Life couldn't be better for Laura Dern

August 15, 2004

BY BILL ZWECKER Chicago Sun-Times Columnist

Laura Dern laughs out loud when told she looks far too happy to be playing a desperately unhappy woman in "We Don't Live Here Anymore."

"It's funny, isn't it," said Dern, chatting in a North Side hotel suite during a recent visit. "Personally, I'm finally in the perfect relationship, and we're talking about a woman who seems on the verge of losing the one relationship she truly cares about."

In real -- as opposed to reel -- life, Dern is expecting her second child with musician Ben Harper. The couple have a son, Ellery, nearly 3. Though not married, the 37-year-old actress calls Harper "my husband," because "in my mind, we're already married." Previously, the former Oscar nominee was involved in a series of high-profile relationships with Kyle MacLachlan, Jeff Goldblum and Billy Bob Thornton -- a split which ended badly (and very publicly) when Thornton moved on to his now-ended marriage to Angelina Jolie.

In the film, directed by John Curran and based on two short stories by Andre Dubus, Dern plays Terry, a woman who has an affair with her husband's best friend (Peter Krause) after she (correctly) suspects her husband (Mark Ruffalo) is sleeping with her lover's wife (Naomi Watts) -- one of her best friends.

The film examines the couples' tottering marriages, with an in-depth look into the dynamics of each relationship and why they appear to be so close to collapse. In this age of self-help everything, Dern still thinks that the vast amount of bookstore shelf space dedicated to How to Save Your Marriage-type titles has actually accomplished little.

"Unfortunately, you can't learn too much of what you really need from books. None of us are educated in partnering or parenting. I keep thinking back to debate and speech classes, and wish they could have just let me learn how to talk to another person in the room or in my house on how to communicate hurt feelings to another human being!"

Instead, said the actress, "we were taught how to address the masses. Nice, but not as vital to life."

While Dern has played mothers before, she thinks having become one for real helped her get into the skin of the woman she plays in "We Don't Live Here Anymore." "Once you become a parent, you realize how unbelievably challenging it is," she said. "You're often sleep-deprived and you're constantly scrambling. You can barely hear yourself think, let alone hear your partner or your child and be sensitive to their immediate needs."

Dern claimed her take on the film changed from the time she first read the script to the time she delved into filming -- "an incredibly short period." Director Curran was given a mere four weeks to prep for the filming in Vancouver, then had to shoot the film in 30 days.

"There were no rehearsals," Dern said. "We just started rolling and figured it out along the way. In a sense, we rehearsed on our feet, but for the rawness of a movie like this, I think it was the best. We captured some things I don't think we would have if we had more time and a bigger budget. The intensity made all that more real."

Despite the film's extremely intense nature, Dern said it was one of the most nurturing, friendly and cozy sets she's ever worked on.

"Naomi and I got along great," she said. "We had met through David Lynch, but really didn't know each other before this."

As for her onscreen husband Ruffalo, Dern called him "a delight ... amazing and so funny and so not wrapped up in anything about fame or celebrity. He's having such a great time being an actor. It was nice being around all those people -- including Peter Krause -- who are so grateful for where they are in their careers right now."

Though Dern looks years younger than her age, she has no qualms about her approaching 40th birthday. In her mind, Hollywood is truly changing and providing far better opportunities for actresses today. For one thing there are more women in decision-making roles at the major studios. More and more women are green-lighting projects showcasing older women in realistic, meaty roles that might not have been produced even a decade earlier.

"Recently, I have spoken with a few friends who have entered their 50s," Dern said. "Granted, they are beautiful, extraordinary people and amazing actresses but -- just in the past few weeks -- three of them told me, 'I'm working more and playing more interesting roles than I have in 20 years!'

"Now that's good news," she said.

A big contributing factor is Hollywood's recognition of a substantial female audience over 35 who will support films like "We Don't Live Here Anymore."

"It's terrific that there's a lot more than 16-year-old boys who are being targeted by the major studios today.''

Dern also believes that both as an actress and a woman she is "very much a mix of my father and mother."

Her mother, actress Diane Ladd, "takes everything so seriously, and she brings such passion to everything she does -- from her social activism to her politics to her acting to her parenting. She's a Southern lover of life. Everything about her is big and strong," Dern said.

Her father, actor Bruce Dern, who was raised in Glencoe and grew up in a socially and civically prominent North Shore family, provided her with a strong Chicago connection as well as "a wonderful irreverence for everything."

"His father was an attorney and a partner of Adlai Stevenson; there were lots of amazing people in his family." One relative -- her great-grandfather George Dern -- was the governor of Utah and secretary of war under Franklin Roosevelt.

In this election year, one couldn't resist asking Dern if she -- like a number of other actors in recent years -- would ever consider running for office herself. She almost fell out of her chair laughing.

"Oh, NO! I'd rather run my mouth than run for office -- but I'm very happy to run my mouth."

Copyright The Sun-Times Company