George Magazine - June 2000
By Allison Adato
Can Laura Dern save the world? Can she liberate Afghanistan from the Taliban? Protect abused women and molested children? Save the elderly from neglect? Shield animals from inhumane treatment? Keep abortion safe, legal and available in America? Can she save the whales, the seals, the spotted owls, the rain forest? Tall order, yes. But Dern, don't forget, is an actress. A tall, photogenic, well-spoken, and deeply concerned actress. So as long as the public prefers to get its news of Tibet from the hunky star of American Gigolo and not, say, the secretary of state, people like herself or Richard Gere are perfectly placed to shine the spotlight on the issues that trigger their conpassion. "I don't have any more reason to talk about this than anybody else," Dern says with a bluntness that is part of her otherwise earnest demeanor. "Certainly a lot less than people who have been through it. But if I have an opportunity to talk about it when other people don't have a voice, then it's my obligation to do it, because my outrage is there."
Celebrity perks at the beginning of the century include not only a personal assistant, a Web domain, and a private reservations line at Nobu, but also a platform from which to speak one's conscience. "There's an appreciation that you should give back, a sense that you should consider doing something," says Donna Bojarsky, a political consultant for, among others, actor Richard Dreyfuss. To optimize the pulpit fame affords them, some in the industry (including Barbra Streisand, Rob Reiner, and David Geffen) retain people like Bojarsky to set up foundations, coordinate events, and advise them on when and how to speak out. With her assistance, Dreyfuss has appeared in Congress on behalf of environmental and health issues. "Actors don't pretend they are experts, and every statement isn't perfect," Bojarsky acknowledges. "They don't expect to be making policy, but when they go to an event, it gets covered. To that end, Oscar podiums become soapboxes and movie junkets sometimes sound like Meet the Press. As long as they've got a reporter asking questions about what it was like to work with Robert Altman, they may as well mention labor abuses in sweatshops. If more people pay attention to where their tennis shoes are made, terrific. If they have a warm feeling about the star's benevolence and decide to see his movie, that's great, too.
Laura Dern has done something unusual by Hollywood standards: She has consented to have a reporter trail her for three days, and she has no movie to promote. She is allowing a glimpse into the life of a celebrity activist and, in doing so, generating press for some of the causes that are dear to her. At present, that list includes women's rights, reproductive choice, amnesty for political prisoners, animal rights, environmental protection, hunger, domestic abuse, and conditions for the elderly. Not long ago, her then-fiance, actor-director Billy Bob Thornton, a father of three from his previous marriages, introduced her to two children's charities he supports. "I spent my twenties wanting to participate any time something upset me," says Dern, now 33. "I've done a little bit of good for a lot of different causes. As much as I've been happy to do that, I'm still a very scattered person who really needs to focus." Because she has yet to commit wholly to one or two issues, Dern isn't a political powerhouse like Streisand or Gere. "You can't do everything well," says Bojarsky, who advises her clients to "Focus on one issue and create a depth of activism." But Dern's heart is in the right place, even if it is all over the map. As a result, she's become a magnet. Several times each week, she is called by some group seeking her involvement. Sometimes the request is as simple as wanting an item autographed for a charity auction. "What chaps my ass a little bit is fundraisers where people talk about their latest deal while drinking champagne," said Thornton before his split from Dern. "They're just there for the publicity. But Laura's genuine. It's not like she's doing what her publicist tells her to do."
On a Monday night, Dern goes to New York's W hotel for a Feminist Majority Foundation event publicizing the plight of Afghan women living under gender apartheid. The real powers behind the evening, which will feature music, speakers, and a documentary shot in Afghanistan, are Feminist Majority president Eleanor Smeal and Mavis Leno, wife of the Tonight Show host, who have tirelessly lobbied Washington on this issue. But the photographers and reporters stalk the glossier names, and an evening like this draws a strange mix: Dern, Meryl Streep, Al Franken, Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows, Melissa Etheridge, and Marlo Thomas. "At least if I'm in the picture," notes Smeal, who frequently jumps into the frame, "they will have to identify me, mention Feminist Majority, and hopefully, mention the event." As each new celebrity emerges from the greenroom, the press gets a chance to elicit bite-size quotes on the heinous treatment of women by the extremist Muslim Taliban regime. After a few interviews, Dern escapes to join a circle made up of Streep, Etheridge, and singer Joan Osborne. They chat about Osborne's upcoming album and how Streep's teenage daughter can't stop playing Etheridge's last CD. But they're also trying to fathom how this chic gathering in this trendy hotel will aid oppressed women. It is not a fundraiser. Besides, it's nearly impossible to get aid into Afghanistan. So far the only U.S. action has been to ban trade with the country. Somehow the stars can't help wondering just what they're doing here. "We're amplifying," says Streep, who says Smeal told her the publicity will prompt people to pressure the government to act. "Amplifying!" repeats Etheridge, nodding rhythmically and psyching up her huddle of famous teammates. "Amplify," says Dern, smiling. She knows why she's here. She is angered by stories of Afghan women and girls being beaten for wearing nail polish or accidentally showing an ankle; of women being forbidden to work, study in school, or see a male doctor; and of girls being forbidden to sing, play, or feel the sun on faces perpetually covered by full-body burkas. She seems to operate on the"'it can't hurt" theory of activism: Her presence might help, she says, and "it's not some difficult offering."
Later, Streep will deadpan from the stage, "I'm a celebrity. I'm pretty sure that's why I was asked to be here tonight." But her quip raises the question: What is the impact of an actress reading a letter in which a 12-year-old Afghan girl asks, "Is it a crime to be a woman?" Wrenching, yes, but constructive? "When a celebrity has taken a stand on what's right," says Bojarsky, "that sets a tone for the country, and I think that's enough. Even if it seems hopeless, you want an issue on the table." But good intentions can be tainted by the slightest whiff of scandle. When Rosie O'Donnell denounced the gun industry, she was forced to resign her job shilling for Kmart, which sells firearms. Campaign for animal rights, and you'll be skewered for eating meat. "I'll say it now; I am a hypocrite," Dern announces over a sea bass lunch the next day. "I love animals, and will dedicate part of my life to animals. Am I a vegetarian? No. I was for six years, and I became anemic. I started eating meat, and I feel good. I'm sorry if I offend people." Like such sensitive souls as Rush Limbaugh. "I heard he was talking about me on his show," she reports with some pride. "Saying how gross it is that Laura Dern's worring about animals. 'What about children? What about cancer?' I was like, 'You know what, man? I wouldn't want to be your dog! You don't even know what I spend my life doing.'"
Two days later, Dern is the lone celebrity at a New York luncheon for NARAL, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. At the start of the decade, abortion was a hot issue, evidenced by a chorus line of stars, including Jane Fonda and Whoopi Goldberg, leading a march on Washington. But seven years into a pro-choice administration, NARAL president Kate Michelman now sees "a complacency" that makes it difficult to line up famous names. She expects interest to pick up if George W. Bush wins the White House, because he would likely appoint conservative Supreme Court justices, who might vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. "This is not an easy issue," says Michelman, who asserts that most actors fear voilent pro-lifers. "Some people get scared when they see the radical convictions of the other side. But Laura is a woman who lives by her principles." That she could be considered brave for reading a prepared speech strikes Dern as ridiculous; on the same stage with her is a nurse who suffered severe injuries in a clinic bombing. Dern's role at the NARAL luncheon is far less vague than at Monday nights event. Guests have ponied up to $1,000 each to eat grilled chicken with the actress who played the title character in Citizen Ruth. The 1996 film, a poignant black comedy about a pregnant, glue-sniffing addict volleyed between zealous pro-choice and pro-life groups, will forever links Dern's name to the abortion debate. "I love that it's so radically offensive," she says of the cult film. "You want to inflict abortion on Ruth, because she's going to destroy her infant. But she has as much right to make a choice as anybody else, and we have to honor that."
After the NARAL lunch, Dern decides that we should see a show at the International Center of Photography. Inside are Work Projects Adminstration pictures by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and, Dern's favorite, Marion Post-Wolcott. Their subjects are poor Americans, photographed to elicit government aid during the Depression. Isn't it remarkable, she notes, that out of an appeal for social justice such beauty can result? Before she ever made a film of her own, Dern saw how the medium could influence public opinion. "Growing up, I would go to screenings of my parents' friends' movies." Her parents are the actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, who seperated when Laura was two months old. "I was seeing Network and Norma Rae and Silkwood. And I thought, Wow, films about social injustice! This is what I want to do with my life." Dern has done just that. Although she isn't ideologically above a blockbuster like Jurassic Park, her work often underscores her commitment to various causes. Down Came a Blackbird dealt with human rights abuses, and Rambling Rose, for which she and her mother received Oscar nominations, was a subversively feminist Depression-era piece. Last year the Sundance Institute honored her for roles such as the glue sniffer in Citizen Ruth and the trailer-park mother in The Baby Dance. "A lot of white trash, yeah," she says, laughing. "But sometimes when we see simple people telling the truth, we relate to it more."
Dern has been an actress since childhood and an activist for nearly as long. She was first seen at age seven, eating an ice cream cone in Ladd's film Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. In 1983, when Dern was 16, her mother toured Central America with a group that hoped to end the U.S. military presence there. "My mom saw things that were devastating: mutilation, rapes. That really affected me." In high school, Dern recalls, "we started this wannabe Peace Corps. Everybody brought their own cause to it, and we all had to participate in one another's." But the early 80's offered slim pickings for well-off liberal kids reared on their parents' stories of the civil rights movement and anti-war marches. Besides, protesting U.S. involvement in Central America, she says, "'No Nukes' was it. I believed that we were going to blow ourselves up." (Later, while working on a film about the Manhatten project, Fat Man and Little Boy, Dern learned that her great-grandfather, George Dern, was Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of war and an opponent of the bomb.) Dern went to the University of Southern California but dropped out in order to work with directors David Lynch on Blue Velvet and Peter Bogdonivich on Mask. Now she is slowly trying to earn a degree in phychology and religion at UCLA.
Raised as a Catholic, Dern still attends Christmas mass, but only in deference to her 87-year-old maternal grandmother. "I love Mary, and I love Jesus, and I love the rituals. Christianity gave me the framework for a spiritual practice and a connection to God," she explains thoughtfully. "But I will not consider myself a Catholic until women are priests, (reproductive) choice is honored, birth control is honored, divorce is honored. They can call me when they do all that." Three years ago, when Ellen DeGenere's TV alter ego came out as a lesbian. Dern played her prospective lover. While taping the episode, she met Thornton, who appeared in a cameo. After relationships with actors Kyle MacLachlan and Jeff Goldblum and director Renny Harlin, Dern seemed to have found a strong match in Thornton, who shared her dedication to good works. The couple announced their engagement in early 1999. "I don't think I could share my life with someone who wasn't a humanist," she says. Midway through their relationship, which ended in April with Thornton reportedly linked to Angelina Jolie, the Oscar-winning screenwriter offered Dern the ultimate Hollywood valentine: He wrote her a movie. "He really is a remarkable godsend in that he cares so much about integrity and honesty," Dern said of her fiance just after they had finished shooting the dark comedy Daddy and Them. "He knows that I so desire doing these kinds of movies. And he saw my frustration that they're so rare to find."
Thornton was equally smitten when he spoke about Dern just before they broke up. He insisted that, of the two, she was clearly the more committed to causes. "She's watching the news," he said, "and I'm thinking about pie. I don't know if I would have survived if I hadn't met her. She's like Clara Barton, my personal Red Cross." And, from time to time, the world's. Maybe her Easy Coast tour hasn't secured abortion rights or markedly improved the situation in Afghistan, but has it at least enhanced her own public image? "That's just so gross!" says Laura Dern. "If you ever get to that point, you need to just take yourself out of this world for a little while."