Laura Dern Finally Gets to Be Complicated
Article taken from 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.”
It’s easy to imagine Dern’s unpredictable taste in roles as a kind of rebellion against her pedigree, but she says it’s more like she’s carrying on the family tradition. Along with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Peter Fonda, and Francis Ford Coppola, Dern’s parents and their cohort were the architects of what many still consider the pinnacle of independent cinema, when Easy Rider, Taxi Driver, and The Godfather films were made in the shadow of a post–Manson murders, recession-suffering, Vietnam War–waging America. “It was the ’70s—that was a very specific thing,” Dern recalls of her childhood, during which she made her film debut alongside her mother in 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore at age seven. “I fell in love with being thrown into that void—the fear and fearlessness it takes to be in that space with people. I’m always longing for that.”
When she was 15, Dern took on the role of a blind girl in love with Eric Stoltz’s disfigured teen in Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask. “My dad said to me, ‘Oh boy, you like these kinds of parts. It’s going to be really hard work to find those—they don’t write the kinds of characters that excite you for women at 20 or 30.’” But confounding expectations became Dern’s forte. Though big-budget Brat Pack fare beckoned, she instead chose to work with director David Lynch as the warped ingenue in 1986’s Blue Velvet.
The following decades brought a whirlwind of surprising characters and iconic directors: She worked with Robert Altman on Dr. T & the Women in 2000; enthralled audiences opposite Mark Ruffalo in John Curran’s brainy adultery drama We Don’t Live Here Anymore in 2004; and played a woman lost in dual identities in Lynch’s 2006 Inland Empire. In 2005, Dern married musician Ben Harper, whom she’d met at a concert and with whom she had two children—Ellery Walker, 16, and Jaya, 12—before divorcing in 2013.
As dads often are, Bruce, in his way, was right all along. Yes, Dern spent her twenties and thirties creating some of the most sexually adventurous, subversive young women in recent memory. (If you’ve never seen her as the elegantly wounded lead in 1985’s Smooth Talk, make a run for it!) But it wasn’t until she turned 40, she says, that things really got good, from working with Paul Thomas Anderson on The Master, to playing Amy Jellicoe, the New Age–y rageaholic in HBO’s ultraprescient series Enlightened (which she cocreated with Mike White), to emerging as the mysterious Diane in Lynch’s recent Twin Peaks reboot. “Women at the age where they start to take ownership of a willingness to be sexual, vulnerable, mean, wrong, just…older,” she says, sighing with pleasure. “Those are characters that really interest me.”
Now the opportunities for creativity seem boundless. “In my twenties, the characters I was asked to play were limited by, well, she’s just a girl—she doesn’t mean it or she doesn’t know who she is,” says Dern, who will next apply her wisdom to the upcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi, her first mainstream sure-to-be-blockbuster since 1993’s Jurassic Park. “So I’m starting to play women who just don’t know how to do it—they’re not girls, but they haven’t figured it out, still,” she says. “That’s so relatable! I’m having the time of my life.”
This article originally appears in the November 2017 issue of ELLE.