Dern Factor
At 35, Laura Dern is a Hollywood survivor
Sunday, August 15, 2004
Star-Ledger Staff

NEW YORK -- If not true movie royalty -- a Bridget Fonda, say, or a Drew Barrymore, with generations of Hollywood stars behind her -- then Laura Dern definitely has pretender-to-the-throne status.

Her mother, Diane Ladd, was in everything from "The Wild Angels" to "Chinatown" and -- in the first of three Academy Award nominations -- played Flo in the original "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore."

Her father, Bruce Dern, has done great work in pictures like "The King of Marvin Gardens" and "Coming Home," and weird work in oddities like "The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant" and "Masked and Anonymous." "My first movie memory is of my dad shooting John Wayne in 'The Cowboys,'" his daughter says. "In the back. That sort of set the standard."

For years, their daughter has set her own standard, bringing her singular, angular intensity to films from "Mask" to "Citizen Ruth." In her latest, the just-opened "We Don't Live Here Anymore," she plays Terry, a wife thunderstruck by her husband's infidelity, and torn between wreaking revenge in kind or trying to rescue the relationship.

"Terry could be just sort of a shrew, and my instinct was I needed someone who had an inherent sense of humor," director John Curran says. "And Laura just got it completely. She had the experience of being (in a relationship), and she knew the ups and downs of that, and having a kid, and there was a lot I thought she could bring to it."

"There's that funny thing in a relationship where you resent the other person for the things you haven't become," Dern says of the story, set among aspiring writers and their wives. "I don't know, though, that they're being artists has very much to do with it. Some creative people are definitely very empathetic, but then others are completely self-absorbed. Having been raised around actors, I've seen both."

She's seen it in her personal life as well. A long engagement to Jeff Goldblum ended amicably in 1996; a long engagement to Billy Bob Thornton ended less amicably in 2000, when he eloped with Angelina Jolie while Dern was on location. As Dern greeted the news with pained astonishment, Thornton issued bulletins on how great his new sex life was.

"All I have is my self-respect and dignity, and I'm trying to hold on to those," Dern said at the time. "It's particularly tough when you're silent and the other people are not. In the past I've had the rare gift of having people around me with a great deal of integrity." It's something she values. Despite a family rich in eccentrics -- her godmother is Shelley Winters, for heaven's sake, and Tennessee Williams was a cousin -- Dern seems calm and centered, a grown-up willing to both take risks and accept the consequences.

While Thornton and Jolie went on to break up explosively, for example, Dern quietly got on with her life. She lives with singer Ben Harper now. They have one child, Ellery Walker, born in 2001, and another is on the way, due in December.

"Doing this movie certainly inspired me to talk to my partner," she says, picking at a mid-morning snack of sliced mangoes and herbal tea. "It's when you stop talking that some crisis is going to occur ... And there are all sorts of deep betrayals beyond having an affair." Dern's own parents split when she was a toddler, and she was raised by her mother, a wildly colorful woman with deep Southern roots. Dern's mother worked when she could, and her father worked steadily, and Dern grew up with dreams of following them onto movie sets.

Her dreams were not encouraged.

"I don't think my dad was aware of how serious I was," she said. "But my mother knew. I was always trying to meet someone who knew an agent, or find someone who'd audition me, or asking friends if they'd drive me to an open call. And she was not supportive of that at all."

Finally, she agreed to let the 7-year-old start acting classes -- provided the little girl give up playdates, horseback riding, and every other interest. Much to Ladd's shock, Dern did. And when the three years were up, started looking for parts.

The first audition she went out on was for "Foxes," a 1980 jailbait melodrama. "The part was for a 19-year-old," Dern remembers. "I was 11, but told them I was 14." (Which may, or may not, explain a puzzling age discrepancy: Although every biographical source and newspaper story consulted lists Dern as 37, she says she's 35.)

Dern didn't get that part, although director Adrian Lyne gave her a smaller role in the film. She followed that up in 1981 with the cult movie, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains" and some TV work. And then her career took an unexpected turn, not just because of the movies she made, but the ones she didn't. "I remember I was offered a Brat Pack movie opposite this teen idol, and I was offered 'Mask,'" she said. "I chose 'Mask' and my agent fired me. Doing three scenes as a blind girl for no money when I could have had the lead in a John Hughes movie? Outrageous. But I knew I wanted to be an actor, and I knew the path I wanted. And that led me to David."

David is David Lynch who -- at the same time Dern was screen-testing for a TV series -- invited her to come to his office for endless cups of coffee "and just this long conversation, really, about philosophy and meditation -- he didn't talk about the part at all."

But the part was the tormented innocent in "Blue Velvet." And after Dern did that movie, with its severed ear, and tanks of nitrous, and creepy Dennis Hopper -- and a later, even more outré Lynch movie, "Wild at Heart" -- no one would ever think of her for Brat-Pack movies again.

Which, as she saw it, was just fine.

"It would have been a very different career," she says. "But, you know, having been a child of the '70s, and of my parents, I grew up thinking moviemaking was about flawed protagonists and ambiguity, and questioning the government and questioning yourself. I thought it was about working with filmmakers who wanted your collaboration, and challenging the audience with complicated characters."

"She really goes there," marvels Mark Ruffalo, her co-star in "We Don't Live Here Anymore" and her partner in some searing scenes. "She's not afraid of that kind of large emotionality ... She's not afraid of looking bad. She's so committed, you'd have to be really bad actor not to react." After that string of early successes, Dern continued to look for other challenging roles. "It just seemed too easy," she says, "to simply play someone adorable." What wasn't easy, though, was finding those roles, particularly as a willowy blond actress in her 20s.

"There are really only a few wonderful parts, to my taste, for young women," she remembers. "You can play the ingenue, or Ben Affleck's girlfriend in some action movie ... It gets so disconcerting. Age-ism. Looks-ism. No-good-parts-ism."

Dern upped her profile in 1993 by signing on for "Jurassic Park," a movie which mostly required her to run around in shorts and talk knowledgeably about raptor behavior. It introduced her to Goldblum, though. And, after years of doing tremendous work in little-seen movies like "Rambling Rose," at least it was a guaranteed hit.

"My agents were thrilled," she admits.

It was also a chance to work with Steven Spielberg who, she says, "is the most eccentric director I've ever worked with -- really, forget David Lynch. I remember after I first said that, Steven called me up and said, 'what do you mean?' But, you know, I just feel when you think about his movies and what they're about -- dinosaurs back on Earth, and a little extraterrestrial living in a kid's closet -- I mean, who else comes up with that? I'm still waiting for him to do his own really odd movie."

Dern continues to do her own odd little movies. Some of them, like Alexander Payne's "Citizen Ruth" -- the 1996, offend-all-sides-equally satire of the abortion issue -- are so uncompromising they seem to scare their own studios. Others are made directly for cable, where controversy is encouraged (and some snobbier actresses fear to tread). Still, even with her openness to independent films or television projects, Dern finds it hard to find good scripts.

"I'm willing to wait," she admits, "but I've done more waiting than I'd like. After 'Citizen Ruth' I waited almost two years ... And then, after the baby was born, I took 18 months off. That was my choice and it was really good for me and for him and for becoming a mother and for my partner, all of that at the same time. But I don't think I'll do it again."

Dern and her new family live quietly out in Los Angeles. Although they all criss-crossed Europe on a tour bus recently, when Harper had a new CD to promote, they spend much of their time in. They also spend most of it out of the gossip columns -- which, after a life in show business, Dern is quite done with.

"I remember there was a story written about me, when I was like 12, that I was some movie-star daughter with a drug problem," she remembers. "Well, I've never done a drug in my life. I've never even smoked pot. And the worst part of it was my grandmother believed it. She called me up, very upset. And I denied it and she said, 'Oh no, it's in mah paper. I read it in mah paper this mawnin'."

The supermarket headlines went on for years. Often no one was more shocked to read them than Dern herself. "Twice, I read about relationships I was having where I'd never even met the person," she says. "It's just so hysterical to me. I really look forward to meeting them one day and telling them all about this really interesting two years we spent together."

Now that the Billy Bob sideshow has moved on, though, Dern will probably have a much quieter life. And, now that the first laughlines have begun to appear by her eyes, an even more interesting career.

"Sometimes I've not worked for periods of time when I would have liked to because I didn't want to do something that didn't feel right," she says. "But I feel very proud of my body of work. And this movie -- in a way, for me, I feel like it's my first adult role. I've played girls dealing with some very complex things but this is a woman dealing with adult issues."

There are more to come, too, including a part in the big-cast ensemble film "Happy Endings," and another in the offbeat "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio." And, once the new baby is born, and both children are on a schedule -- "I haven't slept seven hours in years," Dern moans -- she'll try to pick up the pace, as well as find that difficult balance in being a healthy, happy working parent. It's not an easy equilibrium to find, and Dern knows that plenty of actresses -- including her own mother -- have found it difficult to maintain a career and a family with equal success. But then plenty of actresses don't have Dern's quiet, careful approach to what a career might mean.

"I've just entered my mid-30s, and the feeling used to be, you know, uh-oh," she says. "But I think it's shifting. The women I look up to, like Meryl Streep, Isabella Rossellini, Mary Steenburgen -- they say they're all working more than they've had in years. I feel like, God, this is great. And now I have my 40s and 50s to look forward to? I can't wait."