"Secrets, darlin', secrets" Laura Dern purrs while leaning over a corner table at a deserted Los Angeles restaurant that's so redolent of late-night cigarettes and failed romances that it could stand in for Rick's in a postmodern version of Casablanca. Dern looks radically unlike the whiplash-figured life force she played in David Lynch's explicit Wild at Heart, which won her critical acclaim, or the heart-rending scatty Southern belle of the actory, arthouse Rambling Rose, which won her an Oscar nomination, or the athletic biologist of Jurassic Park, which catapulted her into the big box office, sex-bomb league. Today, clean-scrubbed, luminous and dressed in businesslike black, she suggests a 50s smalltown sweetheart trying to come off as a wild bohemian. Just now, she's telling me about the projects she and director Jonathan Demme have been hatching since that two came that close to doing The Silence of the Lambs together. "They're all about rather heroic, devastating characters," she says, "about emotional and sexual injustice, things that are so blatant and horrible in this country. I'm fascinated by what we bury, things we're scared to know about ourselves. We're so complex. My favorite books are about psychology, self-help, and I'm fascinated by Jung, by dream work. If you're an actress or writer you work with your dreams, where all these different characters and qualities - the man, the girl, the rapist, the victim - are inside all of us. That's what I want to make movies about. Secrets. Mysteries."
The mystery of Laura Dern starts with something as obvious as the physiognomy she inherited from her parents, actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern. From her far-away gaze up to her patrician forehead, she's an open book. Innately, unshakably nice. A Sandy, a homecoming queen, the sort of girl who'd let you borrow her homework. These are the qualities for which David Lynch must surely have cast her as the girl for whom the robins sing through the murk of Blue Velvet. Travel the bridge of her nose down to the flaring nostrils that are spooky Bruce Dern, then south to those lips for a mocking sneer, a randy cartoon grin, and you're in film-noir land, where things are edgy, calculated, never precisely any one thing. The more she reveals, the more things get withheld. You go to her. Or don't. Such contradictions may not make her the girl who lands the hit pictures, but they ensure that some of the ones she's in will be worth watching years from now.
Secrets? Mysteries? Dern teems with them. Some deep, others deeply superficial. We met a couple of times in Los Angeles and delved into some of the former, but, for right now, I'm more interested in one of the latter, which is: why was a 26-year-old, who gravitates towards such off-road stuff as the sweet Rambling Rose, seen screaming her head off in every multiplex in the Western world at special-effects dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg's summer megabuck movie for nine-year-old boys? Not to mention her new outing this winter in a supporting role opposite Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood in the mega-commercial A Perfect World, which stars Costner as an escaped convict who has a, er, moving father-son relationship with a small boy. "I'm glad I did it because I wanted to have fun," says Dern of the dinosaur movie which made her a household name. I thought, "I've never been in an adventure movie.' So…"
In order to do Jurassic Park, Dern slipped out of a showy role opposite Nick Nolte in James L. Brook's I'll Do Anything. When she bailed from the kooky Benny & Joon, some people thought her move was significant. She'd just done The Brooklyn Laundry, in which her co-stars were Glenn Close and Woody Harrelson, who were, according to gossip, romantically coupled. Then, according to more gossip, Harrelson and Dern grew close. After the play, Harrelson was set to play Dern's brother in Benny & Joon. But he left the project - and then so did Dern. Hmmmm. Any connections? Shaking her head no, with a trace of a grin, she answers: "Oh, Benny & Joon, a sweet script with great intentions; my agents were trying to negotiate, but it just didn't work out." Truth or secrets?
Anyhow, it takes some doing to imagine the Method-trained, finely tuned, sincerely feminist, ecologically and metaphysically-minded Dern grooving to the experience of playing monster-bait. Especially for Spielberg, in whose movies creatures with breasts are relegated to tasks like dodging interplanetary aliens or sprinkling pixie-dust. So, did Dern find her director a raving chauvinist? "My only real problem was having the 'woman's role' in an action-adventure movie. So I just made sure that my character was strong, independent, scientific, intellectual and feminine, welcoming my body as a gift I've been given to nurture." Er, quite, Laura, quite…Dern's stories are peppered with words like "synchronicity", "nurturing", and "evolved". And, yes, "bonding".
The bonding that most reporters most gleefully seized on during the filming of Jurassic Park reputedly involved Dern and co-star Jeff Goldblum (whose ex-wife Geena Davis coincidentally goes out with director Renny Harlin, Dern's ex.). And while she insists she wants to keep her current relationship private ("It's too complicated," she explains, wincing), I ask her what boyfriend Jeff Goldblum means to her exactly? "My favorite friend," she answers instantly. "I love him. He's hilarious, brilliant, wonderful and we spent a great deal of time together and loved hanging out in the movie. Jeff, Sam [Neill] and I are like the Three Musketeers. But Sam is married, so Jeff and I were left hanging for the gossip rags. Since the movie finished we've spent a lot of time together."
While we're talking gossip - and her friendship with Goldblum - what's with Dern's reported predilection for romantic entanglements with such co-workers as Kyle Maclachlan (Blue Velvet), with whom she had a four-year relationship, Vincent Spano (HBO's TV movie Afterburn) and Harlin (who produced Rambling Rose)? "I resent ever being stereotyped," she says, bringing herself up to full height in her chair. "When I read things like: 'She always sleeps with her leading men' or 'She's spiritual and nice' or 'She'll always play this or that kind of part' or 'She' the bad girl', I'm like, 'Oh, Pleeease'. I'm all those things. I've been hurt by some rather explicit articles that say I always sleep with all my leading men. Which is very far from the truth. I always fall in love with qualities of people I work with. Making Rambling Rose, I fell in love with Lukas Haas, Robert Duvall, my mother; I fall in love with the family that I work with. Yes, I've dated people I've worked with and yes, I've dated people who want to do business with me and I've dated people who I've never worked with. I pay psychiatrists a lot of money to help me figure that stuff out, and if they haven't gotten it all together, how could somebody else? And if anybody out there figures it out, call me and let me know."
Laughing dryly, Dern folds her napkin with a finality that makes me wonder whether she's about to clam up on the subject of relationships. Some secrets she wants to keep. But then she continues, terribly earnestly; "I haven't been in that many relationships. I've just been in longer relationships than my friends. I lived with someone for quite a long time and did various movies while we were together and, obviously, seeing other people never had been an issue. I've never really dated. Loving someone casually is something I never do. I feel everything very deeply."
One of the most persistent rumors reported during the shooting of Rambling Rose concerned director Harlin, with whom Dern had been involved. According to these stories, Harlin arranged with his lawyers to withhold money owed to Dern. "Unfair," Dern declares of the rumors. "We were all trying to make this sweet film, trying to work together. Even if it were true I wouldn't want to know at that point. God, I hate that kind of stuff. Renny and I are fortunate because our relationship is based on friendship more than anything. Our relationship has always remained very loving and kind. When I won the Golden Globe recently [for Afterburn], he was the first to call and send a telegram. We went through a movie together where the basic relationship was professional and friend-oriented. But I hear this and read this kind of stuff all the time. I mean, did you read how David Lynch left Isabella for me? That we were best friends and how devastated she was? Isabella is one of my three best girlfriends in the world and David and I are great friends. But some people thought it was true."
How would she say that the press has treated her? "I have an ego, I admit it." She says, toying with a lemon wedge on her teacup saucer. "I love to win awards, to get a good review. Overall I feel lucky that the press has been very gracious and respectful to me. As far as reviews, if people review movies earnestly, great, although I'll admit it's difficult because it's me that one is criticizing. To the critic who says: 'I hate the way she looks and I don't want to see her on the screen', I say, 'First of all, you're not talking about my work. Secondly, how will I ever be different?' It brings up issues of men not liking you, childhood stuff. It's hard not to be vulnerable to it."
Are there any qualities that the men in her life have shared? "They're creative. Artistic. Bright. Funny - that's the big one for me," she says. "Tall, too,. Almost everyone I've been with had very open eyes. Exposing eyes. I'm affected by people's sensitivity in their eyes." So how am I doing, I ask her? "Very well," she shoots back, giggling. "You have an open, warm quality in your eyes - kind, loving. Very important. You meet some people and you can't see them when you look in their eyes. I could never be with a man like that. Something very important for me is someone who embraces who I am. What my body is. Embraces my strength, my creativity. Someone once said to me that we stay in a negative relationship until we learn what abuse feels like and you can say: 'I don't want this anymore.'"
She utters this with such palpable sincerity, with such a sense of been-there, done-that, that I ask whether any of her relationships have been particularly messy. "Oh, I've suffered terribly." She says, hammily clamping her hand on her forehead, feigning a swoon. Then, turning serious, she explains: "I've never been in a relationship where someone was abusive, physically. I'm not into beating. But emotional abuse can be so subtle, you don't even know it's coming. There was a time when I was feeling that someone was being unkind to me. It took me a long time to realize it because it came in the tiny comments where my stomach would turn so subtly, then, days later, I would realize that although he was being loving and kind on the surface he was being inappropriate. A definite issue of mine is having trouble realizing that your needs must be allowed to come before the other person's."
Dern comes by her introspection honestly. Her family tree includes a former governor of Utah (her paternal great-grandfather), poet Archibald Macleish (her paternal grand-uncle) and playwright Tennessee Williams (her mother's cousin). Her parents met and sparked in New York during a successful 1959 off-Broadway revival production of Orpheus Descending. Bruce Dern, with his aristocratic, East Coast prep-school backround and Diane Ladd, an earthy Southerner who had worked as a model and dancer before her stage success, deeply wanted a child. Their first-born, a daughter, drowned tragically in a swimming pool at 18 months old. Doctors told the grief-stricken parents that Ladd would not be able to bear any more children.
While Ladd, who promptly prescribed herself herbs and vitamins, was pregnant with 'miracle baby' Laura, as doctors called her, she and Dern were shooting the biker flick Rebel Rousers, co-starring Jack Nicholson and Harry Dean Stanton. The couple parted ways shortly after Laura's birth, and while Ladd traveled to work, her mother would stay with Laura in Santa Monica, California. Dern stayed away. Ladd remarried five years later to a stockbroker, moving Laura to New York, where she lived with two stepbrothers and a nanny. When that marriage ended they returned to California. "I'm sure I've made choices in my life that are from my upbringing," Dern says diplomatically. "Things that my parents have done, I wouldn't do. Just intellectually, they're not my cup of tea."
As a five-year-old, Dern acted in an episode of her mother's soap-opera, The Secret Storm; by seven she was slurping ice-cream for Martin Scorsese in his film Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. By nine, against her mother's advice, she was studying with the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, and at the age of 11, her agent - whom she sought out - was sending her out for roles such as the 19-year-old lead in Foxes, which Jodie Foster, her senior by four years, won (Dern landed a smaller role in the film). A year later, anzious to be as close to her father as to her mother, she confronted him, saying: "I need a dad."
By 16 she was studying at RADA in London; back in America she auditioned for the endless brat-pack movies then in fashion. Apparently she turned down St. Elmo's Fire, which proves she had, at least, taste. She was on her way to studying child psychology at UCLA when director Joyce Chopra chose her to play the nervous teenager seduced by a dangerous drifter in the acclaimed but little-seen Smooth Talk - an edgy antidote to all those plastic teen movies starring Rob Lowe and Charlie Sheen look-alikes.
After starring with Kyle MacLachlan in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, she made her first big impression, as Lula, the sexy, strange siren in Lynch's Wild at Heart. And as if her personal history wasn't wild enough, Dern's first flatmate was New Age guru Marianne Williamson, famous for conducting the wedding of Liz Taylor and Larry Fortensky and writing the best-selling self-help bible A Course in Miracles.
But now it looks like Dern's oddball career has finally put her into the position where she may have a Julia Roberts or Demi Moore-sized hit. "I have a negative connotation about ambition," she says, slipping into familiar New Age-speak. "If ambition is something manipulative, stepping over whomever or doing whatever it takes to get fame and fortune, I hope I don't have much of it. The only thing I never wanted was an overnight hit, but to keep developing myself as a person and an actress. Sure, I want success so I can make movies that mean something to me, so I can stretch myself. I'm writing and directing a short film, The Gift, and I think that's ambitious. But will I be devastated if I don't get a good review? No. I try to be healthy about that. Do I want to win an Academy
Award? Yes, I'm only human."
Human enough to plan an acceptance speech for the night that the cameras kept cutting to shots of her and her mother sitting side by side, both Oscar nominees for Rambling Rose. "I knew my movie wasn't seen by a lot of people so I thought, don't worry about it. But then my press agent warned me not to waste the opportunity through nervousness or whatever to thank all the people involved, so I wrote down all the names. But there I was sitting with my mother. Later we went to one of the parties, then went home and talked about who wore what."
Odds are that it won't be Dern's last trip to the Oscars. Still, it can't be fun doing critically applauded work in movies few have seen. "Let's say my agents were very glad when Steven decided on me to do Jurassic Park", she laughs. "For whatever reason I'm usually hired because a director really likes my work, not because I'm the choice of some studio executive or because an agent pushing me. Catch me on a good day and I may be tortured because I'm not reading enough scripts. Catch me on another and I've gotton five offers and I just don't know what to do. In the last couple of years, when the choice has come down to me and other actresses, they're people mostly in their late 30s.
I see faults of, say, Wild at Heart, which I never expected to be a huge movie. Yet as I travel around the world, I meet more people who consider it one of their favorite movies. When I ran into Mel Gibson, he started quoting me Wild at Heart dialogue. Some of the same people who said to me when I did Blue Velvet: 'Why did you do that horrible film?' now tell me it's their favorite. I think those movies will be around for a long time to come."
And so, we think, will Dern, although this instant she's got to run. There's work to do on her 30-minute short, which is, she says, "about a woman's struggle through a break-up". But if Dern gets her way, don't expect too many Jurassic Park or A Perfect Worlds on her CV. "Even the comedies I want to do are out of the norm," she says. "I want to show people's complexities. I'm proud of anybody who takes on themes, ideas, feelings, that aren't the norm." Then she adds: "You know, our secrets."
Laura Dern's Big Leap