Redbook Magazine - July 1997
By Martha Frankel
Laura Dern is smiling as she enters the restaurant, but her eyes are red-rimmed and puffy. Clearly, she's not okay. "I just got off the phone with Jeff (Goldblum), and one of our dogs is sick," she explains. "It's cancer. And needless to say, we just adore the dog, and so both our hearts are broken. But we talked, and we cried, and we'll try to do the best thing for her." Which, at this point, is what Dern and Goldblum are trying to do for their relationship. The on-again, off-again couple, who have been seeing each other since they met on the set of Jurassic Park in 1992, lately have been under the watchful eye of the media: Did they break up or not?
What breakup?" Dern asks, hands flying. "Who said we broke up? No we're not engaged anymore, but Jeff and I love each other, and we're trying to figure it out." In the meantime, the two live apart, sharing custody of their two dogs, and Jeff plays weekend dad while Laura is here in Little Rock, Arkansas, to film a music video with the group Widespread Panic, directed by Academy Award winner Billy Bob Thornton. She doesn't know it yet, but the tabloids will soon have a field day with this, intimating that Dern and Thornton have been involved since shooting the now-famous "coming-out" episode of Ellen several weeks earlier and that this involvement led Thornton's wife to file for divorce the very day Dern was en route to Little Rock. No, for now, she is unaware of any commotion other than the one raised by the suggestion of a breakup with Goldblum.
I know in my heart that Jeff is going to be in my life forever, and I've never said that about any other man,' she says, scanning the room for an out-of-the-way table. If he's not my husband, he'll be my best friend. We've worked diligently at making sure we understand why it can work and why it can't work, based on our choices. So there's no resentment here. I really love this man. But I analyze everything endlessly, and unfortunately for Jeff, that means relationships, too." Which may be why, at the height of this 30-year-old's vastly successful professional life - fueled by an amazing store of on-screen confidence - she's still not sure exactly what she wants from a man. or what's even possible to have. If Laura Dern's face seems to be everywhere right now, it's due as much to her memorable performances - her movie Citizen Ruth, just being released on video, is generating the same acclaim as if it had just opened - as it is to the public's ongoing interest and compassion for her affairs of the heart.
For someone raised in the rush of Los Angeles, Laura Dern is quite comfortable in the SOuth. "The people are so warm and welcoming." This opinion is not meant as mere flattery. As a child, Dern spent summers at her maternal grandfather's home in Mississipi, fishing and hanging out with her cousins, and getting in touch with her roots: "I'm an only child and that made me want a relationship with anyone in my extended family." Dern's mother is actress Diane Ladd (of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Wild at Heart, and Rambling Rose, which garnered the first ever mother-daughter Oscar nominations). Her father is actor Bruce Dern (Coming Home; After Dark, My Sweet). The couple met during a 1959 off-Broadway production of Orpheus Descending and married the next year. If ever a child was a product of Hollywood, Dern is it: She was conceived during the filming of the biker flick The Wild Angels. From her father, Dern inherited her height (five feet ten): from her mother, her blonde locks, southern drawl, and an occasional wild look in her eye that stuns even her father in its genetic similarity. Her parents permanently seperated two months after Laura was born, and divorced when she was 2. "I think that was the healthiest thing in the world. I mean, to stay in something that's not working until the kid is 12 because you think you gotta try to make this work for the kid's sake..." she says with a shrug. "Well, I'm so happy they knew it wasn't right and they got out." After the divorce, Dern lived with her mother and maternal grandmother (also divorced), who moved from Alabama to help out. Dern's early experiences were all from the perspective of females - her godmother is Shelly Winters - and in many ways, that was wonderful. She's always been extremely close with her mother, and for the most part, very open. "I usually tell her everything, but recently I was going through something, and I didn't want to talk to her about it." Dern explains. "I could see she felt kind of hurt, but I realized whatever advice I'm going to ask her for, she still looks at me as her daughter first and as an adult second. She wants to protect me, to make sure I don't make the same mistakes she did, to be sure I don't repeat the patterns. It's wonderful she cares so much, but I need to learn to trust my own instincts. When she was little, Dern struggled with the absence of her father until, at age 8, she decided to start calling him regularly. Over time, those calls helped bring the two together. Bruce and his wife, Andrea, now married for 28 years, have become part of the circle of family and friends Laura turns to for suppport. "It's taken me till now, at 30, to figure out I have something to say in a relationship - and I mean that in terms of friends, boyfriends, family," Dern says, eating eggs and toast. "It was so easy with my mother, so natural. But I don't really know how to be with my father. Now. I can finally say to him, "You know, Dad, that hurts my feelings when you say that,' And I know it's okay. But for so many years I was afraid to tell him anything because I was afraid that he wouldn't be there for me."
It's no real surprise then, that it is Dern's relationships with men that have given her the most angst. They have included a four-year relationship with actor Kyle MacLachlan (whom she met in 1986 making Blue Velvet, which also starred Isabella Rossellini, one of Dern's best friends), and shorter ones with actor Vincent Spano and director Renny Harlin (who is now married to Geena Davis). But it was in 1992 during the filming of Jurassic Park, when Dern became involved with costar Jeff Goldblum (who, in a weird twist, had been married to Geena Davis), that she seemed to gain some confidence in love. Goldblum proposed on Christmas Day, 1994, and Dern accepted. But in 1996, the couple broke off the engagement and quit living together. Her string of relationships is not what scares Dern. In fact, she's less worried that she'll someday end up divorced than she is that she'll stay in a bad relationship because she doesn't want to admit it's wrong. "How many times did I start a relationship and think, 'Ohh, he does that? Well, I don't like that.' And then five years down the road, I'd say, 'You know what? I don't like when you do that.' And he'd say, 'Well, why didn't you tell me?' 'Oh, I'm supposed to say what I want? Nobody taught me that!mI didn't know we were entitled to say what we wanted.' Damn right we better say it, though, because we pay later. I thought if I was attracted to somebody, then he had to be who I wanted him to be." Which brings Dern to the lesson she is finally learning from her overanalysis of her relationships. "What I always felt I wanted was to be irreplaceable to someone," she explains. "And I've worked so hard at that, but I wasn't irreplaceable to myself, which I think is a huge problem for women." She adds, "I'm starting to see how you set up the whole relationship in the beginning. Like when I first meet someone, I want to tell everything. I want to say, 'These are the men I slept with' - both to reassure him that I haven't been with hundreds of people, and so that he can see how important he is to me, that it's very rare for me to fall in love. And to say, 'This is why I'm afraid, okay? Because so-and-so did this, and he did that,' but then I hear myself and I think, maybe I should just say, 'It didn't work out between us!' and leave it at that. I drive myself crazy with my soul-searching." That openness has led Dern to return to college to study psychology and theology, and to pursue mediation and yoga. "I use them to try to keep some semblance of connection to myself," she explains. "I have this stable of 15 great people and I used to endlessly call them and say, 'What should I do? How should I handle this situation?' But I know what I need to do is listen to what I want, and trust that I can make the right decision.
Strangely, in choosing her professional projects, Dern seems to make the right decisions effortlessly. Although she hasn't worked on a feature film in over a year ("I'm not willing to do something that I'll just be okay in"), the work she's done so far has been unforgettable. At age 7, she made her film debut in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and apparently was so good at her job of eating endless banana ice-cream cones on cue that director Martin Scorsese told her mon, "she's got to be an actress." But her parents were wary and refused to help Dern get an agent. So at age 11, the budding starlet took it upon herself and convinced an agent at a party of her mom's to let her audition. After an impressive read, she was sent out to read for a bit part in Foxex (with Jodie Foster), which she got, after lying to the director that she was 16.
Before long, like any good artist, she had developed a sense of style that has become a pattern in the characters she plays: young women exploring their sexuality and forging their independence. In 1985, she spent most of Smooth Talk, staring opposite Treat Williams, trying to convience older boys she was seductive and sexual; in David Lynch's 1990 film Wild at Heart, she took off on an odyssey with a sexy loser (Nicolas Cage) that brought her to the brink on insanity; and in 1991's Rambling Rose (for which she won Golden Globe and Oscar nominations), she played a nanny who tries to seduce the father (Robert Duvall), and failing, then teases his young son. In her last movie, Citizen Ruth, Dern played a pregnant, glue-sniffing, dim-witted mother of four faced with the choice of going to jail or getting an abortion. If someof those roles seem a bit of a risk, Dern recently made headlines by taking an even greater one, playing a lesbian on Ellen who ends up rejecting DeGeneres after the latter comes out of the closet for her. In real life, the two have been fast friends, and when it came time to cast the big episode, DeGeneres decided she really needed the support of friends, so she called on Dern to play her love interest. She accepted with delight. "I can't tell you how happy I was that I did it - this woman is brillant, she's such a good actress you can't believe it," says Dern. "I'm really interested to see what's gonna happen with Ellen. I think the fact that there was so much support on the episode (including cameos by Oprah Winfrey, Melissa Etheridge, Demi Moore, k.d. lang and Billy Bob Thornton), and that so many people are coming out to say how much they support Ellen is all reallygood. But boy, it'll be really interesting. If only people knew how many people are gay in Hollywood, huh?" While she waits for a script that really moves her, Dern is getting ready to direct a short film that Steven Spieldberg is producing, and she's planning a trip through the South with her grandmother. She hopes this trip will be a chance to share some good times and face her biggest fear.
"My biggest fear is the Joe Murphy complex." says Dern. "Joe Murphy was my grandma's true love when she was 18. But she broke up with Joe Murphy to go with the tall, dark, handsome stranger. That man, my grandfather, is the greatest guy, and she spent 20 years with him before they divorced. But Joe Murphy always loved her and was always there and he had five kids and stayed in the South and it was a totally different life. And at 80 years old now, my grandma is still asking herself, 'What would have happened if I'd been with Joe Murphy?' She doesn't want a different life, but it's that question mark. And it terrifies me, I think that's why I'm a bit too methodical and analytical in my relationships now. I feel like I want to be sure I don't fall into the Joe Murphy syndrome." And then Dern lets out one of her loopy laughs, and it's suddenly clear that this woman might just be on the verge of becoming a lot more secure than she even knows - especially as she looks into the future: "I have an instinct," she says, closing her eyes, "...and I may be wrong about it...No, I'm going to just trust myself! In the next two years, I'm going to have a major creative spurt in my life, in my career, and do several movies that are really, really important to me. I feel like this has been such a gestation period for me - a year and a half of figuring out what in every aspect of my life. And I feel like the next five years is going to be my pursuit of it. I know in five years I'll be married, and I'll have a baby or I'll be pregnant. Oh, this may come back to haunt me, but I really believe these things will be true. So call me in five years and we can have a laugh over this!"