Laura Dern likes to tell the story of how, when she was a teenager, Martin Scorsese complimented her for having already started to build a body of work—a feat, as he pointed out, that directors often accomplish but actors rarely do. Since then, she’s built an impressive portfolio of complicated women who experience life deeply. She’s probably best known for Jurassic Park’s highly competent Ellie, but her most memorable characters are those, like Amy Jellicoe from HBO’s Enlightened, whose volcanic inner lives keep spitting up burning lava onto the character herself and anyone who gets close to her.
Dern spoke to Slant earlier this month about her latest role in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, a quietly bubbling cauldron of subterranean emotion that follows three tangentially related female characters. One of those women is Dern’s Laura Wells, a lawyer with a troubled client (played by Jared Harris) whose life goes completely off the rails after he suffers an on-the-job injury his employer won’t compensate him for.
In person as on screen, Dern’s warm, expressive voice conveys layers of feeling. She takes her time as she answers questions, her alert attentiveness a form of grace that makes the person across the table from her feel fully engaged with. She talked about, among other things, why she loves playing “difficult” women, what has changed in her personal and professional lives since she turned 40, and how Reichardt helped her overcome the challenge of playing a character whose emotions are hidden even from herself.
I read or watched a lot of your interviews in preparation for this. You always give very thoughtful answers and even seem to enjoy yourself.
That’s nice to hear! Thank you. I’ve never had anyone say that to me. You know, I love movies, and my parents [Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd] love movies, and I was raised with a real love of being able to connect on a love of film. Some of my parents’ dearest friends have been journalists and film critics. Sheila Benson at the Los Angeles Times was one of my first godmother-advocate supporters of the choices I was making and of my staying true to loving filmmakers and participating in a vision. The world of funny stories, talk shows, awards shows—that I find stressful. But I really enjoy sitting down and talking to someone who also loves movies, or talking about something I care about. And one blessing of having opinionated artist parents is that, for the most part, I’ve done things I’m really proud of. So it’s fun. I’m so lucky.
Citizen Ruth is one of my favorite movies, and it’s partly because Ruth is so messy and real and so funny, so kind of comically hapless.
I love her so much.
I get the feeling that the sort of awkward, ragged characters you’ve played are the ones you love the most, like Ruth or Amy from Enlightened. Do you feel some special kind of responsibility to get these “difficult” people right, or are they just more fun to play?
Yeah. As an actor, as a human being, and also as a woman, I’m particularly interested in the misunderstood and voiceless. I’m entirely obsessed with people who don’t even know they’re entitled to a voice. And there are a lot of female characters like that, which makes it interesting to be a female actor. Because you dig deep and you get to go on a journey with them that’s heartbreaking and beautiful and super funny and messy and all those great things. So they’re my favorites. Amy is just so caught up in feeling everything in such an enormous way that she’s too busy to stop and see what the world really looks like. [laughs] But she and Ruth each go on their individual journey to find themselves, in some funny broken way. And that’s really cool.
But, you know, it’s equally fascinating to play someone who not only knew they were entitled to a voice but stole others’ voices, like [Florida] Secretary of State Katherine Harris [who Dern played in Recount]. That’s also fascinating, as we’re in this political climate where there’s so much narcissism, in this newly presented world of social media, where it’s all about the number of likes and followers, and there’s so much projection everywhere you turn.
So I’m excited to play the gamut. I hope I get to for the rest of my life. I was very lucky to be raised by people who were interested in flaws and characters. My goal was to be an actor who could play incredibly diverse people for the rest of my life—wouldn’t that be amazing? I’ve been lucky, thanks to filmmakers who let me do that, and I hope to continue that forever.
Historically, your profession hasn’t been kind to female actors as they age. But that seems to be changing for some women of your generation, including you. Do you think you’ll be able to keep getting those great roles?
I feel like it’s getting easier to play the kinds of people I gravitate toward, because young women have so much projection on them and judgment, if they’re bitchy, angry, sexualized, whatever. Those women have been left to small independent movies, because there was this sort of declaration of the kind of young woman you were supposed to be. And now, I feel it’s shifting.
I’m finding women in their 40s and upward get to be complicated and in positions of power, and they’re not defined as a career woman or a mother; they’re both things. Sexuality shifts too. I’m hoping to help push forward that line being blurred, as a few of my dear friends are, showing that sexuality comes from inside, and it’s about what a woman longs for and wants versus someone’s projection of her. I’m interested in investigating that more. I’ve been lucky to have the directors in my life that I have, who told me about 10 years ago that I should never do anything to myself.
You mean like plastic surgery?
Yeah. And that I should be comfortable in my own skin, because they wanted us to work together forever, so I’ve entrusted my future to them, as an actor. [laughs] To believe that when they’re looking for 45-year-olds, 50-year-olds, 60-year-olds, 70-year-olds, that they’ll be looking for me to explore those ages. It took to [age] 40 for me to suddenly realize that I’m not worried about what other people are projecting onto what I’m going through or what they’re up to. I don’t have judgment anymore. Not that I was a very judge-y person. But it was easy to say “God, I can’t believe…” something about my personal life and then, 10 minutes later, I’m like “They’re getting a divorce?” or whatever. Now, I’m old enough to know how complicated life is, and with complication comes far more empathy for other women. Keep your eyes on your own paper.
Do you think acting has helped make you empathetic, or is it that being so empathetic is a big part of what drew you to acting in the first place?
Both. I cared deeply as a child, and I think it made me interested in people and more tolerant of all types of characters. But one million percent, the craft of acting—the lessons I’ve learned about what other people go through, through characters and stories, and my extraordinary acting teacher of many years now, Sandra Seacat—it’s been a great healing journey toward more empathy. What an exciting job, to get to consider what other people are walking through. I’m very, very lucky.
Kelly Reichardt’s films are so minimal in terms of dialogue and yet there’s so much going on beneath their surface. Did acting for her require you to work differently than usual?
Very much so. My character isn’t considering what other people are feeling, or the consequences of her actions, until the very end of her story. That meant I had to withhold my instincts at times. I try to focus on simplicity even when playing extreme characters, but they’re always going through something. So is my character, but she hasn’t even revealed it to herself yet. Conveying a lack of awareness about what I’m feeling or what impact it has on someone else required a lot of discipline, and Kelly really carried me through it beautifully.
What did she do to help you?
She’d give me room to feel something on a take, and that might help inform both of us about what was going on about the character. And she’d make sure I had the knowing of it somewhere deep inside, but really restrained from any other awareness. Not numb, but just not clocking the world.
I’m not speaking for Kelly, because she’s never said this, but I loved witnessing that all three of the main characters are stuck in a system, one in the area of law, one in the area of the board of education, and one in the area of marriage, with rules of engagement of how the men around them or the system is requiring them to be a certain way.
And I really loved how Kelly guided me when my character comments on the difference between men and women. The way it’s said is without any feminist resentment. It’s just the way it is. It’s almost as if we can’t not comment on this. Especially with this [presidential] election going on. This is what happens when you’re a woman in this position.