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Interview: Is Laura Dern Still "Wild" At Heart?

Happy Thanksgiving! What better gift for you on this weekend of celebrating abundance than an interview with one of the most gifted actors in the world. Laura Dern has been shocking and stirring moviegoers with finely carved and often daringly dramatic or weirdly comic performances for the past thirty years.

Laura Dern as "Bobbi" in Wild

Born into showbiz (her parents are Oscar-nominees Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd) she grew up onscreen and around film sets. Her breakthrough came early at the age of eighteen. Her first hit as a blind girl in Mask was shortly followed by a revelatory performance as a young girl treading into dangerous sexual waters with an older stranger in Smooth Talk. The very next year she worked with David Lynch on Blue Velvet beginning a long collaborative and rather genius director/muse duet. Nearly thirty years later she's still delivering buzzy performances. On paper her new character Bobbi in Wild, an incongruously positive dying mother who we meet in wisps of memories as Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) attempts a soul searching hike on the PCT, seems far removed from the reckless spirits that made Dern such a fascinating screen presence. But that's not the way Dern sees it, describing this woman as "wild" and "a pioneer". 

When we sat down to talk in Los Angeles it had been the third time I'd seen her in the past year, since she was such a regular presence on the Oscar circuit last season for her father's nomination. "You were practically his campaign manager," I say, fondly remembering her indefatigable enthusiasm for his work as we settle in sharing memories of a Nebraska reception a year back.

"I mean... I'll always be." she says, beaming, ever the devoted daughter now promoting her own film that happens to be about a deep parent-child connection.  The back-to-back award campaigns seem like a good place to start...

NATHANIEL: Did all that time with your father last year make you hungry for an Oscar yourself?

LAURA DERN: Oh no. I mean… I’m hungry to get to be 79 one day and get to say, like,  “Dad, I’m doing what I love and this is my favorite role i’ve ever had!” That’s incredible. That was the best part of the ride. I got to be on set for weeks and really watch him be in his bliss.  

So the accolade part of it was just that he got to have the most fun ever. And his peers and the next generation were paying tribute — not only for his beautiful work but for his body of work and honoring that he has always stayed true to himself. He’s kind of a rebel in that way. All of it was so gorgeous. It made me hungry mostly for the longevity, the commitment to being the kind of artist you want to be and not compromising. That’s the best part of the story.

And now we're back here again on the Oscar trail for Wild. A part like this where your work is interspersed throughout the movie as vivid memories. I imagine it's about trying to embody ideas and feelings quickly since it's not big scenes? How do you approach that as an actor?

It’s its own challenge because you have an enormous story to tell in a shorter amount of time. You hope that you’ve learned enough about her through Cheryl, through the book, and through Jean-Marc’s vision and integrity in keeping it true to Cheryl’s story. You hope that you’re going to hold the deep-earned gratitude that [Cheryl's mother] got to in her life -- from that all of this great wisdom came out. 

If that energy is constantly present, than hopefully each memory, you know why it’s getting her to her truest self. I was on my own hike, just like Cheryl was, just like Reese was. The story of Bobbi was its own hike of a woman walking from a very abusive terrifying situation and learning to really find how to be grateful through despair. She gets that wisdom and then she holds it for the rest of her life. She has her own epiphany where she says ‘ I realize I’ve always been someone else’s something. Someone’s daughter. Someone’s wife. Someone’s mother. Just when I’m ready to be in the driver’s seat of my own life, it ends.'

Tragic for her. But beautiful, too.

Beautiful. So you hope that trajectory stays true so that you know where you are. It’s nonlinear so you want to feel the different ages and times and the different ways she mothered her daughter. 

The Fault in Our Stars

Did you ever draw the parallels between this role and the mother you played in The Fault In Our Stars? They're kind of similiar on a surface level except in the earlier film, it's the child with the illness. Did you film them back-to-back? 

Almost. There was a little time between. Certainly everything that John Green gave me was a beautiful preparation to work on [Wild]. But that mom is in such crisis mode because she’s in agony and she’s terrified and she knows it's the end for a very long time. Which is a very different thing, to live with terminal illness for years and always have to stay detached and be in the moment for her daughter. So I feel like everything is an emergency in that film. But this film is really about truly being present and feeling everything.  It’s really a deep love story between a mother and daughter. I can’t think of times that I’ve gotten to see love revealed in such a beautiful way in a film.  And really it’s the the first love story many of us have had - whether it’s a mother or father or grandparent -  that primary caregiver who really loved us. 

Did you know that Diane, Laura, and Bruce all got their stars on the Walk of Fame together? It happened in 2010

Nathaniel: That's kind of a cool meta-thing with your own career, given that you followed your parents into showbiz and your first Oscar nomination came alongside your own mother's. I love Rambling Rose.

LAURA DERN: That’s beautiful. I love that you said that.

Both of these mothers are very grounded in a way. They’re real every day people. But actually your signature characters are far more outré. Women who, if they're not psychotic, are at least on the verge. 

LAURA DERN: [Excited] Love 'em! I’ll keep it doing it my whole life I’m sure.

Amy Jellicoe, Lula, Ruth. And more - why do you think you’re so gifted with that type of woman. You don’t seem like that at all in real life !

Hmmmm. Maybe it’s good I played those parts. [Laughter] Maybe I got it all out so it didn’t take over my own life?

I love the misunderstood, you know? I love being an actor because I want to have compassion for the complicated. I’m really interested in getting out of judgment and finding empathy. It’s an incredible gift to play complicated people. I grew up on Seventies movies, both on set with my parents and as a fan. So if my heroes were Klute and Midnight Cowboy then of course I’m going to want to do Citizen Ruth. I’m not going to want to play the archetype of the good girl and the archetype of the naughty girl. It’s just not interesting to me.

Even this role - It’s the opposite of the archetype of a mother.

How so?

It’s a woman who has found how to mother because she went through hell and went ‘oh my god I’ve got to survive this and the only way I’m going to survive this is to find what good came from this  story. And what came from this is my children.'

You’ve got to find your best self. That’s what I love about what Bobbi said to her daughter. She didn’t just say 'Find your voice or find your true self.' She said 'I want you to find your best self and when you do you’ve got to hold on to it for dear life.'  It’s not necessarily from a mother’s judgement. It’s from a place of knowing how hard it its to hold on to being truthful.

In a way she’s wild, this mother, she is one of those women. Because in the seventies to leave an abusive marriage, penniless with two kids, is radical. I like pioneers who are longing for voice. However that comes out whether it's an addict, a mother, a huffer, a sexualized David Lynch character, a murderer or whatever I was in Inland Empire [Laughter] I have no fucking clue! That excites me.

I’m not sure how to ask this but when you’re in a movie that has the internalized complex drama and daring that you're so great at, like The Master, but your part isn’t connected to the interesting stuff. Is that frustrating? The whole time I was watching that film I wanted you to switch roles with Amy Adams. I was like 'Laura Dern is in this movie and you're not giving her anything to do !!!'

Laura as "Helen Sullivan" in Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master"

LAURA DERN: You know what? That movie was hard only because I had an amazing role and I had an amazing experience. And he had a very very long movie. 

Nathaniel: So he cut stuff? That would explain it.

I did have a really fulfilling experience and I got to work with Phil Hoffman extensively. My character was really dear to Paul [writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson]. In a way she was the seed that grew that whole movie. So I was in a really interesting process with him. He’s very close with Jonathan Demme and Jonathan and I were working together at the same time on Enlightened. We spent a lot of time talking about it and how it would evolve.

But he’s so brilliant and he gives himself room to explore.  I think as he found Joaquin and Phil’s dynamic it became that love story.

The screenplay evolved into something that was not what he started with.

Yeah, yeah. So all these other stories inevitably had to fall away.  I think maybe 20 years ago I would’ve felt bad but I got to work with P.T.A. who is a genius and hysterical and a friend. I feel like I will work with him again. It’s like with him or David Lynch, if they call you, you kind of don’t care what they want you to do.

David Lynch is obviously a huge figure within your career. Other than Lynch, who and what, besides your own gift, do you think most formed you as actor?  If someone were programming a film festival what would be the essentials? 

The first people that came to mind were my parents and Sandra Seacat my acting teacher. But in terms of on film, other than David, I think of Smooth Talk. I think of the film Mask because Peter Bogdanoivch was a huge influence on me and taught me a lot about the kind of characters I wanted to play. And then probably Citizen Ruth would be a huge turning point for me. To just GO right after Jurassic Park to just go so deeply. 

[Laughter] Yes, Not the same person at all.

That was really awesome. That was a big deal.

And Ellen Degeneres! To be part of Ellen's coming out episode. I think of moments in time where I’ve worked with people who’ve really influenced me in terms of bravery in voice - those would be the main things. 

Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon as mother and daughter in "Wild"

You can catch Laura in theaters in "Wild" starting December 5th.  
More Laura | More Wild | More Interviews

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Reader Comments (26)

Wow. That was an excellent interview. Chapeau!

I deeply respect Laura Dern. I love Rambling Rose too, and Ruth, and Enlightened, and Lula, and her mother, the great Diane Ladd.

P.S. Now I really want to see the long(er) version of The Master! P.T.A. should turn it into a miniseries or something.

November 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I just watched her on the Actor's Roundtable -- she has such a great spirit and seems very beloved by the all the other actresses.

November 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBia

Loving this interview, hoping that she will get that second Oscar nomination!

November 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercraver

She always struck me as a very cool person. Lovely interview! I wish her the best for this year's Oscars. There's a lot of competition, but I do think that she has a shot.

November 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGab

Laura Dern is eternally cool. I love her defending Paul's choice. Shocked you never insisted that Julianne Moore play Helen. Since you want Laura as Peggy Dodd.

November 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

I adore this woman.

For her astounding work in Inland Empire alone, she's earned a place in the pantheon. But then she matched that tour de force through Amy Jellicoe and co-creating Enlightened, and all that is before we even get into Citizen Ruth, Rambling Rose, Wild at Heart and just the transfixing fact that she seems like the nicest human being on Earth.

Also I'm way waaay more interested in the alternate version of The Master that is all about her character and PSH's.

November 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Amazing interview!

November 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

Love her, love this interview. Thanks!

November 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

I loved Dern on the actress roundtable,so honest,kind and fun.

November 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

/3rtful - i do not like seeing celebrities in tiny parts. I find it distracting. Let the working actor have those. They need to earn a living, too!

Goran -- i am way more interested in that movie, too!

November 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Terrific interview! I will be rooting for her on nomination morning.

November 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

i also think it would be cool to see Dern get a second nomination (even though she doesn't have quite enough to do in this movie) because her Dad has two and her mom has three and it seems weird that she only has one since she's actually the most gifted member of the family if you ask me. This is not meant as an insult to Diane Ladd or Bruce Dern neither of whom are slouches in that department!

November 28, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

the hfpa love her (five noms/three wins plus a stint as miss golden globes) so that ought to boost her awards momentum

i did not know that diane, laura, and bruce all got their stars on the walk of fame together but i'm happy to know that now. love that family pic

November 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterpar

I have been a fan of Laura's since Jurassic Park just like many people in my age group. I've read many interviews and I must say this one is particularly great, there are questions here that I've never seen asked. Maybe its because the author is a fan or just a great interviewer but that question about The Master and how Laura should of maybe been the lead was just amazing. Great job and I too will be waiting to hear her name on nomination morning.

November 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWalt

You knocked this out of the park! And the photo is fantastic.

November 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

One of my favorite things about last year's awards season was seeing her at so many events on her dad's arm, full of pride and affection. It really got to me. I'm hoping we get a reprise this year.

Great interview!

November 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

it seems weird that she only has one since she's actually the most gifted member of the family

What's weird is what she was nominated for. Rambling Rose is not Oscar-bait.

November 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

One of my favorite actresses. The energy she exudes as a person is extremely captivating. She really seems like an evolved human being. As an actress, she is one of the boldest. Her choices never cease to surprise me. There is no vanity whatsoever in her work. A truly great artist!

November 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMr. Goodbar

I wish David Lynch were doing movies again. Lynch and Dern are such a great team.

November 29, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Joaquin Phoenix recently said the only auteur he has yet to work with that he desperately wants to work with is David Lynch.

November 29, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Sterling work.

November 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCapita


November 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Excellent interview, Nathaniel. The movie (Wild) is fresh in my mind from a screening tonight. Some really powerful work in that production. Audiences will likely be able to embrace it now after the way has been paved by Into the Wild, 127 Hours and (to a lesser extent) Tracks.

Dern has had such an amazing career and life. Those parents and those romances (Kyle MacLachlan, Nicolas Cage, Renny Harlin, Jeff Goldblum, Billy Bob Thornton and Ben Harper)!

November 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Not only does Laura Dern irradiate such positive warmth and energy and looks like a fantastic person to be around, but also the humility and the talent of a great performer.

I love her, I hope her recent ressurgence into mainstream recognition and prolificiency in the movies keeps going, hopefully with an Oscar nomination this year.

And besides being delightful and insightful at the Actress Roundtable from THR, she was by far and away the most interesting person in that group and was praised by her off-work generosity by some of the other actresses there. Remarkable.

You go, Laura!

December 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

I'm late to the party but Nathaniel, this was everything. Can't believe you got to talk to The Face herself and knocked such a great interview out of it. Get. It.

Ugh, The Master. One of my most disappointing movies in recent memory. Beyond the excellent craft achievements, can people stop pretending that movie was anything other than shouting matches, awful mannered acting and obvious post-war Americana themes? I saw nothing else and Dern's curious role getting the ax only proved it.

December 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

Beautiful! So pleased for her.

January 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBryan

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