Buzz Magazine - Sept./Oct. 1991
"In My Own Words: Laura Dern"
One of my most vivid memories comes from when I was about five years old. I was watching television, and maybe I was switching channels, I don't really remember. All I remember was seeing this image of Bette Davis standing at the top of a staircase holding a hat box. Suddenly, the hat box opens, and this head inside falls out and rolls down the stairs - and it's my fathers head. Well, I started screaming, totally freaking out. My mom ran into the room, looked at the TV, and said, "oh my God." She immediatly telephoned my dad, who explained to me that he was alive and everything was fine. Eventually, I calmed down. The movie, by the way, was Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and to this day I still have a hard time watching a loved one die in a movie.
I grew up first in Santa Monica, then all around the West L.A.-Santa Monica area. My parents split up when I was a baby, and when I was about five my mother remarried and we moved to New York for three years. When we came back, we lived mostly in the Valley, which is where I went to high school. I felt different from most of the kids I went to school with, not because my parents were actors - a lot of my school friends had parents in the business - but because I was living with a single parent. That changed as I got older. By the time I hit ninth or tenth grade, almost all of my friends were living with single parents. After that, the big problem was my height. I was really tall. I was already five-nine when I was eleven. The boys were tiny by comparison. So forget dating. That was out of the question until I was sixteen or seventeen.
Still, I was a very lucky kid. I mean, growing up in the group of people I grew up with, in the city I did, it's amazing to me that I never got involved in drugs or anything like that. A lot of credit has to go to my parents, particularly my mother. She was extraordinary. I had parents who were absolutely wild eccentrics, but they never did a drug in thier lives, they weren't chemically dependent in any way. They were just good people. Sure, they had their problems, but on the whole they were pretty cool, pretty normal. Dad went to football games and Mom was seeking enlightenment in Tibet, if you know what I mean. They were just who they were. And that, I think, really gave me a desire to find out who I was, what I wanted to be. I've also been lucky on a spiritual or psychological level. I don't know why I've been so lucky, but ever since I was about nine years old, just the right people have come into my life at just the right moments. Whether it was a doctor or a high-school English teacher, a friend of my mother's or an analyst, there have always been little guides, little angels in my life, to teach me just what I needed to learn at that particular point. For example, when I first moved out on my own - I was seventeen at the time - I was looking for a roommate and I just happened to meet this lady, a spiritual psychotherapist in her thirties who needed a roommate herself. It was very cool. I mean, I was seventeen and my roommate was this great lady, and we were like two women living together. Even more amazing, the woman was Marianne Williamson, who really is a great lady.
I sometimes get a little overwhelmed by what's happened to Marianne since then. People will say to me in this awestruck whisper, "You were a roommate of Marianne Williamson?" As if she's God. And that freaks me out. Marianne is just an amazing speaker who's done some amazing things, such as Project Angel Food. But somehow it's all gotten distorted, what with Vanity Fair calling her "the guru of the moment" and all. Anyway, living with Marianne really taught me a lot. In its way, it was important to me as a love relationship because it was my first attempt at living on my own.
My parents came out of a tradition that regards acting as not just a career, but as a calling. It's a great gift to be raised around that kind of feeling. Still, when I first told my mom that I wanted to act, she was terrified. She said, "Be a lawyer, a doctor, anything but an actress." She didn't care what I did, but she didn't want me to suffer. Just like any parent...I hope. My first real experience with the business came when I was seven. My mother was doing Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and got me a job as an extra. She thought it would be good for me to be around a movie set so I could see how boring movie-making is, how your always waiting. Of course, I thought it was magical. So when I was nine, I said to her, "I want to be an actress." And she said, "No way." And I said, "You can't stop me from my destiny." I must have sounded so ridiculous. But there was no talking me out of it. So my mom gave in. But she set two conditions that were extremely good for me. First of all, she said I would have to do it all on my own. And second, she insisted that I study acting for two years. "If after taking class every week for two years you still want to do it," she said, "then fine, go for it."
So starting when I was nine, instead of playing with the other kids, I went to acting class every weekend. For two years, I studied at Lee Strasberg Institute. Then, when I was eleven, an agent proposed sending me on a couple of auditions. One of the first was for the movie Foxes. My mother allowed me to go mainly because she didn't think I had a chance; she felt the experience would teach me a valuable lesson - namely, that life is hard and you're not always going to get a job. I went in to read for a small part and they wound up screen-testing me for one of the three leads. The part was that of a ninteen-year-old girl. Of course, I was only eleven, but I told Adrian Lyne, the director, that I was fourteen. In the end, I got the job. But for the next few years, I didn't get many others. The problem was my height. I was too tall to play my real age, but when I'd go up for the part of an eighteen-year-old, they wouldn't want to hire me because of the labor-law requirements for minors. But I never questioned the path I had chosen. You know how people often say of actors, "Oh well, you're not saving lives, you know - it's not exactly brain surgery"? Well, one of the things I love most about my parents is that they do think it's brain surgery. And so do I. I just know movies have saved my life. There have been movies that have moved me, movies that have made me conscious politically or emotionally, movies that have made me understand death, movies that have made me laugh when I was depressed. To be able to do what an actor does - to get inside your heart, to make you feel something, to remind you, to wake you up - it's really a rather extraordinary thing.
I didn't understand quite how extrardinary until three or four years ogo. I remember when I was doing Smooth Talk; I was seventeen, I had just graduated high school and had just moved out of my house, I didn't have a boyfriend, and there I was in Santa Rosa, appearing in every scene, working the longest hours, having to cry on camera every day, having to play scenes in which a man abused me, and thinking to myself, "I know that we're doing something good here, but I'm feeling so much pain." Every night I'd be alone in my hotel room feeling lonely, depressed, and tired, wondering to myself, "Why am I doing this?" But eventually, through my love of the work, and as a result of growing up a little bit more, I learned what my parents had known for a long time. which is that what actors do is quite extraordinary. As an actor, you can take experiences in your life and qualities in your nature and use them to explore and learn about yourself and other people. The only other career I can think of that I might possibly find equally exciting is that of a child therapist or psychologist. It's really the same kind of job, in a way - figuring out why we do what we do.
I love being a serious actress. I get so excited about playing different kinds of parts. I hate being pigeonholed. Before Wild at Heart, they used to say, "She'll always be the girl next door." Now they're saying, "She'll always be the sexual cyclone." I'm really tired of hearing that sort of thing. I did the play Brooklyn Laundry last spring with Glenn Close and Woody Harrelson in a little theater on La Cienega partly because I was a huge fan of the director, Jim Brooks, but also because the character - a tough Brooklyn girl - was so very different from anything I'd played before. Jim is really an extraordinary director. He just loves actors so much. Even though I've been lucky so far in my career in that I've mainly worked with directors who love actors, I've certainly met a lot - and have worked with a few - who don't. Or who like them but don't trust them. Jim's attitude was "Take it - take it as far out there as you can. And if it doesn't work, then it fails. Big deal." I respect that. What was frustrating to me about the experience - and this is what makes me more of a fan of movies than of theater at this point - is how much the audience doesn't get to see in the theater. There was one point in the play when Woody was sitting on a park bench next to me telling my character what he used to tell Glenn's character, which is that he loved her and wanted to give her everything. And as he tells me all this, he turns to me and actually says it to me. Well, Jim asked me to be moved by this moment. His idea was that it was the first time that my character had ever really had a man say this sort of thing to her. So in rehearsal Woody looked at me and I just started sobbing. But then, as the character would, I immediately tried to cover it all up, to amke it seen if I were OK. It was a terrific moment. Unfortunately, no one ever saw it in the theater. The audience may have seen my body language. But for them to have seen any more, I would have had to make it bigger, and bigger wasn't honest to me.
My favorite thing about acting is figuring out behavior, the little actions you do in private moments that define character. For example, in almost every movie I've done, my character has been able to look in a mirror. Looking in a mirror is such a personal thing. It's so exciting to be able to see how each character does it differently. Onstage, you just don't have the opportunity to share that. But in a movie, the camera can see you looking in the mirrow, it can see your eyes, it can see all kinds of detail - like how someone's mouth twitches when he talks. That's what's so incredible about acting on film. I take pride in the fact that my performances - particularly the ones in David Lynch's movies - are never one-sided. In fact, my favorite thing about my career so far is that there's been both a light side and a dark side to almost every movie I've done. As a result, when people talk about me, they'll often say something like "Good person, twisted movies." And it's true that quite often I play a character with a sense of purity who is traveling through a darker world. In the end, the kind of roles that I will always look for are ones that are not black and white. Because black and white is a lie. What I love about women is that women are both madonna and whore. That's why Lula in Wild at Heart was such a great role for me. She and her man Sailor are a sweet, good-natured, loving little couple in a world of chaos. But they're also crazy and wild and sexual and sometimes twisted. That's what I love about them. It's also what I love about Rose in Rambling Rose, my new movie. She's an innocent, kind, loving girl - the most loving girl you'll ever meet. But there's another side to her as well.
I first read Calder Willingham's script of Rambling Rose five years ago. I fell in love with Rose then, but I don't think I was ready to play her until I actually did earlier this year. So it was just as well that it took so long to get the movie made. What attracted me to the project when I first read it was the writing, the story, and the idea of playing a southern girl, which at the point I had not yet done. But I didn't really understand Rosie. I didn't know how to play a character who everyone thinks is a nymphomanic yet who really isn't just looking for sex. As the line in the movie says: "Girls don't want sex, girls want love." How do you make that work? It seemed almost impossible. And it was almost impossible until I was old enough to understand it.
Right now I'm waiting to hear from a publisher about a book I've proposed on the homeless. The idea is to tell the stories, through interviews and photographs, of ten particular homeless people, each of them from a different walk of life: a Vietnam vet, a teenage runaway, a Buddhist woman in Venice whom I know, and so on. I want to knowwhere they came from, what their dreams were, what their fears are, why they're where they are, how they feel the system has failed them. The incentive for doing the book was that I was afraid of these people. Also, these people started looking a lot like me. I couldn't fathom that. I've always loved asking questions that I want the answers to - especially questions about people. I suppose that's one of the reasons I became an actress.