Laura Dern
Photo by Ramona Rosales

Laura Dern: “We have to evolve together”

Short Profile

Name: Laura Elizabeth Dern
DOB: 10 February 1967
Place of birth: Los Angeles, California, United States
Occupation: Actor

Ms. Dern, is it difficult for actresses to find powerful and complicated roles in today’s industry?

For whatever reason, I have been lucky to play pretty ferocious people, even when they’re broken. I’m thinking of Citizen Ruth as an example; she was a really crazy, complicated character — or even Jurassic Park, I mean, they are badasses in their own way. With a film like Wild at Heart, in the mind of the filmmaker, David Lynch, through everything that happens to that character, even trauma, she tries to become empowered. She’s so objectified that she says, “I am not going to let you win, I’m the one that’s going to win.” And that’s a very complicated thing… My collaboration with David is so respectful and so generous. I’ve played so many different kinds of characters for him; sexuality being one of the things that he has deeply explored in very traumatic ways with and towards women.

But also in very empowering ways.

Right, it’s all over the map. It’s like his paintings; it’s all in there. And I have been inspired by that and it hasn’t scared me because it’s complicated. I might see it very differently now than I would have as an 18-year-old or 19-year-old or something, but at the time, I would have still seen the value of exploring all of it. I find that exciting. When it comes to exploring, especially with the likes of David, you want it to be fearless and messy. Even working with Noah Baumbach on Marriage Story, you know, I love his films, I love him, and it was an amazing way to have a working relationship.

In what ways?

Well, I would say for over a year, we were just having dinners and talking, so we were all part of the processes he was writing, of starting to talk about everything — including relationships. One night at dinner, he said, “I think I want to make a love story about divorce.” And I was just… It just brings tears to my eyes as being brilliant and wonderful and hilarious.

How did that evolution come about?

I can’t say; that’s a question for Noah. I am not sure how long it took for him to find that idea. But I know that quite quickly, our dinner conversation turned a lot to us both having been through divorces as children, the heartbreak of what that experience was, what it is for a child. We talked a lot about it. We were both raised by artists and now we are artists who are parents. So I see a lot of our conversations in the couple, more than I see in my own role. And what’s beautiful about Noah is that he creates a company as a playwright would, and you feel all of it invested in the storytelling. It is incredible how he has his own language and there is a beautiful, very musical rhythm to his films.

Baumbach has said that that is an unconscious thing for him — that as he writes each movie, the style somehow reveals itself along the way.

When he gave me the script, it was the most beautiful script I’ve ever read. I think it’s a perfect piece of art, it’s unbelievable. Isn’t it incredible? Every line has purpose, every line matters. Just when you think this line you read is so devastating and beautiful, you’d fall in love with a line which is seemingly a throwaway. And even those moments that seem that nothing matter and are so beautiful! But for me selfishly as an actor, reading my character’s monologue about societal pressures on mothers and Mary, mother of Jesus, was like the greatest thing I have ever read. (Laughs) That was my favorite Christmas present that I have ever gotten.

The audience at my screening in Venice applauded at the end of the monologue! Did it come from the heart for you?

It’s the best gift because while she’s off putting perhaps, a bit terrifying, and perhaps a bit manipulative or strategic, she’s also absolutely right. That’s what makes it so delicious. But the fact is that she is just telling it like it is, and you are sort of wanting to reject everything that she has to offer… It’s fantastic, I loved being in battle with her, it was really fun. There are other moments I recognize as well, like this moment where Adam Driver’s character says something to the effect of, “You didn’t want a voice, it was only later that you were so angry that I didn’t let you have one, you didn’t even know you wanted one.” That cut deep because I really relate to that! I can only speak for myself, but I wasn’t raised to believe I was really entitled to voice in the room as a girl.

Unfortunately that is kind of thinking is all too common, even now.

I don’t know about the other women out there. But I feel like I did enter a relationship kind of wanting to please and make it right and only later going, “Wait a minute, you never asked what I wanted, but I never said what I wanted either because I didn’t know I was allowed to.”

Would you say things are changing for the better?

I think we’re all learning together what it is to be in partnership because for most of our parents, the man was the one setting the rules. So, yes, things are changing and evolving, so I think we all have to evolve together and not resent men for not considering what we wanted when we weren’t expressing what we wanted. It’s complicated. And hopefully this is something that has shifted for my daughter, who feels very fierce in her voice. I think that’s being spurred by a horrific political climate in our country — there’s a lot of really loud, angry girls in America right now! It’s a very exciting thing.

Hopefully this shift is a permanent one, especially in the film industry.

I do think there is a permanence in the fact that corporate America has been shamed by their consumer saying, “Well, what does your board room look like?” So now, slowly, they’re starting to see that they have to have a woman on the board of 13, maybe there are one or two women on that board. I do think those numbers will grow because it matters to the people who are buying their product — and that is where the change is. The change is about money. It’s not about us becoming more conscious. I naively thought in my twenties that we are going to become evolved, there’s going to be parity. No, it’s when people stop paying. But I think anytime we see advancement, history shows us that fear rises at the same time. So we can be very proud of ourselves as we affect any change.