The HBO series “Enlightened” is impossible to imagine without Laura Dern’s portrayal of Amy Jellicoe, the unlikely agent of corporate change who sets the whole story in motion with an unforgettable mascara-streaked meltdown on the job. Dern did more than interpret the role — she also co-created and co-produced the series with director, writer and actor Mike White, who says that Dern’s own qualities helped inspire his writing. “She’s just unsinkable,” he says. “The hours on a show like this are crazy, but she never flags. She’s like a thoroughbred. There are no limits to the emotional and comic places she can go.” We caught up by phone with Dern, who is nominated for an Emmy, as she was vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard with her two children.
What was the seed for creating Amy?
She was part of a very essential vision that I had, and Mike took that and ran with it. It started when the Supreme Court got involved in the election of Bush vs. Gore. I was amazed there were no protests on a large scale even though people had such strong feelings about it. I thought, I wonder what kind of person it takes now to make a difference. With Amy, the idea was, maybe you have to be a bit boundary-less and flawed to be able to risk everything. If you’re willing to tell the truth all the time, you’re going to lose friends, but you may also effect change in the world.
Can you talk about your instincts for comedy and how they came to life in this character?
Oddly, I’ve always been sought out to play somewhat broken people in funny movies, like “Citizen Ruth” with [director] Alexander Payne. It’s an incredible challenge to play a character who seems so awful that you can’t imagine how people will be on her side, but you have to find your way to that. So you find humor and empathy in the broken places. It’s an on-your-feet challenge as an actor that I adore. Lucille Ball was a huge influence on me. I love pratfalls and awkward moments and being uncomfortable eating in front of a guy. I love things like flying across three desks to grab a phone and acting like there’s nothing unusual about that.
Amy can be so endearing in her tenacious positivity but other times she can be so perplexing and hard to watch. Were you and Mike ever tempted to ease up on her, to try to get a bigger audience?
We were thoughtful of ways to make it alive and entertaining and still poetic, but never in a way that involved compromise. Season 2 was always going to be more plot-driven, as she becomes a whistle-blower on a mission to take down a corporation. But it had to include our original vision, which was to make her the most unlikely person to effect change in the most difficult situation possible.
Mike says he wrote this character to your voice. Where does it come from in you, this ability to take things all the way?
I was lucky to have spent my childhood watching two amazing people at work [her parents, actors Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd] and observing their dedication and commitment. I saw how thorough they are emotionally and how their first instinct was to make it as honest as possible.
Even though the show has a very satisfying arc over the course of its two seasons, Mike says he feels it could have been even richer if it continued. How does it feel to get a nomination for a show that’s been cancelled?
I’m just incredibly grateful for the accolades and hopeful that they’ll help people find it. I’m meeting people who are just now finding it, and they say things like, “She’s a train wreck, she’ll never get anything done. But wouldn’t it be cool if she took that whole company down?” It’s fun to listen to people having these pipe dreams for Amy, now that we know what happens.