'Wild': Laura Dern on feeling 'vulnerable' as Reese Witherspoon's mom

'Wild': Laura Dern on feeling 'vulnerable' as Reese Witherspoon's mom
Bobbi Strayed Lindstrom and Laura Dern in "Wild," which finds Dern in a motherhood role once again. (Fox Searchlight)

Laura Dern is having a mother of a year. In the spring, Dern played a cheery, soothing parent to cancer patient Shailene Woodley in the hit teen weepie "The Fault in Our Stars." In the fall festival darling "99 Homes," which will be released next year, Dern is mom to evicted construction worker Andrew Garfield.

And in "Wild," which just arrived in theaters in New York and Los Angeles this week, the Academy Award-winning actress has one of the year's most significant maternal roles, as the mother of memoirist Cheryl Strayed, played by Reese Witherspoon.

In the bestselling book and the new film directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, Dern's character, Bobbi Strayed, is the soul of the story, an ethereal, optimistic woman whose untimely death helps spark her daughter's breakdown and subsequent decision to hike 1,100 miles alone.

When Dern was first cast in the meaty part the news raised eyebrows in age-conscious Hollywood; at 47 she's only nine years older than Witherspoon. On the industry news website, commenters questioned the logic of the decision -- "Her mother? Is this a comedy? It seems like a bad joke," one wrote. 

There is, in fact, logic to the casting -- Bobbi's scenes unfold in flashback, as Cheryl is recalling her while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Dern said the age difference never occurred to her until another actor brought it up over a meal.

"After we did it we went to dinner with a mutual girlfriend who’s an actor too, and she was like, 'I can’t believe you did that. Aren’t you nervous about doing that?'" Dern said. "I was like, 'Wait, wha?' It didn’t give me pause before, but after I felt maybe vulnerable that somebody else pointed it out."

Dern, whose own mother, actress Diane Ladd, is from Meridian, Miss., said she felt a "kindred spirit Southern family kind of thing" with the New Orleans-born Witherspoon.

"Laura came at this with absolutely no ego," Witherspoon said of her costar's casting. "Ego is the death of creativity."

In the film, Dern, herself a mother of two, acts opposite Strayed's real-life 9-year-old daughter, who is named Bobbi, after the grandmother she never met. The scenes provided an opportunity for some closure for Strayed.

"Cheryl was so heartbroken that her mother would never meet her children and when she saw Bobbi run into my arms on the first day ... she watched her daughter meet her grandmother for the first time," Dern said.