Laura Dern didn't get married last spring. This was odd, because her then-boyfriend of three years, Billy Bob Thornton, did. To Angelina Jolia. The Thornton-Julie nuptials created a certain amount of awkwardness - Dern and Thornton were living together at the time - to which the range of acceptable reactions is broad. Dern has rediscovered, in no particular order, faith, friends, and skateboarding. She's also shooting two films and staying on the move - traveling with a suitcase crammed with clothes, music (Hendrix, Petty), tapes of I Love Lucy, and the skateboard. "Right now my essence may be that of a 16-year-old boy," she says. Dern sat down recently in Manhattan to talk about it all, as well as about her two upcoming films, Robert Altman's Dr. T and the Women, and Daddy and Them,written and directed by...Billy Bob Thornton.
Talk: So how are you?
Dern: It feels really good to be free again. I'm living day to day, living in the unknown, which I've never really had the experience of. I'm without residence.
Talk: Where's all your stuff?
Dern: My stuff - I'm told - is in storage.
Talk: But you didn't put it there?
Dern: No. (Long Pause)
Talk: We'll come back to that. Did you have a good time filming Dr. T and the Women?
Dern: I found ecstacy in Robert Altman - so gracious and irreverent. The way he's out there being bold should be celebrated.
Talk: What about Daddy and Them?
Dern: I love it. It's a white trash comedy about a bunch of alcoholics learning to love, yet I think what it says is amybe more profound because it's under the guise of being a trailer-variety comedy. And my character is wonderful. She's insanely jealous, as he is, but at their core, it's the love of their life.
Talk: When you first connected (with Thornton), did friends express concern?
Dern: Friends that he and I shared didn't. People who didn't know him...Certainly.
Talk: What were you like together?
Dern: See Daddy and Them. That's exactly how we were. Not the characters or their behavior, but our energy.
Talk: Last April, did you decide to leave?
Dern: That was decided for me. So, given this unusual set of circumstances I've had to surrender to, I'm just trying to ride that wave and look at it as tubular...not get too down.
Talk: What exactly happened?
Dern: Look, he...I'm...I was raised around the media my whole life. And I would never use it to hurt or discard people - never choose to discuss it in any way. But it was chosen for me. Other people chose to discuss their reality at great length. And given that I'm doing press on these movies, this is what I'm presented with. I can't comment on other people's actions or beliefs. My experience is, I left home to work on a movie, and while I was away my boyfriend got married, and I've never heard from him again.
Talk: How did you find out?
Dern: Calls from tabloids and an article in this magazine. It all came within a few days. It's like a sudden death. For no one has there been any closure or clarity...or, frankly, even a breakup! I never thought that I'd yearn for a breakup, but damn it, I want one!
Talk: You didn't have any inkling?
Dern: No, absolutely not. There's a shock factor that I'm still in the middle of. You're hit with everything feeling gone. But one night after I heard, I went out dancing and I had this epiphany: God bless Anita Ward for Ring My Bell! I heard the voice of Martin Luther King: Free at last!" And I was like, "Whoa!" Feeling myself. Not afraid to be completely myself, which is something that I've made an immense effort to do as an actor. I hope that will always be reflected in me as a person. I can see now there were times when fear overroad my ability to say, "This doesn't feel good, or fair, or loving." I will say this too. God is a weird thing to talk about. When you feel such an onslaught of loss, change...I always assumed I would become a cynic, would shut my heart down. Instead, it may be the moment where you go, "Whoa, Dude, You so have a plan here. What a fool I was, thinking that I had any control. Whatever You say, Dude of all Dudes!" I may believe in love more than ever.
Talk: Had you ever talked about marriage?
Dern: I had very clear issues about things that needed to be worked on. That was the only hold. It was important to me that it not be impulsive, primarly based on things he's been through, but also because he has boys, five and six, who deserved to feel safe and nurtured before entering something new. I send those amazing kids all the love in the world. I don't know if I'll ever see them again.
Talk: How long do you give the marriage?
Dern: "Keep your eyes on your own paper," they told us in school. I'm sticking to that.
Talk: I imagine a lot of friends are telling you your better off.
Dern: I may be the luckiest girl alive. Is it gonna bother you if i have a cigarette? Meg tried to help me smoke recently - the character I play in the film I'm shooting smokes - and we couldn't even get the lighter going.
Dern: Meg Ryan...the most amazing friend,
Talk: Have you known each other long?
Dern: We met in '85. But in the last year we have become very, very close.
Talk: She's going through something, too.
Dern: It's a new-millennium transformation year. I knew, in the last few months, I'm the luckiest person in the world in terms of my friends. Also the freedom in exploring friendship is new and great, too. Because sometimes when you're immersed in one particular life, you lose your sense of reaching out.
Talk: Are you dating anybody?
Dern: I've never been someone to "date." I connect or I don't. But I feel very loved right now, and I'm allowing myself this time to just...hold. I'd love to be presented with the opportunity to be bold right now, to explore an aspect of behavior that I haven't given voice to yet professionally. David Lynch and i have been talking. He's shown up at times in my life when I was ready to do that. So it seems appropriate to do it with him or someone like him - someone who lets you be yourself. I just want to try to be brave.
Talk: Some would say you've been brave.
Dern: Well, liberation - God bless it, right? I never actually said his name, did I?
Talk: No, not once.
Dern: I like that. Keep that in.