. I had to audition, and I am terrified by auditioning. I meet actors who say, “I love to audition, it’s such an opportunity!” I’m like, “Are you insane?” I screen-tested with [lead] Jodie Foster. It was for the part of her friend—she was 17 or 18. I was only 11, but lied and said I was 14 and that I could “look older.” I was my current height now back then. Not a popular thing during middle school, but it worked for acting! Jodie was fantastic. She was studying all the time and was basically fluent in French—she and her tutor taught me dirty words. Scott Baio was in the movie too, which was fantastic.
To be clear, I auditioned for everything in the ’80s—TV, commercials, Brat Pack movies. Mask was actually the first time I had to make a difficult career decision. I was offered the girlfriend role in a big Brat Pack movie. I won’t say which one, but it became a very successful movie and was a good salary. Then I was offered scale to do Mask and, because of my parents’ and Scorsese’s influence, I said, “I can’t not have this kind of opportunity.” To work so early in my career with [director] Peter Bogdanovich was extraordinary. In the rehearsal process we learned about [directors] John Ford and Luis Buñuel. [Lead] Eric [Stoltz], me, and the other young actors in the cast were invited by Peter to really understand filmmaking. It was so beautiful. [Mask’s real-life subject] Rocky Dennis’s mother was with us on set to help us understand what he went through. Also, I went to the Braille Institute to research my character, who was blind. The producers were persistent about making sure I did my homework.
I auditioned for a different Brat Pack movie the same week I auditioned for Blue Velvet. David Lynch had never seen me in anything. [Laughs] He just thought I was right for it somehow. I’d seen Eraserhead, and my mind was blown. I was terrified by it. He was the bravest filmmaker I’d ever seen. Then I saw The Elephant Man, and it was the most empathic, gorgeous piece of work. So I meet David, I’m 17, and he’s this gentle, affable meditator telling me the story of Blue Velvet. I’m like, “This is the nicest man telling me the scariest story.” [Laughs] With David, your job is to make an otherwise boundary-less and perhaps insane world feel as authentic and true as possible. In all our collaborations, it’s never routine, there are never rules or judgment, but it’s always safe. I’ve improvised a bit over the years, but he’s incredibly specific. Blue Velvet was word for word what was in the script. Wild at Heart, the same. Inland Empire was mostly written, but we made it over the course of three years. I played four or five different characters in that one. I was nursing my son when we started. Then I went through my second pregnancy, my daughter’s birth, nursing her, and we finished the movie in Lodz, Poland. It was wild.
After Smooth Talk with Joyce Chopra, Rambling Rose was the second film I’d made with a female director. Martha Coolidge was a powerhouse. Both films dealt with female sexuality and coming of age. As a young woman, it was particularly wonderful to have a woman to talk to about certain scenes. Martha was very protective of me. At the time, I didn’t understand the absurdity of Hollywood’s lack of gender parity. I was blind to the fact that there were literally no women anywhere. It was all-male crews on every movie I’d done. Even my hair and makeup were done by men! The script supervisor was usually the only woman on set. I remember Martha had just had a baby. One day she had a blanket wrapped around her while she was nursing her son. A male producer said, “Let’s be clear, you can’t nurse your child in public again. Your crew will see it as a sign of weakness.” I remember at 20 thinking, “A sign of weakness to feed your child?”
Steven Spielberg outright offered me the role in Jurassic Park, which was huge. But I saw it more as an experimental art house movie than a blockbuster because he was making the first-ever CGI movie. Nobody knew what that was or if it would even work! It felt equal to a David Lynch movie, radical in its own way—the puppetry by Stan Winston, these guys from a place called Industrial Light and Magic we’d never heard of. I was very appreciative of the attention the movie afforded me. My agents were thrilled. So naturally afterward I did [Alexander Payne’s] Citizen Ruth, a comedy about abortion, and then stood proudly next to Ellen DeGeneres as she came out on national television. [Laughs] Ellen created a revolution, God bless her. And more people need to see Citizen Ruth. That character taught me more than any other I’ve played. I worship what the movie says about America. It sends up both sides of the abortion issue brilliantly.
For my role as Florida’s Secretary of State Katherine Harris in HBO’s Recount, I was lucky that Danny Strong had written such a brilliant script. Also, former Harris aides were very open with me. And anytime I was horrified and disgusted by trying to have empathy or humanity for the egregious, bold-faced stealing of votes, [director] Jay Roach would say, “Okay, so how can you feel that?” Katherine had also been made fun of so much on Letterman and Saturday Night Live; there were so many impersonations, so I really had to be in the truth of it. What’s crazy is I consider that role one of my more settled performances compared to what I learned about her. [Laughs]
For Wild, I didn’t feel a need to distance myself from my friend [author] Cheryl Strayed in order to invent something new for the character. The story is about longing to be closer and understand the love story of her and her mother, who I played. I think it changed both [costar] Reese [Witherspoon’s] and my life forever knowing Cheryl, her heart and her brilliant writing. Cheryl’s mother loved life and Cheryl loved her mother beyond her complications. The movie taught me a great deal about loving my own mother, and being a parent and a listener. It changed my life deeply.
Big Little Lies was the next project I did with [Wild director] Jean-Marc Vallee. He’s a genius. The show was also the first time I truly felt safe in a cast. We’d get a piece of writing—an episode, a few scenes or a rewrite—and there’d be texts, emails, phone calls, and discussions in each other’s dressing rooms like, “I just read your scene, and I think it’s weird that Renata would say that.” I think if [writer] David E. Kelley wasn’t prepared for our feedback, he ultimately learned to be. [Laughs] But we were smart about how we did it. I think he felt lucky that we felt okay saying, “This doesn’t feel honest” or “A wounded woman wouldn’t feel that way.” All I know is that, if I called him and said, “Meryl Streep just texted me and said this scene doesn’t work,” we had to change it. When Meryl joined us for season two, it was easier to feel righteous!
A brilliant documentarian named Jennifer Fox was directing her first narrative feature, The Tale, about her own childhood sexual assault, and she wanted me to play her. It was radical in that it flashed forward and backward in time as she tried to remember what happened to her. Amazingly, the film came out the same month The New York Times broke the Harvey Weinstein story. Then the #MeToo movement reached fever pitch, and the narrative of the bully was changing. It used to be, “You’re experiencing this because you are less-than.” Now we know that that’s all a lie. We’ve weakened the bully, which is an amazing thing. Looking back, I was so lucky; devastating things could have happened to me as a young actor. I mean, I was 12 and sitting in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont waiting to read for a part. The casting director would send me up in the elevator up to the director, who was in a room with a bed, and we’d sit side by side and read a romantic scene together. Luckily, they were all respectful. But that’s insane! No one should ever be alone in a room like that. It gives each person the freedom to their own versions of what happened.
My roles in Marriage Story and Little Women are both supporting parts, but the movies don’t work without them. [Little Women’s] Marmee is the anchor of her family, and in a lot of ways, Nora is the anchor for Scarlett Johansson’s character in Marriage Story. What these films have in common is that they were made by two filmmakers I love and are now my friends. I worship them both as writers and directors. And they’re real-life partners! Greta says, which I love, “In Noah’s movie you play the kind of woman who tears families apart, and in my movie you’re the woman who keeps families together.” To have played these two outrageously diverse characters in the same year is an actor’s dream.
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