The Secret Life of Laura Dern
The award-winning actress who made her mark at the edge of the mainstream talks about Jungian dream work, bonding, nurturing and the possibility that Jurassic Park will be the hit that lets her demand $5 million a picture.
"Secrets, darlin', secrets," Laura Dern purrs while leaning over a corner table at a deserted restaurant that's so redolent of late-night cigarettes and broken hearts that it could stand in for Rick's in a postmodern version of Casablanca. Dern looks radically unlike the whiplash-figured life force she played in Wild at Heart, which won her plaudits, or the heart-rending love-seeker of Rambling Rose, which won her an Oscar nomination. Today, clean-scrubbed and luminous in black, she suggests a '50s small-town sweetheart trying to come off as a wild, fine bohemian. Just now, she's telling me about the projects she and Jonathan Demme have been hatching together since the two came that close to doing The Silence of the Lambs with each other. "They're all about rather heroic, devastating characters," she says, "about emotional and sexual injustice, things that are so blatant and horrible in this country. I'm fascinated by what we bury, things we're scared to know about ourselves. We're so complex. My favorite books are psychology, self-help, and I'm fascinated by Jung, by dream work. If you're an actress or writer, you work with your dreams, where all these different characters and qualities, the man, the girl, the rapist, the victim, are inside all of us. That's what I want to make movies about. Secrets. Mysteries."
The mystery of Laura Dern starts with something as cellular as the physiognomy she inherited from her parents, actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern. From her faraway gaze up to her patrician forehead, the young Hope Lange or Eva Marie Saint sector of her face, she's an open book. Innately, unshakably nice. A Sandy, a homecoming queen, a smart, standby kind of girl who would let you borrow her homework. These are the qualities for which Peter Bogdanovich surely must have cast her as the blind girl who falls in love with the disfigured kid in Mask, and for which David Lynch cast her as the girl for whom the robins sing through the murk of Blue Velvet. Travel the bridge of her nose down to the flaring nostrils that are spooky Bruce Dern, then south to those lips for a mocking sneer, a randy, cartoon grin, and you're in noir-land, where things are edgy, calculated. Never precisely any one thing. The more she reveals, the more gets withheld. You go to her. Or don't. Such contradictions may not make her the girl who lands the hit pictures, but they ensure that some of the ones she's in will be worth watching years from now.
Secrets? Mysteries? Dern teems with them. Some deep, others deeply superficial. We met a couple of times in Los Angeles and delved into some of the former, but, for right now, I'm more interested in one of the latter, which is: Why is a 26-year-old, who gravitates toward such off-road stuff as the sweet, down-homey Rambling Rose, about to be seen screaming her head off at special-effects dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg's summer megabuck movie for nine-year-old boys?
Jurassic Park, which puts Dern in the company of Richard Attenborough, Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neill, is set on a Club Med-meets-Disneyland island where genetically engineered dinosaurs freak out and chomp the human visitors. Now, it's one thing for the then unknown Jessica Lange to get pawed by King Kong or Sean Young to make goo-goo eyes at Baby, but why this for Dern now? "Richard Dreyfuss told me, 'Get ready, because this is the hardest work you'll ever do.' It isn't about Academy Awards or about delving into the deepest emotional core, but, now that it's over, I think it's the hardest part I've ever done in my life. Mostly, I'm glad I did it, because I wanted to have fun. I wanted to work and there wasn't anything out there that, to me, seemed courageous in terms of going in a whole other direction. I thought, I've never been in an adventure movie.' So..."
It's one thing to do a commercial-minded adventure movie. It's another to do a big-budget dino movie. "I assume it probably will be a huge movie because kids will go nuts for the creatures and everything," she concedes. "I mean, it's not Pretty Woman in terms of it being a one-woman story, but it can be hot and commercial and cute. I certainly wouldn't mind if Jurassic Park turns out to be commercially successful and somebody says, 'Hey, you were in a box-office hit and if you want to do another movie, we'll give you five million dollars to make it.' Whether this is the movie that does that, I don't know."
In order to do Jurassic Park, Dern slipped out of a showy role in James L. Brooks's I'll Do Anything, opposite Nick Nolte, and got herself out of the offbeat Benny & Joon (she was replaced by, respectively, Joely Richardson and Mary Stuart Masterson). When she bailed from Benny & Joon, some people thought her move was significant. She'd just done the play Brooklyn Laundry, in which her co-stars were Glenn Close and Woody Harrelson, who were, according to gossip, romantically coupled. Then, according to more gossip, Harrelson and Dern grew close. After the play, Harrelson was set to play Dern's brother in Benny & Joon. But he left the project--and then, so did Dern. Hmmmmm. Any connections? Shaking her head no, with a trace of a grin, she answers, "On Benny & Joon, a sweet script with great intentions, my agents were trying to negotiate, but it just didn't work out." Truth or secrets?
Anyhow, it takes some doing to imagine the Method-trained, finely tuned, sincerely feminist, ecologically and metaphysically minded Dern grooving to the experience of playing monster bait. Especially (or is it particularly?) for Spielberg, in whose movies creatures with breasts are relegated to tasks like dodging interplanetary aliens or sprinkling pixie dust. So, did Dern find her director a raving chauvinist? "I have a pretty delicate Richter scale for that," she says, set ting her chin and looping back her hair behind her ears, "and I heard those things and I almost expected it. I have friends who worked with him and say they had a very difficult time. But, I'll be 26 in a few weeks and Steven's taking out a group of us to dinner to celebrate while we're meeting the press in New York. I wouldn't pursue a friendship if he was unkind to me or disrespectful. My only real problem was having the 'woman's role' in an action-adventure movie. I was battling that, but Steven was battling right along with me. He'd say, 'I don't want a screamer. I've had that in other movies and got attacked for it. Be who you want to be.'"
Here Dern goes off on a tangent about her director: "I told Steven he is the most twisted filmmaker I've ever worked with. He makes David Lynch look like a day at Disneyland. We'd be shooting scenes and he'd say, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could do this instead?' and come up with something outrageous and sarcastic. That's why he's got to do his 8½, because he's much more out there than David. As actors, we all worked hard to bring our own kind of stuff to it. Whether that works or not, I don't know." She adds, giggling, "Okay, I was concerned that the role was a stereotype."
Dern's concern was that the part (for which other willowy blondes Robin Wright and Daryl Hannah were also apparently considered) might reiterate the movies' standard take on "brainy" women. Does she come off like the vinegary, repressed shrink Ingrid Bergman played in the '40s in Spellbound, or the vinegary, repressed, self-destructive anthropologist Sigourney Weaver played in the '80s in Gorillas in the Mist? "Well, I do have glasses in the movie," she admits, laughing. Then she digs out of her handbag a pair of specs and adds, "but I actually wear glasses in real life. I worked with paleontologists and found they were into meditation and spiritual reading. It was very much about, 'Let's learn how we destroyed ourselves before, so we don't do it again.' But it's always a battle when you deal with women's instincts and women's sexuality. In Rambling Rose and Wild at Heart, I also had ongoing battles. The character in Jurassic Park, as originally written, had a very specific dilemma, and Steven, the writer and I worked very hard to make sure that it changed."
Changed from what to what? "From someone groping for seed," she snaps wryly out of a corner of her mouth, "to someone who wants to be a nurturer. Amazingly, I want to be a mother. I read much more men's consciousness-raising stuff, like by Robert Bly and all, but I think Camille Paglia and Susan Faludi are both right. Yes, men and culture have done a number on us, but we've also done it to ourselves. So, within the confines of the movie, I just made sure that I'm strong, independent, scientific, intellectual and feminine, welcoming my body as a gift I've been given to nurture. Not wimpy when I'm afraid, but not Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, either."
Dern manages to sound terribly serious about a movie in which she screams so much her voice gave out during the looping sessions. Her stories are peppered with words like "synchronicity," "nurturing" and "evolved." And, oh yes, "bonding." "Don't forget, we were stuck in a hurricane in Hawaii together," she offers, "and had to all stay in a motel room together for a couple of days. No food, no water. It was scary. We didn't know what was going to happen. The morning after, Steven, Jeff Goldblum and I walked through the ruins and we really felt bonded. So maybe that kind of experience created a gentler, more open relationship with Steven. He was very honest in sharing with us his frustration about his complete loss of control. He couldn't protect his crew, he couldn't protect his sets. And Spielberg had a lot of fear about it, getting everybody out. He said to me recently, 'I felt more bonded with you guys than I have in a long time with people on a movie.'"
Yet the bonding that reporters most gleefully seized on reputedly involved Dern and co-star Jeff Goldblum (whose ex-wife, Geena Davis, by coincidence, was in A League of Their Own, which Dern had once been attached to). And, while she insists she wants to keep her current relationship private ("It's too complicated," she explains, wincing), I ask her what Jeff Goldblum is to her, exactly? "My favorite friend," she answers instantly. "I love him. He is hilarious, brilliant, wonderful and we spent a great deal of time together and loved hanging out in the movie. Jeff, Sam [Neill] and I are like The Three Musketeers. But Sam is married, so Jeff and I were left hanging out for the gossip rags. Since the movie finished, we've spent a lot of time together. During the movie, I heard gossip about us, about other people, about fights, and how I hate so-and-so. Anjelica Huston and I ran into each other and shared unbelievable gossip about each other that went around the various casts and crews."
While we're talking gossip--and her friendship with Goldblum--what's with Dern's reported predilection for romantic entanglements with such coworkers as Kyle MacLachlan (Blue Velvet), with whom she had a four-year relationship, Vincent Spano (HBO's After-burn) and director Renny Harlin (who produced Rambling Rose)? "I resent ever being stereotyped," she asserts, bringing herself up to full height in her chair. "When I read things like, 'She always sleeps with her leading men,' or, 'She's spiritual and nice,' or, 'She will always play this or that kind of part,' or, 'She's the bad girl,' I'm like, 'Oh, pleeeeease.' I'm all those things. I've been hurt by some rather explicit articles that say I always sleep with all my leading men. Which is very far from the truth. I always fall in love with qualities of people I work with. Making Rambling Rose, I fell in love with Lukas Haas, Robert Duvall, my mother; I fall in love with the family that I work with. Yes, I've dated people I've worked with and yes, I've dated people who want to do business with me and I've dated people I've never worked with. I pay psychiatrists a lot of money to help me figure all that stuff out and they haven't gotten it all together, so how could somebody else? And if anybody out there figures it out, call me and let me know."
Laughing dryly, Dern folds her napkin with a finality that makes me wonder whether she's about to clam up on the subject of relationships. Some secrets she wants to keep, you know. But then, she continues, terribly earnestly, "I haven't been in that many relation ships. I've just been in longer relationships than my friends. I lived with someone for quite a long time and did various movies while we were together and, obviously, seeing other people never had been an issue. I've never really dated. Loving someone casually is something I never do. I feel everything very deeply."
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