High-minded infidelity
Laura Dern says there's more to her typically edgy new film than just sex and bickering
Bob Thompson
National Post

Tuesday, August 17, 2004
Laura Dern is choosy when it comes to roles, but that's not surprising. She was raised to be particular by her parents, Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, who made careers out of challenging themselves with offbeat portrayals. Now, after more than 20 years of pursuing her goal of becoming a better actor at the expense of being a famous movie star, their 37-year-old daughter admits she's stuck with the family tradition. "But it is hard sometimes," says the slim, 5-foot-10 Dern, who continues her independent spirit with We Don't Live Here Anymore. "Let's face it, there are sacrifices I make, and one of them is working less than I would like to. I would love to be in a few movies a year, but it never works out that way because there aren't many of them I want to be a part of or associated with."

Obviously, We Don't Live Here Anymore, which opens on Friday, passed the Dern test. In the film, she plays Terry, an angry and dishevelled mother and frustrated wife to the philandering Jack (Mark Ruffalo), who is having a blatant affair with the couple's supposed friend Edith (Naomi Watts). To make matters even more melodramatic, Terry decides to have a fling with Edith's husband (Peter Krause). Sounds like a new millennium soap opera, but Dern insists there is more substance to the movie than sex and bickering and infidelity. She hopes the film recalls Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Carnal Knowledge, which she insists went beyond their sensational and superficial facades. "And our film is not about what seems the most obvious; one day this guy decides to have an affair with a friend," she says. "It's really about this crisis of communication as they try to figure out love and partnership and how they got where they are. Exploring those questions was so exciting to me."

Certainly the emotional turmoil must have been familiar, since Dern was previously involved with actor Billy Bob Thornton before he infamously broke off their engagement in 2000 to later marry Angelina Jolie. Previously, Dern had split from Jeff Goldblum after being engaged to him for two years, eventually dating director Renny Harlin, prompting Goldblum to hook up with Harlin's ex-girlfriend Geena Davis. All of it was fodder for supermarket tabloids, but that was then. If she can smile about it now, it's because Dern has a great deal to be happy about. She's been married to musician Ben Harper since 2001. The couple have a three-year-old boy and she's expecting another child by the end of the year.

Still, when Dern says her Terry character in We Don't Live Here Anymore "didn't require a lot of research," she's acknowledging that she tapped into her emotional turmoil of previous relationships gone bad, but for her good. More importantly to Dern as an actor, Terry was "richly flawed and complicated," two ingredients she looks for in roles, and elements that always counted as critical in her parents' choices, too. Not surprisingly, when Dern lists 1960s and 1970s films and portrayals that affected her most growing up, Midnight Cowboy and Klute among them, she includes her dad's role as an emotionally crippled Vietnam captain in Coming Home and Ladd's curiously cavalier Flo in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.

In fact, Dern made her unofficial movie debut as "girl eating ice" in Alice. "I really did grow up on sets," says the actress, who joked once that she was conceived on set, too -- 1966's biker flick The Wild Angels. Officially, her movie introduction came with a co-starring part in 1980's Foxes, although she made her mark a few years later as the likeable blind camper kid in 1985's Mask. If there was any doubt that Dern was going to follow in her parents' professional footsteps, it was swept away with her memorable definition of a girl gone wild, as Lula in 1990's Wild at Heart. She confirmed her quirky mindset in 1991's Rambling Rose playing opposite Ladd, and in the process made history as the first mother-daughter team to be nominated for Academy Awards (Dern as best actress, Ladd for best supporting actress). Two years later, she had no qualms about accepting a starring role in Steven Spielberg's 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park and later Clint Eastwood's A Perfect World with Kevin Costner.

"Studio movie or independent, a cable film, a documentary, it doesn't matter to me. All I have to be is involved and it has to mean something to me," maintains Dern. "I want to affect change in my personal and professional life. And I've always been rather liberal and out spoken about issues, so it makes me feel more in tune with myself when I say yes to roles that count for something." Now that motherhood is in the mix, there is something else to consider. "I am still passionate about the same views," she says. "And I still want the world to be a better place to live in for all of us, but it is true I am a great deal more protective about things and more thoughtful, too, now that I have a child to protect and care for." The not-so-subtle shift in her personality confronted her almost immediately. "We Don't Live Here Anymore was the first movie I did after my baby was born," Dern says. "I think before the baby I definitely would've judged my character more harshly. "But being a new mom, a sleep-deprived new mom who's just learning what an enormous and overwhelming job it is, has made me more empathetic about people who make mistakes."