Detour Magazine - Dec./Jan. 1997
Written by Dale Brasel
A lot has been written about Laura Dern, and she's been burned on occasion. Stories focusing on who she's dating, the once estranged relationship with her father, actor Bruce Dern, the movie-star mother she often shares the screen with, Diane Ladd, her spirituality and depth of knowledge in mediation, and sandwiched somewhere among all of the above, her work. Still, she spends the day speaking to a schmo like me freely and utterly unguarded, at times too openly, about things that could make her an easy target. "Do you want me to get philosophical with you?" she asks when I pose the question of where all the pretty places have gone. "I fear saying it to you because I would happily tell you about wondering such things, but how's it going to sound in a magazine? I don't know why it is, but often when people try to be authentic, and talk about things that really mean something to them, people always think of it as pretentious. The people reading it are, 'Oh, please.'"
Having set me up, she thoughtfully describes how we can turn anyplace into the horrific, and it isn't enough just to find pretty places. Answering a question full of potential ridicule is overwhelmingly more important to her than not, so she answeers, and drops the shield. Personal questions that border on intrusive. "When we get to the boystuff," she muses, "do I get to click off the recorder?"
So this mediation lesson isn't forced out of her, even at the risk of coming off as one of those California touchy-feely types who rhapsodizes over hemp clothing, subsits on brown rice, sprouts, and Power Bars, and prattles on about auras. She isn't, in fact, even a vegetarian at all, and the closest we get to auras is picking out names for what we have termed my inner dork. "You should name it," she commands with a laugh. "I love naming my various creatures." As far as the New Age influence of things like healing crystals, self-denial, and martyrdom, it just doesn't wash. "I've got no issues about being girlie. No problems at all. I love talking about manicures and clothes. Love it. I'm a woman who likes pink, frilly things and little-girl underwear," she oozes with a degree of feminine satisfaction. "I'm kind of squeamish when it comes to certain things - blood. You'll never see me watching those operations on the Discovery Channel. In terms of my toys, though, I'm a total boy. And, oh, I just so have an aversion to dolls. I'll tell you," she continues, "I think the destruction of the feminist movement today is women not embracing their feminine side. I love being a feminist, whatever that is to me, which is fighting for civil rights, not women's rights.
There's one area that isn't open to much debate about actress Laura Dern. She indisputably knows her profession. Growing up, she says she had one wall covered with photos of her favorite actress, Barbara Stanwyck, and another wall for her favorite actor, John Savage. "My parents didn't really think it was weird, but I think maybe I should have started therapy then. I mean, having a father who is Bruce Dern, and here I pick the other guy who plays insane people." She got her own agent at age 11 without the help of mom or dad or godmother ("Shelly Winters, that's really, really good, isn't it?"). Before hitting her teens she studied acting for two years, a demand of her mom, who was less than thrilled about her daughter's career path. She also topped out at five feet, nine inches, looking - and acting - mature beyond her years. It was an aspect that meant she went up for characters much older than her chronological years, but producers concerned about child-labor laws sometimes kept her from landing. "When opportunity comes to you, you have a tendency to focus in on areas where opportunity isn't coming as easy. I think that as a child actor and into my teens, that's the time I was luckiest," she recounts of those early acting days. "I graduated at 16 from a prep school - not by taking some proficiency test, but by doubling up on my credits. Then I was declared an emancipated minor, which meant I could work. Now I'm 16-and-a-half and had a small part in Teachers, then Mask, followed by Smooth Talk and Blue Velvet, all back to back."
Dern's offical accolades include an Oscar nomination (Rambling Rose), two Emmy nominations Afterburn and Fallen Angels), one Golden Globe win (Afterburn) with an additional two nominations, an L.A. Film's Critic's Award, two Cable Ace nominations, starring in a Cannes Palme d'Or winner (Wild at Heart), and she just took home the Best Actress Award from the Montreal Film Festival for her new film, Citizen Ruth. "I've never focused on any of that stuff," she says with total modesty, "but when you're sitting home not working and not sure what to do next, it's nice to have someone thinking you're doing good work because it helps you try and do things you care about." A tray of dessets is delivered to us for perusal. Dern picks up the tiny, plastic beaver she had earlier rummaged from my backpack. She hasn't questioned the obsure nature of the many items stowedalongside fresh batteries, breath mints, blank tapes, and loose change. The beaver, however, catches her eye. "Do you collect these?" "Yes," I reply, waiting for the Freudian backlash. Instead, she comments on what a great thing it is to collect things. She moves the beaver from dessert to dessert, making comments in her interpretation of what this particular rodent might sound like could it speak: "Yum. This looks good. Chomp, chomp." The staunch, well-starched waiter finally breaks into a laugh. Her work here is done.
She does for me the ultimate imitation of one of her idols, Lucille Ball. Tries to see if she can gross me out while we're eating by tossing around words in the vein of "vomit" and "diarrhea" - when it doesn't work, she seems impressed. Tells me, "If I do find out you're a lunatic, that may make me feel more confortable." She recounts a sory of when she was five, witnessing a little girl getting her tongue stuck on a popcicle, and when it was loosened with scalding coffee, how part of her tongue came off with it. She "totally gets the concept of porno, but it doesn't do it for me." She'll "go apeshit" if people try to explain to her the merits of ultra-conservative politics, and laughs out load when you ask about her image adorning the slew of Jurassic Park merchandise from action figures to lunch boxes. She details her plan of making a true fashion statement that involves wearing the same dress to all the public events she's required to attend. "Maybe change the hem just a little, maybe dye it black at some point. Every photo shoot, every dinner party, every award show - the same old dress. Now that would be just so good." She's unfolding before me as the perfect woman.
Ruth Stoops, the title character in her latest film, Citizen Ruth, is not so perfect. Ruth's a pregnant inhalant junkie who unwillingly winds up being a symbol/sacrificial lamb for the radical factions on both sides of the abortion issue. It's a comedy. Hysterical, even. "It's so important that people get that it's a comedy," she stresses. "We're not an abortion film. This movie is about sending up American's desperate need to belong to something when they don't even know what it is. It's about fanaticism, and this girl, who up to now has never had a sense of self, or ethics," she explains of the film's satirical, black humor. "With David Lynch movies, people knew that David's style was such that you could laugh. When we first saw (Citizen Ruth) with an audience, people in the beginning weren't sure whether it was OK to laugh at certain things. Of course, when they figured out it was OK to laugh, they thought it was just so funny and dark. It's hilarious. It's not about going in with some political agenda. It sends everybody up. And both sides do get stated in the movie."
Both sides are definitely stated, sometimes by the very organizations represented fictionally in the film. Take the real Right to Lifers who are extras in the film. If there was a spark of hostile controversy while filming, it got doused by great one-liners like Dern's retort to Ruth's cinematic, and real-life mom-in-a-cameo, Diane Ladd, screaming in front of an anti-abortion crowd: "At least I wouldn't have had to suck your boyfriend's cock!" For the record, Dern says mom loved the line. And with her seamless performance, Dern is settling into yet another round of labels spawned by a Canadian magazine cover quip: "Laura Dern, Queen of White Trash." "Already, I'm getting scripts for nasty, trash parts because of it," she says cautiously but with a smidgen of pride, "After Blue Velvet, it was 'She'll never play a naughty girl, she's the nice gril next door.' After Rambling Rose, it was 'Sexual, but not sexually iinnocent,' then, following Wild at Heart, 'Wild and youthful.' Those labels, I mean, I love that they keep trying to label me, but aren't able to. I'm an actor, you know? If there's an idea of who I am, then that's the biggest misconception I know about me.
"Remember when you said to me you thought as a teenager I came across in interviews as milquetoast?" she asks. "Well, I don't know who I am, I'm still figuring it out. It's all a bunch of things. I really don't think I'm milquetoast, in fact, I don't even know that 16-year-old girl." Dern eases back into her Luck mode for a moment. "I aspire on some level to work like Lucy, because I think she'a a genius," she confesses, slipping into a twisted snicker. "So far, I think Ruth is a character most like Lucy. 'Fume-innhaling Ruth is like Lucy.' She'd be so mortified if she saw that. I'll tell you what I wish," she says, leaning closer across the table, "I wish they'd make an action figure for Citizen Ruth, that's what I really want. Ruth would come with a little can of spray paint and a bag. Of course, she'd also come with a tiny Frida Kahlo T-shirt for when she crosses over to the ultra-feminist side."
I think I understand why sometimes the things written about Laura Dern seems so ambiguous. It's because she threatens people with wisdom delivered in a dark, satirical manner, and some people just don't get it. Take this pearl of wisdom: "Death is bizarre. I guess attachment is what's bizarre, because it's all about attachment. Hollywood, too, people get hysterical. Hollywood and death are so related because it's like, 'Hold on to this while you've got it, and don't let anybody take it from you.'" My mediation lesson is drawing near. We've covered a lot, and she has turned off the tape recorder at points, but so have I when she's crossed over into interviewer. Fair is fair. And she does ask for my help, in all seriousness, to use my pen to help her get a job. See, Laura Dern, movie star, wants to be the new Madge for Palmolive Liquid. She's already scripted out a few ads and jumps into the manicurist's skin in the blink of an eye. Gum-smacking, smart-ass Madge. "If you could get the company interested, it would be great news," she says with a nearly straight face. She's even talked to her Citizen Ruth director Alexander Payne, about directing the commercials. And, yes, he's agreed to the proposition.
I'm ready to breathe. To find out what Laura Dern knows that I don't, which makes her the untimate in cool. Where this place is that she goes to inside of herself allowing her to look for things that don't exist, simply for the mental workout. Then she pulls one last surprise. "Back to pretty places," she wonders out loud. "I'll tell you now. If you want to know where my favorite place is in the Universe - it's in the bathtub. What I can create in the bathtub will awe-inspire you. I know how to do it, baby. I've learned my fucking aromatherapy. I've got all the books, and I know what things to mix. Got a little problem? A little anxiety? Come see Auntie Laura, and I'll put a little brew together and sit you in the bath." "Now," she says in that calm voice, "close your eyes and just take a moment to let whatever you are thinking be there - don't stress about having a lot of different thoughts, just be aware of them. Breathe until you've let them float away. Breathe." So I breathe.