This article originally appears in the November 2017 issue of ELLE.
Hollywood’s dearth of “complicated” or “difficult” female characters is one of those truisms so often lamented it’s become a cliché, and yet there are a handful of actresses who make a career of finding, landing, and embodying exactly those roles. Take Laura Dern, who has been pursuing atypical, sometimes deliberately unlikable characters for decades—and making them crackle with both sex appeal and humanity onscreen.
Consider her doe-eyed temptress in Rambling Rose (1991), an almost literal blend of the Madonna-whore archetypes that Hollywood has so often fallen back on (and which earned Dern her first Oscar nom); her punk-rock Bonnie to Nicholas Cage’s Clyde in Wild at Heart (1990); her pregnant drug addict in Alexander Payne’s slapstick feminist parable Citizen Ruth (1996). Dern’s mantra has always been to seek “wild places,” she explains—to aim for that “let’s hurl ourselves off a cliff” feeling. In the process, “she elevates every project she is in,” says Reese Witherspoon, who cast Dern as the fantastically brittle Renata Klein in this year’s Emmy-favored Big Little Lies on HBO. “Her ability to create characters who have both humor and deep emotional impact is unparalleled.”
Dern’s off-kilter sensibility belies her roots as a born Hollywood insider: Her father is the Oscar-nominated actor Bruce Dern; her mother, Oscar-nominated Diane Ladd. “One of the things that most fascinates me is that she’s so down-to-earth, it’s easy to forget that Jack Nicholson was probably at her third birthday party,” says friend Cheryl Strayed, who first met Dern when the actress played Strayed’s mother in 2014’s movie adaptation of her memoir, Wild (Dern nabbed her second Oscar nod for the role). “She’s Hollywood royalty, but you’d never know she’s got a crown on her head.”
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