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Laura Dern grew up acting in a man’s world. Then ‘Jurassic Park’ inspired her inner feminist badass

Actress Laura Dern
Laura Dern says playing the divorce lawyer in “Marriage Story” was wild. “Playing a woman in a position of power, who’ll never lose her cool — was crazy.”
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” is full of wonderful performances from stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson among others, but one of the most memorable is Laura Dern’s. No surprise; the actress was born into Hollywood royalty via dad Bruce Dern and mom Diane Ladd, and routinely turns in firecracker performances. But as bulldog divorce lawyer Nora, Dern (who also appears in “Little Women” this season) is clearly having a blast — and could scoop up a third Oscar nomination, if not her first win. Over tea and scones at New York City’s Whitby Hotel, the actress talked about divorce, childhood acting perils and the critical role of correct jungle footwear.

You clearly had fun playing Nora.

Oh, yeah. The script was perfect. Flawless. Her red high heels are written into it. But playing a woman in a position of power, who’ll never lose her cool — was like, crazy. It’s wild to play that kind of agenda without insecurity.

How much did you help develop her?

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For the year we spent with Noah there was this collaboration. Adam, myself and then Scarlett had a year and a half of dinners and conversations, sharing love stories, heartbreaks, childhoods — everything. Noah said, “I want to make a love story through the lens of divorce.” That was an amazing gift — because we got to define how to do that together. I felt giddy.

Your parents divorced when you were young, and you went through a divorce yourself, from Ben Harper, in 2010. Was playing Nora cathartic, letting you get it all out in a — fake — courtroom?

I’ve walked through it in so many different ways with so many people — as a child, best friend, ex-wife. It’s a romance. It’s a tragedy. At times it’s a horror film. You have a marriage until you sign that paper. It’s a really messed up system. I could have done it better for my kids, made it more amicable.

Yet some people end up doing it multiple times.

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The bravery of thinking of marrying again — I don’t know. I have not remarried. [Divorce is] not something I’d want to do again.

You’ve spoken about really catching the acting bug while shuttling between your parents’ films in the 1970s. Then you began acting at age 11. Over the decades, how have you witnessed the backstage atmosphere changing?

As a young actress there was only one other woman even on the movie — the script supervisor. I never saw another [on set]. There was no gender diversity, and no comfort zone as a child. It was such a man’s world. It has changed immensely, which is exciting — but there’s still a long way to go.

You self-emancipated at 13 so you could work more; did you ever feel unsafe while working?

What’s scary is, I’m like, “I’m 13, I can take an elevator downstairs” and the person in the elevator is attempting to be inappropriate — and the doors opened and my guardian was there. So I was protected and still palpably aware of it at times. Definitely had a couple of run-ins. I was very lucky it didn’t end up far worse. But at the time, I had no idea it was wrong. I just knew it was scary, and a person made me uncomfortable. Even at 15, 16 I had an audition with a great director at the Chateau Marmont and I was called up to his room to sit on a bed because it was the only place to read material. Nothing happened — he was a professional.

You have a 14-year-old daughter, Jaya. Have you warned her away from the business?

Jaya knows everything. These young women I’m around because of my daughter are very comfortable presuming their right to be in the boardroom or to have any job. They are on it. I’m letting her find her way, and feel through all of it.

Before we wrap, I see you’re returning to “Jurassic Park” for the third installment of the reboot in 2021. You’ll be reprising the role of paleobotanist Ellie from the first “Jurassic” film in 1993. Why?

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Well, Steven Spielberg called me. Let’s start there. I love Ellie Sattler the most of all the characters I’ve played. Every single day since I made that movie, someone tells me about her. Steven really wanted to make a feminist, iconic badass amid the big boys in a big action movie.

There was a bit of a kerfuffle when the franchise rebooted in 2014 and Bryce Dallas Howard was spotted running around the jungle in high heels. Can you assure us that Ellie will have sensible shoes?

I can promise you that. We’re gonna bring back our Timberlands.


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