It was a sad day when HBO pulled the plug on “Enlightened,” the show that gave Laura Dern arguably the best role of her career and won her a Golden Globe. There was one upside though: The death of “Enlightened” freed up Dern’s schedule, allowing her to work on more films. In the year since its canceling, Dern has hit the ground running.
This spring saw Dern play Shailene Woodley’s loving mom in the hit teen weepie “The Fault in Our Stars.” In the fall festival darling “99 Homes,” which opens next year, Dern plays a woman evicted from her own home. And in “Wild” (currently out now), Dern embodies the mother of Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon in the film), whose death led Strayed to embark on a 1,100 mile hike.
Indiewire spoke with Dern about all three projects and the female football comedy she’s brewing up with Judd Apatow.
READ MORE: How to Hike Backwards with Reese Witherspoon and More Advice from the DP of ‘Wild’
This is a good year for me as a movie goer because I’m seeing more of you than ever on the big screen.
I know! I’ve had, for the last couple of years, the great thrill of working and doing things I love with really awesome people, which has been great. Also, I had never done a television show. I had spent two and a half years playing one person so I feel like when I finished this show “Enlightened” I was like, “Yes. I just want to do and go and try things and meet people!” It was like I was with one family for a few years. So it’s been a really fun year of working on a few different things.
Critics loved you in “Enlightened.” Were you very picky about what you chose to follow that career high with?
No matter how many actors have ever told you that they are deciding, even when actors are in a very luxurious position to pick and choose, it still is so much about luck in terms of what filmmaker and what script comes your way. So certainly that’s a huge part of timing and how you get picked. But, for me, really, nothing has changed probably since I was 16 in terms of always wanting to do something different than the last time. And both of my parents were very instrumental in teaching me that trick—that if you want to stay in love as an actor, it’s not necessarily about how other people perceive you, but just to really give yourself the opportunity to always challenge yourself and play different characters.
When I was 15, I had done a film with Peter Bogdonavich and he said, “You’re going to be the kind of actress who really wants to always challenge yourself by playing different people. Never stop that.” And I do think that really stuck with me. That’s sort of the thing that drives me, even if the uniqueness of the character is so internal that only I would know they’re different. It’s something I love.
About that uniqueness of character — it’s worth nothing that in the three films I’ve seen you in this year (“99 Homes,” “Wild” and “The Fault in Our Stars”), you play mothers. All three come from different walks of life and are each distinct characters. Still, were you at all worried about being pigeonholed as Hollywood’s new go-to mom?
I really wasn’t. I certainly have been worried if a character is quite similar. I’ve worried about that in my career. But motherhood as a label, I’ve never worried about that, per say. Probably because I’m working on other things for the future that are the opposite of that, but also because I’ve spent so much time playing girls that I think when I finished “Enlightened” I was like “Oh my god. I’m still playing someone who is in such a state of arrested development that she doesn’t know she is a woman yet.” I think it’s time to really allow myself to be grown up in a very different ways. Because the mother in “99 Homes” is such an unusual and bizarre situation and more about the politics of it than the relationship. And their relationship is very emotionally incestuous because she had her son at 14 and he had a kid at 15. I sort of loved it for that. That it was like a sister/brother relationship, which we thought was really cool and a lot like American families. I thought that was very interesting. But with “Fault in Our Stars” and “Wild,” it also addresses the issue of cancer and yet both films are so incredibly different and really inspiring for different reasons.
I’m slightly distracted as I’m ending my answer because there’s a wasp and I’m allergic to bees. I’m just aware and completely present with you, but if you suddenly hear me yelp or drop the phone I hope you know that’s why.
Do you want to change rooms?
No. no. I’m fine. I think he’ll find his way out.
You’re a mother yourself. You have two kids, correct?
Which mother out of three you played this year do you most feel a kinship to?
When I read John Green’s book, I certainly felt a kinship with the mother he wrote because she was written in the novel as a progressive hippie who sort of found herself becoming a mom. Then because of her daughter’s diagnosis she had to really become a grownup. And I understand a lot that kind “Oh my god. I gotta be a mom now” kind of parenting. I gotta figure out how to do this because I feel like somehow it does catch up to all of us. There’s never a day you wake up and are like, “I’m really ready to be a mother now.” So I certainly felt a kinship with her. But my great mentor, and teacher, and guide and love is Bobby, Cheryl Strayed’s mom. I couldn’t feel more blessed or privileged to talk about her, to get to have known her through Cheryl, to be play her, to have her impact my relationship deeply with my children, my mother, my friends as Cheryl’s word tend to do and her story tends to do for all of us. It’s been a huge lesson and gift to play her.
I imagine it must have been painful for Cheryl to go back and describe her mother to you in vivid detail.
She’s amazing. Let’s start with the fact that this is a story and a film where we’re watching a human being, sadly a great rarity, be shame-free from the choices they’ve made. That’s already so extraordinary. And somehow her openness, her candor, her lack of judgment, her authenticity makes her so present with every single person she meets. That’s how she shares her mother. It’s like “I’m opening my heart, I’m cracking it wide open and I’m letting you enter this space of my grief, of my longing, of my sexuality, of my humanity, of my flaws. This is all of me. And this is my story. This is my mother’s story.” None of us could have done it without the incredible generosity of her in the way we got to know her.
Cheryl inspires people to be their truth. There are no games. There are no false veils here, with anybody. You just are who you are because she inspires that. So being in that kind of energy almost everyday on set, sitting on her kitchen floor as she shared stories about her mother, all of us having meals together, we’ve cried a lot together. This group. It’s really sweet. Really cool.
When’s the last time you had an experience like this on a film you’ve worked on?
It’s its own experience in terms of an affair of the heart. It really is its own treasure. And I really do believe her mother is a big part of that narrative for all of us. How mothers inspire, or the people who really did teach us about love and loving, who we have lost and how we grieve— I think it’s because none of us talk like this. In American culture we are supposed to take a pill when we’re depressed or in grief as opposed to actually feeling. It’s a paradigm shift just being with a group of people where that’s all we’re talking about because of the subject of the film.
I’ve had closeness like this. You know, I’ve worked with David Lynch since I was 17 and working with him is home and family, being around Alexander Payne is home and family, Jonathan Demme. There are directors…Robert Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson…They are directors where I create homes.
It’s a great list. I’ve created family and feel safe and it’s fun, everyone has dinner every night, you watch dailies together—it’s really a community experience. But, you don’t necessarily share everything together emotionally. So this really is a gift of a lifetime.
I was thrilled to read on The Hollywood Reporter that you’re teaming up with Judd Apatow for an upcoming female football comedy. How did this all come to be?
Well, to be honest, it’s still very early in its stages so I don’t know how to put words into it because we are still finding our way through it. But Judd is, I think, really passionate about human stories that just happen to be hilarious. And women’s stories. He’s pretty incredible that way and is a fearless leader in that way. Something that I’ve cared about deeply my whole career is getting to work with filmmakers and inventors of stories that are hysterical because they are just so painfully true. It’s amazing that Judd’s been able to do that in a very broad sense, in a very commercial sense because often in the movies I’ve loved that’s been kept to a smaller independent film. But he’s brought that voice to a larger audience and that larger audience said to studios, “Oh no. We want this. We get this.” And they’ve been saying that in television too, which is why television has had such a massive shift. It’s so exciting and I’m just—like Reese talks about so much with this film, because she did an extraordinary job as a producer on this film and getting it made and making sure that all the correct artists came together to tell the story namely Jean Marc and Nick Hornbee who adapted it—I’m so inspired to get to be part of things where we can create really delicious parts for women. And to get to work with a group of women together, which this being one of my first experiences to have a wonderful group of women, but I just can’t wait. I’m so excited at that prospect.
And comedy. It’s not a genre that you are commonly associated with as a performer. Is it something you want to do more of?
Well it’s so funny because I have played people who are in a lot of pain and a lot of things that are really funny because of their pain, but because of it you don’t know if you’re supposed to be laughing or not. From David Lynch to “Citizen Ruth” to “Rambling Rose.” “Rambling Rose” is so hilarious and that’s so great. It is a movie about somebody who is deemed a nymphomaniac and is given a hysterectomy in the 1930s. It’s so devastating, but it is this adorable sweet film, where “Citizen Ruth” is the funniest movie ever. It’s just a hysterical comedy. And “Enlightened” is a comedy, but it’s a very heartbreaking one. I love that world and I think the lines are getting more blurred and we are able to not deem things traditionally funny or traditionally sad anymore. And that feels really exciting, which is fun to share with Reese as we are talking with press because I know she’s questioned that a lot—with this movie and other things—how to take heartbreaking stories and find the humor in them. Or take the big formulaic comedy, but make it about hard stuff, which Judd is a really willing and exciting filmmaker to want to tackle that.
Your body of work is crazy remarkable. Do you ever go back and revisit anything you’ve made?
Thank you. I thought you were going to say my body. [laughs] I mean you said “your body” and then you paused. But I’ll pretend you didn’t say the rest and just take it as a compliment. But my body of work… I think I was really inspired by the directors that both myself and my parents had worked with and Martin Scorsese and I had a conversation in my young adult life, which was really important to me. And he said, “It’s so cool Laura. I could see you building a body of work and that’s such a traditional thing for a filmmaker to do, but it’s not common foractors, but you keep doing that.” I was so inspired by that. I really appreciated that. I think there’s been times that there has been strategy when I’ve been lucky enough to choose, but there’s also been a lot of good fortune. I could have been picked for a so-so TV show, but David Lynch cast me. Or I was cast in the film “Smooth Talk” as a 15-year-old instead of whatever else was going on. I got picked for very unique and independent filmmaking experiences with auteurs. And I’m so lucky.
And even when you went big with “Jurassic Park,” I’m sure you got more blockbuster-type offers in the wake of its huge success –but you didn’t really go down that route, apart from appearing in the sequels that followed. Was that a conscious choice on your part to stick with what you just spoke about?
Very much so. I would say that’s the only time in my career I would say that I am responsible for being determined for a specific kind of movie. Not big or small. The film I did next was probably “A Perfect World,” but it’s a very unique and painful film. I was definitely offered big, effects-based studio movies more similar to the “Jurassic Park” theme. And I thought, “Well, I’ve done that so now I want to do different things.”
Ellen DeGeneres, who’s a friend, one of my favorite things was like “Laura makes very obvious choices as an actor.” When I was doing her show she was like “There’s no question.” You go, what are you going to do next after “Jurassic Park”? I’m going to help Ellen come out. I think that was the next thing I did. The “Ellen” coming out episode, which I couldn’t be prouder of being part of a moment in time that we all got to share. I’m interested in the fun of the experiment and using our voice in interesting ways and asking questions we all need to ask. That’s the fun of getting to be an actor for sure.