Saturday, August 14, 2004
"An L.A. Daughter"

A stampede of shopping bags, lunch ladies attached to their handles, rustles into the garden restaurant, destroying intimacy, disrupting digestion, generating a frisson of high-end, high-maintenance, highly caffeinated disorder. "They're all going to Athens," Laura Dern notes, as the air-kissing Olympics commence, without the benefit of a starter's gun. These are Dern's people - kinda, sorta. Born and raised in Los Angeles and the hotbed of Hollywood, she's seen it all. Joan Crawford at the swimming pool. Childhood memories of Jimmy Stewart. The rise and fall, and hopefully resurgence, of serious moviemaking. And the triumph of plastic surgery: The noise level at that nearby table, a mix of empty oratory and crackling silicone, has risen precipitously. "Uh, we're having a conversation here?" Dern says, sotto voce, but leaning into the tape recorder. "We know you wanna talk about Botox, but we are talking about infidelity? And my career! So hush up!"
At the moment, infidelity defines her career: "We Don't Live Here Anymore," which opened Friday, is garnering Dern some of the more laudatory reviews of her many years in film - which began about 1974, when Martin Scorsese put her in the background of "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore." Her first credited role was in Adrian Lyne's "Foxes" (1980), in which she starred with such unlikely collaborators as Jodie Foster and Cherie Currie. She was 11.

A real adult role
She's not 11 anymore, or the semi-nymphet of "Smooth Talk" (1985) or the unguided missile of David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" (1986) or "Wild at Heart" (1990) or certainly the aerosol-and-glue-befuddled, pro-choice poster girl of Alexander Payne's "Citizen Ruth." Laura Dern is 37, a mother, and "We Don't Live Here Anymore" is as adult a film as one might find in a culture in which Paris Hilton exists and a stolen Xbox can precipitate mass murder in Florida.The new film, directed by John Curran, is about the relationship of two couples, best of friends, which comes unraveled via adultery. Based on two stories by the late Andre Dubus, the film - one of the first to be released by the fledgling Warner Independent Pictures - is not an easy sell, as anyone connected with it will tell you, and without much prompting."My first instinct was not to do it," says Mark Ruffalo, whose character, Jack, is husband to Dern's Terry. "I didn't know too many directors who could handle it. And then, I was wondering about the girl I was going to do it with. But Laura is the kind of actor who's willing to throw herself into it, leave her vanity at the door."It's tough material," he adds. "And you want someone there to catch you when you free-fall." What you get from Ruffalo - and even more from Dern, who has a breathless exuberance about everything, and eyes the color of the Pacific reflected in pewter - is a willingness to do whatever it takes to put their new film across to a public disinclined to serious drama. And they share a real enthusiasm about the movie. "But I've been lucky," Dern says, wading into her mozzarella and tomatoes, "because I feel that way about most of the things I've done." She laughs. "Maybe actors should decide whether or not to do a movie by putting themselves in the mind-set of the press junket - 'Am I really having a great time selling this movie?'

Infused with passion

"But in this case, everyone was passionate about it, especially from an acting perspective, because you just don't get parts like this," she says. "And I think everybody loves John Curran 'cause he's a gracious, generous, excited, passionate filmmaker, and we know that's rare. But I don't expect filmmakers - or presidents - to be moral, generous people necessarily. I expect them to be great in the job I've hired them for, you know what I mean?" We do. And if we didn't, Dern would make it clear. She's as happy talking about politics as she is about her partner, blues-rock singer Ben Harper, or their son, or her parents - veteran actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, who divorced when she was 2 - or George W. Bush, Michael Moore, Paul Wolfowitz, the vacuity of young actresses who don't vote and get chin jobs, or the nuances of being a Catholic actress playing a tormented character in search of approval. "I've always been fairly opinionated politically and interested in voice," she says, "not always having one as articulate as I'd like. But I'm interested in movies about social issues, and I love flawed protagonists: It's what made me want to become an actor. The movies of the '70s - every one of them had a flawed protagonist. 'Midnight Cowboy,' 'Klute,' 'Dog Day Afternoon.' Now it's archetypes all of a sudden again." You mean everyone has to feel good when they leave the theater? "Yeah, and boy, that makes me feel bad," Dern says with another laugh. "Something's wrong, I guess. When I see superheroes I go, 'Man, I must be -- up, I must really have problems, 'cause everybody else is relating to this story and I don't get it.' Give me a messed-up person and I go, 'This is a feel-good movie.'"

A method to her acting

Dern and Ruffalo, who star with Naomi Watts and Peter Krause, come out of the same "root stock," as Ruffalo put it: Method acting, although Ruffalo says he's more of the Stella Adler school, Dern more of the Lee Strasberg variety. Regardless, both disciplines are about the actor's drawing on self to create his or her character, which makes "We Don't Live Here Anymore" a particular challenge: For Dern, Terry is a high-wire act, a woman who sees what's going on between her husband and best friend (Watts) without quite admitting it to herself; who has to make us feel pity, pain, sympathy, contempt, anger, frustration and confusion, while hiding the light of her rage under a basket of self-doubt. Until, of course, she doesn't. "Laura is a free spirit," says Sandra Seacat, the celebrated acting coach and a longtime associate of Dern's. "She's also a great student and a dedicated artist - and there aren't very many people I call artists. But the entire cast of this film, they're all true artists, dedicated to their own inner truth, and they have the courage to share that. You don't find that very often." Seacat uses the words "courage" and "bravery" quite often in describing the actors in "We Don't Live Here Anymore," though neither her nor Dern's approach to acting is the sort of cliche, draw-on-your- emotional-history method of creating a character. If it were, Dern would have a certain amount of ammunition - her celebrated breakup with boyfriend Billy Bob Thornton occurred after she found out through the tabloids that he was engaged to Angelina Jolie. ("I mean, if I told you who the raptors were in 'Jurassic Park' for me to make those scenes real..." she jokes.) It's really more about finding the truth within oneself, being "willing to expose it," as Seacat says, and translating it into art - traits that separate the real artist from the rest. "Often," Seacat says, "actors are afraid that the audience will think they're the character." Not Dern. "She has a remarkable, facile emotional instrument," Ruffalo says. "It would be a shame if she didn't use it however it felt necessary. The thing is, she's nothing like the character in the film. She's one of the wacky, wild, way-out-there people. The character is not her." Who is Laura Dern? To judge by her genealogy, a mix of the historical and the bohemian. Her great-grandfather, for instance, was governor of Utah. "The first non-Mormon governor," she clarifies. "He was an amazing man. George Dern, who was secretary of war under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, governor of Utah, and his father was a big attorney in Chicago who partnered with Adlai Stevenson, who's my dad's godfather." Her dad, on the other hand, is a provocateur, she says. "All he wants to do is have a banter, to drive you crazy," she says. "He'll even make up stories. You can say something good about Michael Moore and he'll be, like, 'Oh, you like Michael Moore? But what about that story that just broke about him last night...' and while you're saying, 'Someone's personal life has got nothing to do with politics...' it turns out my father's made up something totally bogus."

A balanced life

Dern wishes she worked more. She wants to work more. On the other hand, she's happy with what she's done; there aren't any embarrassing entries that will eventually vanish from the filmography. Her personal life seems balanced. And she wants it to stay that way. "I admire anybody who can act and still balance their life," she says. "You ever meet Meryl Streep? I'm so amazed by her life. She has children and a husband and a life, and we know a little about her, but not too much. It's great. "I remember when I was making 'Smooth Talk.' We had $800,000 to make the movie, it was a short schedule, the character was troubled - I started not having fun. I was exhausted, I just wasn't happy. I asked, 'Why am I doing this? What is method acting?'" Then a few years later she met Seacat. "And she taught me that the point of view is about the great good fortune of being an actor and about the process of self-discovery as healing - you look at what you need to look at in life, just as we do in our relationships or writing. What we need to work on is right on the table in front of us. "And I just enjoy it so much now. I think there are ways to get so caught up in your career and being so heavy and dramatic, and everyone wants to be a tortured genius. So they want to, unfortunately, follow in the footsteps of previous tortured geniuses. And then they discover the tortured geniuses were alcoholics, so they have to be alcoholics, too, or horrible to their string of lovers. If we could all figure out a way to just be true to ourselves and have a good time doing what we're doing, it would be a lot more fun."