Interview Magazine - August 2004
Laura Dern Interview
by Naomi Watts
All too often, women in Hollywood have to choose a persona and run with it - the Madonna, the whore, the Lucy, the Ethel - but in her two decades in film, Laura Dern has escaped public branding and remained a force as unpredictable as the weather. The daughter of veteran actors Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd has deftly navigated the spectrum of personality, from her wide-eyed innocent in David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) to her unhinged outsiders in Wild at Heart (1990) Rambling Rose (1991), and unforgettably, Citizen Ruth (1996). Now, after a three-year absence from the screen, Dern returns with John Curran's ensemble drama, We Don't Live Here Anymore, an unsparing autopsy of two marriages torn asunder by self-inflicted woulds and terminal distrust. Rounding out the cast are Mark Ruffalo, Peter Krause, and her interviewer, Naomi Watts, who visits Dern in her L.A. backyard to talk choice and change.
Laura Dern: First of all, I have never talked to a journalist with this many notes. [in a Valley girl accent] Like, you've totally done your research.
Naomi Watts: [also in a Valley girl accent] It's my new career, so I want to do a good job. [in a normal voice] In case anyone doesn't understand why we're talking like that, it's a little character thing that we do. [laughs]
LD: It's out little thing that we share.
NW: Another thing that we share is David Lynch [who directed Watts in 2001's Mulholland Drive]. You once said that he is "an experience," and I thought that was the perfect way to describe him.
LD: Getting to work with him is life-altering, isn't it? He dramatically changed who I was as an actor without me even being aware he was doing it. The thing I love most about him as a director is that he expects one thing from you: to have no boundaries as an artist. That's so fun.
NW: And you're his "little tidbit," and I'm his "buttercup." [laughs]
LD: Where do they come from, his names for us?
NW: That's his secret! I know you are one of those people who, like all true artists, hate compliments. And I'm one of those people who, like all true artists, hate giving them. [both laugh] But I've followed your career and have gotton to know you as a person, and it's extraordinary to see the choices that you've made. There isn't anything that you haven't done: comedy, sexuality, darkness, and innocence. Did the roles just come to you, or were they conscious decisions?
LD: Well, on one hand, I've been lucky. When I was 14 I screen-tested for the TV series Family Ties, and I didn't get the part. I could have spent a decade on that show. But on the other hand, as a teenager and young adult, I also had some choices. When I was 16 I was asked to do a really mainstream Hollywood love story, but at the same time I was offered no money to play the small part of a blind girl in a Peter Bogdanovich film [1985's Mask]. And I was like, "Peter Bogdanovich!" It was my dream to work with this man. And my agent totally didn't get it, so he fired me. [laughs] As an adult, I started making actual choices. People have asked me, "Is there a theme in your work?" and I really don't know the answer, except to say that the one thing I feel a lot of my movies share is that they are often about a woman trying to find her own voice. In [We Don't Live Here Anymore] we're both women trying to define ourselves.
NW: Shall we talk about our film a little bit? It's about people who are doing loathsome things to one another, and it seems like an honest and brutal depiction of what marriage can be. I know that you, like me, had some degree of reserve about this material.
LD: I didn't understand the script when I first read it. I was confused and slightly sickened by it - I think we all were. What I loved about the movie was that none of the characters were easy to love, and we all made extremely complicated and amoral choices at certain times. There's also a lot of humor in [Dern's character] Terry that is co intolerable. She's such a mess. As a parent she can't get everything together, and she's a rager and a drinker. I had never played an adult whose anger was without boundaries. It's an interesting thing to capture, especially as a woman. I'm proud I got to play that part, but there was a piece of me that went, "Oh, she's so hard to watch here!" I don't know if you felt like that watching [Watts's character] Edith.
NW: From me, John always wanted no emotion because he wanted to show that Edith has reached a point of utter complacency. I'm so afraid to do nothing onscreen, because I feel like people will fall asleep. There are some people - Benicio Del TOro, you, Sean Penn - who could be reading a phone book and there's life behind their eyes. But for me, I feel like I fall apart if I don't get to scream.
LD: Isn't that amazing? Because that's what is so great about your performance! It's probably good you are continually forced to do stuff that's uncomfortable.
NW: That's why we look to work with great directors. When you're choosing a filmm, what's the first thing that gets you? Is it a director or a script?
LD: Both, don't you think? With Citizen Ruth, the director [Alexander Payne] had never done a movie in his life, but that script is a masterpiece. But you can also hear that David Lynch is doing a movie and you think, Oh, my God, I want to work with David Lynch! There are directors like David and Alexander who are interested in telling stories about people. I don't want to be in a movie without protagonists, because I don't think it's going to change the world on any level. Michael Moore is changing the world, and even though [Fahrenheit 9/11] is a documentary, people may vote differently after seeing it, and that's exciting. And if people communicate differently after seeing it, and that's exciting. And if people communicate differently after seeing a movie about relationships - God, that's exciting too. I love that there are experts in the field of releasing independent movies for audiences who want to think. You know, I think the 15-year-old who loves The Matrix can be that audience too. When I was that age and as screwed up and confused as today's kids, I remember everybody went to see Ordinary People  and The Deer Hunter  because that's what people wanted to see. Growing up, I had very passionate, strong-minded parents who made movies with Scorsese and Hitchcock, and those were the kinds of movies I loved.
NW: I know you've worked with your mom a few times, and may I say how brillant you both are. But how do you do that? I can barely have my family on the set, let alone in a scene with me. I'm so afraid my mom would look at me and go, "Why are you doing that? You don't walk like that!" [laughs]
LD: Even with all the stuff that every child-parent relationship has, the area in which I feel safest and most respected with my parents is in acting. I've gotta say that my mom is extraordinary. In Wild at Heart I saw her ride a broom as the wicked witch, and then in Rambling Rose she was the archetype of the nurturer; so I've seen her as the epitome of the dark. My mom was like, "This is free therapy," and it was; when we were on the set, playing those parts, it was pure therapy. I haven't worked with my dad, but I hope to get to. He's so irreverent, and you never know what is going to come out of his mouth.
NW: One thing I've noticed about your work is that you're one of the few women who's able to let go of all self-consciousness and abandon all vanity.
LD: I will totally accept that compliment, even though it's hard for me to hear that, because I need to remind myself that I've been willing to do that. Someone will always be there to say, "Don't you want to play the pretty girl?" But a part of me is going, "I want more herpes on that face!" I was raised by an actress, and I watched all those women turn 60 and ask, "Should I get face work?" And my mother and Anne Bnmcroft said to each other, "We are who we are, and we're not going to fall into that." Something scary is going on in our generation of women, because there are 35-year-old actresses who have completely redone their faces. We're 35! We're kids! ANd yet we're questioning whether we should be altering ourselves. I'm supposted to just be an actor and be honest and authentic. I'm not supposed to look a certain way.
NW: I read somewhere that you were studying philosophy and psychology. [in a Valley girl accent] Oh, my God, you're so clever. You're like, blonde and do all those things.
LD: [also in a Valley girl accent] Even though I don't think, I pretend I do. [in a normal voice] Yeah, I went to college for a minute. [laughs] I went to UCLA for two days and USC for a semester, and I just kept leaving when I'd get a movie. Then a few years ago I went back to school, to a university here in L.A. One of my favorite moments was in my world religions class when the professor said, "One of the important things to remember when we're talking about religion in India is classism. For example, have you all seen A Passage to India ?" And all these 17-yer-olds were going, "What is that?" and I was like, "Oh, my God. I am so fucking old. Why am I in college right now?" [Watts laughs] But it was so great. It taught me a lot about what I don't know.
NW: So you've done that, and you're a wonderful mother and have a fantastic career. There's so much that you've done with your life. Is there anything that you feel you really must make time for that you haven't done?
LD: Everything. [Watts laughs] I want to have a psychology degree and work professionally with children. It'll probably never happen anyway because I love doing what I'm doing now, but we'll see. I'd also love to write.
NW: And maybe direct?
LD: I'm sure I'll direct. I guess my greatest goal is doing it all well. And what I can't do well, I should just leave to the professionals. I'd like to be well-rounded as an individual, and forward-thinking and opinionated as an old woman. [Watts laughs] That's why Katharine Hepburn was such a beacon, wasn't she? She just lived her life. I'm just gonna do my thing.