As 2019 draws to a close, anyone glancing back at the year in the rearview mirror will find it unusually chock-full of Laura Dern moments. In February, she appeared on the big screen as the wife of Liam Neeson’s vengeful snowplow driver in “Cold Pursuit.” In April, she costarred in literary-hoax film “J.T. LeRoy” with Kristen Stewart. In May, she appeared in the wrongful-execution film “Trial by Fire.” The following month, HBO aired the second (and possibly final) season of “Big Little Lies,” the series that earned her an Emmy and a Golden Globe award (in 2017 and 2018, respectively).
Last month, she was back in the multiplex for a memorable turn as a hard-charging divorce attorney in Noah Baumbach’s ”Marriage Story,” starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson (which started streaming on Netflix on Dec. 6). And she’ll be back in theaters one more time — on Christmas Day — as Marmee in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of “Little Women.” Both performances earned her the best supporting actress award from the New York Film Critics Circle earlier this month (the awards will be handed out at an early January ceremony). On Monday, she received a supporting actress Golden Globe nomination for “Marriage Story,” followed by a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination on Tuesday, a harbinger of awards-season hardware to come.
Off-screen, the last 12 months has found Dern, 52, popping up in places expected (the November cover of Town & Country magazine, for example, and the LACMA Art + Film Gala); unexpected (a video for clean-beauty brand True Botanicals); and brain-bendingly random (on a T-shirt worn by Kanye West). And, on a late-November morning, she could be found alighting at an outdoor table at Santa Monica’s Thyme Café and Market (“They’ve known me here for years,” she says after being greeted warmly by the staff), clad in a Zimmerman pussy-bow blouse (white with black polka dots), skinny black Saint Laurent jeans and a pair of black Saint Laurent boots.
In a few hours, she was slated to do a podcast interview, and, after that, she had plans to meet up with friend and “Big Little Lies” costar Reese Witherspoon. But she was here now to talk about her love of fashion (hint: it has its roots in the 1974 film version of “The Great Gatsby”), the surprising thing she’s learned about lipstick (most of it contains lead) and what cause she’d be willing to go to jail for (make that causes — there are two). Below are excerpts from our conversation.
In the arc of your 40-year career, I feel like we might be at peak Dern. What’s changed?
Over the last few years what’s changed is that I think I’m the age where I feel really ready to play [those] much more adult, complicated and diverse characters. I think it’s changed because I was ready to say yes to everything. I’ve also built a community — a tribe — of family members where we all love to work together, so that’s created more work. [And] I’ve had good fortune. And there’s [also] been a culture shift that I think is a huge part of it.
What kind of culture shift?
First, to see women in such diverse positions, including positions of power in film and television and how much more opportunity there is. But also the culture shift of women being in those positions and, therefore, audiences asking to see themselves reflected [that way]. Audiences demanding representation means that companies that have to be commerce-driven realize they can make money having diverse and representative characters and ensembles. And that’s amazing.
Scrolling through your Instagram feed it’s hard not to notice how you use your celebrity status to highlight the causes you care about including gun violence and the Time’s Up movement. How long has activism been a part of your life?
Since I was 8 [years old] my mom [actress Diane Ladd] was dragging me along for every march … I remember marching in an ERA rally here in Los Angeles with her and Jane Fonda and Ed Asner … [My mom] is a deep empath, so wherever the need is, she shows up. And my grandmother was always that way [too]. Every year, we would spend Thanksgiving or Christmas feeding the homeless in L.A. [My family] was always very conscious of the community around them, and I think that was a huge influence.
Is that where you learned that you had a power as an actor to bring attention to the causes you care about?
Oh, for sure. It was something we all saw [a long time ago], but no one had social media. So if there was a Toys for Tots event, for example — which was this big toy drive that actors went to in the ’70s and ’80s — or someone was working at Children’s Hospital [Los Angeles], which I love very much and where I go to do service work, sometimes there’d be a picture that showed up or something like that. But I think it’s through social media that people [are now learning] what everybody’s up to.
What are some of the causes you’ve worked with over the years?
I was always an environmentalist and very involved with Oceana and the [National Resources Defense Council], so that’s work most people know about, and there’s an organization called CHEC — Children’s Health Environmental Coalition — that I was a spokesperson for for quite a few years. All those things were a deep part of my life — and still are, more than ever, because of climate change. But Everytown for Gun Safety is just … [it] should be a requirement of every citizen of this country [to know about].
On the way here to meet you for this interview, I heard about a shooting in Oklahoma on the radio.
And then Saturday there was one in Texas and was it Friday — or maybe it was Thursday — there was one in Santa Clarita. It’s a horror film … I mean my God, it’s so tragic. We have an anxiety epidemic among teens and children in this country. I visit my friends in New Zealand and their children are not afraid every morning when they go to school. This is insane. Driving to school this morning, my daughter — she’s a young activist and works with Everytown and spoke at the March for Our Lives —she’s like, “How many marches are we going to have before there’s even one law changed?” The fact that after [the Las] Vegas [shooting] they were talking about this bump stock ban, and we’re still just fighting over the same minutiae. That’s just tragic.
On Instagram, you recently posted pictures of Jane Fonda and Ted Danson getting arrested to draw attention to the issue of climate change. Is there a cause you’d be willing to put yourself out there for and get arrested?
Both [gun violence and climate change because] protecting my children’s livelihood as a mother is everything. And honestly, I’m going to be a radical here and say [that], at some point, these kids are just going to have to say they’re not going to go to school because that’s what it’s coming to. Because when are we going to listen? When they just refuse [to go to school] and schools shut down and there’s no school until the gun laws change and they feel safe enough to be there … I think it’s going to be a revolution if we — the grown-ups — don’t do something.
[As for] climate change, when we all saw “An Inconvenient Truth,” we were like, “15 years? That’s crazy talk!” And now we’re hearing things like [there will be] no more elephants in six years and the rate that this crack in the polar cap is melting is devastating. It’s tragic. You want the arrest to matter, but yes, I’m incredibly proud and would love to stand with them in any way possible and protest for the fact that not only is nothing being done but that every [environmental] law that was put into place — by Republicans and Democrats — for the last 25 years have been rolled back by the current administration. Let’s not forget your Teddy Roosevelt was an amazing environmentalist — this was a huge Republican platform as well as Democrat. This is our home. This isn’t a party issue.
You’ve made activism a part of your relationship with the True Botanicals beauty brand to the point that they’ve dubbed you, Olivia Wilde and Zazie Beetz “brand activists” instead of “brand ambassadors.” And, by bringing Alianza Nacional de Campesinas co-founder Mónica Ramírez as your date to the 2018 Golden Globes, you leveraged the red carpet to draw attention to causes as well as clothes. Do you think there’s a role that fashion and beauty brands can play in highlighting some of these causes?
Absolutely. There’s so much more [that can be done]. Stella McCartney, who I love and is a friend, is working on something for me to wear soon that will be completely sustainable. And Gabriela Hearst is working on something for me that uses not only recycled materials but previously recycled materials. She’s going to take something I’ve worn before and then make something new out of it. I love the idea of deconstructing something and putting it back together. I’ll be wearing that sometime in the coming months.
And you’re doing those projects because you care about the environment and because you hope people will see you wearing these things on the red carpet or at a premiere and heighten awareness, right?
A million percent … This is not a time that the planet should be suffering for luxury, so, like every other industry, we’ve got to rethink how we’re using it, what the factory processes are and that sort of thing.
Let’s talk about the beauty industry, specifically True Botanicals, a brand you have an equity stake in as well as being one of the faces of the brand. How did that come about?
I wrote them a fan letter after I fell in love with an oil of theirs … I found about them first through a makeup artist and then I bought one of their anti-stress aromatherapy oils and had it in my purse and I thought, “Oh, this is so lovely.” And then I looked up their website and I started learning what they were all about. After I start using the products, people were telling me my skin never looked better. The cinematographer on “Big Little Lies” was loving how I was photographing, so I was like, “Wow, this oil is something. What is this company?” We’ve always been sold that that the more chemicals [something has], the better it works, and it’s just not true. If we’re poisoning our bodies, it’s not working … I’ve always been a bit of an investigator about household products because of my kids’ safety, but I didn’t really know how much was hidden in beauty products and makeup, which I wear every day when I’m working.
As you got more involved with learning about the beauty business, was there anything that surprised you?
Yes, formaldehyde was a surprise. Arsenic and lead were surprises. It’s bad. There’s a lot of lead in lipstick, which is probably the thing young teenage girls [use] more than anything. And there’s formaldehyde in a lot of eye products.
What other brands have you been involved with over the course of your career? Didn’t you do a Kate Spade New York beauty campaign not too long ago?
That was just a digital fragrance blast. I hadn’t done — and still haven’t done — a true advertising campaign.
Weren’t you in a Gap ad once?
Yes, I did a Gap ad at 19 or 20 maybe. It was a Gap T-shirt ad with Annie Leibovitz … And yes, I have been asked to do stuff, but [back] when I was first acting, you couldn’t. You could make art with Annie Leibovitz or you could do a [magazine] cover or something like that, but you wouldn’t do [an advertising] campaign. Maybe in Asia or some other place but not here. But now everything has changed. I would love to do something with a designer because I love fashion. I’m sort of fashion-obsessed. I think it’s such a high and beautiful art.
Speaking of fashion, isn’t your son, Ellery Harper, a runway model?
Yes, he has modeled. He’s very interested in design.
Didn’t he walk in one of Raf Simons’ Calvin Klein runway shows?
Yes, he walked in Raf’s last season [at Calvin Klein] and then he walked in the Saint Laurent show [in Malibu]. And then he did a season this summer in Paris … He wanted it as an educational experience to really see how different designers work and collaborate and work with their teams. He was so lucky to be with Raf, who is such a genius. He made some of the greatest art I’ve ever seen at Calvin [Klein], and he did it when he was at Dior. And I think he’s the greatest teacher my child could ever think of having. There’s such bravery, such political subversiveness, such an homage to cinema. And he does all of it through fashion and design and he’s the most beautiful tailor. And he loves woman’s bodies and clothes and he honors men and women equally. He did stuff for a Calvin Klein home line — fabrics, pillows, blankets — that could have been the most amazing thing and that I hope he continues in whatever he does in the future.
Where did you get your love of fashion?
I think by osmosis in that my stepmom [Andrea Dern] loved fashion, and Ralph Lauren [designed some of the costumes for “The Great Gatsby,” the 1974 version, which costarred her father Bruce Dern]. And she became best friends with [Ralph Lauren executive] Buffy Birrittella. So I grew up listening to Buffy and Andrea talk about fashion and design and tailoring. Basically I learned all that at the same time I was becoming an actress, from 11 to 14; I was learning how you can redefine who you are as a woman through design and through fashion. So that was a huge influence for me both in terms of understanding fashion design and costume design.
When it comes to costume design, is there any character you’ve played whose wardrobe you could see yourself wearing in real life?
I love Renata in “Big Little Lies.” We don’t have the same fashion, but we love the same designers. She wore a lot of Raf Simons for Calvin Klein. And in “Marriage Story,” [my character] uses fashion to win cases, so that was really interesting — Louboutins all the time.
Since you mentioned you’d love to work with a designer, who’s your fashion-world dream collaborator?
I mean, my God, I love them all! I’m such an admirer of Anthony [Vaccarello] at Saint Laurent. I love what he’s doing. And I’ve always loved Chanel. It’s such an iconic female [look] to me. And if Raf makes women’s clothes again, forget about it. Stella [McCartney] because of her incredible sustainability practices, and I love Pierpaolo Piccioli at Valentino. He’s such an amazing man as well as [an amazing] designer. What I didn’t know about fashion that I particularly love — and that I learned from my son, my greatest teacher — is the blurred line now between not only true indie artists but also streetwear and high-fashion brands. I was less familiar with Undercover, with Japanese denim brands that I’ve fallen in love with because of my son … I don’t know if [modeling] is where he’ll land, but it’ll be a huge part of his story.
Did your son gravitate to the world of fashion because you were so into it?
His dad [musician Ben Harper] loves fashion. I mean, we both really love fashion, and his dad has incredible taste. And when it comes to fashion, it’s really fun to have a rock-musician father because as a musician you can wear anything. And his dad was a big collector of Nudie [Cohn] and loved Western tailoring and has worn a lot of Comme des Garçons for years and Junya Watanabe and even designed some of his own stuff. For press, as a rock star, he’d wear three-piece cashmere Lanvin suits. Ben wore a lot of Gucci for many years. He was the guy who wore a Gucci tux to the Grammys with Vans [sneakers] he designed himself.
Your friend Reese Witherspoon recently wrote a book of wit and wisdom called “Whiskey in a Teacup.” If you wrote a book of wit and wisdom, what would it be called?
I haven’t not thought about [that] — it’s percolating. If I could have my wish come true, I would do something with my mother. I don’t have a title [idea] yet, but we’ve had the most amazing conversations this year about mothering and about being actresses and single mothers and daughters. She’s very wise and wonderfully irreverent, which is the best combination, and this is the moment in my life where we’ve been having these walks and talking about accountability.
What’s with all the pictures of otters on your Instagram feed? Is the otter your spirit animal?
It makes me laugh because Otter Bay is the school in “Big Little Lies,” and the otter was the mascot so there were otters everywhere already. And there’s been a big push through Oceana to save and protect the otter, so I do love an otter! I love ocean life [in general]. When I was a kid, my fantasy was to become a marine biologist. That’s why I love doing work with Oceana and care so deeply.
But it’s not like the otter is your spirit animal?
No, dolphins are my spirit animal. But [dolphins] are buddies with the otters!
Because this interview is appearing in the last Image section of 2019, I’m wondering if you’ve made a New Year’s resolution for 2020.
I haven’t thought about it so much yet, but I know meditation will be on the list. And that’s just about really reminding [myself] of that commitment every year, and it’s just so unfortunate that the times in my life that I don’t meditate or don’t exercise are when I’m in stress. That’s human, but it’s just when you need it the most … With the actors in “Marriage Story,” I was like, “God, we need to take like 20 minutes and go down to the gym in the hotel and just run on a treadmill or jump in the pool or do whatever you’re able to do for yourself.” [It’s valuable] even if you only have 10 minutes to meditate or stretch a little. It changes everything.
Since 2020 is a presidential election year, are you backing a particular candidate? And is it true author and2020 Democratic candidate Marianne Williamson was once your roommate?
She was! When I first got out of high school, we met, and she and I were both looking for a roommate. She was doing such amazing work with Project Angel Food and “A Course in Miracles.” And she was a beautiful speaker and an amazing friend, and we have remained great friends ever since. And I’m so excited that her voice — and all the voices that chose to enter the primary — are there … I literally think it’s time for it to be like a Marvel movie. We’ve got to find the best 10, and everybody rolls in “Avengers"-style … Whoever gets the nomination, the rest [should be] like, “We’re in!” … It’s not a time for narcissism. It’s time to save the planet. And it does take a village, especially to clean up the current disaster that exists.
Work-wise, what does 2020 have in store for you?
Well, I might spend some time playing with dinosaurs.
You’re referring to “Jurassic World 3” that was announced a few months ago, right? What’s the timetable on that?
It’s [filming] next year, but I’m unclear [of] the exact dates. And I’m possibly working on something else before then if [“Jurassic World 3” films] a little bit later. But right now, it’s my son’s last year of high school, and my daughter’s first year of high school. So it’s the first time since my kids were babies that I’ve said I’m happy to do press and be around. Those are such milestones.