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Madam Secretary: Laura Dern

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Amid the tragedy of the 2000 Florida recount, America was introduced to the singular personality of Katherine Harris, who, you may recall, presided over the contested election while simultaneously serving as co-chair of George W. Bush’s Florida campaign. Or perhaps you just remember her makeup. Chris Rovzar spoke with Laura Dern, who in HBO’s Recount portrays an outsize Harris.

I enjoyed the movie, but it was also incredibly painful to watch. Was it upsetting to relive the recounting of chads?
The acting part of it was just delicious. Inappropriately fun. You couldn’t believe you were having so much fun. But the research part I found terribly painful. Every day you felt like your mouth was wide open, just agape at all that was gotten away with.

Do you believe Recount was evenhanded?
Inevitably, it could be perceived as just about Gore and how he should have won. But those are the facts. And even Republican friends who followed it closely say that is exactly how it went down: They manipulated Florida law in every way they could to get their guy to win.

Director Jay Roach has a history in comedy, but he clearly made an effort not to be funny. In fact, I think your role was the only one that made me laugh.
Well, I think in a satirical way, you do have to laugh. I don’t know if you’ve ever been with a friend as they laugh when they’re telling you about a horrible breakup? Or people who laugh about a parent’s funeral? It’s that weird thing we do. I think they call it post-traumatic stress, and I feel like America really had suffered that.

When you watched clips of Harris as Florida secretary of State, what did you find?
It’s interesting to play a real-life person who has already been a character on Saturday Night Live. She’s been blitzed on late-night television monologues. Letterman had a field day with her. So I tried to understand what I perceived to be, on the one hand, this sort of calculated strategy about how she was going to present herself—and on the other hand, unparalleled terror.

I read that someone had told her to wear a ton of makeup because otherwise she’d get washed out on television.
Well, she is a southern lady. And when you’re in local government, you’ve probably only done a press conference with a few local reporters that you’ve known for a few years. Then the CNN truck pulls up, and the BBC is there, and that’s got to be pretty shocking. So I think the makeup was almost like armor. But it was so extreme, as we all can reflect.

At key moments in the movie, she is pushed around by men. Do you think that’s true to life?
She clearly was a partisan party member. And she did everything she could to make her man win. Everybody that I spoke to perceived her as a very broken personality—not weak or strong, but something profoundly eccentric.

Let me just come out and say it. With the makeup and the haircut and the false confidence, it was almost as if you played a drag queen.
Yes, it’s a very tricky thing to do. How do you play someone who was over the top without being over the top?


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