American Film - July 1991
By Mark Rowland
Not long after Blue Velvet came out, Laura Dern accompanied director David Lynch to an exhibition of his paintings at a gallery in New York. While they were there, a woman approached and began speaking excitedly about the scene in Blue Velvet where Dern makes The Face. You know the one: that wild sob of pain as Dern, playing a gril of seemingly beatific innocence, watches her boyfriend comfort a strangely hysterical and quite naked lover in the foyer of her home. "So we're standing in the gallery," Dern recalls, "and this woman says to David, 'That face, it was so hideous! Did you draw this Oedipal mask for her, this mask of sorrow, so that Laura would know how to do it?'" Dern blushes, still a little abashed at the memory. "And I said, 'David, don't they know that's how I cry?'" Well, yes, they do. ANd no, they do not. For Laura Dern is an actor adept at filling that sudden space between naivete and awareness, darkness and light, laughter and tears. She exudes sincerity within films of profound ambiguity. She can be virginal (as in Blue Velvet), steamy (as in Wild at Heart) or both (as in Smooth Talk); trying to discern the real Laura Dern from those pictures is like viewing an episode of To Tell the Truth when all three candidates stand up. She is an open book. She is a mystery.
She is sitting in a wine-carpeted West Hollywood bar that looks like it's about to be repossessed, sipping bottled water under a felt hat adorned by fintage silk carnations. Her blue eyes, reflecting the afternoon light, look unusually iridescent. She's taking a momentary break from the play she's rehearsing at the Coronet Theatre next door and, inadvertently, from movies as well. "This is a good period for me - I'm offered scrips now. I get to meet interesting people, I read anything wonderful that's out there," she explains. "But there isn't very much out there. I'm trying to do what I fall in love with, and it's hard to stick with your passions and not settle for hype or big box office or whatever a movie might give you. I've sort of settled into the decision that I'll never be the kind of actor who works nonstop. I'll probably never do four movies a year. I just don't think I'll find enough."
She speaks with a Southern tinge, a voice at once relaxed and alert. Dern has perfect posture and a complexion that beams health; not classically beautiful, she's attractive in ways that get under the skin. At 24, she's poised beyond her years, though her manner can also suggest childlike apprehensions of pain. Which may be the point. "As an actor, I think I've been lucky that I feel so much," she says."I mean, acting in general is therapy in some form. So it's great to be part of movies that focus on the problem, rather than the escape. Because every time I do something that I feel is gonna move other people, inevitably it moves me and teaches me new things. It's funny how audiences can get angry when they're not told what to feel," she muses. "My favorite movies are the ones that let you decide, that believe that the audience has enough intelligence and integrity to make their own decisions."
In corporate Hollywood, such idealistic notions are given due respect, then weighed carefully against the prospective gross from "Rambo XII." Yet Dern has built a career on precisely those terms. In the past decade, she's acted in nine feature films, working with such disparate, distinguished directors as Lynch, Peter Bogdanovich (Mask), Ivan Passer (Haunted Summer) and Roland Joffe (Fat Man & Little Boy). And if some of those movies fell short of their marks, of each case Dern says, "I'm still very proud of each attempt." She especially juiced about her latest effort, Rambling Rose, directed by Martha Coolidge and due for release in September. Scripted by Calder Willingham (The Graduate, One-Eyed Jacks, Paths of Glory) from a novel about his youth, it's a bittersweet tale of a free-spirited young woman who provides more services than the genteel Southern family that employs and adopts her may have bargained for. But Rambling Rose is also the kind of subtle period picture that screams Tiny Profit, which helps explain why Willingham's highly reguarded screenplay had been kicking around since 1972. How the picture finally got made revealsas much about Dern's maturing muscle within the film industry as it does her commitment to a good story. Coolidge first showed the script to Dern five years ago, after seeing her in Smooth Talk. "We had a meeting with Edgar Scherick, the producer who'd optioned the book," Coolidge recalls. "And Laura entered the room in the spirit of Rose: that is, wearing a rather alluring dress but acting extremely unconscious of the fact that she was in it. She was there about two minutes and Edgar said, 'We have our Rose, let's make the picture,'"
The money wasn't there, however, and the rights lapsed. Dern and Coolidge kept in touch, and, last year, decided to try again. Seeking a producer, Laura sent the script to her "very close friend" Renny Harlin while he was working on Die Hard 2. Not your obvious choice, but..."He called me from Denver at two in the morning," Dern remembers, "and he was crying. Saying, 'This is beautiful, I want to help get this made.'" Harlin then leaned on an even less likely soft shoulder, Mario Kassar, whose Carolco Pictures has reaped fortunes via the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Harlin boarded Kassar's yacht during the 1990 Cannes Film Festival and wouldn't leave until the financier delivered a firm yes or no. This took 16 days. "I'm not sure if Mario finally said yes because he loved the movie or to get Renny out of his hair," Laura says, "I think it was a combination." For Dern, it was also the first time she'd become this actively involved in a film's preproduction - "which was great but also uncomfortable," she admits, giving her mouth a fimilar twist. "You'd hear the A-list conversations and all those things you're not part of as an acor." Still, she says, "I like working with people who allow me to contribute in other ways."
Dern's performances, in turn, help anchor her films. Lacking perhaps the screen charisma of Julia Roberts or Uma Thurman, she imbues her characters with considerably more weight. If cast by the average male director," Coolidge notes dryly, "Rose might have be a cute, sexy girl who is attractive but without much depth. But Laura has such truth in ther acting, in terms of making a human real and complete, that it takes away the danger of Rose being just a shallow male fantasy; she gives the movie richness for both men and women. No matter how sexual her character, with Laura, there is always a purity in her soul." Dern sees Rose from another perpective: "I was in love with that kind of person five years ago. But amybe I wasn't ready for it then. Rose is definitely the most painful character I've played, and it was a hard movie, emotionally; the funniest parts of the film are when I'm most devastated with my life. But it was made easier that a female friend was my director and the producer was my best friend; it all felt very much like family. And when I feel that love and support, my best work will come out. When you feel love, you expose more. So I think things happen this way for a reason," she decides. "Because the people I've been able to work with, or the people who have chosen to work with me, are always the ones who've taken the time to see behind the surface of my eyes."
Next door at the Coronet, Dern has been working eight-hour days, six-day weeks on Brooklyn Laundry with costars Glenn Close and Woody Harrelson, under the direction of James L.Brooks. The odd love triangle intersects the lives of an aunt and her neice with that of a handsome stranger, whose appearances trigger a series of emotional epiphanies. During rehearsals, Dern puts her lithe frame to good use, simulating the gangly, awkward body language of a "tough chick" whose armor is more like an eggshell. Brooks is the kind of nurturing director she likes; he laughs at the jokes she's read a hundred times but jumps in quickly when a scene turns "aimless". For Dern, who has only been in one other commercial play since turning professional, the chance to develop the nuances of a role for weeks on end feels like some kind of nirvana. "He questions everything I do!" she exclaims, making this sound quite wonderful. "So many times in a movie, directors never even question a scene. It's easy to get lazy if someone isn't driving you as a perfectionist to know what the truth is. This is really a pleasure."
Brooks calls a break to doctor the script and Laura seizes the opportunity to wheel her Cherokee across town and feed her two cats. When she's on location, she confesses, she even hires someone to come by and play with them. "You can't believe the money I've spent,' she winces. "It's scary." Her abode feels cozy, with a blend of furnishings from French country to modern. In the bedroom, there's a space for meditation and a framed picture of Guru Mayi, who presides over a yoga sect. On one wall is a dreamlike painting of a woman lying by the entrance of a cave. There are stars on the ceiling that glow at night. Back in the kitchen, Laura's working the can opener. She tried feeding the cats premium health food, she says, but they wouldn't eat the stuff: "I guess they want junk food like us." Dern watches her own diet, but these days she's less dogmatic about it. She used to be a "major vegetarian - no dairy or alcohol." Then she went to Mexico to shoot Fat Man and Little Boy, "And I got sick, because I was so pure! The actors who were drinking shots of tequila all night killed anything that came into their system." She smiles ruefully. "It wasn't a bad idea." In the living room, she pages through photographic essays on the Berlin Wall and South African apartheid. A Walker Evans photograph (a friend's gift, after she'd had a dream about the child in the picture) prompts the admission that she's begun work on a book project that would combine photographs with her interviews of homeless people. Along the stairwell hangs a framed photograph from Roger Corman's 1966 biker classic The Wild Angels, a still shot featuring a bearded Bruce Dern, in a leather helmet emblazoned with a swastika, and a seriously disheveled Diane Ladd. "'Their credo is violence, their god is hate and they call themselves the WIld Angels,' "Laura laughs, quoting the advertisement for the movie. "Will you look at that? Those are my parents. I was conceived on that movie."
Bruce Dern comes from a Chicago family steeped in New Deal politics; his father was a law partner with Adlai Stevenson and his grandfather, George Dern, Secretary of War under Franklin Roosevelt. Diane Ladd, whose cousins include Tennessee Williams, grew up in Mississippi with ambitions to be a lawyer. They met in a 1960 off-Broadway production of Williams' Orpheus Decending, fell in love and moved to California. But their first child drowned in a swimming pool at 19 months, and the marriage never quite recovered from that. A couple of years after Laura was born, they seperated for good. Despite or, perhaps, because of these travails, Laura's family ties are unusually strong. In recent years, she's grown "extremely close" to her dad; they'll often see each other four or five times a week. Rambling Rose marks the second picture in a row she's worked with her mom, who received an Oscar nomination for Wild at Heart. Laura's grandmother Mary, who helped Ladd raise her, remaines "maybe my favorite person in the world." Though certainly successful, Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd are not so much stars as pros, character actors whose fealty to their craft has little to do with glamour. Early on, Laura visited their film sets - she has a cameo alongside Ladd's other Oscar-niminated performance, in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore - and "fell in love before I knew why. They were always very passionate about their work, and that's a cool thing to be around. Also very nuturing - my mom is the mother of every movie and always gives presents, my dad has football pools for the crew. And with actors, there's a certain security once you're working; I think that sparked me too."
As an only child, she surmises, "You're more concerned about your parents' feelings." But she also seemed to gravitate naturally to that older world. Her mother's best friends - including Laura's godmother, Shelly Winters - became her best firends, too. "I cherished that, having people in their 30s and 40s I could really talk to," she says. "I never felt cheated out of my adolescence or anything like that. But it definitely made me feel a longing for adulthood." Bruce Derb agrees. "I think my biggest negative as a father is that I kept trying to adultisize her," he says. "When she was 12, I treated her as if she was 24. But it was a comfort to me that she kept wanting that, to go where the older folks went and do the things they did, to see that side of things. She enjoyed the challenge. "She's always had kind of an old soul, a mature soul," he goes on with paternal admiration. "Though in other area she's very young and hurts easily. When people say, There's Laura Dern doing her Southern accent again, that hurts her. What's gratifying is that she's perceived what choices she would make, knows the importance of doing things with a certain kind of emotional value. Because, frankly, I did not have that ability at 24. To think where most of us are at that age..."
Laura announced her career choice at the ripe age of nine. At first neither parent was too thrilled about it; when she took her first professional audition (age 11), for Adrian Lyne's Foxes, her mom figured the inevitable rejection would help get the bug out of Laura's system. Instead, Laura got the part. Then came another small role in the punky musical Ladies and Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains. Meanwhile, her body took the hint, growing to a very adult five-foot-nine before reaching her teens. Then came the doldrums. While the brat-pack fever was rampant, Dern couldn't catch a cold. There were legal snags regarding her age, she looked too old for some parts and simply couldn't hook others. "Hey, I auditioned for The Breakfast Club," she confesses. "I wasn't someone who was saying, I won't do teen movies. I just didn't get them." Her first significant role, as a student who gets knocked up by a gym teacher and undergoes an abortion in Arthur Hiller's Teachers, was recorded in her journals as part of a high-school senior study project. For Peter Bogdanovich's more highly regarded Mask, as the blind girlfriend of the disfigured hero, Dern prepared by attending dances for the blind, riding horses while blindfolded, walking with a cane. Her diligence paid off; Barbra Streisand, for one, reportedly asked Bogdanovich how he found a blind girl who could act.
Conversely, Dern landed her frst lead, as the deceptively precocious Connie in Joyce Chopra's Smooth Talk, only days before production: "It all happened so fast I didn't have time to panic." Adapted from a Joyce Carol Oates story, the film drew critical raves. So did Dern's performance as a girl with a libido of a woman and the emotional fragility of a child. Rolling Stone and Time magazine pinned her as an up-and-coming star. Author Oates remarked that Dern was so right as her Connie that she might come to think she had modeled the fictitious girl on her. Dern was 17 years old. "That was real exciting, to be recognized for talent that I hoped I had," Dern says. "Because at the time I really didn't know. I was alone for the first time, out of school, didn't have a boyfriend...But I would say that, on a spiritual level, we come into our lives to learn a lesson, and oftentimes our hardest issues are brought to us by what we choose to do. Like, You're going to love yourself no matter what anybody says, so we'll give you rejection as a job. I think that we-don't-want-you syndrome as a teenager taught me to be stronger. And instead, I got parts that I was going to learn the most from. It was like my little angels knew what they wanted me to do."
Spiritual references come naturally to Dern. She was raised Roman Catholic along with ample doses of astrology, metaphysics and Eastern mysticism, all of which helped promote the vision thing. As a child she'd dig in the backyard with a spoon, hoping that holy water would spring from the ground, as at Lourdes. "I'd pretend to be St. Bernadette: I wanted the Blessed Mother to appear to me, too! And she never came," she says, still sounding a little disappointed about it.
"But I was also afraid. If I'd feel something in my room, I used to scream, 'Don't appear to me!' I was so afraid a ghost or Christ or somebody was going to appear. It flipped me out." These days, she feels Catholic from an Eastern perpective: "I don't like the rules, the whole thing about purging your sins. I'm not into punishment. But I love Communion, taking the body of Christ, with the idea that God is in you. None of this was lost on David Lynch when he cast Laura in Blue Velvet as Sandy, the girl who dreams of robins setting the world free for love. Upon first reading the script, Dern's reaction was, "This is either the most brilliant movie ever or a piece of shit. And it scares me that I love it." Dern followed Blue Velvet with turns as Lord Byron's spurned lover in Haunted Summer and as a nurse in Roland Joffe's ambutious meditation on the creation of the atomic bomb, Fat Man and Little Boy. The latter movie appealed to her pacifist political leanings; during rehearsals she divided her time working in a Mexican hospital and immersing herself in conservation with the engineers and radiation scientists Joffe had hired to act in the film.
For all that, she sensed becoming typecast as "too pure" for certain roles. Her Lula Pace Fortune in Lynch's Wild at Heart made that issue moot. It's wonderful to embrace a side of you that has never been shown before," she says of the decidedly sensual Lula. "I'm not afraid of something because it's erotic. I mean, I am if I don't feel it's respectful. But there was an integrity about Sailor and Lula's relationship which made everything safe for me." Dern seems anxious to defend Lula's character: "It's about two people who love each other and are hot for each other and have a baby and end up together. And always in movies now, sex is hot when you're cheating on someone and marriage is a bore. Now, that's scary! When has there been a movie about a married couple who are just fucking every second? Wouldn't that be a nice change of pace?" Insisting she's not a fan of nudity, "and, in fact, I hate it when it throws any audience member out of a movie," she can't help feeling tickled at the way perceptions of her have turned around. Now, she notes wryly, in addition to good-girl scripts, she's "seeing some major kink" that never shadowed her doorway before. "I mean, the lucky thing is, I get both."
In a Lynchian twist, Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart bookended an off-camera romance between Dern and actor Kyle MacLachlan that lasted four years. "I was 18 at the time, and my grandmother, who is extremely Catholic, kept saying, 'Laura, you're always going back and forth and you never have time for anything. What are you going to do? I said, 'Well, Grandma, Kyle and I are gonna move in together.' She goes, 'Oh, good!...Except, you're gonna go to hell.'" Dern shakes her head and smiles, "That summed up my upbringing. You're going to hell, but you'll have a great time."
Driving back across town through Los Angeles traffic brings to mind other places. One of her life goals, Dern professes, is to visit every country in the world. She gets to travel a lot as an actor, but the circumstances aren't always ideal. In Italy for Haunted Summer, she spent weeks shooting in mushroom caves: "Like living in fungus," she shudders. Last summer Dern was headed to the Amazon for Hector Babenco's At Play in the Fields of the Lord but backed out after discovering that she'd have to swim in a river full of parasites. "I thought the character was interesting but not worth risking my life," she says, then adds sardonically: I need to learn fluent French and make movies in Paris." She thinks about getting a country retreat. A lot of her peers have spreads in Montana, and Virginia looks attractive. "But I think maybe it would be lonely without a mate." She is currently single - by choice, albeit aware of frequent press gossip that links her with one guy or another. "It's easier when you're in a relationship to be buffered," she allows. "It's trickier to do that for yourself. But I have to do it. I could opt for other choices. But this is what I need right now."
While preparing for Wild at Heart, she reveals, she'd drive a few more miles east along the Hollywood streets to check out the porno shops. Some of what she saw there bothered her; some just made her sad. "But I felt like I should learn more of what that was all about. If I'm going to be the optimist I want to be, I should know what the other side is like." So does she still believe in the dream of the robins? "I do," Dern replies. "I have to. The wonderful thing is, when I was 18 I was more like Sandy. But the gift of Lula and Rose and, hopefully, my other roles to come, is that they are people who hold to that belief but have other sides too."
A few minutes before she's due back at the theater, she races into a store to buy presents for the rest of the cast, "just because." She soberly mulls possibilities - clothes, jewelry, pens, leather journals. Then she wanders by a candy counter. "Zots? You have Zots!?" With the keen gaze of a jeweler, she picks out packs of peppermint cigarettes, strings of exploding sour balls, boxes of bubble-gum film, Air Heads taffy bars. Prizes safely bagged, she hops in the car and, in the fading twilight, drives happily back to work.