Wednesday, October 12, 2016
New York Film Festival 2016 Interview: Laura Dern
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.
I spoke to Dern 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.
Read the rest in Slant Magazine