Laura Dern emerges from the pitch dark. She is 19 years old, dressed as Sandy Williams in a pink short-sleeved dress, a hydrangea of blond bangs protruding from her forehead. It’s 1986 and Dern has appeared in several commercially successful films, including Mask, but it’s David Lynch’s Blue Velvet that functions as a debutante ball for a woman who was born Hollywood royalty. Under normal circumstances, it might feel tiresome to explain that Laura Dern is the daughter of Bruce Dern (himself a great-nephew of Archibald MacLeish) and Diane Ladd (herself a cousin of Tennessee Williams), that she is the goddaughter of Shelley Winters and one of the only actors working today with Coppola-level California roots. But these are not normal circumstances. Because Dern’s childhood, a swirling mass of famous faces like Gregory Peck, Jane Fonda, Jack Nicholson, and Gena Rowlands, is not a requisite mention but an inextricable part of who she is—responsible for her passions and her pitfalls and the key to one of the most elastic actresses of her generation.

“I have never spent time with boring people,” she says, as if confessing to never having entered a Walmart. “I’ve never once been at a meal where I’ve thought, Oh, this person is a bore.”

It’s 11 A.M. on a Sunday and we are the only two diners in the cavernous Viale dei Romani restaurant. Somewhere, a cappuccino is being made. Dern is set to attend a reception for Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma this afternoon. She has on a floral dress with a keyhole front, a cape-like white coat, and carries a tiny teal bag. She looks like a glamorous Easter egg—and kind of sounds like one. She is animated, funny, charming, and impeccably mannered. “My family’s from the South,” she says, reminding me of her Mississippi bloodline. “I’m a hugger!” She also speaks deliberately, protectively, with the cadence of a seasoned professional accustomed to delivering whole paragraphs.

Over the course of the two days I spend with her, I witness dual Dern engines: the primary one being that of a deeply genuine person, the secondary one being that of a person with a marrow-level awareness of sounding as genuine as she is. This is common for actors, particularly very smart ones. They pepper the occasional curse word or easy joke into a stream of articulate, unobjectionable ideas (the environment is a priority, minority voices are vital, sexual harassment is bad, gun laws are too lax) as you slide into the uncanny valley of conversation. This is control, mind you, not fakeness. But Laura Dern is really good at it. We are in the middle of getting right to it, chatting about romance, when our food arrives. She plucks my cell phone from the table. At first I think she has confused it for her cell phone, but instead she lifts the microphone to her face so my audio will be seamless. Seasoned.

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