Is she weird? That’s what friends want to know after I tell them I’ve shared tomato-risotto croquettes with Laura Dern. Well, Laura Dern is not nearly as unconventional as some of the characters she has played—sexually promiscuous teenagers and druggies, the lesbian who coaxed the sitcom Ellen (DeGeneres) out of the closet, and the Florida secretary of State who helped cost Al Gore the 2000 presidential election. And let’s not forget, as if we could, her three cult-building collaborations with filmmaker David Lynch: Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990), and Inland Empire (2006).
In fact, one might argue that, in a career now spanning over three decades, the weirdest thing about the 44-year-old blue-eyed California blonde is how completely she disappears into her performances without so much as a recurring gesture or attitude. Vain she is not, given her line of work. “I don’t want to mess with my face,” Dern says over green tea served from iron pots at Shutters, a hotel overlooking the beach in Santa Monica. “So I’m becoming fluent in French so I can go to France and make French films when I’m 60.” In the meantime, the actress gives herself over with complete empathy, infusing even the most damaged-goods roles with dignity and humanity. Sometimes, however, Dern will watch herself onscreen and think, “If I saw that woman on the news, I would find her intolerable.”
Dern’s latest character, Amy Jellicoe, will likely strike some viewers exactly that way. In the new, ten-episode series Enlightened, Dern is both luminescent and lunatic in the role of a 40-year-old divorcée whose moods swing from “Kumbaya” optimism to unbridled rage—from zero to bitch in 60 seconds. The half-hour show, produced and developed by Dern with Mike White (who was a writer and producer on Freaks and Geeks and Nacho Libre and a contestant on the Amazing Race), opens with Amy having a meltdown at the health-and-beauty-products conglomerate where she works. In less than three minutes, she hurls nearly a dozen F-bombs and a death threat—this is HBO, after all—and is next seen swimming with sea turtles at a treatment center in Hawaii. She returns to find herself demoted to data entry in the basement. It may sound like the ideal setup for a satirical critique of the New Age self-help movement, but that would not be quite weird enough for Laura Dern.
“Amy has no biological clock, she isn’t looking for a man,” Dern says of the character’s departure from TV-female norms. She’s just trying to keep it together. “Amy wants to effect change but doesn’t know how, and she misfires as she does. It’s either the saddest comedy you could ever imagine or a really irreverent drama.” She raves about series creator White, who cast her in his directorial debut film, Year of the Dog, which had a similar take on misguided idealism. Though the series is wrapped, Dern says she’s still consumed with Amy’s woes. “For people who feel things in an enormous way, it’s pretty hard to live in this world. And that’s what I love about her.”
Enlightened reunites Dern and her mom, Diane Ladd. They’ve played mother and daughter before, but never so achingly. “She is shut down, not evolved, not able to show love,” Dern says of her mother’s portrayal. “She was very fearless in being exactly that mom. It shows an egolessness in what people think about her as a mother to me.”
Forget the Barrymores, the Fondas, and the Bergmans. Last year, the Hollywood Walk of Fame unveiled adjoining stars for the first time in its history, for the Dern dynasty: Diane Ladd, Bruce Dern, and their daughter Laura. “I was raised by two actors in a moment in time—the seventies—when there was no judgment of characters, no heroes and bad guys. The movies I saw and the characters my mother and father played resonated with me,” says Dern, whose godmother was Shelley Winters. She bounced from set to set, sleeping in cribs made from hotel dresser drawers, before moving to New York with her mom after her parents divorced.
At 5, the opera-obsessed Laura inadvertently caught her dad in Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte on TV one afternoon. “His severed head was in a hatbox,” Dern recalls, laughing. “Not really ideal for a kindergartner.” She first appeared on-screen without credit in the Burt Reynolds flick White Lighting and studied ballet (that ended when she developed scoliosis at 10, although she’s since recovered thanks to alternative treatments). At 12, she audited a class at the Actors Studio, sitting next to Lee Strasberg and soaking up the Method.
Dern grew up fast. She went to court as a teenager to become an emancipated minor in order to pursue film roles. She was 17 when she met David Lynch, with whom she enjoys a mentor-muse relationship. “He’s extremely regular, not at all odd, which shocks everyone,” she remarks. For her money, Steven Spielberg, who cast her in Jurassic Park, is the weirdo. “In Jurassic Park, there’s a scene in which a hand pats me on the shoulder, and I turn around so relieved, only to see it’s a bloody stump,” she recalls. “I said to Steven, ‘That is so sick and fantastic that you are doing that in a movie that every child in America is going to see 100 times.’ ” A fourth installment of the dino series is in the works. It’s been a while since she’s taken on anything more than a character-actress supporting role.
It is easy to look at Laura Dern—fit from yoga and swimming, poised and insightful—and see the sweet and upbeat side of Enlightened’s Amy Jellicoe. Dern has just come from dropping off Ellery and Jaya, her son and daughter with musician Ben Harper, at school. She and Harper are separated and, she says, trying to work out what’s best for them and the kids. “Having egregious divorces—where you just hate each other—is really the easy way out,” she says.
Does she have Amy’s fury under all of this well-balanced sweetness? Ask what makes her angry and her reply is what you might expect from an enlightened Hollywood liberal: Speaking of Troy Davis, who was put to death September 21, she says, “I found it terrifying that someone was executed in Georgia, and we weren’t totally sure he did it. I feel like I’m in the Colosseum in Rome. That makes me angry, primarily as a parent. All these things you try to teach kids, like peace and compassion, are getting gray and blurred. I’m pretty pissed off that I have to teach myself, let alone my children, that.”
Which is something of the rage Amy Jellicoe feels in Enlightened. And why Laura Dern understands how to bring her so weirdly and vividly to life: “I love playing people who, just when you think something is their greatest trait, you realize it’s clearly the thing that will take them down.”