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Laura Dern: She’s On a Role

Laura Dern’s career gains momentum with each part she plays

Laura Dern

Laura Dern

Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images

Laura Dern’s earliest task as an actress was to eat 19 ice-cream cones in a row. She was seven, seated at a counter of the diner where Ellen Burstyn and Kris Kristofferson were playing out their love affair in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Her mother, actress Diane Ladd, was playing the character of Flo in the movie. Nineteen takes were required to get the scene right. ”If Laura can eat that many ice-cream cones in one sitting,” said director Martin Scorsese, who cast Dern as an extra in the film, ”she’s got to be an actress.”

Dem, who is 19, isn’t eating ice cream anymore. She’s following the Fit for Life diet now, swallowing ten vitamins a day and patronizing a Beverly Hills doctor who is, Dern says, ”holistic, a chiropractor, and into acupressure and acupuncture — everything.” She is, however, launched on an acting career that is gaining momentum with every film and is earning high praise from colleagues, critics and her father, actor Bruce Dern, whose affection hasn’t always been easy to come by. ”He doesn’t lie,” she says. ”He’ll tell you the truth — that’s the scary thing.” Director Joyce Chopra, who cast Dern as the star of Smooth Talk — Dern’s most recent film — says of her, ”She’s in complete command of her ability — not someone who’s just intuitively acting. This is a highly developed young actress.”

Dern shares the patrician look and stature of her father, who himself is the scion of ”a very erudite, upper-class political family in Winnetka [Illinois],” as his daughter describes him. Her paternal great-grandfather, George Dern, was Secretary of War under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Her paternal great-uncle was the distinguished American poet Archibald MacLeish. Dern’s mother, a Mississippian, was cousin to Tennessee Williams, although Dern never met the playwright.

Dern’s blond hair is long and thick around her narrow face, her skin is fair, and her eyes are very blue. She stands nearly five-feet-ten-inches tall. She wears layered and loose-fitting sweaters and jump suits, projecting an earnestness that is light-years from adolescent coquettishness. Though she left college after one semester — out of frustration with mandatory courses (”I wanted to study child psychology, but to do that I first had to learn the biochemistry of a squid”) and a time crunch imposed by her film work — Dern looks more the bookworm than the flirt. Her posture is that of a girl who grew too tall too early. ”Laura was so nervous that I would think she was too tall for the part,” director Chopra remembers. ”But when she stands up, she’s got the body of a goddess.”

Chopra’s language is slightly hyperbolic, but Dern is pretty in a fresh, unconventional way. She doesn’t bowl you over with glamour. She could be an Eighties Jean Arthur or a Judy Holliday with a more womanly voice. Her favorite film is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and she fantasizes about a remake of the movie in which the protagonist is a young, idealistic, contemporary woman from a small town who goes to the city to do battle with the System. In her fantasy she, of course, plays the lead. She’s serious enough about her art to be wary of letting feminine allure become her salient feature. ”Whenever you’re the hottest thing to men,” she says, ”like a Kelly LeBrock, you’re seen the way they want to see you, and it’s very hard to break away and become an actress. It’s like, do you want to be sexy and cute, or do you want to be an actress?” It is not surprising that her favorite actress is Katharine Hepburn. Among directors, she would have liked to work with Frank Capra, George Cukor and Alfred Hitchcock. ”But there’s one person I have to do a movie with,” she says, pausing for effect. ”Woody Allen. Oh, I’d love to do a Woody Allen movie.”

Dern’s most important roles have been infinitely more demanding than her early performance in Scorsese’s film. She clearly revels in the difficulties of portraying characters whose experiences are foreign to her own, adopting the challenge as her private quest. In last year’s Mask, Dern played a blind adolescent who falls in love with Rocky, a boy afflicted with a severely disfiguring and ultimately fatal bone disorder. The film was drawn from a true story, and Dern began her preparation months in advance. ”I lived for ten days with a blindfold on,” she remembers, ”sleeping, eating, walking around. I learned to memorize the stuff in my room and to trust my mom and my girlfriends to drive me around. I ate in restaurants with the blindfold on. Then I took it off and played tricks with my eyes to blur my vision — to learn to not see what was in front of me. I would go inner, seeing only what I was thinking about.”

Dern’s blindness in Mask is extraordinarily convincing. Neither director Peter Bogdanovich nor Laszlo Kovacs, the cinematographer, coached or criticized her while she performed, Dern reports. ”They just let me come on and do my work as an actress. They treated me as a blind girl. It was best, because if I had felt someone didn’t think I was blind, I would have panicked. Or maybe I wouldn’t have believed it myself, because when I was working, I was blind.”

Her capacity to imagine the lives of her characters is so finely developed that having willfully deprived herself of sight, she felt herself falling in love with the hideously deformed Rocky. ”This is going to sound really weird,” she says, ”but there was a feeling [the real] Rocky was there — on the set. His essence was there, and I feel like a part of me fell in love with him. Kids would throw candy and rocks at his face, but I didn’t even see the deformity. It was — oh, God, he’s so cute! The love that exuded from this boy — I just adored him.”

In 1984’s Teachers, a movie starring Nick Nolte and Judd Hirsch, Dern played a 16-year-old high-school student who becomes impregnated by her teacher and must have an abortion. During the ten-week shoot in Columbus, Ohio, she checked herself into an abortion clinic, pretending to be pregnant. ”I was in the room with the girls waiting, and it was incredible,” she says. ”I don’t know what Reagan thinks — no one goes into this saying, ‘Hey — I wanna get rid of this thing!’ It’s an incredibly dramatic, painful experience.”

When Dern won the part of Connie in Smooth Talk, a small ”art film” that has earned enormous critical acclaim, she garnered a rare role for a young actress. She was not, as director Chopra says, merely ”the girlfriend of the guy” in what is by now a teen-flick standard: the male rite of passage. She was, instead, the central figure in a story about a girl’s sexual awakening. The screenplay was adapted from a Joyce Carol Oates short story. Dern is charming and moving as the teenager whose flashes of womanliness keep interrupting her fading childhood, leading to conflict with her parents, an envious older sister and the men who desire her. Two weeks before shooting was scheduled, Chopra was despairing of finding a suitable Connie. She had cast the entire film but for the lead.

”I wanted someone who had a physical envelope that would attract someone’s attention,” Chopra says, ”but I don’t mean I was looking for a tall blonde. I also needed someone who could be a small girl one minute and a woman the next.” It was the photographer Nancy Ellison, a Malibu Colony resident hired to do still photography for the film, who proposed Dern after reading the script. ”I know her,” Ellison told Chopra. ”She’s the daughter of my neighbor, Bruce Dern.” Chopra remembers that Dern ”came in like everybody else — she had half an hour to read, and she read just the way she is in the movie.” For the director, ”It was like falling in love.”

Throughout filming, Chopra was impressed by Dern’s virtuosity. ”She reached for and got the same effect over and over in take after take,” Chopra says. ”She could even do her own continuity. In the midst of crying, she could remember where her hands were or where the camera was.” Chopra said that after completing Smooth Talk, she went, with some trepidation, to see Mask. ”I was afraid I would see my Connie in Laura’s Mask character. But there’s not a mannerism or a gesture that’s the same in either movie.”

Dern attributes her insight as an actor to a childhood dominated by her ”incredibly imaginative” maternal grandmother and mother. ”My grandmother had this incredible fantasy life,” Dern remembers. ”And that was so great, especially for an actress. Because when you’re a dreamer, you can believe that you are that person, not playing a role. Not that you have to believe it when you get off the set, like some of the quote-unquote method young actors who everyone knows about and have been in all the papers saying, ‘I am this person, and I’m going to kill you if you tell me I’m not.’ I’m not into that. But I believe, when I’m on the set and the cameras are rolling, I’m that girl or woman. I can dream up the world in which they live. I don’t just play the scene, I play what happened to her 10 years ago in grammar school, or why her dad doesn’t give her enough attention — or whatever I make up for her world that I think will help me understand her better.”

Dern herself had a childhood that was less than smooth. Her parents lost their first child, a daughter, in a drowning accident before Laura was born; when she was two, her parents divorced. When her mother traveled to satisfy the demands of a theatrical career, Dern’s grandmother would stay with her. Five years later, her mother married a stockbroker and moved Dem from Santa Monica to New York, where she lived with her mother, her stepfather, two stepbrothers and a nanny on Fifth Avenue at 95th Street. Later, after her mother’s second divorce, Dern returned to Los Angeles. Returning to her grandmother’s turf, Dern remembers, ”was the greatest joy.”

Though her relationship with her mother has been loving and close, Dern’s connection with her father was, until recent years, fragile and troublesome. ”There was no physical affection in my father’s family. He was an outsider. It made him feel unloved and made it hard for him to show his affection for me,” she says. ”I know now he really loved me, but as a kid, I didn’t know it. Maybe he thought if he got too close, he might lose me, too.” In a precocious bid for her father’s love, Dern confronted him when she was 12. ”I had had it,” she says. ”We went to dinner, and I told him I needed a dad. He basically agreed, and slowly things have gotten better. But he was intimidating. We didn’t have a man in our house, so even confronting a man was intimidating. When I was really a woman in his eyes, it was much easier to deal with me. He can relate to a woman — he couldn’t relate to a kid.” She often visits her father — who remarried 16 years ago and has a second child — at his Malibu house. They take long walks on the beach together and have dinner. ”He loved my work in Smooth Talk,” she says.

Dern’s fantasy life was further stimulated by her mother’s department-store array of spiritual interests. ”When I was around 10, she introduced me to metaphysics, meditation, yoga. She gave me the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita. . .  . I would go on meditation retreats and do those kinds of things — never crazy or obsessed, but enough to tap into my spirituality, and something further down than my ego, further down than career and money.”

Today Dern lives in West Hollywood with a 32-year-old woman who gives public lectures on a set of books called a Course in Miracles; they met at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles. Dern says her roommate keeps her on her spiritual course: ”When I’m a certain way, like, I’ll say, ‘I can’t believe she got that part — she’s such a bad actress!’ — she’ll say, ‘Laura, this was meant to be, send her love, she’s trying to fulfill her destiny.”’ Dern, like her mother, draws emotional sustenance from a grab bag of theologies and even the occult. ”I am Catholic, as far as my religion,” she says, ”but I believe in reincarnation, divorce and abortion.” Dern also burns incense, lights candles, holds rock crystals in her hand (”to pick up energy from them”) and meditates. ”I like having a time to light my candles and really get focused.”

On a recent excursion to the Bodhi Tree Bookstore, a gathering place for Californians seeking metaphysical books, tapes, beads, crystal balls and other accouterments of spiritualism, Dern was in heaven. ”Oh, wow! Isn’t this neat?” she said, fondling a package containing ten different scents of incense. She bought the item, along with Tulsi wood beads, an amethyst crystal and a pack of tarot cards. ”My mother chooses from different theories, which is what I’ve done in everything, even acting. I take from different acting teachers, I blend together and see which is right, and that’s what I’ve done with my spiritual life.”

It is possible that Dern’s spiritualism is responsible for her even-keeled attitude toward Hollywood, although her proximity to movie stars during her childhood must have contributed, too. Her mother’s friends Susan Strasberg and Shelley Winters were ”like godmothers” to her, she remembers. Her father’s close friend during those years was Jack Nicholson.

”I know what I don’t like about Hollywood,” Dern says. ”I don’t like arrogance. I don’t like thinking you’re the best because you earn a lot of money making silly movies, or going into Spago every night and making sure the paparazzi take your picture, or worrying about who you hang out with ’cause it looks good, rather than hanging out with them because they’re your friend.” Her feelings about her blue-blooded ancestry are equally cool. ”I was in the social register,” she says. ”I could have had a coming-out party. My mother said, ‘Katharine Hepburn did it — you can do it, honey!’ ” But Dern passed on the option, thinking it trivial.

Although she is of the brat-pack generation, she holds herself aloof from bona fide membership in their club. ”Some brat-pack members have an attitude with the press. Some of them think they’re so great, they go crazy. The scary thing is some of them don’t have the talent.” And she is acutely aware of, and depressed by, the follies of modern fame. ”You wonder where Don Johnson is going to be in 10 years.”

What she admires is genuineness. While browsing in the Bodhi Tree, she sights Jon Voight. Although she hasn’t seen the actor since she was a small child and he was costarring with her father in Coming Home, she approaches him and introduces herself. Voight looks at this lanky blond figure wonderingly, almost as if she were a wraith, his mouth open in surprise as he takes in her identity. ”Laura Dern,” he says slowly, smiling warmly. ”You’re a lovely actress.” Dern, completely composed, begins to tell him how she admired a recent speech he gave upon winning a Golden Globe Award. ”He said he was honored to be in this profession. He didn’t try to be real Hollywood. He said what he felt,” she explains later. ”I wanted him to know it was beautiful and touching.”

It seems fitting that Dern values her boyfriend, the 26 actor Kyle MacLachlan, who starred in Dune, in part because he comes out of a milieu vastly removed from Hollywood. ”He’s so incredible,” she begins. ”He’s from Washington State and comes from a theater background. He was playing Romeo when he was cast in Dune. He comes from a very genuine world. He doesn’t have the selfishness and the ego that I’m very used to, especially with younger actors now.” The two, who affectionately call each other Kibbles n Bits, recently finished starring. With Isabella Rossellini, in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, to be released in September. ”It’s about a world that seems perfect, with roses in the garden and a white picket fence,” Dern says, ”and underneath this world is a rotting, a sickness.” Dern is the representative of goodness and innocence in the film. ”Isabella, Kyle and I are the leads,” Dern says, ”but it’s not my movie. I have a horrible feeling people will be intrigued by the sickness and bored by the purity.” 

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