There are no happy endings

Laura Dern, no stranger to relationship strife herself, talks to MARY NERSESSIAN about her new film, We Don't Live Here Anymore

Wednesday, Aug 18, 2004

Ask Laura Dern about her thoughts on the upcoming U.S. presidential election and she becomes immediately sombre. The willowy actor straightens in her armchair and her widening eyes erase her laugh lines.

"I am very afraid, I am very concerned about the current state of affairs and I am very excited about a change in administration," she says.

Dern's happily-ever-after Hollywood ending would include "conscious partnership, family, and creative fulfilment and a very conscious, thoughtful, exciting administration in the White House.

"If I can get all those things, then I am really liking my future," she says, her blue eyes narrowing as she laughs wholeheartedly.

Dern joins a long list of celebrities including Natalie Portman, Ben Affleck, Jack Black and REM's Michael Stipe who have been vocal about their support of Democratic candidate John Kerry.

"As I supported Carter, as I supported Clinton, as I am a great admirer of people with that kind of empathy and compassion, I will absolutely be voting for John Kerry," she says, and her delivery quickens as though she is making a passionate appeal to the voting public.

"And I know some people are saying 'Oh God, some people are just voting against Bush,' " she says, "Well, yeah! That's okay too, you know, you can vote for change."

Dern is in Toronto to promote her latest film, We Don't Live Here Anymore, directed by John Curran, which opens Friday.

Dern, 36, looks much too slim to be expecting her second child with musician and fiancÚ Ben Harper at the end of the year. Their son Ellery turns 3 in less than a month. She is dressed in a long sweeping skirt that covers her cherry-coloured toenails and brushes the ground as she stands.

"I hope every American votes and uses their voice because their voice is really going to be heard more than ever, and the whole world is watching," she says.

She recounts a meeting with a Republican journalist who told her the movie Fahrenheit 9/11 was "disgraceful because it's only half the truth."

"And I said, 'Let me tell you something,' " Dern says, and shifts excitedly in anticipation of the punchline, " 'If that movie's only half the truth, we're in huge trouble. The whole truth is the worst nightmare anybody can think of. But half the truth is plenty to want to change.' "

Her support of Kerry stems from the belief that "to be a true patriot, I believe you must, in a wartime, be questioning your government every day. That's what we were taught through Vietnam."

In the film, Dern plays the role of Terry, an unfulfilled housewife who feels neglected and rightly suspects her husband (Mark Ruffalo) is cheating on her with his best friend's wife (Naomi Watts). The truth is revealed after Terry turns to her husband's best friend (Peter Krause).

Larry Gross won the 2004 Sundance Film Festival screenwriting award for his adaptation of the late Andre Dubus's two short stories, Adultery and We Don't Live Here Anymore.

When asked if adultery is a natural development of any relationship, Dern is quick to answer, "No, I hope not. I mean, I hope monogamy is something that can come naturally to people. I think it's a scapegoat for us culturally to say it's not.

"I'm excited about the idea of sharing my life with my mate," she says.

Dern was unconvinced when she read a third of the screenplay. She said to herself, "I know this movie."

She imagined the film would feature her character as "an oppressive ogre wife, who we're all gonna want [her husband] to leave, and he's going to find this fabulous lover and they're going to have a great affair and hopefully they'll get to run off together in the sunset."

But when she finished reading the screenplay, she realized it was about a couple who stays together despite swapping more than just secrets with their best friends.

"I was very refreshed to see that it's a very human tale," she says.

She was won over when she first met filmmaker John Curran and he told her, "I see this movie as a love story between you and your husband."

She says, "I thought that was so sweet, so profound, to consider a love story being about crisis and pain and hard work and coming through it, a love story doesn't always have to be reflected in the falling-in-love stage."

Dern herself is no stranger to divorce and marital strife. She is the daughter of actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, who divorced when she was a child. And she has had her own share of high-profile splits with actors such as Jurassic Park co-star Jeff Goldblum and Billy Bob Thornton.

But Dern declines to comment on media reports that Thornton left her to marry Angelina Jolie.

"I'll let everybody else speak for themselves by their actions, I'll just keep my eyes on my own paper," she says.

Dern has felt the heat of the spotlight from a young age.

The story goes that one of Dern's earliest film appearances was in Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More. When her mother, who was appearing in the film, fretted aloud that her six-year-old would get sick for eating nine ice cream cones during the shoot, Scorsese told her "She's not going to be sick, she's going to be an actress."

Dern's film credits include Jurassic Park, Rambling Rose, David Lynch's Wild at Heart, Blue Velvet and more recently, I Am Sam and Dr. T & the Women.

In We Don't Live Here Anymore, Dern says she struggled with the scene where Terry reveals to her husband that she has had sex with his best friend, and enjoyed it.

"It's hard. I mean, I've seen male characters do it in movies. I've never seen a female be so graphic and be so explicit," she says, "And any time I've played a part where the character does something that almost feels disgusting, it's really hard because you have to find the empathy for the person to play it."

She adds, "You really have to understand the choice that your character's made. If you can't, or you're not interested in it, you shouldn't play the part."

As for moviegoers, she leaves them with this thought: "If you're looking for a happy Hollywood ending, this movie is not going to give it to you, and your life's not going to give it to you."