‘Just now becoming a movie star’: Laura Dern is at the peak of her powers

Laura Dern sashays in, dressed for success in form-fitting blue jeans, red heels and a cascade of perfectly situated blonde hair. "Sorry I look so schleppy," she says. "I had an event at my kid's school."

Dern is Nora, the cut-throat divorce lawyer in Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, out on Netflix. Beautiful but spiky, heartless but hilarious, the role is the culmination of a career full of fierce feminists and rebels. Midway through the film, she stops texting for a moment to rail against the misguided, Judeo-Christian double standards that Western society holds against mothers.

Laura Dern, left, and Scarlett Johansson in a scene from Marriage Story. Credit:Netflix via AP

But in the (metaphorical) cinema next door this month, Dern is Marmee, the ever-patient, ever-loving matriarch in Greta Gerwig's adaptation of Little Women. Buttoned up in the finery of a proud poor woman in 1860s New England, Marmee is the radiant, nurturing nucleus of a house spinning with four rambunctious girls, led by Saoirse Ronan's Jo.

"It's interesting to have these two women, two characters, who have, honestly, the greatest feminist writing ever – in two completely different worlds," Dern said recently over lunch in Santa Monica. "Between some of the lines I say to Saoirse – that are directly from the book, these lines that Louisa [May Alcott] wrote in the 1860s – about 'I'm angry nearly every day of my life,' and to talk about what it is to be an artist, and what it is to be a woman, and not to need to marry, and to love who you choose to love. I mean, it's some really radical thinking."

"And then, enter Century City divorce lawyer," she laughed, "and to have this monologue – that's absolutely accurate, you know, how mothers are measured differently than fathers – and with such sass, but also this sort of modern poetry of Noah's writing."

Laura Dern plays Marmee in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women.Credit:Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures via AP

There was something "almost divine" about getting to play these two connected but wildly different roles in the same year, written by the two halves of a real-life couple.

"They really have a very similar rhythm in how they hear language," Dern said. "The words are so precise, but the mess they want to bring them forth, and the rhythm they need, is really amazing."

Baumbach and Gerwig are simply the latest filmmakers who are dying to work with Dern after watching her chart an adventurous and calibrated career over 40 years with directors such as David Lynch, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Altman and Alexander Payne. Before her 25th birthday, she had played a pregnant teenager, a blind girl, a wide-eyed innocent and an outlaw's libidinous lover.

"What she was doing felt dangerous to me, in the best way," said Gerwig. "Because it felt like it was always at the very edge of what we can consider to be in good taste – which is the most wonderful acting and art of all. She was so committed to the truth of the thing that she completely stopped worrying about how she, Laura Dern, was coming across. It was just completely committed to the character, and committed to the extremities of the character."

Dern, 52, has been patiently planting a garden of great roles, coupling with auteur collaborators – but she has often been taken for granted.

Dern at the Oscars in February this year.Credit:Jordan Strauss/AP

"She's just now becoming a movie star," said her father, actor Bruce Dern, who noted both he and Laura's mother, Diane Ladd, toiled without stardom for years. "I'm somebody who has finally got to a place where I have opportunities to do things with my abilities. And Laura is finally getting that. She got it before, but in supporting kind of roles."

"Careers are long, and complicated," Laura Dern said. "There definitely were periods of time where I either wasn't working, or wasn't getting offered things that I wanted to do."

Her connection with film quite literally goes back to the beginning: She was conceived on the set of The Wild Angels, a 1966 motorcycle movie in which her parents both starred. Their first daughter had drowned in a swimming pool a few years prior, and Bruce Dern keenly remembers a moment in 1974, when he was driving with 7-year-old Laura: "She turned to me and she said, 'Daddy, I miss my sister.' I pulled the car over, and I just had to say to myself, 'Where did that come from?'"

"That was the first time I noticed that there was caring beyond the level of the age she was," he said.

Dern grew up in the heart of Hollywood, rubbing shoulders with Alfred Hitchcock as a kid, and felt she was destined to act after Martin Scorsese complimented her ice-cream-eating endurance as an extra in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.

There definitely were periods of time where I either wasn't working, or wasn't getting offered things that I wanted to do.

She grew up fast, finishing high school early and being legally emancipated from her parents when she was 16 so she could have grown-up working freedom.

Bruce Dern gave his daughter two pieces of advice at the outset: "Learn how to dance" – i.e., don't let behind-the-scenes drama bother you – and "take risks." "You've got to go to the edge of the cliff," he told her, "and do roles other girls won't do."

When Dern was 18, Lynch cast her in his twisted suburban nightmare, Blue Velvet, as the almost painfully innocent Sandy, who dreams of robins in a world gone to hell.

"I always thought she was wise beyond her years," said her co-star, Kyle MacLachlan. "She was just very intuitive and thoughtful and very aware. And she's never lost it."

Dern and MacLachlan, who dated for four years, reunited on camera more than 30 years later for Lynch's Twin Peaks revival – which cast Dern as Sandy's polar opposite: the almost painfully acid-tongued Diane.

"She had talent from the very beginning," MacLachlan said. "But she also had a deeper drive, I think, to pursue work that was meaningful."

Dern upended whatever image we had of her in Wild at Heart, writhing and dancing and screaming and crying – a heavy-metal Marilyn Monroe.

Laura Dern and Sam Neill co-starred in Steven Spielberg’s hit Jurassic Park in 1993.

"She was working with Nicolas Cage, who is kind of the No. 1 fearless actor," said Lynch. "But Laura's got that in spades as well. She's pretty much fearless. She won't, I don't think, cut all her hair off. But I'm not positive about that."

Dern worked with another director hero, Steven Spielberg, in a part a few years later that would prove defining. Her Jurassic Park co-star, Sam Neill, noted her "wicked and subversive sense of humour."

"We would do our makeup stuff at the hotel, generally," Neill said by phone from New Zealand. "Jeff [Goldblum] would come back with his leg in a splint, blood all over him. And Laura and I would have a lot of fun pretending to kick him when he was down in the foyer of the hotel we were staying in, to the horror of Jeff and these tourists."

As Dr. Ellie Sattler in the 1993 blockbuster, Dern was fearless in a different way – rummaging through dinosaur droppings and casually taking down the scientific sexism of Neill and Goldblum's characters. She's noticed, in light of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements, various organisations using Sattler's quote from the film about "woman inherits the earth" as a rallying cry.

"She's been on T-shirts, and there have been dolls," Dern said. "I guess I hadn't clocked how much it meant to girls, at a time that they weren't seeing that regularly in giant action movies."

Dern with her daughter Jaya Harper at the 76th annual Golden Globes in January.Credit:Jordan Strauss

It's the main reason she agreed to reprise the role for Jurassic World 3, which begins shooting next year.

It's maybe a curious choice, given how Dern has curated her career, taking risks to avoid being typecast – "and even typecast as an 'actress for hire,'" she said, "versus someone who wanted to learn and grow from great filmmakers."

"There was a lot I turned down, probably in my early 20s, as I was trying to establish the kind of career I would want now," she said. "My parents really – my dad particularly – talked to me a lot about that. So I was really making strategic choices, to build a body of work so that I would, when I was truly an adult woman with ownership of my life or maybe my creative choices, that I would get to play Nora and Marmee in the same year."

So where does a big-budget, ninth chapter of an adventure franchise fit into that equation?

Dern in 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi.Credit:Alamy

"There's hesitation, in that you want it to feel right. You want them to honour all the characters. You want there to be a real valid reason they're all coming back – I think we can all imagine what that might be," she laughed.

"It's complicated," she admitted, "to figure out how to do it right. Because those movies can be so fun. I worked on a Star Wars [The Last Jedi] – I loved it. But I had a great director. Rian Johnson's a serious filmmaker. And the way he approached that movie was like any other independent film. He's all about character."

Her sights are set on several more auteurs she wants to work with, including Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers and the "brothers from Mexico" – Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro. "And Scorsese is such an influence on my childhood and my choice to become an actress," she said, "so to work with him as an adult would be a very cool thing. Just as a ritual, almost."

Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach with Dern at the IFP Gotham Awards in New York this month. Credit:Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

When Dern watches her early performances now, she said, "I think I'm sort of patient like a mum. I feel proud of her for putting herself out there and being so young, and trying to be honest. I can also see the youth in certain things, but I'm not really critical."

"I don't know that I do that in my personal life," she confessed. "I think I beat myself up way more."

In some ways, modern Dern is equal parts Nora and Marmee: maternal, messy, dignified, ferocious. Gerwig finds it funny when people suggest that casting Dern as Marmee was counter-intuitive.

"I knew that she would be loving, and she would be warm, and that she would be the mother we wish we had, and that also she would be able to be the person who says 'I'm angry almost every single day of my life' and we'd know that that was true," Gerwig said.

"And," the director added, "that she would be able to deliver to me the moment right before iconic Marmee starts. Who are you right before you walk in and say, 'Merry Christmas, my dears,' and they all crowd around you? Because there is a moment before, and I wanted the moment before, and I knew Laura could embody it."

Dern's onscreen daughter agrees.

"Marmee and Laura are very similar," said Ronan, who bonded with Dern over being film actors since childhood. "I feel like they're very sort of outspoken, but they also have like this talent for bringing people together."

What is the most un-Marmee thing about Laura Dern?

"Well," Ronan paused, "we were just talking about it a while ago, that like, a lot of rappers really admire Laura, apparently. I don't know if Marmee necessarily had that sort of admiration."

The Washington Post

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