Winter Issue, 2001
Laura Dern has proven herself remarkably adept at walking the line between cult diva and mainstream star. Her resume has included some of the most challenging films of the past two decades: Foxes, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Citizen Ruth, and Rambling Rose. But rather than decend into Jennifer Jason Leigh hell, Dern's resume also features such romps as Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, about the rise and fall of a girl punk group; that dance with the dinosaurs, Jurassic Park; and Robert Altman's ovarian farce, Dr. T and the Women.
Her off-screen life has been no less challenging. There was the time several years back when Geena Davis, who was once married to Jeff Goldblum, became involved with Dern's former partner, director Renny Harlin - and Dern somehow ended up with Goldblum in the same fell swoop. Then, last spring, fresh from the making of Daddy and Them, a movie written for her by then-fiance Billy Bob Thornton, Dern found out through the newspapers that said fiance had gone and married Angelina Jolie, a remarkable talented, but reportedly not too tightly wrapped, young actress notorious for her mercurial temperament and an obsession with her brother that had Hollywood wags tonguing big time.
It would be enough to have meeker souls taking a long draw on the nearest gas pipe, but Dern is made of much steelier stuff. Well, not steely so much as cheerfully resilient.
Stationed at a corner table in a crowded Hollywood boite hard by the sound stages and studios that are rented out for the more unglamorous aspects of making a movie, such as re-shoots and looping, Dern, who can look anything from all-American fresh to very-American coarse on-screen, is 20 times as pretty in the flesh. She is talking to Andy Garcia, who has stopped by her table to say hello. First, she introduces her visitor to Garcia, who, with a perfunctory handshake to the interloper, finishes up and quickly returns to his table.
She quickly sets the tone for the interview. Turning to her guest, she effuses, "Andy Garcia! Can you believe that? He is such a wonderful actor!" It's what Dern has done with her art and her life: set a tone. Ask movie goers about her and get a quick resume of her work. Ask them who they think she is personally - Bitch? Vamp? Sweetheart? Funnywoman? - get a blank stare. Try that with Sharon Stone...
Somehow, seemingly effortlessly, Dern has managed, no matter how many times the gooier aspects of her life have become tabloid fodder,to stay above the fray. How she does it is an interesting illustration of the way Dern approaches life; she says she accepts the fact that she is a public person and that people will pay attention to her when she endorses a cause, as well as look at her when the personal details of her life become "interesting". And she realizes she has very little control over it all. "It's true and it's weird. You can feel pressured by it, but all we have is our own truth. If someone connects with it, great. If they don't, I don't have to feel anxious. I'm not gonna take on all the guilt, judgement, and shame. You know, some of my dearest girlfriends were talking about projection - how your perceived versus who you are. You have no control over it."
Those girlfriends, among them Meg Ryan and Rosanna Arquette, should know a thing or two about perception verses reality. Arquette has been mislabeled as a world-class flake, and Ryan has been saddled with the role of America's Sweetheart, a moniker that should have died with Mary Pickford.
They must seceretly hate Dern.
Probably not, though, since it seems impossible to find anyone who hates Dern. Nosing around Hollywood for dirt is fruitless. No reports of hissy fits, no mistreated staff or crew members, no simmering animosities. None. The only comment that comes up again and again is "Everyone loves her." She is either one of the nicest people in the world, or the best actor ever. Given her schedule, it may be both. This spring, besides Daddy and Them, which she describes as "a white-trash romantic comedy, beautifully written, funny as hell," she's also got Novocaine, a black comedy with Steve Martin as a demented dentist, and Focus, with William H. Macy, based on an Arthur Miller play about anti-Semitism in WWII New York. She is also intent on returning to directing. Her first short was very well-received, and she has one seemingly unlikely ally in her directing endeavor.
"Steven Spielberg has been so supportive about it, he's been such a good friend," she enthuses. "My life is about being fearless now, so I've really got to throw myself into it. I hope to act all of my life, so I've put off directing, but I've got to get back to it.
If nothing else, Dern's second directorial effort will be interesting at the very least, and perhaps even inspired. It won't suffer from an unwillingness to take chances, however.
"I was reading this article on chaos," she reports. "That human beings think that they should control their chaotic life for the outcome that they've decided is best for them, when in their limited viewpoint, what is best for them is so much less than what the universe has for them. I love this quote," she says, "Our life experience is not what happens to us, but what we do with what happens to us.' It's a profound principle, isn't it?"
It ain't chopped liver, that's for sure.