She's a Natural
In youth-obsessed hollywood, consummate character actress Laura Dern steadfastly refuses to play the ingenue
By Lynda Gorov, Globe Correspondent  |  August 15, 2004
LOS ANGELES -- For a second, Laura Dern worried it was her. Right there in her awards-show goody bag, among the extravagant this and unnecessary that, was a gift certificate for Botox. She knew she had lines at the edges of her eyes and a furrow in her brow. She knew she looked her age and maybe then some. But this was ridiculous. She's an actor. She's supposed to have character in her face. But that's not the way in youth-obsessed LA, where Dern has opted to make as daring a political statement as any: no injections of paralyzing poison. No brow lifts, no tummy tuck after her second child is born in December. Dern is 37, and every year she ages she figures she's closer to cornering the market on all the juicy older woman parts. No one else will be left to play them. "It'll be fantastic," she said with glee. "It's terrifying, all the [cosmetic] work being done, and these are actors," Dern said. "I mean, if you're a model and you want to preserve a look for another five years, but actors are about human expression. I don't get it. . . . It's just not my thing. It's never going to be my thing. I'd kill my agents if they suggested it."

Clearly her management team knows better. Dern's latest role, as a difficult, drinking spouse with a cheating husband and two children she's lousy at looking after, hardly casts her in flattering light. It's a chew-the-scenery, show-me-at-my-worst part, and Dern embraces it from the first tantrum to the last tear. Each of the four leads in "We Don't Live Here Anymore," based on two stories by the late author Andre Dubus, is more character part than star turn, which suits Dern fine. Tall and still thin even in her second trimester, she was never interested in being the ingenue anyway, not even when she was running around in shorts in "Jurassic Park" or tempting Treat Williams in "Smooth Talk." Instead she leaned toward the sort of offbeat roles favored by her parents, actors Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd. They weren't worried about looking good, either.

"To Laura's credit, she wanted to look like a mom in this film," said director John Curran. "It's sad that it's sort of an anomaly here, someone who doesn't want to have her breasts and [behind] done, who wants to make a movie because it's a good part even if it requires her to look less than perfect." To Laura's credit, she wanted to look like a mom in this film," said director John Curran. "It's sad that it's sort of an anomaly here, someone who doesn't want to have her breasts and [behind] done, who wants to make a movie because it's a good part even if it requires her to look less than perfect."

For his part, screenwriter Larry Gross said he was instantly relieved to learn that Dern had agreed to play Terry Linden, whose weak, wandering husband is played by Mark

Ruffalo. "She's been totally fearless at every point in her career," he said, adding with a half-laugh that she was indirectly responsible for the careers of three filmmakers -- Alexander Payne, David Lynch, and Martha Coolidge, all of whom cast her in roles early in their own careers. "This role is typically brilliant Laura Dern." The role was in fact the first Dern accepted after the birth of her son, Ellery, with musician Ben Harper. Ellery turns 3 this month, and Dern says she and Harper plan to wed any day now. They're already calling each other husband and wife. She sounds happy, settled, and far removed from the craziness that life became after then-fiance Billy Bob Thornton left her overnight for Angelina Jolie. She pats her stomach absentmindedly, in that mom-to-be way, and smooths her sparkly green maternity shirt. Her hair, which was a color she calls cognac in the movie, is back to blond, its natural wave smoothed out professionally. She has barely any makeup on, and her face flushes when she talks about making movies again."

"I took time off [with Ellery] for the first time since I was a kid; I chose to spend about 18 months with him," said Dern, who made her professional acting debut at age 11. "That was so freeing. . . . But then it was 18 months, I got this movie, and I was so ready. People were like, `What a heavy part!' I was like, `Grrrrrrrr.' " Dern actually growls here. "I had a voracious appetite to play Terry." The movie, while small and personal, is also political in tone, according to Dern. And politics and political movies -- she's a liberal Democrat who grew up on films of the 1970s -- are both important to her. She says "We Don't Live Here Anymore" is about getting at truth even more than marital strife, and that's essential too in the current political climate.

"To be a part of a political film on any level is really exciting, especially one that's filled with fearlessness," said Dern, whose credits include "Citizen Ruth" and "The Siege at Ruby Ridge" for television. "I've had that rarely. In the '70s, it seemed to be just what you did, and now . . ."

Dern doesn't shy away from talking politics or mentioning that she tends to have a strong point of view, "whether I know a lot about the issue or not." Not surprisingly, she plans to be an active participant in the remainder of the 2004 presidential campaign. Referencing the '70s again, she says she was raised to question government. Now she worries that doing so risks having her, or anyone else's, patriotism called into question. 'I think there's no alternative now," she said. "There has to be change."

Fortunately for her, Dern has been allowed to change on-screen, going from young, coltish actress to midlife-crisis mom without too much downtime. Still, Dern hasn't worked as much as she'd have liked, even with the TV movies and turns on "West Wing." And by most measures she's worked more or less steadily.

"I was raised by actors who loved acting and who loved playing different characters and who loved flawed protagonists and were interested in moral ambiguity in film," she said. "I felt privileged to be an actor on that level, so that's what I've always sought out. The challenge is if that's the work you want to do and you want to play interesting characters, you're going to have more time off than you'd like. I'd like to work all the time, but there aren't that many interesting scripts."

Actually, Dern does concede a slower pace meshes better with family life, especially since that life includes touring with Harper, Ellery in tow. But she won't be missing from a movie set for long once the new baby comes. She just finished an ensemble piece called "Happy Endings" for director Don Roos and is now shooting a cameo for "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" as a favor for her friend writer/director Jane Anderson. Depending on how much she shows how soon, she may take on another project before giving birth. And she plans to be back on set somewhere in spring, playing another person who looks like she could exist in the real world.

"If you choose the path of being an actor, it's always filled with its challenges, and there's always an ebb and flow in the course of the longevity of a career," Dern said. "But I feel this about acting: If you're interested in being the adorable ingenue or whatever these awful terms are, then you're really going to be [done for] because you're defined as this one thing." Dern, obviously, has no intention of being pigeonholed as anything other than a natural actor with the face nature gave her.