In 2011, HBO premiered Enlightened, a dark comedy created by Laura Dern and Mike White, starring Dern as Amy Jellicoe, an insufferable, self-destructive, socially inept idealist who, after losing her corporate job, becomes a whistle-blower to take down the company. During the development process, HBO had tried hard to soften Dern’s character. “When we were developing our first season — I mean, forget it. It was such a fight,” says Dern.
To promote the show, HBO placed a billboard on Sunset Boulevard featuring a close-up of Dern’s enraged, mascara-streaked face. She remembers getting a call from Will Ferrell, who said, “I’m driving down Sunset, and I see this woman four stories tall, who is so fucking angry, so fucking done — this is the greatest moment.” The call made Dern’s day.
Critics loved the show, Dern won a Golden Globe, and the network’s instincts were correct: Almost no one watched. The second season nearly didn’t happen; a third never did. While writing about the first season, a female political journalist interviewed Dern and summed up the less enchanted (less enlightened?) attitude of some female viewers. As Dern recalls it, the writer asked, “Aren’t you embarrassed to play such an angry woman, to be next to Gucci ads and gorgeous models? You must be horrified!” Dern told her, “No, it’s my proudest day as an actor.”
If Enlightened was ill-fated, Jellicoe was not. She was, in fact, a harbinger of messy, transgressive female characters to come (see Girls, Fleabag, etc.). This year, Dern’s career — which had always seemed to exist at a simmer — finally came to a full boil. She had an eye-catching role in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks revival, as well as appearances in Craig Johnson’s Wilson, Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Alexander Payne’s Downsizing. Then, of course, there was Renata Klein in HBO’s Big Little Lies, a role for which Dern won an Emmy and was just nominated for a Golden Globe. Klein, the alpha-mom corporate warrior who initially terrorized the residents of Monterey, was the character the audience loved to hate, then learned to love — and just the sort of powerful, nuanced mess that Dern lives to play. She’s drawn to women “that rage and have dimensions,” she says. The kind of polarizing female character audiences have only begun to embrace. With Enlightened, Dern, it appears, was a few years ahead of her time, but the world has finally caught up: 2017 was a very good year to be a fucking angry woman.
Dern and I meet for lunch at Ray’s and Stark Bar, the restaurant at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She strides in, having just come from a morning meeting with Tom Hanks, her fellow Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences governor. The two are deeply involved in planning the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, currently being built next to the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at lacma and set to open in 2019. Somehow, it is the first major museum in Los Angeles dedicated to the city’s defining industry, film.
“We were like kids in a candy store,” says Dern. “It’s going to be amazing!” The actress speaks in italics and exclamation points, a contagious enthusiast. We order glasses of rosé and share an artfully presented cheese board. “My dream is to move to Paris in my 60s and eat like this all the time,” she says. “My kids say, ‘Jeez, Mom, just eat like that now.’ ” Dern’s face contorts into an expression of adolescent sarcasm. Her emotive elasticity is one of the pleasures of watching her onscreen; her “cherished cry-face,” as Entertainment Weekly once deemed it, reminiscent of Lucille Ball’s, has spawned a meme.
“When I was 23,” says Dern, “right before a close-up on Jurassic Park, Spielberg said to me, ‘People will tell you what you could do to your face years from now. Don’t you ever touch your face.’ He was saying, ‘Your face is perfect, it’s female, it’s emotional.’ ” Age has been her friend, thanks in part to, as Spielberg advised, avoiding plastic surgery. “I am determined to be human in my acting, and when you own your power and your womanhood, you grow into your beauty. Your face finds you.” She raises her glass. “So here’s to telling the whole story.”
Like her actor parents — Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd — Laura has been fearless about her choices, whether it’s playing the most impossible people to have empathy for or taking parts others won’t touch. When, in 1997, Ellen DeGeneres asked her to play the lesbian whom her character would come out to on the sitcom Ellen, many warned Dern against it. “The Puppy Episode” won multiple Emmys and stands as a watershed moment in pop culture, but in Hollywood — where tolerance is more perception than reality — Dern struggled to find work for what she has described as an “awfully terrifying” year.
Now we’re in the midst of another watershed moment, this one exposing entrenched sexism and harassment. When I talk to Ladd, whose Mississippi accent slides into jokes like melted butter, she says that when Dern declared her intention to be an actor at 10 years old, “I said, ‘No!’ I told her, ‘For every 28 parts for a man, there’s one for a woman. Start with that,’ ” she says. “And also know that when a man is 80, he can still do a love scene with a woman who is 20. Sabrina? Hello! And if you’re a woman with a 21-year-old man, you’re crazy, like Ruth Gordon.”
Ladd, who has revealed her own experiences with harassment (including a poolside crotch grab by Columbia Pictures co-founder Harry Cohn), tells me to ask her daughter about her salary on a recent indie filming starring a top actor. “He’s got a nice reputation as a leading man,” says Ladd. “But how much was he paid? And then ask the actress who starred in Jurassic Park and Star Wars, ask her if she wants to print how much she had to reduce her salary. Your hair is going to stand on end.” As happens more often than not, Ladd explains, “they do the man’s contract first, and then they say, ‘Well, Laura, we only have this much left, and we really want you in it. Do you still want this part?’ Laura isn’t going to do that again. If she does it again, I’m going to shoot her.”
Dern and Ladd’s enviably close mother-daughter relationship has been replicated with Dern and her daughter, Jaya, the youngest of two children with ex-husband Ben Harper (her son, Ellery, is 16). In September, the magazine InStyle published an open letter from Dern to Jaya, in which she wrote about what it means to be “a woman in her own skin, in her power, without any labels placed on her.” What makes it complicated, Dern says, is that women — especially those raised in the movie business — are conditioned to be complicit. “I never witnessed the objectification because I was inside it,” she says. The actress, an outspoken feminist today, had antipathy toward women fighting for equality when she was younger. “Those women were so angry,” says Dern. “I’d think, I would rather be one of the boys than be in the energy of hating.”
File that attitude, she says, under the insidious stories women are fed. She certainly wasn’t raised to think that. Ladd and Dern separated when Laura was 2 years old, and she grew up surrounded by outspoken, independent women — her mother’s friends from her Actors Studio days in New York City: Maureen Stapleton, Jean Stapleton, Gena Rowlands, and Geraldine Page. “They never cared about being glamorous, and that was what made them so glamorous to me — and sexy! They were just like men. I didn’t see a difference. They all wanted to be in the mud.” Dern has a vivid recollection of attending the premiere of Superman in 1978, when she was 11. She and her mother were the guests of one of the stars, another Actors Studio grad, Marlon Brando. Also in attendance: the actress Shelley Winters, Dern’s godmother.
“I remember getting out of the car,” says Dern, “and the red carpet was filled with glitz and glamour, women in gowns and high heels. And there was Shelley, wearing jeans with Tretorn sneakers and a gray sweatshirt, a full-length mink coat balanced on her shoulders. No makeup, her hair kind of messy. It was so fierce. And I remember thinking, I want to be that kind of woman.”
Dern was introduced to the idea of “acting” after watching her father’s decapitated head roll down the stairs in Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte. “I was 5!” she says with a yelp. Two years later, she was on the set of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, peering under Martin Scorsese’s armpit as he directed her mother opposite Ellen Burstyn.
I ask Dern an impossible question: What are your favorite movies? “Network. Being There. High Noon. The Lady Eve. Swing Time,” she says. “All very different, but those are movies I keep needing to watch.”
She was serious about film even as a teenager. In Dern’s bedroom, instead of pop stars, there hung photos of Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball. By her pillow, she kept a picture of actor John Savage. At a party for her father when she was 15, Dern ran into Michael Cimino, who had directed Savage in The Deer Hunter. “I started raving about John, and he said, ‘Of course you’re obsessed with John! You’re Bruce Dern’s daughter. John’s the crazy person in Deer Hunter; Bruce is the psychopath who killed John Wayne [in 1972’s The Cowboys]. You clearly have father issues.” Dern laughs. “I did love complicated, brilliant actors,” she says.
At 13, Dern introduced herself to an agent, who sent her to screen-test for a lead role in Adrian Lyne’s Foxes; she lied about her age. The film ended up starring an 18-year-old Jodie Foster, but Lyne hired Dern for a smaller role. “I was unbelievably confident,” says Dern with something like wonder. “But it was the opposite at school. And, you know, I long to be in my home life the way I am on a set. I’m so worried about hurting people’s feelings when I’m not working. I’m still learning how to be as direct as I am at work.”
Creating Enlightened with Mike White helped in that regard. “It’s funny because your hardest relationships, later you will say were the best and most important,” says Dern. It was the first project she co-developed — the idea for the character of Amy was hers — and the first time she felt proprietary about a character. “That’s a really hard collaboration, where you both feel you take ownership. It brings up insecurity, it brings up directness, and directness can come in a lot of shapes and sizes. I hope in years to come we look back and go, ‘What a beautiful opportunity we gave each other to become better listeners, better collaborators, have more humility.’ Honestly, it’s like a great love story, where a decade later you think, God, if we’d been in love now, we would have handled it so much better, we’d probably still be together.”
Early in Dern’s career, Scorsese complimented her on making the choice to curate her career like a filmmaker. “It’s not because I was smart about it, or even that I made a conscious choice,” she says now. “I was just following my parents’ lead. That was the biggest thing I got from them — that they went where the filmmakers were. Go where you can learn the most.”
After the blockbuster Jurassic Park in 1993, she took a hard left, begging Alexander Payne to cast her in Citizen Ruth, a dark comedy eviscerating both sides of the abortion debate. Dern remembers reading the script for Ruth and thinking, “Oh, okay, by the end of page one, you know you can let everything go because you will be hated. There’s no one worse than you. You’re huffing paint while pregnant with your fifth child. We know that in the first eight minutes of the movie! Go to town.”
The film was the beginning of a 20-year friendship with Payne (with a brief, early detour into romance). “We quickly discovered that we’re from the same tribe,” Payne says. “To do human, humane, and humanist work. It’s about serving something larger — the truth of the character, which we hope, by extension, takes steps towards a universal truth.”
Dern tells me about a conversation she had with her father, around the same time, when she was struggling to make ends meet. She was already a David Lynch muse (starring in Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart) and would continue to favor the work of auteurs like Payne and Robert Altman, all of whom paid scale. Her father told her, “You’re making choices that will be harder now, but when you enter your 40s and 50s, you will have established something different,” she says. “Then you can play any role.”
Dern says she had no idea what he was talking about at the time. But it turns out her father was right. What you see in all her wildly diverse performances this past year is the freedom that comes with being a 50-year-old actress. “One of the things that was so incredibly fun about Big Little Lies,” says Dern, “was that Nicole [Kidman] and I are the exact same age. And we’re both like, ‘Fuck it, let’s play. Let’s be mean and scared and vulnerable and victimized and broken.’ It’s only now, in these last few years,” she adds, “that there’s been this cumulative feeling — of being on fire, of loving acting more than ever.”
*This article appears in the December 25, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.