On one level, the two characters Laura Dern is playing these days couldn’t be more different. In Craig Johnson’s Wilson, she plays Pippi, a struggling ex-prostitute who’s trying to get her life together under a new name in a new town; in the HBO series Big Little Lies, she plays Renata, an astoundingly wealthy executive who crushes her enemies in tony Monterey, California. Dern is just as comfortable in one as she is in the other, bringing her signature brand of intensity and grace to screens big and small. We caught up with Dern during the Wilson press tour to talk about Martin Scorsese’s advice to her, the brilliant ad-lib she came up with for Big Little Lies, and how women need to stop fighting each other.
We’re in the middle of little Dern-aissance right now. You’ve got Wilson and you’ve got Big Little Lies.
It’s upon us. Along those lines: A friend of mine once said you often play “women on the verge of a nervous breakthrough.”
Oh my god, I love that. It’s great.
Right? Both of your characters in those two works fit that description. What’s so compelling to you about people who are struggling to keep it together?
I think there’s nothing more important to consider. I’m deeply interested in what I think we all are interested in, which is how to be your truest self and make it through authentically. I fell in love with cinema because I had two actor parents working in the ’70s and I was on movie sets of the ’70s with Hal Ashby, with Martin Scorsese, watching broken, flawed characters somehow make it through. It felt like watching a documentary. It was teaching me about empathy and it was teaching me about human nature. I found it to be this extraordinary vocation. It was beyond acting, and I think that’s how my parents approached it, given the filmmakers they were working with at the time. However I got lucky enough to have your friend’s phrase coined by getting all these wonderfully delicious characters — it wasn’t a goal, but it interests me a lot to consider … not women who are trying to figure out how to use their voice, but women who didn’t even know they were entitled to one in the first place.
I’m sad to say that, in the last months, I think part of the wake-up call for a lot of women and girls in this country is they were in that boat. They didn’t know they were entitled to a voice. They didn’t know people would listen, and they didn’t know they were being objectified. They didn’t really understand how insidious it was, and so I think there’s no greater timing that Wilson and a character like Pippi would exist in the Zeitgeist of telling stories about seeming misanthropes. The seemingly difficult people, the people you’re trying to keep away from you because they’re honest, because they want you to look in your face, connect with you, get off your phone, and be a human. That’s so awkward and so off-putting, yet con men aren’t awkward and off-putting. That really fascinates me.
You get to do a fight scene in Wilson. You attack Cheryl Hines in a kitchen.
[Whispering.] Oh my god, it was so fun.
You don’t get to do a lot of fight choreography in your career.
I don’t! I don’t and I’m so into it. I’m ready to do more. That’s all I’m going to do now.
Just martial arts for Laura Dern.
Yeah, actually I’m going into the world wrestling league. It’s technically the most rehearsed piece in the whole movie, so we definitely did work to make sure everyone would be safe. Well, or she would be safe. I was going to be fine. [Laughs.] But I was going to make sure she was okay. It was, technically, an education to get it just right and such a blast and really fun to work with our cinematographer who’s one of my great loves: Fred Elmes, who shot Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, and I hadn’t worked with him since.
No kidding! Quite a reunion.
Yeah. Yeah, it was so amazing and he’s so brilliant. So to watch him sort of invent, with Craig, how to really make it feel real so you could really feel the bravery of it, and Craig’s bravery and [screenwriter] Dan Clowes’s bravery … I mean, it’s not just about throwing her around and fighting her and pulling her hair out. You’ve gotta punch her right in the face. [Laughs.]
Craig told you to punch her in the face?
It’s so great! Craig’s like, “Oh yeah, you gotta punch in her face.” Like, there was no, “Ooh, that would be too far.” There’s no “too far.” It was so fun.
There’s another scene where you, Woody Harrelson, and Isabella Amara sit on a little train in an amusement park. How long did you shoot on that tiny train?
Hours. Hours. By the way, anywhere I was — even on that train — that I’m with Woody Harrelson is the best time of my life. I mean, there is a bit of Wilson and Pippi to us in that I’ve found my soulmate. I say that with total respect for his wife. But he and I are the same person. As actors, I feel like we’re the same person, and I’ve only felt that with a couple of other people, where you work with them and you’re just like, I hope other people let us do this again and again. Because there is something symbiotic. You feel like part of the same skin. You’re one organism. So one person does one thing and the other person follows and there was something just so beautiful and delicious about that.
Who’s another person you’ve felt that with?
Nic Cage and I, I think, felt that a lot. And I felt that with Mark Ruffalo on a film, We Don’t Live Here Anymore, that we did together. We had all these very complicated, emotional fight scenes, and you have this feeling where you move left and they’re with you. I mean it literally is that Ginger Rogers–Fred Astaire feeling, where you’re just matched in the cells.
What’s interesting is that, between this and Big Little Lies, you’re playing two women who, on some level, couldn’t be in more different circumstances …
[Whispers.] So fun.
… but they’re linked by feeling eminently Laura Dern-y, even though one is a poor ex-prostitute who gave up her daughter for adoption and the other is a mega-millionaire helicopter parent. What has playing both around the same time taught you?
Well, first, what I’ve learned about myself is how I really listened to my parents when I was a teenager. They said, “If you create a body of work …” This is actually Martin Scorsese’s advice. I think I was 19 or something. “If you create a body of work that’s based on the characters that you find interesting and that push your boundaries to empathy, and that you don’t let yourself get stereotyped in some fashion, when you’re in your 40s, then you’re gonna just be playing all of them.” I was like, “Really? Wouldn’t that be amazing?” So first, it’s so joyful to me to think of the things that I have done that now are coming out in this year, like every single one is so insanely different and such a, yeah, deliciously diverse part.
A fashion designer here in New York was talking about loving the character Renata in Big Little Lies, and he was like, “Oh my god, if Renata knew that she had anything to do with Pippi, she would be horrified.” That made me so happy, just the idea that Renata would be like, “What do you mean, the person playing me is playing that?” I just thought that was so fantastic. But both are so misunderstood and have no one on their side. And women are their fiercest enemy. People are like, “Sisterhood! We’ve gotta work together against these sexist men!” But it’s like, “What about you guys?” I mean, we women have to have a paradigm shift too. You’re hearing women speak so disingenuously about Hillary Clinton, who was fighting so beautifully for this country. It’s interesting to think about how women believe stereotypes and promote them in other women.
One other thing about Big Little Lies: Renata is the only character who pronounces Reese Witherspoon’s character’s name as “Made-line,” as opposed to what it actually is, which is “Made-lynn.” Was that in the script?
No, that was me just trying to torture Reese more. [Laughs.] I was like, There’s no way I’m saying this name right. She uses words to cut. So even the way she says, “My daughter” is to let you know that she’s a little more special than the other children. You know, she has a more special name. She’s dressed better and she’s more a more special kid. You do not fuck with Amabella.
Or her birthday party.
Or her birthday party. Are you kidding? Do you know how much money I spent on that?
Looking at that birthday party, I kept thinking, Man, if I ever end up at a children’s birthday party like that …
We’ll pull you out, I promise.
This interview has been edited and condensed.