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Defining Moments

I find it difficult not to bring up the events of Sept. 11 when doing press interviews these days. That is because many of us in the industry feel a little silly talking about such relatively unimportant things as movies. Laura Dern, thankfully, reminded me that as much as our lives have changed forever, movies still matter. At their least, they give us a much-needed break from reality. At their best, films have the power to shape who we are as human beings, inspire us to dream, and incite us to voice our opinions. Dern has been fortunate enough to be a part of the latter group of films.

As Dern told me recently, watching movies—including those of her parents, actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern—greatly influenced who she became as a person and as an actor. After making a fleeting appearance at age 7 as "Girl Eating Ice Cream Cone" in Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (in which her mother gave an Oscar-nominated performance), Laura soon decided she had to follow her parents' footsteps. At 11, she landed a role opposite Jodie Foster in the 1980 film Foxes. Five years later Dern proved her talent with acclaimed performances in Mask and Smooth Talk. Her subsequent collaborations with iconoclastic filmmaker David Lynch on Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart further secured her standing as an exciting voice in film.

Then came her Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for her seminal role in the 1991 film Rambling Rose, in which she stole the show as a free spirit. A few years later she gave what is arguably her best performance to date, in Alexander Payne's dark comedy Citizen Ruth, as a glue-sniffing, pregnant homeless woman who inadvertently becomes propelled into the media spotlight in the political war over abortion. Dern also gave an excellent performance as an influential teacher in the inspiring true story October Sky. Her other film credits include the blockbuster Jurassic Park (as well as this summer's Jurassic Park III), Robert Altman's Dr. T and the Women, A Perfect World, Fat Man and Little Boy, and Billy Bob Thornton's yet-to-be-released Daddy and Them.

Her television accomplishments have been acknowledged with a Golden Globe nomination for her role in Showtime's The Baby Dance and three Emmy nominations: for her guest-starring role in the ground-breaking "Puppy Episode" on Ellen (in which Ellen DeGeneres' character realizes she's a lesbian), for her work in the TV movie Afterburn (for which she won a Golden Globe), and for her role in the Showtime film noir series Fallen Angel.

This has been an especially busy year for Dern, who gave birth to her first child, a son named Ellery Walker (fathered by her partner, musician Ben Harper). In addition Dern can be seen this fall in three films: In Focus, an adaptation of Arthur Miller's first novel, she stars with William H. Macy as a couple who find themselves mistaken for Jews and discriminated against in 1940s Brooklyn; in the dark comedy Novocaine, Dern plays Steve Martin's neurotically neat, secretly psychotic fiancée, and she has a supporting role in the upcoming I Am Sam, about a mentally disabled man (played by Sean Penn) trying to raise his daughter. Her recent work reveals a maturity that is also clearly evident when we speak with Dern about acting.

Back Stage West: It's amazing how timely Focus is, in terms of addressing such current heated topics as religious tolerance and racial profiling of Muslims in the U.S. While you could not have predicted the events that unfolded on Sept. 11, did you expect when you made this film that it would have such resonance?

Laura Dern: Never. It's incredible how much everything has changed forever for us. It was already haunting that someone wrote a book, especially Arthur Miller. He really exposes an aspect of America in this novel. I'm sure he would say he had no expectation that in writing it then, [the lesson] would ever have to be repeated. And when we were making Focus, we asked ourselves, What will people take from it? What will they relate it to? But we never thought we'd be so haunted now by how appropriate the questions are that the movie asks.

The questions I'm grappling with—within my own self—are not just the issues of racial profiling and prejudice and religious bias, but also the question of fear. My character, Gertrude, is someone who is led by her fear, so much that she withholds who she is in order to fit in and to not make waves. Part of her journey is how to overcome her fear, and I think that's such a huge thing for so many of us now. How do we overcome terror, you know? We need to be willing to be who we are.

BSW: Does Gertrude Hart fit into a pattern within your diverse spectrum of characters? Do you find yourself gravitating toward particular themes or character traits?

Dern: Often people will try to connect the dots, and some people have said to me, "Each of your characters has this or that quality," and I don't know that they do, except for one thing. I think every character I've played is someone who is trying to define herself for the first time. It just so happens that the movie picks up at a moment in their lives where they're searching for definition. I love exploring that part of myself—that place that feels so vulnerable—with all the people I've been lucky enough to play. The female characters I've played have to come to terms with their own identity and find their truest selves, as opposed to the sort of self that's been created for them or that they've created. That really fascinates me.

BSW: Having acted for more than 20 years, how do you feel you've grown most in terms of your acting process?

Dern: Through studying and through being raised on movie sets, I was surrounded by a lot of people who believed that the more tortured the person, the greater the artist. I always had a hard time understanding that, but thought, I guess that's the way it is. I thought that the more pain you experience, the better you'll become.

Luckily through life and the gift of the acting teacher who's changed my life in so many ways since 1984—her name is Sandra Seacat—I learned there's another opinion, which is: the better the person, the better the artist. The more true you are to who you are and the more honest you are as an individual, the more honest you can be as an actor, and I'm really liking that.

BSW: Do you still study acting?

Dern: I still study with Sandra and I love studying. I hope to learn for the rest of my life, and I would say that's one of the lessons I've learned most. The other thing I've learned as I've worked more is that the real job is to become much simpler, much more subtle, and much purer as an actor. I find it particularly exciting when the character is larger than life. How can you be subtle if a character is over the top?

This movie Novocaine was a real challenge because it's very dark and, at times, kind of brazen broad comedy, and certainly my character is that. So how do I make her real? How do I do work that's subtle and not too extreme, even though it's an extreme character? So I feel like it's all about fine-tuning, and I've started to ask different questions, and that's so exciting.

BSW: One of the qualities I most admire in you is your willingness to sometimes show yourself onscreen in an unflattering light. You courageously embrace the ugliness, flaws, and weaknesses in your characters. Where did you learn to be so bold?

Dern: I appreciate that so much. I take that as the highest compliment. Thank you. I have to say two things have done it. First of all, I have brave actors as parents. You know, when you're raised by the guy who killed John Wayne [in The Cowboys], there's not much more bad you could do in a movie. Both my parents have been willing to be all of it—as dark, as disturbed, as human, and as devastating as possible. My dad's performance in Coming Home, as an example, [portrays] a really disturbing man, but you have empathy for him. That's the challenge that I've watched in their work—how do you find a character you can have empathy for and yet they are that flawed or that cruel?

For whatever reason, I've always gravitated toward movies—particularly the comedies I've done, or movies I've seen as comedies—where the challenge is that the character really has little to like about her. Particularly in the movie Citizen Ruth—in that script, there is absolutely no redeeming quality about [Ruth] whatsoever. There is nothing attractive about her. There is nothing likeable about her at all, but it's a comedy and she's the lead of the movie. So how do you make that work? It was a journey for all of us making it to help the audience find empathy for her, even if they had great distaste for her. That's the greatest challenge I ever had. Rambling Rose wasn't dissimilar. Wild at Heart wasn't dissimilar. They were challenging people to like or to understand.

I feel that my greatest inspiration for that—other than being influenced by the kinds of actors I was raised by—are the movies of the '70s I grew up watching and the women in movies I grew up on—namely Klute, Norma Rae, Julia, and Network—where there were these incredible female characters that were loathsome or challenged or archetypal. [Before those kinds of films] you would see the prostitute or the wild girl in movies, and they would either be good or bad. Then, all of a sudden, a series of movies came out, at the time I was being raised on films, in which women were allowed to be opposites. Women were allowed to not be labeled as one thing or another, but they were all things, because human beings are all things.

I don't believe in this issue of how it's so hard for women in film. I think people in film is a problem—like men in movies having to be heroic and without flaws, or men having to be these "shoot 'em up" guys who can take care of everything and aren't emotional. I think that's why Tom Hanks has been beloved in films in the last several years, because men probably appreciate seeing a man they can relate to—a regular man, a man with human emotions. As opposed to Stallone or Schwarzenegger—and not that there isn't a place for them—but we crave understanding of human behavior.

So I feel like it's important to have flawed people and to witness them, and sometimes they're more fun to watch. In the case of Novocaine, the character I play is funny and entertaining and sick. Or in Focus or I Am Sam, the characters in these films are filled with all sides of a personality, and I just appreciate that so much in movies.

BSW: What do love about your job, and how has your love for acting changed as you've matured in this business?

Dern: When I was 9 I knew I had to be an actress. It was all I ever wanted to do. I was obsessed. I felt like my life would have no meaning unless I was acting. I was the most passionate, highly dramatic young girl about the craft of acting. I'm much more irreverent about it now. I feel like it's a pretty amazing job and I'm very lucky to be doing it. All it offers—if it's a good movie and it's of value—is entertainment, and at its best it allows people to ask questions that maybe they hadn't been asking. It gives them a voice and a dialogue with the people they watch the movies with.

That's how I grew up with film, and it meant the world to me. It taught me a great deal and shaped who I am in a lot of ways. I love when I see a performance—I guess that's the only way I can speak about how I love acting—that is the truth. When I see someone give a performance where they're so truthful that you're pulled into experiencing their challenges, their fears, and their longing, it helps me have compassion for my fellow man. It helps me understand why I do what I do and where my limitations and fears come from. I love that. If it's a political or a social commentary, I love it even more. Again, in the '70s, we had a lot of those movies. I think we will again, because it gives a voice for us to start contemplating why certain things are happening the way they're happening.

I just have gratitude that I can be my own little part of a business that asks questions—like journalism, like photography, like art in any form. Music has actually been my greatest inspiration, even more than movies, but I don't have any talent in that area. I just have a love for it, but I'm equally as passionate about music as I am about movies.

BSW: I understand that over the years you've been a keen student of philosophy—even working toward a degree in this field. I don't think most people know that about you. Do you still study philosophy?

Dern: I just had a baby, and so, for the last year, I have not done any studying at all, but I look forward to continuing my studies. I have to say the only advice I ever give when actors ask me with whom they should study—I hate to sound like my mom [she laughs], but I do encourage people to go to college and study other things. Yes, studying acting has taught me so much about acting. But, equally, I have to thank my life experience: the people I've met and the places I've traveled to and my other studies. I've studied philosophy, psychology, and religion. I think each of those three has such amazing gifts. They, along with history and literature, offer so much to people telling stories.

BSW: What's the most important lesson you've learned when it comes to acting?

Dern: I think the best lesson I've learned is that, in pursuit of being an honest person and a person who has compassion for others, the work gets deeper. I strive for that. I strive for community and for understanding and for being simple. I think the greatest exercise an actor could do, at this point, is to just try to live each day with gratitude. I think the world is making us see how important that is now. If you can do that—if you can be grateful for your day and recognize your surroundings and connect with and communicate with the people who come into your day—then you're going to be able to do that as an actor. Our job is just reflecting that.

BSW: The majority of people who read Back Stage West are struggling to make a living as actors. Some of them might think you had it easy when it came to getting breaks in the business, because of your family ties. What do you know about struggle?

Dern: I have been very lucky. I was raised in Los Angeles. I was raised in a community of actors. But I wasn't helped in my career. My parents didn't want me to be an actress. I never met the right people to get a job. I had to meet the people on my own. I had to get an agent on my own, but did [my family ties] help? I'm sure, in certain circumstances, I got an audition because somebody knew my mom or my dad, but I never asked for that. And you know what? It probably kept me out of a room a couple of times, too. In fact I know a couple of specific situations in which it did.

That's all the luck of the draw, and, God knows, being bitter about what somebody else has never serves us. Having to wait tables or work a catering job or whatever it is you have to do while you're trying to get an acting job—it sucks. I share my life with a musician, and when he wants to be creative, he sits down with a piece of paper and a pencil and a guitar and he creates. None of us [actors] gets to do that. It doesn't matter if you're the most successful movie star or a great character actor or you've got a part on a TV show or you don't have a job—when you're waiting and you're not working, you're not getting to do what you love. But to add to that, the fear that you're never going to get a break or no one's going to see you is awful.

All you can do is try to figure out a way to have joy with the process. Like I said, I have been very lucky. I started acting when I was 11, but I also had three years where I didn't have a job, and it was not fun. It was devastating, and I don't think I was as good a person as I would have liked to have been in those years, because I didn't feel fulfilled. I went through money concerns and all of those things. But mostly it was just sad. I remember agents saying to me when I would sound frustrated that I didn't get a job I thought I was going to get, "Oh, Laura, relax. Something else will come. You shouldn't be so upset about this." You just want to say to them, "You go to work every day doing what you want to do. We're waiting for a job."

I think it's so hard for actors, especially if you're just starting, but what a wonderful thing to say—that we get to be actors. Even if you're not acting, that is your love. I just wish everybody joy and good fortune, and I think all we all have right now is to be a community of people trying to enjoy each day. BSW

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