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Laura Dern: Jurassic Spark

Into the wild heart of the dino-blonde who director Steven Spielberg says “drives all the guys out of their minds”

Laura Dern

American actress Laura Dern as Dr. Ellie Sattler in a scene from the film 'Jurassic Park', 1993.

Murray Close/Getty

There are blondes and blondes and it is almost a joke word nowadays,” Raymond Chandler wrote in The Long Goodbye back in 1953. A tough guy who knew a thing or two about both women and Los Angeles, Chandler went on at great length to identify various subspecies of blondes. Just to name a few, there’s “the big statuesque blonde who straight-arms you with an ice-blue stare” and “the soft and willing and alcoholic blonde who doesn’t care what she wears as long as it is mink or where she goes as long as it is the Starlight Roof and there is plenty of dry champagne,” as well as “the gorgeous show piece who will outlast three kingpin racketeers and then marry a couple of millionaires at a million a head.”

The book on Laura Dern’s bed table these days isn’t anything by Chandler – it’s Women Who Run With the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, which despite the title is not an actress’s primer on how to deal with Hollywood agents but rather a tome of significantly more general interest for the Jungian at heart. Still, there’s little doubt that if Dern put her mind to it, this gifted twenty-six-year-old actress could play just about any blonde that Chandler could dream up. Well, maybe Dern is a little too tall a drink of water to be “the small cute blonde who cheeps and twitters.” But from temptress to madonna, including some compelling stops in between, Dern has pretty much played ’em all.

She was a tormented teen lamb heading toward adult sexual slaughter in the form of Treat Williams in Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk. In Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask, she was the angelic blind beauty who brings romance to Eric Stoltz’s deformed character. And in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, she provided the picture’s token dose of smalltown purity. Then, suddenly, innocence and Dern parted company, at least onscreen. In Lynch’s ultrakinky road picture from hell, Wild at Heart, Dern kicked out the jams as Lula, the ultimate lusty love thang to Nicolas Cage’s like-minded Sailor. And in Martha Coolidge’s Rambling Rose, she gave a remarkable Oscar-nominated performance as the title character, arguably the most appealing nymphomaniac in all of screen history. It’s hard to forget the scene of Dern in bed with the young Lukas Haas, conjuring up a convincing orgasm and teaching the young man some invaluable lessons in ways of love.

This summer Dern’s back on the big screen as Dr. Ellie Sattler, a paleobotanist, okay, a blond paleobotanist. Dr. Sattler is the woman who runs with dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg’s new tyrannosaur-size epic that’s widely predicted to trample the competition at the box office.

“No,” Dern says emphatically, but with a smile. “There’s absolutely no scene in Jurassic Park of me in bed with a young dinosaur helping him lose his sexual innocence.”

UNLIKE THE DINOSAUR – with the possible exception of Barney – Laura Dern continues to walk the earth. But today, she’s driving her black BMW up Doheny in Beverly Hills and looking lovely in a classy little flower-print number. The beemer’s immaculate, and there’s a fine Aretha Franklin tape in her deck. Bright, warm and given to the occasional shocking squeal and uncanny Lucille Ball imitation, Dern gives a tour of the town like the true child of Hollywood that she is.

“My grandmother used to live right there,” Dern says, pointing excitedly at one nearby apartment building. “And I grew up for a few years in a place over there. And right over there at Carl’s Market – thank you very much – I actually spotted Gilligan in the parking lot when I was nine years old. Imagine meeting Bob Denver – now that was pretty mind-blowing stuff. And I’m pretty sure that Marilyn Monroe died in this building up here on the right.”

An angular beauty with a distinctly unbimboish appeal, Dern never rips off her shirt as we ride along the roads like the wild-at-heart Lula might have done – though she does say, promisingly, that “Lula will always be with me.” Nor does she ever use her considerable sexuality to win our friendship – a tactic to which dear old Rambling Rose would’ve almost definitely resorted. Still, Dern is wacky, fun company for such a serious actress, and as Chandler might have seen fit to mention, she’s the sort of blonde who’s real easy on the eyes.

The self-deprecating Dern agrees to consider the nature of her strong appeal to men only when she’s severely pressed. “I was raised by Southern women,” she says shyly. “So I guess there’s that wonderful air of flirtation that’s more about liking people than necessarily wanting to go to bed with them.”

In addition to all these admirable personal qualities, Dern is also, by the way, one of the best actresses of her generation. Certainly she’s got the bloodlines for it.Her parents – who divorced before she turned two – are both major actors and major characters in their own right. Her father is Bruce Dern, a talented and intense character actor noted for playing bad guys in everything from The Wild Angels to Diggstown. Her mother, Diane Ladd – with whom she lived as a child after the split – is a respected actress best known for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and for acting alongside her daughter in Wild at Heart and Rambling Rose, the latter of which resulted in unprecedented mother-daughter Oscar nominations.

Dern made her screen debut at age seven, licking an ice-cream cone in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore – unless you want to count her prenatal appearance with her pregnant mom in Rebel Rousers, a 1967 biker flick in which Bruce offers Diane as a prize in a drag race. A genuine Method baby who audited Lee Strasberg’s class in her early teens, Dern made her mark as a young actress without ever having to join the Brat Pack.

Still, her body of work, while long on artistic independence and art-house credibility, has thus far been a bit short on mall-packing boffo box office. Jurassic Park seems likely to rectify that situation, even if on some level it means playing second fiddle to a sizable group of extinct creatures. It is Spielberg’s highly anticipated adaptation of Michael Crichton’s bestseller about a theme park in which genetically engineered dinosaurs run amok. It’s also Dern’s very first merchandise-spewing, special-effects-laden monster of a movie.

“Laura has an opportunity now to become a major motion-picture star,” says her father. “Neither her mother nor I ever quite got to that place. I mean, sure, we were movie stars at a certain level but not in the way that Laura has a chance to be.”

“I think that’s very true,” says Diane Ladd. “Laura is going to have the opportunity to be like a Katharine Hepburn, one of those great giant stars. I do believe that’s part of her destiny. And I’m glad she’s so intelligent, and I hope she never becomes bitter, because believe me, when you get to that level, everybody wants a piece of you.”

“OH YEAH, I DEFINITELY GAVE SOME SERIOUS THOUGHT to the idea of working with dinosaurs,” says Dern with a little yelp of laughter.

Dern is looking decidedly posthistoric and chipper as she munches delicately on a cucumber sandwich over lunch at an elegant Beverly Hills hotel. She’s bubbling about getting started on The Gift in a few days. It’s her directing debut, a thirty-minute short with Isabella Rossellini and Mary Kay Place based on a story that Dern collaborated on with screenwriter Emily Tracy, the mother of her young Rambling Rose bed mate. Dern’s mood surges even more when a phone is brought to her table so that she can take a brief call from her father. He’s calling to pass along some praise for The Gift‘s script. “Oh, poppy, thank you, you’re sooo sweet,” she says, sounding momentarily more like an overjoyed daughter than an appreciative minimogul.

“Steven was the first person to tell me that this role isn’t about getting an Academy Award nomination,” Dern says, returning to the Jurassic Park promotional trail. “It isn’t about me finding my emotional motivation for each scene. It’s certainly not quite the kind of acting I’ve done in the past. Sure, my character is fleshed out some from the book, but it’s still all in the context of a movie that deals with dinosaurs.”

Not that Dern is complaining. “There was a long time when I thought every film I did had to be Sophie’s Choice, that anything less destroyed my theories about myself,” she says. “I always thought artists only did what they felt in their soul, and as a result I worked less often.”

From the start, Dern knew that Jurassic Park – which costars Jeff Goldblum, who is Dern current offscreen love – going to be a different sort of gig. “After talking to Steven,” she says, “I decided to do the movie on the basis of never having done anything remotely like it before. If I’m going to do this kind of movie, he’s obviously the guy to do it with. And even if I never do this kind of movie again, I figured that I might actually enjoy myself this time. And I did. I’ve never really had fun on a movie set before. Usually, I’m in some kind of emotional disarray just being bombarded by the process of what I’m doing.”

This time the bombardment came from Hurricane Iniki, which hit the Jurassic Park production with tremendous force during the last days of location shooting on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Iniki helped bring the cast and crew of the movie together as, in Spielberg’s words, “one big terrified family.”

Dern eventually came to the conclusion that despite his famously wholesome reputation, Spielberg has it in him to make some wonderfully weird art films. “I told Steven that he’s so fantastically twisted that someday he’s going to make a movie that will absolutely blow people away,” she says. “I told him that when he makes his movie about Siamese twins who fall in love with each other, he should definitely give me a call.”

Contacted in Poland, where he is directing Schindler’s List – a movie that reportedly features no dinosaurs – Spielberg confirms their conversation. “Laura and I both think of each other as somewhat demented and perverse people,” he says. “I don’t see myself that way, but I think that’s how Laura saw me.” Asked what most surprised him about Dern, Spielberg responds: “In working with her, I was surprised that Laura has a dark, devilish, lustful sense of humor, which drives all the guys out of their minds. I think Jeff Goldblum was so driven out of his that he simply had to do something about it.” As for Dern’s career advice to him, Spielberg says, “Her suggestion was that I drop all this adventure stuff and get right to work with her on a David Lynch-esque mind movie.” At press time, Spielberg was still considering the idea.

DERN CAN HARDLY BE ACCUSED OF HAVING JUMPED INTO the Hollywood mainstream without looking first. Even now, with a commitment to star in A Perfect World with Kevin Costner and director Clint Eastwood, she adamantly denies being more concerned with career moves than with the movies she’s making. “I would be a liar to say to you that it’s not advantageous for me to be in a movie like Steven’s,” says Dern. In order to do Jurassic Park, she had to opt out of Benny and Joon and I’ll Do Anything, James L. Brooks’s upcoming musical starring Nick Nolte and Albert Brooks. “Sure, there are business people and agents in my life who are thinking this will be big at the box office, that it will be ‘good for me,'” she says. “But the truth is, I can’t do a movie unless in my gut there’s a reason that doesn’t have anything to do with my career.”

Dern comes off as simultaneously excited and uncomfortable with the massive marketing and merchandising effort behind Jurassic Park. A dinosaur fan since her days as a Flintstones follower, she’s a particular admirer of the brachiosaurus “because I relate to long-necked creatures.” Then there’s the matter of the Laura Dern action figure. “She has amazing biceps,” reports Dern of her more diminutive, commercially available likeness. “She looks sort of like Linda Hamilton.” But it’s only a six-inch doll, and Dern finds it “devastating” that the doll is not a Barbie. Being on a lunch box is also new. “Actually, I think there were some Wild at Heart lunch boxes,” Dern says with a wiseacre laugh. “I believe they only sold them at Drake’s [a popular Los Angeles erotica store]. And as I recall, that lunch box had an interesting optional attachment that was most definitely not for children.”

“LOOK AT THIS,” DERN SQUEALS WITH DELIGHT AS SHE bounces happily through the cassette section at the Tower store on Sunset Boulevard, where she’s come to find music to play on the set of The Gift. “Alice Cooper and Bruce Dern are the same man! I’m telling you. You’ve never seen them in the same room at the same time, have you?” As she paces the store, Dern – whose own musical favorites include Robert Plant and Kate Bush – goes on to explain that she and Moon Zappa are good friends and that they’ve decided that Bruce Dern is also the same man as Frank Zappa.

Clearly, Dern hasn’t exactly had your typical upbringing. “I think Laura’s almost frighteningly well adjusted, especially considering the world she grew up in” says Nicolas Cage, who became a close pal during the making of Wild at Heart.

Both sides of Dern’s family have rather illustrious pasts. Bruce Dern comes from aristocratic forebears: His uncle was poet Archibald MacLeish, and his grandfather was George Dern, secretary of war under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Diane Ladd came from a large Southern family that included, among other notables, the playwright Tennessee Williams, who helped Ladd get her first acting job.

Raised primarily by Ladd and her maternal grandmother, Mary, Dern spent a significant part of her childhood on her parents’ various movie sets. Such an unusual upbringing offered Dern a number of opportunities to observe up close many lessons about the real lives of actors. “We always had a roof over our heads and nice clothes, but life fluctuated as acting careers do,” Dern says. “There were times when I shared a room with my mother, and there were times when I had my own big room. There were times when everybody was doing well, and then the cars were nicer and the gifts were better. “

But the biggest gift I got in my childhood was my grandma,” says Dern. “When my parents were off working, I had this very grounded, down-to-earth Southern grandma who was around all the time. Not a nanny. I was always with family. I was really lucky in that way. Growing up where I did, I knew a lot of people who were raised by baby sitters and strangers, and the parents were off somewhere. My parents really tried to be parents, particularly my mom, because that’s who I lived with.”

Though she has nary a discouraging word to say about her parents, Dern does recall that having a movie villain for a father sometimes led to its share of awkward moments. “I remember when he was in Life magazine in the Seventies as the only man to ever kill John Wayne in the movies,” says Dern. “In The Cowboys he shot Wayne in the back and killed him, and my friends at school hated my father for doing that. It was … bad.”

Though Dern and her father are now extremely close – the pair try to spend a day a week with each other and are attempting to find a film project to do together – the relationship had a troubled start. Before Dern was born, her parents tragically lost their young firstborn daughter in a drowning. “After Bruce buried our child, I think it was more pain than he knew how to deal with,” Ladd says, her voice cracking a bit. “Then I almost died from a tubal pregnancy, and Bruce thought he was going to lose me. It was all just too much for a young man to deal with. After that, they told me that I’d never have another child. So when Laura was born, it really was a kind of miracle. But when you have a tragedy, it either brings you together or it tears you asunder. And because we were already fragmented, it tore us asunder.”

Ladd feels all the trauma impacted on Laura’s early relationship with her father. “I think that even after Laura was born, Bruce was so afraid that something would happen to her that his fear kept him from dealing with her the way he wanted to as her father,” says Ladd. She credits family friend Scott Asolp with encouraging Laura to confront her father over lunch when she was twelve and a half. “It was a real test for her growth,” Ladd says. “She really let him have it, and he said, ‘So I guess you’re telling me that I’m a shitty father.’ And Laura said, ‘Yes, Daddy, I guess I am.’ And from that moment on, Bruce Dern and his daughter started to really communicate. And that communication is so important to him and to her, and it pleases me to no end. After all, Bruce gave me the greatest gift of my life.”

“I think I improved as a dad as Laura got older,” says Bruce. “If I made any mistake with Laura, it’s probably that I treated her as an adult too soon. I hope I didn’t cheat her out of a childhood. But as time went on, I felt much more of a kinship. Sometimes when I walk into Laura’s house, it’s almost shocking to me how much she looks now like her mother did when I first met her. Her mom and I were doing a play called Orpheus Descending, and her mother was one of the more remarkable and striking-looking things I had ever seen on a stage. Laura is exactly the same way.”

Laura had an epiphany of her own not too many years ago when she saw The Wild Angels for the first time. “It was one of the most amazing experiences I ever had,” she recalls. “My parents have a love scene where they’re kissing passionately on this porch, and I had never seen my parents hug at that time. And this moment onscreen was so passionate, they both looked really in love. I believe that I was conceived right around the time of that movie.”

Recently, Ladd has written a screenplay for a movie, Mrs. Munck, for which she hopes to reteam with Bruce Dern. “Laura and I were a first in Rambling Rose, and now I want to create another first,” says Ladd. “I’m going to be the first woman to direct her ex-husband. And Laura and Bruce together. But that’s my new motto: Ladies, if you want revenge, direct your ex-husband. To a lot of women that might be worth the price of admission right there.”

“GIVE ME THREE WEEKS AND I’LL BE A nightmare, vicious, a c word.” Dern is sitting behind her desk, dressed for success in her flower-filled office at Chanticleer Films, in Hollywood, where she’s been taking meetings and beginning preproduction on The Gift. Already she’s discovered that as a burgeoning filmmaker, she must fight the instinct to be too nice to everyone. The film, says Dern, is “about someone learning about their own self-worth in the context of a woman having gone through a breakup.” She adds that the short will deal with all sorts of issues that are important to her, including altering one’s body for approval with liposuction, implants and “all the various other things that enrage me.”

Asked how she feels about being the auditioner for a change rather than the one being auditioned, Dern laughs. “Hey, if I’d done this with men,” she says, “I might have had a lot easier life.”

Not that her love life’s been all that difficult: On the set of Adrian Lyne’s 1980 film Foxes, Dern did get to meet Scott Baio, on whom she confesses to having had a mad crush. Sadly, it was not to be. “He came over to our house once, and my dog had her period and bled on his white pants,” she says, still cringing from the memory. “It was the most tragic moment of my childhood.” A far more pleasant memory for Dern was her first real-life kiss, a momentous event she shared, improbably enough, with former Sex Pistol Paul Cook while they were both filming Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, an obscure 1981 rock flick. “It was an innocent kiss,” she says, not entirely convincingly. “It wasn’t like a tongue kiss.”

Dern is rather less forthcoming with details of her later romantic life and confesses to being annoyed by suggestions that she always ends up dating the people she works with. Over the years, she’s been linked to actor Kyle MacLachlan (her costar in Blue Velvet), filmmaker Renny Harlin (her producer on Rambling Rose) and actor Vincent Spano (her costar in HBO’s Afterburn). “The bottom line is that a relationship is a relationship,” she says. “I’m as guilty as anyone of believing the same fantasy of meeting the leading man and having him be Prince Charming and running away with him and having babies and everything being fun. But the truth is that these glamorous lives are filled with very normal pain.”

Still, men do tend to be drawn to Dern. “Laura is positively radiant,” says Cage. “She’s tapped into something most of us don’t. She’s in touch with a whole different power plant. And it’s hard to watch her and not be struck by how feminine she really is.”

Informed of Cage’s comments, Dern laughs and blushes. “Wow, I think I sound fabulous,” she says. “I wish I could be me.”

Dern confirms her relationship with Goldblum without volunteering much more. “I’ve always been wary about that,” she says. “If things have become public, it’s been other people’s decisions, and that’s made me even more wary. Relationships are extremely difficult anyway and need to be nurtured. Frankly, I’ve been hurt a lot less by this than some of my friends. I’ve actually watched relationships be destroyed over a bad article, which is pretty scary.” There’s no telling what will happen now that Dern’s ex, Renny Harlin, is dating the former Mrs. Goldblum, Geena Davis.

Goldblum prefers to let Dern do what little talking must be done about their relationship. “I bow to Laura’s eloquence,” he says. “But obviously, I’m a tremendous fan who thinks she’s brilliant and unbelievable.” Asked what he may have taught Dern professionally, the forty-year-old actor says, “If there’s been any exchange, it’s that I’ve learned from Laura not only about acting but about career savvy and worldly poise.”

If Goldblum’s comment suggests that Dern is rather precocious, it’s hardly any great surprise. “Laura’s always been an old soul from the moment God gave her to me,” says Ladd. Her mother also reports that Dern has always known that what she wanted to do with her life was act. “I tried to discourage Laura,” Ladd says. “I told her: ‘Don’t do it! Be a doctor. Nobody will ever not want you to operate because you’re ten pounds too heavy or three years too old.’ Fortunately, I raised her not to listen to my advice.”

Ladd recalls that Dern was similarly determined when it came to moving out of their home at age eighteen. “I said Laura couldn’t go unless she found a roommate who would be as good an influence as me,” Ladd says. “Well, she topped me and went out and got a roommate called Marianne Williamson, the woman who wrote A Course in Miracles. Someone asked Marianne, ‘Why do you want to live with a little eighteen-year-old?’ And Marianne said, ‘That little eighteen-year-old is smarter than most ninety-two-year-olds I know.'”

All this doesn’t mean that Dern – even on the eve of dinosaur-size success – is without her own worries. With a chuckle, Dern confesses that she and pal Winona Ryder share a condition called Anticipatory Nostalgia.

“We’re both suffering from it,” Dern says as she navigates her way through traffic in Hollywood. “We’re worried about our children that we haven’t had. We’re constantly panicked that our husbands are going to leave us because we’re too busy and about which colleges our kids are going to go to. We both cry on the phone to each other about our children’s lives or about how our daughters are going out with the wrong boys.”

So is the condition curable?

“Oh, yeah,” says Dern, flashing her widest grin. “I think we’ll be okay.”

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