This autumn she stars in two movies, each based on real-life events: the political heartbreaker Trial by Fire as well as J.T. Leroy, in which she plays the heedless, damaged, ambitious Laura Albert, based on the real-life San Franciscan who adopted the authorial persona of a young male prostitute and duped the literary world in the 2000s. J.T. Leroy is prime Dern. She digs into Albert’s abrasiveness, manipulativeness and shamelessness and indulges, with relish, her talent for accents (Albert pretends to be J.T.’s British handler “Speedie”). The result is cringeworthy (I mean that as a compliment) and compassionate.
“I love finding humour in broken places,” Dern says in Concord, a town north-west of Boston, Massachusetts. Humour, she believes, cuts across political lines – she calls it “a bipartisan experience” – and helps people find empathy. “If there’s any job in all of this, it certainly would be to blur the lines so that people can get out of their own shame and maybe if they do, they’ll be a bit kinder to others.” Dern is in Concord to shoot Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (to be released in the US on Christmas Day) in which she plays Marmee, the matriarchal character based on Louisa May Alcott’s own mother.
In person, Dern, 52, is gangly, more of a giraffe than an ostrich. When she talks, she makes swooping gestures, as if trying to take in more of the world, and often touches her own body and face – not nervously or pridefully, just in a way that reminds you that she works with it.
Sometimes Dern picks a project because she admires the director; sometimes it’s the role that speaks to her. As a child, she was influenced by The Candidate, All the President’s Men and Network, and in recent years, several of her projects have grown out of this passion for political filmmaking. In 2008, she appeared in Recount as the twitchy, morally dubious Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state in charge of counting the state’s ballots in the 2000 presidential election. Enlightened took on corporate malfeasance and the question of what the average person can do to effect meaningful political change.
Last year, she starred in The Tale, a movie about childhood sexual abuse whose website included resources for survivors. Trial by Fire is the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed by the state of Texas in 2004 for the murder by arson of his three children, a crime he is widely believed not to have committed. Dern was drawn to the movie in part because it’s about “random acts of kindness”. She plays Elizabeth Gilbert, a playwright who began a correspondence with Willingham before she had any idea that he might be innocent.
Dern is known for giving life to “messy” women, women who are searching for their voice or coming into some new knowledge about who they are and what they might be entitled to. Many of her greatest triumphs have involved women unbound by the usual conventions of decorum, whose potential range of behaviour is so great that at any moment they might cry, have a tantrum or break into song. As Dennis Lim, the director of programming of Film at Lincoln Centre, tells me: “There’s something about her presence that just makes a film or even a scene, if it’s a small role, kind of more unpredictable, more alive.” Some actresses are stymied by a fear of excess or wanting to control how they will look, but Dern never holds back. Her performances are so naked, her characters so unself-aware, that you sometimes feel that you shouldn’t be watching them at all. “Going that half-step too far is something that she’s very good at,” Lim says. She does broad but excellent impersonations and in conversation rarely quotes someone without also assuming their voice.
Greta Gerwig, who’s directing Little Women, compares Dern’s impersonations to her acting style, how “she’ll go too far to find the truth of the person”. She says, “Her performances always push the very boundaries of what you think will work.” Filmmaker David Lynch calls Dern “99 per cent fearless”. (The other per cent involves his wish that she would shave her head for a part he has in mind; she hasn’t yet agreed.)
In Concord, Dern is coming off a summer shooting Big Little Lies. (For clues to the plot of series two, Dern offered only her hoarse voice.) “At the end of this round of Big Little Lies, I was tired,” she says. Being in Concord is a respite. Renata lives “in the raw nerve”, but her Little Women character Marmee is “a very beautifully healing person”. That’s what ultimately matters to Dern about acting and what guides all of her choices. “Empathy is the No. 1 goal,” she says. “That’s all of it.”
Dern is to the manner born, the daughter of actors Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd. (In 2010, all three were awarded stars on Hollywood Boulevard on the same day.) Her parents divorced when she was two, and Bruce Dern moved to the beach, leaving Laura to be raised by her mother and her mother’s mother. When she was seven, she watched Martin Scorsese direct her mother in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and ate 19 ice-cream cones as an extra. She is still fascinated by how directors work: “I think my favourite part of it is how they get what they want.” She loves how directors communicate what they need in pantomime, “how they use their hands or their faces or their hair to describe a thing”. She loves how, when Lynch comes up to her after a take and inhales in a certain way, she knows exactly what to try next.
Dern always had a rebellious streak, although, she says, “when your parents are Bruce and Diane, man, rebellion’s hard to come by”. She ran track and swam at school, and in her junior year was student-body president. She wanted the teachers to be paid more, so she organised a day-long boycott of classes that made the local news. She never dabbled in the drugs and alcohol that were omnipresent on film sets. To her, drugs seemed “dumb. Like, why would I want to do stuff that numbs me from feeling, when I’m picking a job where I have to feel those things?”
Last year, Dern starred in The Tale, a movie by Jennifer Fox about a sexual relationship that Fox had as a 13-year-old with her 40-year-old track coach. Dern plays the adult Fox, who, after finding a story she wrote as a child, begins to understand that she was abused. The experience made Dern look differently at her role in Smooth Talk, Joyce Chopra’s brilliant evocation of teenage girlhood from 1985, particularly the scene in which her character challenges an older man who shows up at her door and asks her to go for a ride in his car. Smooth Talk strongly suggests that Dern’s character is going off to be raped, but after the film came out, Dern gave a defiant interview in which she stated her belief that the two of them did just go for a drive. When we met last year in New York, I read her the quote and asked what she thought. She paused for a long time.
“That was my decision at the time,” she finally said, “and I think it’s because I had to be telling myself that narrative.” Between the ages of 12 and 16, she witnessed and was subject to “horrifically inappropriate” behaviour on film sets.
“Like, yeah, I’m doing an audition sitting on a bed with a 40-year-old filmmaker reading together a love scene, and I’m 13, but I know how to get out of this door, and I know I’m safe – but anything could have happened. What was I doing there?” Dern was never assaulted, which she credits to “mere luck”.
Until she read the letter written by Mónica Ramírez, founder of Justice for Migrant Women and co-founder of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, offering solidarity to actresses in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal on behalf of female farmworkers, Dern felt “embarrassed to complain”. Now she and Ramírez are friends, co-writing a children’s book, and Dern, a founder of the legal-defence fund Time’s Up, is working on reforming the Screen Actors Guild auditionand-set rules to protect young actors. Dern admires how Jennifer Fox found creative ways to make the young actress on The Tale comfortable: shooting reaction shots separately, for example, so the actress was responding to cues like, “act like a bee is stinging you” rather than to sexually suggestive dialogue.
After Dern finished her high school coursework a year early, her mother helped her attain legal emancipation, which made it easier to work. At 17, she moved into her own apartment. Dern enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles, intending to double-major in psychology and journalism, but two days into the semester, she withdrew to do Blue Velvet.
As a child actor, Dern had the intelligence to telegraph vulnerability, pride and a girlish sexuality at once dangerous and innocent – dangerous because of how innocent it was. But Blue Velvet showed that she was able to do something even stranger and more complex. Somehow, at that young age, she knew how to deliver, without flinching, Lynch’s now-infamous lines about the robins and the “blinding light of love”, a monologue that is at once absurd and tender, ironic and sincere; somehow she knew how to, as Lim puts it, “hold all those tones together”. She did it again a few years later in Wild at Heart, where Lynch gave her licence to be, for the first time in her career, insane, nymphomaniacal, disordered and, yes, sweet. That capaciousness makes her perfect for Lynch’s world – she can persuasively occupy a zone at once bizarre and normal, wooden and natural, glamorous and deranged – but it also characterises her performances throughout her career.
Dern is known for giving life to ‘messy women’, women who are searching for their voice or coming into new knowledge about who they are.
Think of Alexander Payne’s satirical comedy Citizen Ruth, in which she plays a pregnant paint-huffing pawn of the abortion wars with ugly desperation and pure idiocy. Consider the scene in Rambling Rose in 1991, which earned Dern her first Oscar nomination, when her character, a 20-something domestic servant, allows the 13-year-old boy of the house to masturbate her. This scene – Dern believes it could not be shot today – mingles tenderness, sisterly affection, arousal, curiosity, shame and fear. Many actresses would have been able to commit to only one of those feelings, but Dern does them all at once. It’s in the accumulation of a number of little things: the way she twists her mouth, tugs on her clothes; the way she talks too fast and then not at all.
At 7.45am, Dern and I head to an Amtrak station in Westwood, Massachusetts. Dern has been on trains before. Years ago, she toured Europe with her young children and her former husband, the musician Ben Harper. Still, she is nervous that it will be hard to find the train platform. But there is only one platform.
After weeks of being “weather cover”, which meant she had to be on hand to shoot interior scenes, Dern has the day off from Little Women. She is headed to New York to spend some time with her 13-year-old daughter, Jaya, who is flying in from Los Angeles for a benefit for cancer research that she has help organise. On the train, my editor had suggested, perhaps we could use my laptop to watch some old scenes from movies Dern had been in, and Dern could comment on them. This is something Dern does not want to do. It seems embarrassing, vain.
Instead, we talk about Todd Haynes (“he has a teacher’s soul”), her friend Bradley Cooper (“he’s such a generous director”) and how her kids’ generation have been influenced by the Parkland shooting (“a massive turning point for them”).
Dern is in awe of her mother’s performances. They have acted together a number of times. I ask if watching her mother act had made her seem powerful.
“So powerful,” she says. “I’d only seen that in airports.”
“Yeah, I love airports. You know, watching people say goodbye, and what they’re saying is not at all what’s on their face. I remember being a kid, like, fascinated, and my kids have definitely adopted my people-watching obsession.”
The Method is strong in Dern’s family. Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd studied at the Actors Studio, and Laura took classes at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute as a nine-year-old. Dern’s acting teacher of 30 years, Sandra Seacat, also came out of the Method. Seacat believes, and Dern strongly affirms, that the artist is a “wounded healer” and that by finding in her character her own “wound”, and expressing it, she has the power to heal herself and the audience.
To training, Dern also brings research. In Concord, for instance, she is learning how to roast a chicken over an open fire and reading books from the time period. But all that historical investigation is background for the intensive personal labour of discovering “why I relate to this character, why I’m playing this character, because there’s a reason the character came off the page and I thought, I have to play this”.
Dern isn’t afraid of aging. She says she likes being over 50. “I can, in the same year, be the same age and playing a very sexualised character, a very maternal character, a very heroic character, a bitch, and there’s nothing saying, ‘Oh, now that you’re this age, we’re gonna define you,’ ” she says. Whereas actresses of her mother’s generation turned to theatre or projects with foreign directors, now there are, in Hollywood, a “wealth of options – live-streaming, cable, film – to tell women’s stories”.
But also, she says, the choices she made earlier in her career, including the choice not to work when there wasn’t a challenging part on offer, have paid off. “That was advice from my parents,” she says – to turn down roles that would pigeonhole or typecast her – “and I resented it. I gave up financial opportunities, I was pissed off a lot, I was bummed because I wasn’t working, but in the long run, I worked with the directors that moved me and I never played the same part twice in a row.”
She looks for community and intimacy in all aspects of her life – political, personal, artistic. Something she likes about film acting is the closeness the camera creates, the way that it puts you paradoxically closer to another person than you can be in a live theatre. It’s why she hasn’t pursued being on the stage. The actresses she most admires include her mother and Shelley Winters (her godmother), as well as Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Stapleton, Meryl Streep and Gena Rowlands. “Those women – there was nothing that came between me and their skin. And their eyes. And they just burned a hole right in my heart. I didn’t see anything else. You know when skin impacts you?”
Dern is feeling her face while she speaks, drumming over it with quick fingers. “You see, I don’t know, puffiness under the eyes” – she taps the bones under her eyes – “or the rawness of the skin texture, the paleness of the lips ’cause it’s cold or in the middle of heartbreak or fear you almost feel their pupils dilate. That’s why I’m so interested in film acting. ‘Cause I fell in love with someone who was that raw.”