'The Last Jedi's' Laura Dern on answering to 'Space Dern' and getting LGBTQ characters into the 'Star Wars' universe
By Jen Yamato
Dec 22, 2017 | 9:15 AM
Reverberating throughout the 40-year-old “Star Wars” franchise, one refrain has always held the galaxy together: “May the Force be with you.”
Emotional, stirring, and in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” even elegiac, the line takes on new meaning in scenes the late Carrie Fisher shares with Laura Dern as Vice Adm. Holdo, one of the leaders of General Leia Organa’s Resistance and the enigmatic new character whose principles lead the saga into its next chapter.
Speaking with The Times a week into the release of “The Last Jedi,” Dern was effusive with love for her character, the film, and its writer-director, Rian Johnson. And to answer one of the most urgent questions to come out of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”: Yes, Laura Dern will now henceforth — proudly — answer to the title “Space Dern.”
In fact, the affectionate honorific was bestowed upon Dern out of sheer fan demand by Vulture writer Kyle Buchanan even before the first image of her lilac-haired, cosmic-coutured Holdo hit the internet. But it earned special resonance with the release of “The Last Jedi” when the true magnitude of Space Dern and all she stands for were revealed in Holdo’s unforgettable acts, brought to life with dexterity and depth by Dern in some of the film’s most memorable scenes.
She’s now seen “The Last Jedi” three times and like many fans, Dern says the film has opened new doors with each viewing, from the resonance of its pointed gender politics in a year of women reclaiming their power to its immense love for the late Fisher. And while she embraces the queer back story written into Holdo’s history outside of the film, she emphasizes the importance of seeing LGBTQ identities fully portrayed on screen in the “Star Wars” universe: “I look forward to a character being deeply represented in terms of their sexuality.”
The Oscar-nominated actress, whose year included an Emmy-winning turn on HBO’s “Big Little Lies” and a lauded role as another woman of mystery in Showtime’s “Twin Peaks” revival, also endorsed a new moniker to consider for the future of “Star Wars”: “Space Lynch.” Read on for more (but beware — there are spoilers ahead).
Did you know that the internet has been referring to you as “Space Dern” since long before we got a glimpse of Holdo in her purple-haired glory? And do you now, in fact, answer to Space Dern?
[Laughs] That is hilarious! And yes, you can refer to me as “Space Dern” from this point forward. Maybe no one else will but I’m going to ask my children to.
Vice Adm. Holdo is a great new character who has one of the most surprising turns in "The Last Jedi." How was she first described to you, and what additional qualities did you discover in bringing her to life?
[Rian Johnson] invited me to lunch to talk about what he was working on, and it was not made clear what the film was. But the first thing he described was this quality of someone who is so steadfast that you don’t know what side they’re on because they don’t need the rest of the world to know their plans. The kind of person — the kind of woman — who is clear in her voice, and even in the company of men questioning her doesn’t need to justify her behavior or her choices, because if she was outspoken about it, it might not allow the plan to have room.
He had written this for me, which was so beautiful. And he really wanted that dynamic to occur — and to occur between a man and a woman. To have not only this male character [Poe] but the audience be on this journey — is she good, is she bad, is she going to mess everything up, why does she not look like a hero in boys’ clothes? — all of those things, were in how he first addressed it.
It feels particularly relevant for a mainstream movie, let alone a “Star Wars” movie, to say so much, so boldly about feminine heroism, authority and emotional intelligence as key elements of leadership.
Especially in the zeitgeist of all we’re thinking about in terms of who women are in positions of power, and not being impacted by abuses of power — I just feel really proud to be part of that story line in a film that’s being seen so widely, and by a generation of girls and boys that we’re all raising. All these characters are equally complicated, diverse and powerfully heroic… I just love it.
You and Carrie sat down with Rian and helped shape your powerful “May the Force be with you” scene. What was that experience like?
Being around Carrie was an irreplaceable gift of a lifetime. It moves me that it exists and that, obviously, we could have had no way of knowing the impact it would have. For her to pass down this “I’ve said it enough” idea… the whole thing was so powerful. Even then, I remember she was like, “Whoa. May the Force be with you — always. I’ve never heard that.” It got her teary, and me teary, because it was like imparting a prayer.
I feel privileged that Rian gave us the room. It’s hard enough on a $7 million movie when there’s a time crunch and craziness to go, “Can we just try something?” How can we pay homage to Leia and to the women that she’s bred to be powerful and independent? To try to sum that up in a scene in a movie that’s filled with a lot of other storytelling and visual effects and everything else was an amazing gift to be a part of.
How many times have you seen the film now?
I’ve seen it three times, and honestly I would be thrilled to see it again. It deepens every time, it’s so rich. I think it’s just extraordinary, I really do. The first time I watched it on a politically subversive level; the next time I watched it as this legacy to Carrie, and to Luke Skywalker, and to what George Lucas created, and to Joseph Campbell, and all we got from the first three films. And then you’re just in the fun and the bliss and the irreverence of it… it just keeps unfolding.
It’s difficult enough for fans to divorce Carrie from Leia and her place within this influential franchise when you watch “The Last Jedi.” What do you see in her performance when you watch it?
She really was our first true heroine. The light and the dark is not the story of “Star Wars”; the story of “Star Wars” is the story of the gray. We’re all capable of both, and we have to wrestle with that inside. Brilliantly, Mark Hamill always says “Star Wars” is the story of a dysfunctional family. It’s that, too!
For us growing up it was like, “Oh! Women can be sensual and complicated and tough and fiery, and be a badass, and be a superhero.” To witness her performance you see the wisdom she held at this point in her life, her art, her irreverence, her unbelievable sense of comedy, and her relationship and dynamic with Rian, who really wanted it to be an homage to Leia.
What does it mean to you that Holdo has become the first LGBTQ character in the “Star Wars” films, albeit indirectly, thanks to the canonical back story fleshed out in the new young Leia novel? Did you have that in mind when you played her?
To be honest, I was not aware of the details of the book [at the time of filming]. But what I love about the world that they have created is that this world is meant to represent us, and the Resistance is meant to represent us — what the world actually looks like, not some made-up, archaic concept of who represents the world. And I think they have and will continue to work diligently to represent everyone. I look forward to a character being deeply represented in terms of their sexuality. I know that none of us would have any problem, and only joy, if anybody wants to put [an LGBTQ identity] onto my character or any character in this film.
What would you like to see in future “Star Wars” films in terms of queer representation?
I know there have been references by fans about Poe and Finn. I mean, my God — they’d be the most beautiful couple ever! I think there’s a quality in Holdo that supports the idea. You get the sense that she was a hippie who would acknowledge all things and never judge. So it’s not that it doesn’t lend itself to that — many people also think there’s a deep sexual tension between her and Poe — but you put onto it what you come in with.
Most importantly, I do believe that this team of filmmakers will not rest until the LGBTQ community is deeply represented, and I don’t think that we would want Holdo to be where it stops, because it’s not clear, nor was it our intent. What I’m thrilled to say is, caring deeply about it and about everyone being honored and represented, I would never want to shy away from that if that was the goal.
It’s nice to have that in mind thinking back to Holdo’s big moment, which is one of the film’s most stunning, breathtaking and moving acts of heroism.
It’s amazing how they cut it together. All of it was just stunning to me. Along with the Space Dern name, I also like and appreciate all the theorizing about what happens in that moment. I’ve had people come up to me on the street asking me about my eject pod! Kids ask me what the ability is that Leia has to fly through space and live for a period of time, and if she taught Holdo that. I think it’s a very interesting theory! [Laughs]
In preparing for that scene, did you get into the theoretical necessity of Holdo staying behind to pilot the ship? And did you ever imagine that “Star Wars” superfans would pore and obsess over Every. Single. Detail. of Holdo’s actions?
[Laughs] No, I did not. I was not prepared for that at all, and I love it. I’m learning so much about “Star Wars” because of it! But I do think the idea of willing sacrifice, and someone’s silent intent to not need to be a hero but to save everyone is just profound. There’s definitely something for me to learn about the idea of perception versus knowing. It’s a deep spiritual question, in many religions too, this idea of not needing to prove who you are, but knowing it. It’s a big question.
Looking at “Star Wars” in the context of the greater Laura Dern Cinematic Universe, you were also a part of this year’s “Twin Peaks” revival. We know that David Lynch was approached to direct a “Star Wars” film years ago, but could you get behind him joining this reborn franchise?
[Pauses dramatically] All I can say is, I’ve never wanted to see anything more. I mean, who do we start begging?
I’m pretty sure you’re the one with the best chance of making that happen… you're our only hope.
That’s something to think about! Because what’s incredible is that David has been living in a boundary-less world of cinema forever, and I know what an inspiration he is to all the filmmakers I work with. It’s what they want to talk about. I’m about to start a film with Noah Baumbach and our conversation turned to what “Twin Peaks” meant to us this year. Rian and I speak about him often. He just is, in invention and creativity – he’s not in the question of how it will be perceived. The ultimate Holdo! I mean, I’m Space Dern — I’m his muse, he’s got to be Space Lynch. Spread the word!
Please consider subscribing today to support stories like this one. Get full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks. Already a subscriber? Your support makes our work possible. Thank you.