"The Evolution of
A top makeup artist, hair stylist, clothing stylist and Hollywood publicist are gathered around Laura Dern, all for the singular purpose of making the star look like A Star. But Dern, 26, and all bony angular excitement in her own black T-shirt, red and black flowered pants and shiny red shoes from the Forties, is busy gesticulating in the makeup chair, and hasn't even glanced in the mirror to see how the transformation is going. Without benefit of foundation, lipstick and curling iron, she could be an ebullient teenage girl who's dying to tell you about her favorite band. "People have very conflicting opinions about me," she says instead. "Some people think I'm fairly out there. You know, I thought Wild at Heart was a very health, sexy film, and most people hated it. I mean, it's not OK for two people who are madly in love to have a lot of wild sex? Don't we hope people in love do that? Meanwhile, Pretty Woman - the story of a hooker and a john - is looked at as a great love story, a fairy tale! I much prefer darker stories, to look at what's underneath - the shadow - where no one's simply good or bad but both. That's real."
The dark side, the shadow, the libido, life's ironic little balancing act - these are the things going on in the mind of the actress who's raised airheads and sluts to the level of heroines in arthouse films, but who stepped well away from those kinds of characters to play a slightly repressed doctor in the most successful movie ever made. "Isn't it insane?" she asks genuinely, when Jurassic Park is brought up to her - as it is, these days, often brought up to her. But her move into big box-office territory was clearly not accidental. She gave up the perfect quirky little project, Benny & Joon, to go off and make the Spielberg monster, though it is the kind of movie she's been passing on or neglecting for years. "It's hilarious," she sighs, knowingly. "But the whole way this business works is hilarious. All I've ever wanted to do was make the stories I care about - Smooth Talk, Rambling Rose - and to work with filmmakers I admire, like David Lynch (who directed Blue Velvet and Wild At Heart). "To make the stories you care about, you have to have artistic virtue. And," she says, "you have to have been in movies that make money." Jurassic Park solved that problem for Dern almost too well. "Lately, I started to think my whole life was going to be about this dinosaur movie. And I did love working with Steven and I had a lot of fun doing it. But you know, more people come up to me and say, 'I loved you in Rambling Rose.' It's nice to know my career can also be about discovering new sides of myself in my characters. I'm not just a libidinous blond - although a lot of my characters have misdirected sexuality. That's a real interesting thing to play. In the end, they all just want to be loved - but like most people, they just don't know how."
In her next movie she's playing with the big boys once again: starring in A Perfect World (due out at Thanksgiving) with Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood, which Eastwood directed. It's the story of a jailbreaker with a heart of gold (Costner) who winds up - this not being a perfect world after all - kidnapping a little boy. Eastwood is the sheriff who must hunt him down, and Dern is the brainy criminologist who Clint must tolerate. "It's totally a guy movie," laughs Dern, trying on a rich blue velvet robe. With her hair slightly curled and soft subtle makeup, she now resembles an angelic young woman seeking a vocation. "Clint says I'm like the Barbara Stanwyck of the movie - my character doesn't take any shit from the guys. I get my expertise from feminine instinct, and in the end, I'm right."
In the end, she also got something she hadn't counted on; a friendship with Eastwood. "I knew I'd respect him, but I didn't know we'd become pals. He'd do impersonations and always made me laugh, and he was incredibly encouraging when I had to do some shooting on my own film." Dern is attempting an Eastwood feat herself. She just finished directing a half-hour film called The Gift, which she co-wrote, about a woman who goes through some hellish self-examination after a nasty break-up with a boyfriend, only to realize it's something of a gift. The film, starring her pal Isabella Rosselini, will make the festival rounds, then run on Showtime in January or February. "One day, I shot my scenes on A Perfect World, then ran next door in full Sixties hair and makeup, and directed my actors and crew. It was not a perfect day - but it was pretty exhilarating."
Now Dern's trying on some silk Beatle boots to accompany an Emporio tuxedo - Armani being her favorite along with Richard Tyler and Azzedine Alaia - and she displays fairly garish pink toenail polish under all the tasteful black and white silk. "Don't you love my tramp/slut toenails? Toes should never be subtle!" she says. But when she goes to have her picture taken, there is no slutting it up for the camera as most actresses do when decked out in full-on movie star garb. Between shots, she wants to be a regular joe with the stylists, and the subject of the favorite band finally does come up. "Did you guys catch Aerosmith on 'Saturday Night Live' last week? Oh my God, weren't they GREAT? I LOVE them!" Dern caught them in person. Her boyfriend since Jurassic Park, Jeff Goldblum, hosted the show and Dern hung out with him in New York - even showing up on camera for a brief second during the monolog. "They even wanted to write some things for us to do together, but I was too nervous. But wasn't Jeff lucky to have Aerosmith on? I told Steven Tyler, 'I learned what a libido was from you!' But she doesn't want this "libido" thing to go too far, in terms of an image. "I do really love being a girl - fressing and playing," she admits. "But there's so much more to being female. I enjoy my sensitivity. I have some friends who say they would have enjoyed being a man. Not me. It's easier being female pursuing the things that interest me. The saddest thing would be to be so interested in the intellect - and decide it wouldn't be feminine to do so."
It's clear Dern asks herself a lot of questions. She says her parents - actor Bruce Dern, one of the few who ever killed John Wayne in a movie, and actress Diane Ladd - brought her up that way. And she probably does a lot more interior grappling than is necessary for a person of her age and Oscar-nominated stature. "It's all about balance," she says in her voice that's clear as a bell in both timbre and meaning. "There are women in hospitals dying from breast implants. There's something wrong with a culture that makes you want to be more than yourself, that makes you think you should look like a Barbie twin."
In her last set-up for the shoot, she's in a slinky rose red dress worthy of Rambling Rose - ultra feminine, and ultra movie star. She refuses an iced mocha - "no caffeine, I'm on homeopathics" - and is starting to feel achy because she and Goldblum did a little too much weight work with a trainer in New York. The couple have been trying to keep their relationship fairly low-keyed, particularly since the ex-Mrs. Goldblum, Geena Davis, just married one of Dern's exes, Renny Harlin. "It's unusual," Dern admits. "It's certainly a bizarre coincidence. It's strange for all of us. It shows you how small the world is - and how weird. It's often much weirder than it is in movies. I love that quote of Harold Clurman's," she says, trying to remember. "Something like, 'Life as a showwould be a flop, since everyone dies at the end. But what a fantastic flop it is."
The photographer and all the stylists are very excited about how the Polaroids look. We have Laura Dern in all her incarnations. "You turned out great!" someone yells. She's whipping off the clothes and makeup and running off to a meeting. "I say, we're still debating how I came out!" she tosses off. "It's still up for question!"