From Lynchian weirdness to motherhood -- Laura Dern has chosen the path less traveled
Carla Meyer, Chronicle Movie Writer
Monday, August 16, 2004

Laura Dern first entered college nearly 20 years ago, and she's still working on a degree. She has started and stopped, and started again, traversing several Southern California universities and picking up units in journalism, psychology and theology.

"It's an endless process that will take me, if I'm lucky, a decade more to get a degree,'' Dern, 37, said during a visit to San Francisco. "But I keep doing a little bit.''

Her unhurried education mirrors Dern's approach to her career. It's been a decade since her white-hot period, when she moved seamlessly from David Lynch's go-to actress to an Oscar nod for "Rambling Rose'' and blockbuster success in "Jurassic Park.'' Always a character actress with leading-lady looks, she then bypassed studio films for edgy independents like "Citizen Ruth, '' and television movies, before everyone was doing television movies. Her willingness to go where the roles are echoes the sensibilities of her parents, actors' actors Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd.

"I have never been someone who applied 'work begets work' to my career, sometimes unfortunately,'' said Dern, her down-to-earth manner offsetting her elegant suit and swank surroundings at the Four Seasons Hotel. She is more engaged than most famous actors during interviews, preferring actual conversation to the usual prepared remarks. "The bad news is, I have worked less than I have liked. The good news is, I can look back on my body of work and feel truly proud of the work I have done.''

Dern's attraction to smaller movies has cost her at times. Films she made over the past several years came and went or were never released. This period dovetailed with the sabbatical she took after the birth of now 3-year-old Ellery, her son with musician fiance Ben Harper.

"People think I have taken off more time than I have, but it's only been about two years,'' Dern says with a shrug. "Everything's cyclical. Having been raised by actors, I watched their careers, and the challenge is to take time off. ... It's one thing to have forced time off as an actor, and another thing when you actually say, 'I don't want to read anything and I don't want to talk to anybody.' ... Emotionally, it was huge for me.''

Her first role back from her break is a doozy. She plays the dissatisfied, hard-drinking wife of a philandering college professor, played by Mark Ruffalo, in the low-budget "We Don't Live Here Anymore.'' The unflinching drama, based on two short stories by Andre Dubus ("In the Bedroom''), also stars Naomi Watts and Peter Krause. Dern is the linchpin of the movie, imbuing her character, both more volatile and less duplicitous than those around her, with her signature authenticity.

We Don't Live Here Anymore" director John Curran, speaking by telephone, says it took one meeting to convince him that Dern understood her character's arc from harridan to source of strength. "When Laura's name came up, I hadn't seen her in anything in a few years -- she made a choice to be a mom and a partner and have a life, and I found that admirable,'' Curran said. "There was so much she brought to (the role). ... I needed someone who had a sense of humor, sort of a gallows humor. Otherwise, the character would have been one- dimensional and even unwatchable.''

Her homemaker character leads a more conventional life than say, the ever- lovin' Lula of David Lynch's "Wild at Heart" or the pregnant paint huffer of "Citizen Ruth,'' but Dern sees a link. "I'm interested most in women finding their voice,'' she said. "And that's what I'm trying to explore in my own life. ''

"We Don't Live Here Anymore'' charts the misery of people who remain in threadbare marriages, and Dern acknowledges similar rocky times in relationships. "I have in my life stayed too long in dysfunction, and I also have probably gotten out before I knew what was rectifiable,'' she says. "But in the really committed and soulful partnership I am blessed to say I have now, part of the gift is knowing I am going to be here and he is going to be here. ''

Her relationship with Harper -- they are expecting their second child in the winter -- follows romantic pairings with actors Kyle MacLachlan, Jeff Goldblum and finally, Billy Bob Thornton, who left Dern without warning for Angelina Jolie. We all know how that turned out, but Dern is discreet on the subject.

She hasn't seen Thornton since the breakup and has no desire to, she says. "We had a film that never came out, so I had no reason to see him,'' Dern says of "Daddy and Them,'' directed and written by Thornton and shipped directly to cable. "It was too bad, because I liked the movie and worked hard on it.'' Dern later adds, more generally, "I had to walk through really horrible stuff to recognize good fortune. ... Sometimes it takes walking through real pain to say, 'This really doesn't feel good, and I don't deserve it in my life.' "

She wears an antique-style ring of pink and white diamonds designed by Harper. "He has great taste,'' Dern says. She beams when she speaks of Harper, who accompanied her to San Francisco for a shopping expedition on Fillmore Street and dinner at Gary Danko. Motherhood, she says, has "been amazing. It's true love multiplied. Everything is so full now.'' With another baby on the way, she is so contented these days that she can endure the dreaded "comeback'' question.

"There are all kinds of challenges that come up with that question,'' Dern says. "One is the ego of an actor, which you have to set aside. Whatever anyone wants to make of (her career) should be fine. If they want to rediscover me, f -- A, let them rediscover me.''

If Dern has a regret about her career, it's that she wasn't of age in the 1970s, when actors like her father and mother carved out careers within the studio system. "There were plenty of movies that allowed you to be an actor and not a character actor,'' she says. "Al Pacino was a movie star doing 'Dog Day Afternoon.' Robert De Niro was a movie star doing 'Raging Bull.' Now there's this separate thing, where you choose to be a character actor and work in independent film or you choose to be a mainstream actor and be on magazine covers. I hope to keep messing with people's heads and do it all.''

De Niro has Scorsese, and Dern will always have Lynch. The pair are working together at the director's home on a digital video project with a group of Polish theater actors. Details, apart from those intriguing few, are sketchy.

"I can't say more than that because I don't know what the hell it's about, '' she says with a laugh. "Which I could say about a finished movie of David's. I don't think he knows what it's about yet.''