The daughter of two actors (Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd), Laura Dern quickly established herself as a unique voice in American cinema. Her fledgling juvenile career gained notice, but Dern's full potential emerged in two distinctly different roles for David Lynch: Sandy in Blue Velvet and Lula in the Cannes Palme D'Or winner Wild at Heart. For the film Rambling Rose, Dern and Ladd became the first mother and daughter nominated for Oscars in the same year. Since then, Dern has balanced mainstream films like Jurassic Park, A Perfect World, and I Am Sam with a steady stream of cable films and independents like Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth, Robert Altman's Dr. T & the Women, and the new film We Don't Live Here Anymore, in which she co-stars with Mark Ruffalo, Naomi Watts, and Peter Krause. The light at the end of the tunnel of a long press day, I spoke with a still-chipper Laura Dern on the afternoon of July 20, 2004 at San Francisco's Four Seasons Hotel.
Groucho: Alright, so, We Don't Live Here Anymore. . .
Laura Dern: Yeah!
G: ...is about the fractiousness and fragility of marital relationships. And I wonder, do you think in today's world that's a—at all an outmoded thing, marriage?
LD: Marriage in general?
LD: I think not. I mean, I think actually it's more hip than ever, thanks to your very brave and lone pioneer mayor. You know, there's potential for people to redefine marriage, and redefine the sacrament, and redefine what it means, and that's why I was excited to be a part of this movie because it needs redefining. It needs redefining in film, and it needs redefining in the world. That, you know, marriage should be about two people making the choice to be partners for life, because they love each other, with the acknowledgement that, you know what? It's a long road; it's really hard work. Sometimes your partner is going to see the very thing you hate in yourself and point it out to you. And you're gonna need to stay true to your own growth, and therefore you for them, and you gotta hear each other, listen to each other. It's big work, marriage.
G: Right, and—
LD: I mean a partnership of any kind, but in this case. . .
G: And in the film, for Terry and Jack, do you think then the experience of dealing with the affairs that arise is as potentially constructive as it is destructive, then?
LD: In this case, in this movie's case, it is. And in life, oftentimes, the very thing that feels like it's going to break something apart always does have an opposite. There is break-through and break-up, you know? I mean, if—if you—if your self is revealed to you through an experience then there's room for growth. And I feel like these four people have to face themselves because of what has arisen.
G: Uh-uh. You play in the movie a woman who's really at the end of her tether, which—
LD: Yes. (Laughs.)
G: Must have been a cathartic experience for you, but I guess any part is if everything's going right.
LD: Yeah, any part is, for sure. And no matter how subtle or volatile a character, it has great potential for unveiling your own truth, and your own experience, and sort of waking you up to a new part of yourself as an actor. And, you know, I feel like the more I work as an actor, the more excited I get about trying to be simpler. And my favorite challenge—which is probably why I pick somewhat explosive people at times—is to find the subtleties in playing a rather volatile person or an extreme personality.
G: Yeah. Let's talk a little bit about your process. Do you—with something like this where you have the script as a source and you also have the two short stories as a source, what kind of textual work do you do, and do you keep an acting journal? What sorts of preparations—?
LD: God, you know it's always slightly different. I've had the same acting teacher for uh—almost twenty years now. And my work with her has been varied. I mean, it's always based in, y'know, what's described as "the method." Y'know, like my parents she came out of the Actor's Studio, and that was sort of my early training, but it's all based in just finding the simple truth in things. And often that will involve a journal, it will involve—it can involve dream work, it can involve, you know, my own sort of self-exploration. It can involve research, depending upon the character, especially if there are aspects of the character that I don't have a relationship to. I've played various characters with addiction, and I've never had a chemical addiction in my life, so that's taken, you know, different kinds of research, and—but no matter how much work, for me, and it is so individual, like anything, journalism, or anything, that you have your own way of working, and for me I have to sort of discover everything and then throw it all out. Just try to get out of my head and be simple and truthful—
LD: In the moment if I can, hopefully.
G: Uh-uh. Since you choose roles with an eye to do something different, and that keeps your work edgy, I think, in a good way, how do you satisfy yourself that you trust your director on a project to protect you, you know, protect the role?
LD: I mean, boy, it's a real unknown. Uh, you know, their body of work?
LD: If they're a great filmmaker is certainly reassuring and exciting. And you hope that they're gonna take you to a place that you could never be brave enough to do yourself, you know?
LD: But in some cases, it's a first time filmmaker. Alexander Payne, who did Citizen Ruth, had never done a movie before.
LD: So it's just, y'know, you hope, and you get really lucky in my case.
G: Uh-uh. I'm going to throw an old quotation back at you.
LD: Uh oh. Oh, geez. (Laughs.)
G: In 1996, you said, "With each character I play, if I can understand something of their sexuality, then I know what drives their fears." And I know that's been sort of a theme for a lot of your characters. How does Terry's sexuality inform her emotional state in the film?
LD: Um. . .God, that's so interesting. (Laughs.) I'm not sure I agree with that anymore. I mean, yeah, it's an aspect, it's certainly an aspect of the person. And how Terry's sexuality drives her fears, you said? I said? (Laughs.) Well, first I would say it defines her truth, because her, her sexuality, her true, true sexuality is that I think she's someone who defines intimacy as all things. I think she believes in partnership as a place where sex and friendship and loyalty meet. And not a lot of people have that kind of conviction about partnership. And no matter what happens in the film, she still believes in that kind of partnership. With that said, within the confines of that kind of partnership, sexuality takes a lot of paths in this story, including her deepest fear, which is that she somehow has to be what Mark's character, what Jack wants her to be. That she's relegated to sort of being his puppet by acting out what she thinks he's pushing her towards, sexually, to free him of his own guilt. And she tries to play that through her own sexuality, but it doesn't work for anybody. So in fact, when her sexuality is about her fear, it destroys her, but when it's about her truth, it saves her.
G: Hm.Your character also suggests in the film that actions don't necessarily represent who people are, which is a pretty frightening thought. . .
G: What are the consequences of that if that's true? What—how do you know—how do two people know who they really are in a relationship? Words, I presume, or—?
LD: Not my experience. I've heard some great words.
LD: Whoo! From the best of the wordsmen! I have heard great words. And I—and they weren't accurate.
LD: So, um. . .
G: So, "what does that leave?" is the question.
LD: I guess it leaves yourself. I mean, that's the—that's the real scary thing about a partnership, is really, you really do only have yourself. And therefore from yourself that means your instinct about a person. Your free will, you know, your hope in investing in this partnership and creating a family with someone. But, it's not to say, even with the best person in the world and the safest environment, it's not scary and a leap of faith. It's a—it's a tough challenge. So I don't know the answer to it. You know, I know in my gut I have someone I can feel that way about, but how I know it, I don't know. It's nothing really tangible, it's just that soul is just a very truthful soul to me.
LD: My guy [Ed.: Ben Harper].
G: Right. So let's say I'm a fly on the wall. What notes, if any, did you exchange with Naomi Watts about having experienced David Lynch?
LD: I, you know, I—just the joy of talking about him. He, um—I think they've remained friends since they did the movie, and he's been one of my dearest friends since I was eighteen now. And you know, I know what I said to her, for me, is true about David, and I, I think she feels the same way, and he obviously has been an extremely profound part of her career. She says, y'know, completely creating her career, turning it around, or all of those things, is that, um, he really expects you to be boundary-less in your work. And so it's a great—it's a haven for an actor to learn about, y'know, not being afraid of anything, or any character, because his world is so extreme, there's no place you can't go.
LD: And that's a wonderful place to get an education as an actor.
LD: I feel really privileged.
G: I read somewhere, I think a few years ago, you were talking with David about maybe working on something again. Has anything come of that, or—?
LD: Yeah, we're in fact right now doing something that's rather experimental, or radically experimental, given that he's a filmmaker that can get any movie made that he wants. He's exploring the world of D.V. and just doing his own thing without having to wait to have a finished screenplay, go to the studio, and get approved and all of that stuff. So we're, we're kind of working on something as we speak.
LD: And we're having so much fun. And it's literally us. I mean, even the two of us have, have just gone off and shot stuff together without a crew. So, um, it's been—it's been great, and it's been teaching me a lot. And you know, whatever comes of it, we're having a lot of fun.
G: Wow. Well, that sounds like the ultimate expression of how he likes to work.
LD: It really is.
G: To kind of pull out of the air whatever you find when you go out there.
LD: Yeah, I think he is. And to sort of explore what the movie is and what it is about as he goes, which y'know, it's, it's a great way to do it, when you then aren't, y'know, dealing with other people asking questions about what it is. You can sort of define it for yourself. So I'm having so much fun doing that.
G: Uh-uh. You had had, of course, a long career before working with David, but when you did Wild at Heart with him, that was, I think, a significant turning point in your career.
G: Let's just talk about that film a little bit.
G: You spent, what I imagine were just countless hours with Nicolas Cage in the front seat of a convertible or a small hotel room set.
G: That must have been incredibly intense and also a barrel of laughs, I would guess.
LD: Oh yeah. I mean, it was as great a time as you could ever have in your life. And it was, I think, a real—I mean, in a way, it was sort of like my college education. You know, I feel like those were my college years or something, those three months, or something. Um, we had an amazing time together. He is just—he's hysterical, as is David, but also very generous and very supportive and made me feel very, very safe. Um, and quite a gentleman to me and, y'know, I was really, really lucky. I just love him, he's great.
G: Uh-uh. I read that you—that you passed out at one point on the set smoking four cigarettes at once.
LD: Yeah. Actually it was—it was four cigarettes at once, but I had smoked a pack and a half of Marlboros in, like, thirty minutes. And so I supposedly passed out from nicotine poisoning.
G: Oh my God.
LD: And they had to, I don't know, have a medic come and all kinds of stuff.
LD: But um, yeah, that was definitely my three months of smoking. I never became a smoker after that movie. And nicotine poisoning will kinda do it to you. When you've smoked that many cigarettes in thirty minutes, it doesn't really make you that inspired to do it.
G: Uh-uh. And you had nine ice-cream cones on your first movie set, right?
LD: That's correct.
G: With Marty Scorsese [Ed. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore]. Let's talk a little bit about those early years, as a—I guess what I would describe as a whirlwind of your juvenile acting career; it just seems amazing to me. Do you have any regrets about the path that you chose there? I guess you can't argue with success.
LD: You know, no. I mean, I, you know, I was so passionate. I was so obsessed. And, y'know, in retrospect, y'know, you become a mom, and you think, "God, would I ever let my kid act as an adolescent?" And my mother was very reticent about it. Um, and I really didn't start my career 'til I was eleven, but um, she—I had to always stay in school and have two sports or outside activities that I was always involved with. And student body—I mean, she gave me all these restrictions. I had to—if anything less than a "B," I couldn't act anymore. Like, I mean, it was tough, y'know, in terms of her making sure that I stayed involved in school. And that was really smart, that was great. 'Cause I really did have a school experience, which would have been, I think, a deep regret, if I hadn't had that at the same time. I know, for friends who were on television series and sort of missed years of school as kids, that—I think that was very tough for them. But the only, I think, real negative is adolescence is impossible for both sexes, y'know. And you're sort of trying to find a way to define self, and at the same time you're auditioning and people are saying, "You look like this," "You don't look like that," "We need this," "We don't need that." And at a young age, I looked much older, and so I was doing fashion magazines and beauty stuff at a young age. And that's a drag. 'Cause you start to, I think, get a little too invested in what other people think of you, or insecure about aspects of yourself. And as an actor, I think that's particularly damaging because actors should be inspired to look like human beings, and not like sort of altered fashion plates of plastic surgery or something. So I'm worried about what's happening with women right now in that area. But I had really smart, good people around me to remind me that that wasn't, y'know, the important stuff.
G: Uh-uh. Obviously you've worked with your mother a lot.
G: With Diane Ladd. I read that you might have another project in the offing. Is that true?
LD: She has a couple of things that have been deep passions of hers for many of years. One is the life story of Martha Mitchell. And she asked me if I would play Martha as a young woman when Mom plays her older, which I, I've always said I would love to do because that's my mom's dream to get that movie made.
LD: Um, so that's one. But really, in terms of active pursuit of material, cause we've been lucky to do it so much—not so much, but a few times—I'd love to find something to do with my dad [Ed. Bruce Dern], cause I've never had that experience. That would be quite something.
G: Uh-uh. You've talked a lot about wanting to pursue directing more, and I know, it seems like your acting career is so hot right now, and your personal life is happy, and—how will you find the balance, do you think, in years to come? Do you think it'll be long before we see that directing project come to fruition?
LD: I don't know. I know that I'm not going to do it—I've been very fortunate to be given opportunities, and I've not taken them, because I'm not going to do it until I know I'm the person to tell that story. And if I feel there's somebody else who can do a better job, then it's, it's not essential. And the only way I can do the best job possible is because I know that story. It's either got to come from me, and I have never thought of myself as a writer, so that's daunting. Or it's got to be a story I really relate to. There was one story which I was developing for a long time, and then the writer has had some changes in their life, and I'm not sure what's going to happen, and it deals with several generations of Southern women, and it's very irreverent, and it's sexually, um, irreverent and human, and everybody's flawed and lovely, and it politically makes very strong statements about war, and— So it's filled with a lot of things I really love. It's a novel. Um, but, um, there's been a little bump in the road with the writer, so we'll see. It could be ten years, it could be two.
LD: I'm in no rush 'cause I keep learning and growing, but I'm excited to do it. I just did one short film in my life, and I had the best time in the world. And I'm excited at the prospect of doing it. And just as another way to be creative, frankly. So as, as I grow older and want to continue my career creatively, I'm excited about the idea of not being reliant on being an actor-for-hire, you know? I've been very lucky and very blessed to have really interesting parts, but waiting around for an interesting script is also very hard when you would love to work all the time.
G: How do you go about trolling for material?
LD: Y'know, the traditional way, which is just sort of like it's a waiting game. I mean, y'know, you can look for interesting material to develop in the world of short stories and novels, etcetera. But in terms of the traditional way of looking for a job, it's either you get sent a script or your agents show you what's out there. And there isn't much, and I know actresses who are extremely successful right now and have their pick of the litter and are doing movies they don't even really like that much because there's just not that much. And that's heartbreaking.
LD: Y'know, in the '70s growing up, watching my parents work, it just seemed like it was a field day for actors. So I hope we come back to that. It's—it's interesting: paralleled tragically by unnecessary war, I think that the arts often turns to a more creative state when it realizes that it has, um, it is demanded of, that it has a voice. And Michael Moore has certainly done in the area of documentary film, a great service to all of us, to remind us that your voice does make an enormous difference. So I hope that filmmakers will feel that right now, too.
G: Sure, yeah. To some degree, you're responsible for getting Alexander Payne off the ground with Citizen Ruth, can you tell me how that process—
LD: Have you met him, by the way?
G: I haven't.
LD: Oh, you look very similar.
G: Oh, do I? (Laughs.)
LD: Are you Greek?
G: No, I'm Italian.
LD: Oh, okay.
G: And Portuguese.
LD: Oh, okay. So, um, he's Greek background, but you have very similar faces. Did you see—(calling to her publicist in the next room) do you know what I mean, Kara?
Kara: Yes, I know. Isn't that—?
LD: Yeah. Um, but God, I mean, I'm thrilled for Alexander. I think he's, I think he's brilliant and his writing partner, Jim Taylor—who will also be directing a film, hopefully within the next year, who is also absolutely brilliant—are quite a team. And I think Citizen Ruth was just a perfect, flawless script. And I saw a short film that Alexander had made out of UCLA that was brave and really irreverent and really rude and really sweet and all of those things. So that certainly let me know that he had a point of view that was akin to mine. And we just, y'know, instantly were like-minded partners in crime.
G: Have you ever come to an impasse with a director over the truthfulness of a character? And then—and then what happens?
LD: Tell me what you mean over the truthfulness.
G: Um, by which I mean, that the director will ask you to do something that you feel the character wouldn't do—
G: And then what happens next?
LD: (Pause.) Yeah, I have. I don't think I've ever had that experience with a great director. But in the case of people who, not that they aren't talented as filmmakers but in terms of their insight into the characters that I'm playing, or into actors, um— I would say it's only happened a couple of times, and it's been when a producer or an executive or someone who has an investment in the film being, uh, liked more or a character being liked more—
LD: Will step in with that note, the person's seen dailies and say, "You know, I think he or she should be much nicer and maybe she needs to be softer here"—that's really hard. And I get, uh—that's when the part of me that doesn't show up in my personal life that shows up in Terry in the movie can show up real quick.
LD: Um, I'm very opinionated about—I'm very defensive of my characters, I might say, if I really know them.
G: Mm-hm. On this new movie, on We Don't Live Here Anymore, you say in the press notes that "For each of us, in different ways, there was a moment of utter self-loathing while we were playing these parts."
G: What does that mean for you? Can you pinpoint the moment?
LD: Yeah, I mean, y'know, it's interesting, for me, maybe less than I watched Naomi and Mark feel it pretty consistently. I mean, Mark would just scream out loud at himself in the middle of takes. "I can't be this guy! I fucking hate this guy!" Y'know, like just—just such frustration, at what he found just intolerable. And I think Naomi felt that she—she really had a hard time understanding why a woman would do that to her friend. Um, and so it was painful. I mean I, you know, I kind of love when I hate an aspect of the character and therefore, a part of the person that I'm working on, but for me, very specifically, it's, um, a scene—I have to be delicate about how to describe it, although you'll know what I'm talking about—
LD: —to not give too much away. [Ed. —but she does, so beware the next paragraph.] But it's the scene where I'm confronting him about Hank.
LD: And I'm in his face, and I'm describing every detail, and it's just disgusting. It's so angry, and it's so at the bottom that it's—I remember with—when for the first time watching it with an audience at Sundance, I felt embarrassed. And I've done some pretty loathsome things in movies, so for me to feel embarrassed shocked me. Because I usually get giddy when I'm embarrassing in a movie as a character. But it—I knew that men must be seeing it and just be so appalled. It's a really hard thing to watch. And it's not a thing I've ever really seen a woman do in a movie. I've seen men sort of shove an affair in the face of a woman in a film, but never really the other way around in a really crude, graphic way. So it sort of took my breath away, in terms of having to do that.
G: Sure, yeah.
LD: Which is good for me. (Laughs.)
G: You mentioned Sundance. I know the film was received very well there.
G: When—on those rare occasions when you do get to come face to face with your audiences like that, or maybe it isn't so rare, maybe people approach you all the time, but—
LD: Well but certainly like that, and they had a question and answer after, so that's more common.
G: What—do you get anything out of that kind of feedback? Do you learn anything about your acting from—?
LD: Yeah, I really enjoy it. I love it. Y'know, the little bit I've talked to a film class, I've really enjoyed. I think it's really exciting to hear points of view. And I've, I've been in movies where when there's been dialogue, the movies are really hard. Y'know, I mean, a comedy about the abortion issue, or either of David Lynch movies that I've done, or this film, I mean, it's to be expected that people are going to have very strong emotions about their experience of the movie.
LD: So I—I like hearing it. I mean, it's what makes it a political experience, if you will, for me. Because using our voice is essential, especially now. And so I like when other peoples' voices describe an experience that I'm sort of inside of—that aren't experiencing as an audience as much.
G: Lastly, let me ask you, I know you have some work probably in the can already, that's on the way. What do you have coming out?
LD: Coming out? There's this film that Don Roos wrote and directed called Happy Endings, which we just finished, and that'll be coming out. And a film that Jane Anderson is making called Defiance, Ohio, which is based on a true story, novel. And that is about to be filmed. Um, and uh, y'know, doing as much press and support of this movie 'cause I just love it, and I think it's important. So I love getting to do press for things that I want people to see, and I'm excited for people to see this movie, so kind of getting the word out is my job at the moment.
G: Well, you're doing a great job of it.
LD: Oh, cool, thank you. Well, so are you. Thank you so much for supporting it and writing this piece about it.
G: Sure, absolutely. Thank you.
[For Groucho's review of We Don't Live Here Anymore, click here.]