Sunday Conversation: Laura Dern on fame, feminism and subversive roles

Sunday Conversation: Laura Dern on fame, feminism and subversive roles
Actress Laura Dern appears in the upcoming HBO series "Big Little Lies." (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The theme of luck and the sound of laughter recur with frequency when talking with Laura Dern.

The Oscar-nominated actress, who has toggled between film and television throughout her nearly 40-year career, is in Pasadena to chat about HBO's adaptation of Liane Moriarty's 2014 bestseller "Big Little Lies." Premiering Sunday, the seven-episode limited series reunites her with "Wild" costar and friend Reese Witherspoon and director Jean-Marc Vallee and also gives her the chance to work alongside other close friends Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley.


It is among multiple projects the 50-year-old L.A. native — fresh off roles in "The Founder" and "Certain Women" —  is juggling on what has been her very full dance card of late.  In addition to "Big Little Lies," Dern will head back to TV and reunite with one of her favorite directors, David Lynch, for Showtime's "Twin Peaks" reboot, arriving May 21. In theaters next month she costars with Woody Harrelson in the charming character study "Wilson" and has been working on "Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi," due out Dec. 15.

Whether dueling with dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park,"  bulldozing her way to inner peace on HBO's gone-too-soon "Enlightened" or portraying the tightly wound CEO and mom Renata Klein on "Big Little Lies," Dern's interest has always been in playing complex characters, from steely to vulnerable.

"I do believe the most politically subversive act people who are making films can be part of is showing deeply complicated characters who aren't moral vs. amoral," she says. "If we saw more of that I think we'd recognize the truth in lovers all the way to presidential candidates."

We recently chatted with Dern about pivotal choices, parental guidance — hers are acclaimed actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern — and the encouragement she got from Martin Scorsese.

Going through your filmography, you've rarely played a role that could simply be reduced to "the wife" or "the girlfriend," something that has plagued other actresses. 

I've been incredibly lucky. Sometimes you don't always have choice as a young actor ... but it's the directors that found me as a young teen and said, "I want you to be a character actor in this story as 'the girl.'" So my "girl next door" was with David Lynch ["Blue Velvet"] and Peter Bogdanovich ["Mask"], so I didn't know different and therefore I always sought out that similar sensibility.

Even in a big blockbuster like "Jurassic Park" your character was able to take charge. 

It was so amazing, I was reading the "ultimate feminist quotes" in movies and it's funny because people comment on the new era of "Jurassic World" and the characters, but initially [writer] Michael Crichton and [director] Steven Spielberg really wanted the female in the movie to be a feminist and an equal in terms of her job description. And even as this 24-year-old, I had this line where Ian Malcolm says, "God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs." And I say, "Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the Earth." (Laughs.)

So I'm assuming you can say nothing about "Twin Peaks"?

Nope. Nothing. And nor do I know that much.  I know David and I know he's inventing as he cuts. And I know as an actor who has worked with him my entire life, if you're the lead in the movie, when you see it there will be things you never imagined around you and other story lines. I just now know to let it ride because my mind's going to be blown. 

I'm guessing the same goes for "Star Wars"?

Nothing! (Laughs.) All I can say is it is, and continues to be, an amazing experience. Rian Johnson is directing this one and he's incredible. I said to him, "The most shocking thing to me was arriving to a community that was already so established but with this director that added to the energy, that the environment was like I was on a $3-million independent film." Improvisational, creative, kind, relaxed, lovely, gracious.

Because you appeared in things when you were very young, do you remember the moment that you made a conscious choice to become an actor? Or was it just the natural order of things to go into the family business?

Oh very much so. I will say at 15 years old I was given an opportunity for what could have been, and ultimately was, a very popular teen  film that could have brought accolades and great success and all those things and [was also offered] a small role in Peter Bogdanovich's film, "Mask." And it is only because I was raised by the parents I have that I knew to choose Peter Bogdanovich.


Your life would've been totally different probably if you had made the other film.

Totally different. It was pivotal. On the page it could've seemed sacrificial — not the lead, less money — but it wasn't a consideration because I'd been raised watching my parents in the '70s while they were working on movies with [Martin] Scorsese and Hal Ashby and it's like "Oh, you pick the director who talks to you about your character like this."  And raised by a father who said, "Don't ever let them pigeonhole you. I was bad guys for a long time and bad guys are good guys" and "look for the complicated." it was the '70s and I was listening to them and Gena Rowlands and Maureen Stapleton as the women in my life saying "this is who women are."

And Martin Scorsese said something so beautiful to me when I was 23. I met him on "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," which my mom was in and I was tiny and he made me an extra in the movie.  I told him how he had said a few things to me that really were the defining things that made me say "I want to be an actor" which had stuck in my head since age 6.  And he said, "I've been watching you. You're building a body of work like a filmmaker does. That's what an actor should do." And I was like "OK, God has spoken." (Laughs.)