At the moment, Laura Dern is standing on a concrete floor in a West Hollywood photo studio, toeing a strip of masking tape. The twenty-four-year-old actress’s five-foot-ten-inch frame is bathed in hot flashes of strobe light. The hypnotic sway of a new British group called the Bandera’s evokes a surreally languid ambience. Dern’s customary long blond hair is chopped off at the shoulders, wet and slicked back. Her mouth is barely open; her gaze is challenging yet beseeching. “It’s incredible,” says photograher Matthew Rolston, “how she can act with her eyes. All good actresses have that.”
Even when turned the other way — hiding the painted red lips, the strong nose and jaw and the powerful eyes — Dern needs no help conveying emotion. Her shoulders, like lips of soft skin, sinew and bone, are always in motion, speaking for themselves. Her graceful neck punctuates.
Ever since her featured debut as a blind girl in Mask, Dern has cornered the market on playing the young woman discovering new places in herself. Those roles include the precocious, virginal Connie in Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk; the wholesome idealist Sandy in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet; and the scrumptious soul mate Lula in Lynch’s follow-up, Wild at Heart, which won the Palm d’Or at Cannes in 1990. She was even offered a role as one of the Twin Peaks gals but wasn’t ready to do television. (She did, however, know all along who killed Laura Palmer. Apparently, Dern can keep a secret.)
Now, Dern — daughter of actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern — blossoms as the title character in Martha Coolidge’s Rambling Rose, based on a warm and comic Calder Willingham novel about a girl who comes into one Southern family’s life in 1935 and whose innocuous promiscuity and need for love create a damnable commotion. Also cast in the film, which was produced by Dern’s former boyfriend Renny Harlin, are Robert Duvall, Lukas Haas and Dern’s mother, Ladd. Like Connie, Sandy or Lula before her, Rose is someone Dern might easily befriend, take home to meet the folks and perhaps — because Prince Charming is so tough to find in these modern times — even set up on a blind date. And the pitch would probably sound something like this:
You Should Meet My Friend Rose. She’s Got a … Great Personality.
If I were setting up rose for a blind date, I would say: “You’ll love her. She’s really funny. She’s wild. She’s very sexy. She’s got a prettiness about her spirit, a sweetness. She’ll go out of her way to give to people, to be nurturing. And she’ll do anything. [Laughs] She’s wild that way. If you want to go to the beach on the spur of the moment, if you want to kiss under the stars, whatever, she’ll go for it. She’s there.”
Rose can’t say no in some ways — not that she’s so overtly sexual. She likes to cuddle a lot. Rose is still this child from the back hills of Alabama, with an abusive dad, and she was never taught how to act so that society would approve of her. She enters the movie saying, “Here I am,” but learns that she’s not supposed to be so open emotionally and physically. That’s so sad. Rose is like a child who will run to the person they love the most and just show it all. It’s a great quality and a dangerous one because she doesn’t know how to be discreet. Her battle is that the world tells her she can’t be herself. So I would never set her up with a hound. I’d set her up with a poet, so she’ll get caught up in the romance of it.
If You’re Going to Rob The Cradle, It’s Good to Know Some Bedtime Stories
There’s a very special, intimate scene in Rambling Rose between Lukas Haas as Buddy — who is thirteen — and me as Rose — who is nineteen. When I read the script, I thought, “Ooh, how are we going to deal with that one?” First, Renny scheduled it for the fifth week of shooting, so we were all very comfortable with each other. Duvall kept giving Lukas a joking hard time, like: “Ha! Two more days till you get Dern.” I just talked to Lukas about it openly, from day one. The week before the scene, Lukas would come over every night, and we’d make dinner. And the night before we shot, we went on a date. I said, “Let’s just be together and talk.” So we spent hours talking, about my experiences and about his, about fantasies and the first images of someone we loved. During shooting we played Beatles songs for each other at all the breaks. We read in bed and hung out. We were in bed for four days, so we just tried to make a little space for ourselves. We thought of it as our room.
It’s Only Love and That Is All
Rose and Buddy had crushes on each other, and I think Lukas and Laura did, too. I still adore him. He’s the cutest thing ever. I’m sorry I’m not a few years younger, because I think he’s going to make an incredible mate-husband-friend. I’ve adopted him as my best friend and brother. [Smiles] I tell this story out of school, but it’s so cool, I get emotional when I think about it: The most moving thing that ever happened with Lukas during Rambling Rose is that we were talking about a mutual friend, and he said, “Why isn’t she with so-and-so anymore?” I said, “They broke up because he wanted to do his own thing.” Lukas said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, he met somebody else.” He said, “What do you mean, ‘He met somebody else’?” I said: “He cheated on her, Lukas. He cheated on her, and he went with another woman, so they broke up.” It was like he was gonna cry. He was so shocked. He said, “But I don’t understand. If you love someone, why would you ever do that to them?” I want to cry when I remember that. So many of us don’t know how to respect our own needs. Lukas couldn’t even fathom hurting somebody else. So in a way, a part of me fell in love with him.
For the Record
I‘ve read that I always date my leading men. That really depresses me — until I realize: Hey, wait a minute — I don’t do that. Where’s my receipt [for all those love affairs]? I did meet Kyle [MacLachlan] on Blue Velvet, but we waited until almost the end of filming to get together, even though we knew we wanted to be, earlier, because it felt so different than anything we had felt before. But we didn’t want to jeopardize the work. Suppose we’d had a big argument? You have an affair week 1, and week 2 you hate each other. God forbid. This is dangerous stuff. What if you fall in love with someone and they’re involved with somebody else, and then the other person comes down to the set and you’ve got to do a scene with them while the girlfriend or the wife is there? People do that, but it’s beyond me how you can act clearly and be completely open in that situation.
We’ll Take Care of the Body. You Toss the Groceries.
Doing the heavy stuff in Wild at Heart wasn’t especially weird. David [Lynch] and I were very close friends, and he was going to protect me. He and Fred Elmes, who shot Blue Velvet, let me look through the lens to see what kind of shots they were doing, how wide they were, what was going to be seen and not seen, how we could place the sheets so it wasn’t too exposed — all that stuff. Nor was it a problem because my mom was also in the movie. It’s not as if I grew up in Indiana and my parents had never heard of the acting business and I had to come home and say, “Mom, Dad, I’ve done this movie Wild at Heart, and, uh, I really want you to see it.” That might be a little tougher. Besides, I’ve seen my mom and dad do scenes that were … intense. More bloody or disturbing than sexual, though. I remember my dad being blown away by Ellen Burstyn in The King of Marvin Gardens and his head rolling down a staircase in Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte. I also saw my mom dead on the floor in Chinatown — being eaten by ants, with the groceries around her. That’s hard.
Only Apparently Real
I have not yet had a love scene where my character is so much like myself that I would mimic myself in bed. In Wild at Heart, I knew instantly that Lula was a wildcat-screamer extraordinaire, especially the stuff with her hand opening when she had an orgasm. She’s like an animal, so I wanted to sound like an animal. And she’s flighty — chewing bubble gum and smoking a cigarette right afterwards, and looking up at the ceiling and talking about the Wicked Witch. When I watch Rose’s orgasm [with the boy], I find it very painful. It’s just an emotional release based on her desperation to be loved. I don’t even feel there’s something sexual to it.
She’s Two, Two, Two Women in One
The problem is that most men don’t want the Madonna and the whore in the same package. They have the Madonna at home, but they want the whore outside. Or they’ve got the whore, but they don’t want to marry her, because they’ll only marry the Madonna. Maybe men think they want both, but there are only a few who have allowed it. Maybe the women haven’t accepted it yet, either. The problem is the lack of acceptance that a woman is all things; that because she wears Laura Ashley doesn’t mean she can’t wear it without underwear — or be wild in bed. Guys have this problem, too. There’s the Jimmy Dean, a wild guy from the other side of the tracks, versus the Prince Valiant. Jung writes about our shadow side. Everybody’s got dueling forces inside.
While We’re on the Subject of Shadow Sides…
The weirdest thing David Lynch does is make these animal kits. I looked in his freezer once. He had mice and a dead fish inside. It freaked me out. He said he was making a Fish Kit. To make a kit, he disassembles the animal and makes a kit on how to build that animal. They’re truly brilliant. I have a Chicken Kit. “This is How to Make a Chicken. A: Attach wing 1 to intestinal tract, et cetera.” I gave my father a photograph of the Chicken Kit, signed by David, for Christmas. My dad was — surprise — horrified. I thought it was very Bruce Dern. [Laughs] David also made a Bee Kit with forty bees lined up, and they each had different names, like Bob. Speaking of Bob, I remember when my cousin was an assistant at CAA [Creative Artists Agency]. David called him from North Carolina and said: “John. It’s David. Need you to go over to Bob’s [Big Boy Restaurant]. They’re selling Bob’s Big Boy dolls. I need fifteen Bobs, but just send me the heads. I don’t want the bodies.” I think he was making a Bob Kit.
The Nick Cage Kit
He is a maroon velvet robe, with La Bohéme playing, and Lewis the cat, and a Marlboro and a Tony Lama. Lewis is Nick’s cat. They might be the same person. They’re certainly brothers.
My Theory of Career Management
I usually do about a movie a year, though I have very close friends who are doing about four a year. They’ve got a house, a ranch and an apartment in New York. They get put on magazine [Cont. on 108] Laura Dern [Cont. from 72] covers because their films just made $200 million. And people say to me, “Laura, you’re a wonderful actress, but why do you keep doing these little art movies?” It’s enough to have enriched myself by doing it I’ve never been that concerned about the issue of money, or I would have done a lot of movies that I didn’t do. For instance, when I was offered Mask, I was also offered another movie with Rob Lowe in the lead. It was a lot of money for me and a lead role. Or I could make basically scale on Mask in a smaller role. There wasn’t even a question of which part I wanted. I could never do a movie that I wasn’t in love with, because I would be bored. And what a horrible thing, to be bored. How can you be creative?
There’s nothing more boring than an actor making it sound like what they do is brain surgery. I remember once on Rambling Rose, Duvall came to the set, and Martha Coolidge, the director, said: “Places, please. And rolling, and…” He turned to me and said: “Hey, Laura! At lunch I got Greenblatt’s. They’re sending down tuna from New York. We’re gonna have a tuna, we’re gonna have pasta primavera….” Martha yelled, “Action!” and he was dead on.
Luckily, I’m not a hound for mirrors, though there are actors who, while you’re watching them work, you’d suspect they’re really looking in the mirror instead of the camera lens. I tease friends all the time about mirrors. If we go out to dinner and there’s a mirror behind me, they’re always looking at themselves while they’re talking. When I look in a mirror, the first thing I see is “Oh, gah, I look so gross.” Or when I wake up in the morning, I immediately look to see if I have bags today or did I break out overnight. Women have always done that, though I guess nowadays it’s “Is my surgery holding?” That’s devastating. Surgery is not my thing at all. Even twenty years from now, I hope it won’t be. I understand why women have face lifts — although I don’t want to have one — but all the other kinds of surgery? And what about having ribs removed?
Free Advice for Tall Girls
Don’t allow your desperation for attention from the boys in school to create scoliosis [a lateral curvature of the spine]. I spent a lot of time from second grade to tenth grade like this [stands, tilts shoulders and scrunches herself together like an accordion], and I almost ended up in a wheelchair because of it. It screwed my back up. So avoid scoliosis at all costs, even if it means waiting until eleventh grade to find a boy.
Someday my Prince Will Come
Finding Mr. Right is dangerous – But Walt Disney is to blame for that. [Laughs] I’ve been waiting for the guy on the white horse. I’ve been raised to believe that there is “the one.” However, in the last year I’ve come up with a new theory: There are several “ones,” and each one prepares you for the next one, which prepares you possibly for a specific one in the end. So I’m not looking for Mr. Right, right now. I’m just trying to become comfortable with myself.
I’ve been really lucky [in love]. I had one relationship for a year and a half, and then I lived with someone for four years. I have girlfriends who go out on two dates, and the guy disappears after saying to her, “My God, you’re the one, baby.” I guess they mean “You’re the one right now. You’re the one at the moment.” [Laughs] I’ve been talking to my dad a lot about this stuff lately, because he’s a man and an actor who could not get complete security from himself or from a relationship. At my age he was still dependent on his career making him feel good about himself. That was when he was married to my mother. It probably didn’t work out because they both needed so much approval for who they were. They got married very young and had kids. And I’m just amazed when I realize at my age my parents had a kid and their careers and no money and were struggling as actors and trying to be faithful and committed to each other while one is doing a play in New York and the other one is doing westerns in L.A. That would be very hard to do.
My dad now has a very successful marriage. He and his wife have really grown together, and they’ve developed a best-friendship where they just enjoy that they’re together. And they know there are cycles in a relationship. It’s probably always been this way, but I think that young men today feel that when that first puppy-love instinct dies, the relationship should be over. They keep searching for that type of validation. Of course, I also remember saying, “Oh, he likes me too much.” My friends would say, “Just wait until he doesn’t want you, then you’ll want him.” I said, “Oh, please, I’ve read Jung since I was twelve. Give me a fucking break.” Like I’m gonna be that much of this naive stereotype of a woman. BAM! The minute he stopped calling, it was “I really think I’m in love!”
Still, I think the initial sexuality in the relationship is more important to the man than it is to the woman. When the sex isn’t as … new, my girlfriends don’t go into a panic. They know that the relationship is altering into a different stage. And it’s sexier because it’s more bonded. But not all men find that sexier. They panic and think the love is over, because it’s not as hot as it was the first weeks. It’s a big struggle. To understand it better, I’m reading Iron John. I thought us girls ought to read it, too.