While she may be undisputed film royalty by now, there was a time when Laura Dern was just another struggling actor. Dern, who is having a big year with Oscar contending roles in “Marriage Story” and “Little Women,” was honored during The Museum of Modern Art’s 12th annual film benefit during a ceremony held at the New York City museum on Tuesday, November 12. In accepting the honor, she thanked her many collaborators, including the eclectic and storied list of filmmakers that is the hallmark of her career. But one filmmaker featured prominently in her remarks whom she’s never actually worked with directly? Martin Scorsese.
In thanking her parents, Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, for instilling in her an early love of film, Dern recalled being on the set of Scorsese’s 1974 film “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” starring her mother and Ellen Burstyn. Though she was just seven years old at the time, Scorsese let her observe the filmmaking. Dern had a front row seat to the bathroom scene, featuring Ladd and Burstyn, which she called “one of the more influential scenes” in her life.
“Scorsese very generously let me kneel on the floor and get a view of this little partition he’d made so that they had their privacy to improvise and create and find the scene,” she said. “And it was then that he started talking to me about acting, saying, for whatever reason, [that] in this seven-year-old he thought I might have a certain thing that felt like I should be an actor or longed to be an actor.”
Of course, Scorsese was right. Dern began working steadily, building up a resume that would eventually lead to critically acclaimed breakout roles in “Mask,” “Blue Velvet,” and “Wild at Heart.” Though her first film roles have been eclipsed by those early successes, Scorsese took note.
Getty Images for MoMA
“When I was in my late teens, he called me. And it meant the world to me, and I’m so lucky that I got to tell him this,” said Dern. “He said ‘I’ve been watching what you’re doing, you’re doing what filmmakers do, this is the right thing.’ I asked what that was, and he said — ‘You’re building a body of work. Keep going. Keep striving. Dive deeper, keep reinventing.'”
Dern is the ultimate filmmaker’s actor, which is part of why she is so beloved by the film community. Friends and collaborators on hand to honor Dern included Noah Baumbach, Adam Driver, Naomi Watts, Alexander Payne, Gwendoline Christie. David Lynch, Nicole Kidman, and Kristen Stewart each sent video messages.
Dern concluded with a passionate display of gratitude toward her filmmaker collaborators.
“To our, and I say our because I’m speaking for my fellow actors, our filmmakers, our maestros, our guides: I’ve always found it confusing whenever I’ve heard someone say — ‘you know, you’re considered his muse,’ because you’re our muse. You create the narrative, and we try to bring truth to the story you’ve envisioned,” she said. “And it is because of the filmmakers who’ve chosen me and call me collaborator, even though I feel like I’m along for the ride, that I strive in the way I do, that I am awe-inspired to join you tonight and consider myself a kid just learning, just beginning, just waking up in a fever pitch about acting and about film like I’ve never felt before.”