PHOTOGRAPHY BY YU TSAI
Laura Dern is busy. The quintessential second-generation Hollywood actoru2014the daughter of Bruce Dern and Diane Laddu2014has been on a tear over the past two years: picking up an Emmy and a Golden Globe for HBOu2019s Big Little Lies, leading the Resistance as Vice Admiral Holdo in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, reteaming with David Lynch for the return of Twin Peaks, racking up quirky features (The Founder, Wilson), making a cameo as a miniature sales rep in Alexander Payneu2019s Downsizing, and setting her sights firmly on changing the imbalanced power structures of the town and industry she loves. This almost frenzied creative pace has led some pop culture writers to declare a u201cDernaissance.u201d While pithy, the term isnu2019t quite right: In the 45 years since her first uncredited on-screen appearance, at age 6 in her motheru2019s film White Lightning, Dern has amassed one of the most consistently interesting bodies of work in Hollywood.u00a0u00a0
And sheu2019s showing no signs of slowing down. In the pipeline are a second season of Big Little Lies (made even u201cbiggeru201d by the addition of Meryl Streep), a new Noah Baumbach film, and JT LeRoy, in which sheu2019ll star as struggling writer Laura Albert, who infamously created a male literary persona that hoodwinked the publishing industry. Plus, this month, HBO debuts her latest film, The Tale, which opened to rapturous praise at this yearu2019s Sundance Film Festival. Itu2019s an eerily prescient film for the #MeToo moment. Dern stars as a loosely fictionalized version of documentary filmmaker Jennifer Fox, who must come to terms with the fact that she was abused at age 13 by her beloved track coach and horse-riding instructoru2014a relationship she had convinced herself for decades was consensual and romantic. Itu2019s a twisty drama that plays with truth and lies and the stories we tell ourselves to get by.
Despite this nonstop scheduleu2014today alone she will record audio for an upcoming film, attend a meeting with the Academy, and join in a Q&A about the Timeu2019s Up movementu2014Dern exudes a breezy California vibe over lunch at a Beverly Hills restaurant. Imposingly tall, sheu2019s dressed in salmon pants and a beaded black blazer and sports blackout sunglasses that she takes on and off throughout the meal. She hugs hello and is quick to show off her spot-on David Lynch impersonation. Sheu2019s proud of her iPhone wallpaper (a pug dressed as Twin Peaksu2019s Diane for Halloween) and is the kind of person who calls her asparagus and beet salad u201cmiraculousu201d and means it. But she can also be deadly serious: about #MeToo, Timeu2019s Up, and gun control, an issue in support of which she marched through the streets of LA three days earlier. Itu2019s not hard to see why Star Wars chose her to lead the Resistance.
From the outside, the past year seems to have been monumental for you. Did it feel as major from the inside?
Without doubt. One of the things that I think is so delicious is that it feels cumulative. To me, itu2019s about coming into my own. When I was younger, if there was a moment where I was particularly busy, the term was, u201cSheu2019s hot.u201d
Did you feel like that phrasing diminished it somehow?
Itu2019s unfortunate that it does imply the temporary nature of the actoru2019s career. But it also does not seem strategic or planned. And in a way, this is strategic and planned. I want to be ferocious in my choices more than ever, and I want to do everything. And Iu2019m saying yes.
When did the ball get rolling on this particular chapter?
The beginning of my career. When I was in my early 20s, Martin Scorsese and I had a beautiful conversation about my career. I was an extra in the movie he did with my mother, Alice Doesnu2019t Live Here Anymore. He said something that meant so much to me: u201cIu2019m watching your choices, and youu2019re making choices as an actor as if you were a filmmaker, where youu2019re building a body of work. I hope you keep doing that.u201d
Why do you think he saw you that way?
What he saw was that I was choosing [projects] based on brave filmmakers. It was definitely the Brat Pack generation, big TV series, the beginning of franchise action films, teen comedies. So there were a lot of different journeys to success. Because I had parents who thrived at working with interesting filmmakers, I was raised to understand that if you get five scenes in a Peter Bogdanovich film or a cameo with Robert Altman, you donu2019t do the lead in the teen movie. You learn from great directors, and you challenge yourself with complicated characters. Thatu2019s why I fell in love with acting.
This past year alone has seen you play a diverse array of roles. Are the characters youu2019re drawn to linked in some way?
I think worth, value, is maybe one of the biggest through lines. Whether itu2019s someone who doesnu2019t know their own worth or, frankly, doesnu2019t even know theyu2019re entitled to feeling that they have a place at the table or a voice in the world. That really interests me. Renata in Big Little Liesu2014who is the wealthiest, most ambitious, powerful, only woman who has a seat at the table in Silicon Valleyu2014doesnu2019t feel like sheu2019s allowed to have friends, doesnu2019t feel liked or seen among women. Or Citizen Ruth, who doesnu2019t even know anybody could give a s*** if she spoke out and doesnu2019t have self respect. That really interests me deeply.
Youu2019re never afraid to tackle characters who might not seem sympathetic at first, like the whistle blower Amy Jellicoe in HBOu2019s Enlightened. It ended up being my favorite television show of all time, but for the first few episodes, I was thinkingu2014
u201cEwwu201d? That was our goal! Which is a weird goal. But the goal was to make her impossible. Impossible to love for her ex-husband, for her own mother, for her momu2019s dogu2014let alone in the workplace. And yet, maybe that impossible person is impossible because their anger could change a generation. Maybe sheu2019s the only one who would get in the face of a Monsanto and say, u201cEnough!u201d You know, people who want to be likable and palatable donu2019t always start revolutions.
She was defined by this righteous rage.
And everywhere I go now, I feel like Iu2019m sitting with Amy Jellicoe. The whole country is Amy Jellicoe. Itu2019s amazing. Righteous rage, which we tried to look at in the show, is whatu2019s waking up the masses and maybe even Congress now. Itu2019s amazing that that is whatu2019s effecting change in a way thatu2019s never happened before.
Thereu2019s something really powerful about a female character who is allowed to be unpalatable and complicated.
I love that people are so who they are that they forget they are supposed to behave in a certain wayu2014whether to respect others or even to have any self-respect. But if I canu2019t empathize with the person, I canu2019t play the part.
So how do you find a way in?
Storytellers have a goal in mind. For me, itu2019s about empathy. You donu2019t have to love the people I play, but I hope youu2019ll understand what desperation and fear and shame do to people. Because if weu2019re learning where we judge the most, then maybe weu2019re going to crack open to ourselves and to each other. I think thatu2019s why Big Little Lies is so interesting for us. To have people repelled after the first episode and say, u201cUgh, rich-white-women problems?u201d And those same people almost feel embarrassed several episodes in that they were feeling that way about women going through so much was a really fun thing.
Anecdotally, I had a few male friends who had a similar reaction and then came around to being the showu2019s biggest cheerleaders.
And how beautiful that men are shifting in the same way that women are shifting! Weu2019re having this amazing paradigm shift where weu2019re seeing characters as characters. Weu2019re not going to Black Panther because itu2019s a u201cdiverseu201d action film franchise. And weu2019re not seeing Big Little Lies going, u201cOK, chick flick, I guess Iu2019ll see it because my girlfriend likes it.u201d
It seems like that way of thinking is relatively new.
I mean, we really are a third-world country. You know, half of French filmmakers are women. Heads of state across the globe have been womenu2014have been people of coloru2014for many, many years.
What do you think accounts for that? Especially in your industry?
I donu2019t know. We act like a very young country. The last few years, weu2019re thinking the same way we were when we were shaping this country or burning witches. Itu2019s such puritanical thinking. Iu2019ve been privileged to mostly live a life where I wasnu2019t realizing how insidious it wasu2014until recently. I wasnu2019t understanding the wealth of creativity and genius in women around me. I was in a sexist mind-set. I mean, how could I not have been when I was on movie sets starting at 11 and men were doing my hair and makeup? Men were doing every single job on that set. I have been on movies where I was the only female, including the cast and crewu2014maybe a costume assistant. Thatu2019s pretty radical, and I wasnu2019t going, u201cWhatu2019s going on? This is insane.u201d
Is it something youu2019re actively looking to change on the sets youu2019re working on now?
Male and female actors, cinematographers, directors, writers, producers are all taking a very long, hard look at themselves and their choices. If our mind-set is an older white man walks in the room and you assume he knows more or has become more educated because he had more chances and more privilege, then you have to have a paradigm shift. How many times have you heard, u201cI donu2019t know if she can handle it: Itu2019s a big movie. Itu2019s an effects movie. A small indie? OK.u201d What, do we have to have more muscle power to lift the sets ourselves?
Your latest film, The Tale, feels so timely in the era of #MeToo and the gymnastics abuse scandal. How do you approach such a delicate subject?
I think what moves me the most about Jenniferu2019s bravery in her storytelling was how she survived the experience by imagining it to be a love story so that she wasnu2019t a victim. She knew she would crush herself and her potential as a woman and her art and her fire as a documentarian. All those parts of her she felt would have been stymied if she lived a life of a victim. So she told herself a story. It was boy meets girl, falls in love. Yes, heu2019s older, but itu2019s the u201970s. And many of us have had a horrible experience. I mean, the hazy experiences of males and females in college, where itu2019s like, u201cIt wasnu2019t that bad.u201d You try to justify. You replay things that haunt you.
Thereu2019s been a lot of talk this year about the ways truth can be manipulated. Did this project impact the way you think about truth and lies?
I think so. The part that really moves me is that itu2019s not just about truth being good guys and lies being bad guys. When someone is in their own misguided self, but they have nobleness, we have to be a part of that journey. How are we helping each other? What is restorative justice, culturally?
You called for restorative justice during your Golden Globe acceptance speech. What does that term mean to you?
I think thereu2019s something extraordinary about holding up brave people who are accountable and, instead of banishing them, rewarding them. Letu2019s take our industry for an example. A studio has someone on a set who has sexually assaulted one or more people. The truth is, that individual, in this culture, could take down a studio if itu2019s protected or covered up. So if a young [director] trainee is lucky to have this gig with a very important director and witnesses this person, who is perhaps their boss, they have been raised to believe in our culture that they will lose everything and be blacklisted [if they report the crimes]. But if they go to the powers that be anyway and say what theyu2019ve witnessed to protect others, that person deserves us to rally around them. The studio should give that person a raise and more work. The paradigm shift of rewarding risk is how I want to raise my children to behave. And weu2019re not there yet.
Is there a way for this to take hold industry-wide?
Anywhere Iu2019m involved, I demand to be involved with organizations that are moving forward. As long as others are meeting me in the longing to follow this paradigm shift in gender and diversity parity, in membership, in the kinds of films that are supported and honoredu2026 Legacy is deeply important to me and my family, but itu2019s not as important as progress.
With everything thatu2019s happening, how do you stay so grounded?
Well, my daughter is so passionate and ferocious, and she spoke [at the March for Our Lives]. We look for the voice of the generation in the zeitgeist. When weu2019re waiting again for the white, Harvard-grad boy to effect policy change, and that person is Emma Gonzu00e1lez, weu2019ve shattered the belief system that it has to look a certain way. So thatu2019s what makes me most excited.
Iu2019m hopeful because it doesnu2019t look like itu2019s ever looked before. The films donu2019t feel like they ever have before. The generation that thought it was going to protect a certain story is now going to lose everything if they donu2019t change. The boardrooms, the unions, the heads of business, admissions at schools, they need gender and diversity parity. They need to grant the new generation voices that arenu2019t based on wealth or opportunity. And in terms of work, I feel like there are more people having more opportunities to be storytellers, which means more great films. As an actor, thatu2019s so inspiring.
One of the things that was refreshing about Big Little Lies is the way the media was giddy over this behind-the-scenes creative sisterhood. Where did that camaraderie begin?
For me personally, all roads lead back to Cheryl Strayed [Dern and Reese Witherspoon costarred in the 2014 adaptation of Strayedu2019s Wild]. Who knew that Cheryl walking the PCT [Pacific Crest Trail] and learning how to heal grief would be the thing that brought me, Reese, [director] Jean-Marc Vallu00e9e, and [producer] Bruna Papandrea together? That was its own love story. From that, there was a deep connection and family and sisterhood. It was really beautiful.
So you had to come back for a second season.
I had to. And then Meryl Streepu2014who is texting me right now. u201cIu2019m kind of busy; Merylu2019s texting me.u201d [Laughs.]
Youu2019ve been in this industry for decades. Can you possibly still feel starstruck?
I did. And then time wasnu2019t on my side; thereu2019s no time to be starstruck. We had work to do. We wanted to work together on effecting change in certain areas of activism. But then every text, Iu2019m like, u201cHello, amazing goddess guru Meryl.u201d At what point do I drop those things?!