The sign on the gate proclaims, "Los Angeles County Museum of Art - closed today." Talk about an embarrassing moment: This is where Laura Dern, 32, and I have chosen to meet, because she's dying to see a special exhibit of Diego Rivera paintings. (Dern herself has been painting since she was a young child.) Not that I'm worried about a celebrity meltdown; Dern is one of the least temperamental, most unspoiled actresses in Hollywood. And when she arrives - in an unassuming station wagon - some fans in the museum's publicity department open the exhibit doors for us. Though Dern is best known for her role as a paleontologist in the monster hit Jurassic Park, she's often turned to smaller-budget, independent projects for her strongest characters, like the love-starved orphan in Rambling Rose (which earned her an Academy Award nomination), the struggling misfit in Citizen Ruth, or the dedicated teacher in the acclaimed October Sky. She's also gained the public's attention for a series of long-term relationships - with action-film director Renny Harlin, actor Jeff Goldblum (to whom she was briefly engaged), and, currently, actor/director Billy Bob Thornton. Although Thornton, 44, has had four previous marriages (and three children), Dern seems unfazed by his unstable past. Her own parents, actors Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, divorced when she was 2.
Dern tours the exhibit enthusiastically, then she and I head to the trendy Four Seasons Hotel, where she talks frankly about Thornton, who cast her as his wife in his upcoming comedy, Daddy and Them, about a dysfunctional Southern family that's falling apart at the seams. Discussing her new movie is a perfect way for her to open up about her own marriage plans, her efforts to understand herself, and why she trusts the sense of safety provided by her current love.
Redbook: What's the key to your relationship with Billy Bob Thornton?
LD: Our relationship is remarkable because we came into each other's lives as phone pals. We knew each other at a time when we were both struggling to find out what we did and didn't want. We were friends who shared things like, "This thing scares me, this thing hurts me." So when we entered a relationship, we already knew stuff that you don't want to talk about when you are courting each other. It can take years for a couple to reveal the things that we revealed to each other.
R: The tabloids suggested that the two of you were a couple even before he left his last wife. Was that hurtful?
LD: Of course. They said Billy and I were dating when we had just met at a Miramax party. I thing I said something to Billy like, "I really loved Sling Blade." And they portrayed it as, "Honey, I'll meet you in the car."
R: When did things turn romantic?
LD: Billy asked me to work on a music video he was directing, and that's when we sort of started to see each other. Things began to unfold, and our relationship blossomed gradually. It's like all of a sudden you look at this person who knows you, and you feel safe with, and you say, "Wow. Wait a minute. I've been thinking about sharing my life with somebody who really knows me, and here he is." Something that I've cherished, and I think Billy feels the same way, is that we are committed to educating ourselves about how to ask for help in feeling safe and how to make someone feel safe. I think Daddy and Them, the movie we did together, reflects our longing to do that.
R: Daddy and Them is about a nutty Southern family with major communication problems. But everyone can identify with this family, can't they?
LD: After our friend Steven Spielberg saw the movie, he said, "These people are nothing like who I grew up with, but this is the story of my life." That's what's so great about it - it's everyone's story. It's a normal dysfunctional family with people who don't know how to say to each other, "Good job. I respect you. Let's talk to each other, not at each other.
R: You play a woman named Ruby, who holds her own in some fully but mean spousal conflicts. She has some mouth!
LD: She is delightful, girlie, and sweet, and she wants to be taken care of. But at the same time, she's a nightmare. She's just tortured 24 hours a day - cussing, angry, hurtful, and hateful. This is a creature who isn't satisfied with anything, from the way her body looks to the way her husband talks to her. You just have to balance the two so she's not an unsympathetic witch.
R: Ruby has a real body-image problem - she's certain her butt will never be sexy. Have you ever felt like that?
LD: Oh, sure. Sometimes I'm frustrated with my looks, and sometimes I'm pretty kind to myself. I used to be horrible to myself. I mean, as a teenager I was just tortured all the time, which was absurd - there was no cellulite involved then. I am getting better though. I've stopped slapping myself on the rear and giving myself put-downs.
R: When you were a child, your body issues were much more health related.
LD: I was 9 when I was diagnosed with scoliosos. I had severe back pains, and my posture was off to the side because I had an extreme S curve in my spine. I was growing fast, which was quite dangerous. All the doctors and specialists said, "Forget it, there's no hope." They said I had six months before they would have to put me in a brace from my neck all the way down.
R: How did your mom, who raised you as a single parent, react to that diagnosis?
LD: She went nuts, but it came out in her vigilant determination to make me better. My mother took me to a bunch of chiropractors and healers. The person who helped me the most was an osteopath. My mom brought me there twice a week, and within six months I was absolutely fine. I never had to wear a brace.
R: Your mother must have had a huge influence on your independent streak.
LD: She's this remarkable character - full of life, wild, says what's on her mind, and never holds back, thank you very much. And yet, she's also grounded, has good morals, and is spiritual. She presented herself as an open book as a mother. If I ever came home with anything that upset me, like kids making me feel left out, my mother was brilliant at letting me know how wonderful I was. She's say that I was an individual, and that was the right thing to be. She really knew how to talk to me one-on-one about stuff.
R: Like sex?
LD: My mom was very open about it, but also very old-fashioned. She really instilled in me the bottom line - if you're going to share such an intimate part of your life with another human being, you need to care about him. So I chose my relationships based on love and support. I don't get the whole concept of finding it sexy to meet a stranger at a bar and then have intimate physical contact with him. To me, sexually comes from feeling safe and trusting enough to expose and express a whole other side of yourself. To communicate lovingly with passion and sexuality is the sexiest thing on earth. I'm old-fashioned about love and sex.
R: But you haven't been shy onscreen in so many of your movies.
LD: I don't know why, but onscreen I can do anything that helps me understand the character. I'm not crazy about nudity, but acting out a woman's sexuality really tells me who she is and what drives her.
RD: What drives you as far as relatioships are concerned? Your parents' breakup must have given you a different perspective about love.
LD: Absolutely. I wasn't in the same room with both my parents until I was 26. You assume that people will never heal, change, or grow up, and that they never embrace each other's lives, but they really do. My father was there at my mother's wedding when she recently got married again. Then we all spent Thanksgiving together last year. It was wonderful.
R: What was your relationship with them like when you were growing up?
LD: I'm very close with my father now, but during the early years after their divorce, things were tricky. He was working a great deal and he was newly married, so I just didn't see a lot of him. And when I did, he was enough of a atranger to me that he wasn't the personI would go to with my innermost fears. I really listened to my mother and did what my grandmother said. I felt different from other kids, even though many were from families involved with movies, because I was living just with my mom. But by the time I was in tenth grade, a lot of kids were from single-parent homes, so it wasn't a big deal.
R: Were you spending a lot of time on movie sets?
LD: Yes - my mother thought it would be a good idea for me to be around so I could see how boring it was to make movies. Of course, I thought it was magical. That's when I decided I wanted to be an actress, and she was against it. By the time I was 9, I was studying at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute instead of out playing with other kids. I was adamant that it was my destiny to become an actor. I got a lot of flack from other kids when I first started doing movies, but I never once thought I shouldn't do it. It was the most fun thing I could think of. And by the time I was 17, I had my own career, I had my own life, I was making my own money, so I was ready to get out. And I did. I think if I had stayed home too much longer, I would have become extremely rebellious.
R: What's your prescription for healing a dysfunctional relationship, like yours in Daddy and Them?
LD: I think people don't know that you're entitled to say, "You're hurting me." We're not raised to believe that we're supposed to tell the truth. I thought you had to protect everybody else's feelings. I wanted so much to be the good girl that I spent a lot of time trying to be nice, calm, pleasant, and accommodating. I don't think I ever blew up, which probably would have been good for me to do. I just held it all in. Then one day you say to the person you're in a ralationship with, "That thing you're doing really scares me." But by then, that person is like, "What? You've been fine with it before."
R: So you've discovered that you pay a price for not being up-front about the way you feel?
LD: Yes. My fear of losing someone is huge. I've lost people who were very close to me. I was very affected by that as a child and still am as an adult. Being close to people, and then not having them in your life, is very, very sad.
R: In the movie, Billy Bob makes fun of self-help and therapy, both of which are important to you in real life. Does he give you a hard time at home?
LD: He constantly teases me. He's like, "Oh, we're talking about therapy now." He says that I get a posture - I get very proper and i fold my hands - when I'm talking about "the relationship."
R: So Billy knows your body language.
LD: Yeah, exactly. But I do it because it's so hard for me that I have to get very serious. He's been wonderful for me in trying to shake that loose.
R: In what other ways has he changed you?
LD: When I met him. I was very afraid of making decisions, or having to make choices. He gave me more of a sense of surrender and trust - you know, giving in to your angels, karma, ot whatever else might help with the journey. I have Catholic guilt. It's like, "This choice is huge, Laura, and we're all watching you up here, and if you do the wrong thing, it's over, babe,"
How do you make your professional decisions?
LD: I've tried to do what is right in my heart. Often, I've had to choose between a small film i care about and a big film. My choices have often been the independent films, where I'm not going to make money but I get a wonderful role in a story that hopefully means something to people.
R: How have you grown from your past relationships? When you speak of Jeff Goldblum, you refer to him as your ex, even though you weren't married.
LD: We were engaged to be married, but it was like a marriage. It was pursued with great integrity, diligence, and love. For some bizzare mystical reason - I couldn't put it into words with my closest friend - certain things didn't work out. But he's someone I have the most respect for. It was an extremely important time for, hopefully, both of us, and it prepared me to be who I am today.
R: Are you and Billy Bob thinking about marriage?
LD: I have no specific plans, but we're very committed to each other. I look forward to being a mother, sharing a home, and having a family. I want all of that. I feel ready for it. I don't know if I'm totally ready to be a parent yet, but I feel ready to share my life.
R: What expectations do you have of marriage?
LD: It's so sad that we're raised to believe that the perfect marriage is when you are so in love that everything feels easy. And if it doesn't, you're in the wrong marriage. That's a tragedy and a travesty. If I can raise children and teach them any one thing, I would like them to know that a good relationship is hard work, challenging, scary, volatile, full of flaws and rediscovery of oneself. That's a real relationship - and that's a real friendship.
R: Billy Bob works hard, is hugely successful, and has to meet the responsibility of being a father to his children from his previous marriages. Isn't that tough on you?
LD: He has a very large, very full life, which involves constant work, children, and family. That doesn't daunt me at all, as long as when I need something, I know how to have my own voice in the relationship. I don't know if I could have been in that kind of relationship five years ago. Now it's easy.
R: How else have you changed?
LD: For the first time, I feel like I'm a woman. But it's a weird word for me to use because I also still feel very girl-like. Your 20s are so full of searching, confusing, fear, trying to do it right, and thinking that mistakes are the worst thing in the world. But I feel proud of my life lately. Life takes us on a journey, and the last few years have made a lot of sense. And that feels good.