As she receives her second Oscar nomination, the acting legend is hitting another purple patch. The Lynchian muse reflects on a career of creativity and rebellion
Taken from the Winter 2014 issue of Dazed:
Cult actress Laura Dern is your favourite director’s muse. Whether she’s working with Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Spielberg or past, present and future collaborator David Lynch, Dern’s rare ability to walk the line between indie insanity and mainstream heroism has made her one of the most captivating actresses of the last three decades. Fresh from her role in teen weepie The Fault in Our Stars, which confronted the bleak reality of childhood cancer, the Californian star is “cooking up trouble” once more with Lynch, and appears opposite Reese Witherspoon in Wild. She just scored her second Academy Award nomination for the role, 23 years after her first for Rambling Rose in 1992. It’s no surprise that Dern continues to cause a commotion – she’s been a Hollywood rebel since her pre-teens.
When you were 12, you played a member of an all-girl punk band in Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982). Were you aware it was such a polemical feminist movie at the time?
Laura Dern: Well, I was aware that I wanted to be daring, because I was raised by very daring actors (Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern), but I didn’t know the weight of human beings – male and female alike – finding their own voice. But being 12 years old and in a movie with the Sex Pistols and The Clash is a great wake-up call to pushing authority and considering a new way. I mean, that’s just the most awesome thing that could happen to you.
Did you hang out with the bands on set?
Laura Dern: I did. For four months we were family and I was very, very lucky to have them. They taught me a great deal and they were fiercely protective. Who would know that my parents made the best decision ever to send their 12-year-old off with the Sex Pistols? But they were my authority figures that taught me not to be scared. Steve Jones and Paul Cook (from the Sex Pistols) were really awesome to me. They taught me to be fearless and educated me on the dangers of addiction. They literally said, “Don’t fuck up your life – we want you to have a great life.” And I love them for it forever. We went to see Lene Lovich and all these really cool shows I would never have gone to as a 12-year-old.
In Wild, Reese Witherspoon's character hikes solo up the West Coast of America. But really, your character of Bobbi, her Mom, is the real reason she undertakes the journey. Had you read Cheryl Strayed's book on which the film is based?
I hadn't before, but I was blown away. Bobbi was such a magnificent woman. You know, they went to college at the same time! Her willingness to find gratitude in, frankly, extremely dark places, and her belief in living a shame-free life was such an inspiration to her daughter and to all of us who get to know the story. Cheryl (Strayed, on who's book the film is based) speaks so beautifully about it – both in the book and it’s quoted in the film – about hiking all that way to try to be the daughter she knew she was.
Your early David Lynch movies – Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990) – are real touchstones in your career. Did you learn a different way of being in a movie from him?
Laura Dern: Very much so. He really is my greatest mentor in film because we’ve had such a long relationship and will continue to, I think, for my whole life. The balance of the extreme and the subtle is really delicate in a movie for David, and it’s a fun thing to play around with. It taught me a lot about comedy, because there’s a lot of comedy in David’s movies, in a very unexpected way. I don’t think I could have worked with Alexander Payne, Robert Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson and Jonathan Demme in the same way had I not been taught by David, because these filmmakers dance in that same way between the irreverent, the dark and the deeply funny.
How does being directed by, say, Paul Thomas Anderson, differ from being on a Lynch set?
Laura Dern: With Paul it’s a party – you sit around and you eat food and talk about the day and the work you’ve done. He continues to invent all day long and then he goes to work the next day and reinvents the stuff you shot the day before, and he continues to create. And David is very precise. He’s very clear about what he needs, it’s not really improvisational. I mean Inland Empire (2006) was, because there was no script, but it was still was very precise. He sees the movie as he’s writing it, and you’re, in a way, fitting into a world he has created in his mind.
“Being 12 years old and in a movie with the Sex Pistols and The Clash is a great wake-up call to pushing authority. I mean, that’s just the most awesome thing that could happen to you” – Laura Dern
Inland Empire is so intense – did you feel like you had to give over a lot of yourself in that role?
Laura Dern: Oh my god, yes. It was such a radical experience. I mean, we worked for almost three years on it. We shot in Poland and then in Paris, and I was like, ‘This is amazing! Where’s the crew?’ And he was like, ‘don’t be an idiot, there is no crew!’ He's got a camera, and he says ‘have a cappuccino’ and he’s, like, writing on a legal pad. And then we run down the Champs-Élysées in the rain, and we go into the Monoprix and he buys my costume, and then he’s like ‘pick out a lipstick!’ – and then I put on the lipstick and I put on the thing and then we shoot it together. It's just he and I in a hotel room shooting it all. Like, that’s it! That’s just the most fun you can ever have, with one of your best friends. I’ll never get to do that again, and I don’t know that any filmmaker will. For three years, the two of us got to take a Sony camcorder and run around Paris and Poland and LA and made a movie. It’s crazy. It’s beautiful.
That sounds fun, but the movie is insane. Did making it infringe on your own sanity?
Laura Dern: Well, all I can say is, I hope not. (laughs) But you'll probably have to ask other people. Although, what worries me the most was when the poster for the first season of Enlightened came out, and it’s me, like, having a breakdown with mascara running down my face. It was all over every bus stop… so I’m walking with my two kids, and my 6-year-old daughter sees it for the first time and I was like, ‘okay, I don’t want you to be freaked out’, and she’s like ‘so?’ She didn’t seem troubled by it for one second – maybe she’s going to be an actor.
You played Ellen DeGeneres’ love interest in the episode of her sitcom where she came out in 1997. What was that like?
Laura Dern: Well, it just seemed like an awesome opportunity to support a brilliant, brave person. Actually, I just saw Oprah Winfrey, and I remembered standing at craft service on the set of Ellen and Oprah (who played Ellen’s therapist in the show) going ‘Laura, honey, come with me right now! There’s a bomb threat!’ I was too busy having my snack to realise that everyone had cleared the stage! Everyone was unscathed anyway, but it’s amazing to think that, so recently, there was a bomb threat because we were doing an episode that addressed someone’s sexual preference.
Is it true that there was a backlash and you couldn’t get work for some time after that episode aired?
Laura Dern: I don’t know. I did that and I then I did Citizen Ruth (1996) – which was a very daring film to some people because it dealt with the abortion issue. To some, perhaps it was an interesting choice as a follow-up to Jurassic Park (1993), which was the biggest movie in the world at that time. I couldn't have been more excited to participate and support other people.
Do you find it disappointing that some people only know you from your role in Jurassic Park?
Laura Dern: No. It’s funny because people perceive it now as my blockbuster in a career of independent film, but Jurassic Park was the independent film! I had just done Wild At Heart, I was offered Jurassic Park and Nicolas Cage called me up and was like, ‘I cannot believe this, I’m freaking out, you have just been asked to do the most inventive movie of our time.’ And I was like, ‘Huh?’ There had never been a CGI movie, so it was really an experience of independent filmmaking. We were shooting scenes where there was nothing there, and then we saw footage where there was a giant T-Rex about to eat our head off. It was a new technology, it was a new day.
You played Shailene Woodley's mum in The Fault in our Stars earlier this year. Do you feel it was unfairly dismissed as a ‘teen movie’?
Oh, for sure. It’s unfortunate because John Green is such an adult writer and such an important writer, so I hope he continues to break boundaries in that way because we need him. I felt proud to be part of it because in America, in terms of government funding, only 3% of it goes towards cancer research goes to childhood cancer.
Did you ever audition for Twin Peaks?
Laura Dern: No, (David Lynch and I) had already done Blue Velvet together and just as he got Twin Peaks going. He very generously asked me to be part of it, but I was doing a film called Fat Man and Little Boy (1989), (released as Shadow Makers in the UK) so was unavailable. But I don’t regret it, because I was doing other things that I loved very much at the time.
Are you and David working on anything at the moment?
Laura Dern: We’re cooking up trouble, that’s for sure. We drink coffee and we brainstorm and let our brains go wild together – and that’s delicious. He’s not only my maestro, but he really is one of the best friends anybody could ever be lucky enough to have. I’m also developing things with HBO right now that are really exciting for the future, and a comedy feature which is super fun. Every single thing is incredibly different from the next, so I hope to continue to build a career full of surprises to keep myself growing.
Laura wears embroidered wool top by Hugo Boss; hair David Stanwell at Solo Artists; make-up Kelsey Deenihan at The Wall Group; styling assistant Adrian Reyna
Wild is out now