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Wild at Heart: The Long, Varied Career of Laura Dern

The multifaceted veteran actress is both hard to categorize and curiously undercelebrated

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

A bold proclamation, from a May 4, 1986, New York Times headline: “LAURA DERN IS A TEEN-AGER TO TAKE SERIOUSLY.”

Then 19 years old, Dern — the willowy, blond daughter of actors Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd — was promoting Smooth Talk, a coming-of-age drama adapted from a short story by Joyce Carol Oates. Dern played Connie, a troubled, sexually curious 15-year-old who gets involved with an older man, played by Treat Williams. It was a decidedly adult role for a young actress, but that wasn’t out of character for Dern; she’d already played a blind teenager in the tearjerker Mask and a girl whose teacher comes on to her in, well, Teachers. Those were the breaks for a girl a little too off-kilter to be in the Brat Pack. “People now tell me it’s a good thing I stayed away from teen films,” Dern mused in the profile. “Well, it wasn’t my choice. I wasn’t hired. You name a movie with a young girl in the last five years” — Flashdance, Pretty in Pink — “and I’m sure I was up for it.” Said her costar Williams, quite prophetically, “She’s not as salable a persona as some of these other young actresses. She’s not so easy to categorize. So I see a longer path for her, but ultimately a more rewarding one.”

Thirty years later — and in the midst of a career renaissance that includes roles in Big Little Lies, a rebooted Twin Peaks, and the upcoming Star Wars film The Last Jedi — Dern has indeed forged one of the more unusual careers of her generation. It’s hard to think of another actress who moves so fluidly between the indie circuit and the blockbuster, the voice of Zen-like sanity and the mascara-streaked hot mess, and, of course, the waking world and the Lynchian dreamscape. In that 31-year-old Times profile, it is quite clear that the author had not yet seen Dern’s next film, because he refers to it as, simply, “‘Blue Velvet,’ a suspense film scheduled to be released in September.” (Anyone who’d gotten a glimpse of Lumberton would have … a few more colorful words to say about the experience.)

Dern is now the lead actress that David Lynch has worked with most frequently; this month’s Twin Peaks reboot is their fourth collaboration. Their mutual admiration and understanding run deep. “I love using my body as an actor and I love the physicality of characters but it’s David who specifically has made me leap into a void of trust,” Dern said recently. “[T]he characters he’s let me play … are as shockingly diverse as you could ever dream up one director letting you try out.”

It’s easier, of course, to pin down the personas of actors who take on more homogeneous parts, which means that part of what makes Dern such a brilliant actress — her inability to be pigeonholed — also contributes to the fact that she somehow is underrated, slightly below the radar. To look back at her long, winding career, though, is to ask a larger question: Can an actress so versatile have a signature quality? Is there an essential Dernness (Dernatology?) and, if so, what is it?

Dern can’t yet reveal much about the role she’ll play in Twin Peaks (“The most boring interview lately,” she sighed to W Magazine this week. “Let’s talk about Twin Peaks and Star Wars. Let’s not even have an interview. I am a total bore”), but if it’s anything like the ones he’s previously written for her — Blue Velvet’s innocent, curious Sandy; Wild at Heart’s joyfully sexual Lula; or Inland Empire’s haunted actress, Nikki — it’ll show off another side of her inexhaustible range. Dern is one of those actresses who’s been so ubiquitous and excellent for so long that it’s too easy to take her for granted. But this would be a mistake. The present is always the perfect time to be reminded: Laura Dern is, and always has been, a woman to take seriously.

Sometimes truth is more Lynchian than fiction: It is said that Laura Dern was conceived while her parents were shooting Roger Corman’s 1966 biker-gang flick, The Wild Angels. Married in 1960, Ladd was a mouthy Southern belle from Mississippi (best known as the tough-talking Flo in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), and Dern was a laconic Midwesterner who got his start in late-period Westerns. They divorced when Laura was 2. She grew up mostly with her mom and her grandmother in the Valley, ostensibly an only child; she hadn’t yet been born when her sister died, at 18 months, in a swimming-pool accident. She had the epiphany that she wanted to be an actress when she was 7 or 8, during “this really defining summer” that she was shuttling back and forth between parents. Things were going well for both of them: Her mom was filming Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; her father, Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot. “I don’t think it takes, you know, a true muse moment to spend your summer vacation with your mom on a Martin Scorsese movie and your dad on an Alfred Hitchcock movie and by the end of the summer be like, ‘I want to make movies,’” she said.

Her time on the Alice set was a particularly pivotal experience: She got to be an extra (billed “Girl eating ice cream cone”) in a climactic scene in the film, the only child sitting at the diner counter amid the scruffy adult male patrons. They had to do 19 takes, and Scorsese was impressed by her stamina. “If Laura can eat that many ice cream cones in one sitting,” he said, “she’s got to be an actress.”

(Warner Bros.)
(Warner Bros.)

The girl with the ice cream cone grew up fast. Not long after Alice, Dern sprouted up, almost to her full height of 5-foot-10, before her teens. It made her feel gawky at school, but at auditions it had a different effect: It made her seem older, even more sophisticated. She lied about her age (she was 11 but said she was 14 to play a 17-year-old) to get her first major part, in the Jodie Foster–starring bad girls flick Foxes. Not long after, she became legally emancipated. “To be emancipated and to be able to make my own decisions as an actor afforded me the ability to work more and longer hours and play older roles,” she recalled in 2013, sitting beside her father on an episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio. “My parents totally supported me, and I tried to use it emotionally a couple times, but it didn’t really work,” she laughed, affecting the voice of an angsty teenager: “I’m emancipated, you have no right to tell me what to do!

Coming of age as the daughter of actors in Hollywood made her relationship with her parents strange to say the least, but with Ladd, she’s worked out some of her issues on screen. In her mother’s presence, Dern has taken on some of her strangest and most challenging roles. “On a personal level,” Dern told Vanity Fair in 2013, “we’ve grown so much in our relationship that there is nothing we can’t talk about. … As I’ve said to her, ‘Isn’t it amazing, Mom, when I worked with you at 20, every word you said triggered me. Now I’m working with you at 40 and only every eighth word triggers me.’”

One of their best collaborations was 1991’s Rambling Rose, a spirited, occasionally ridiculous Depression-era period pic directed by Martha Coolidge, one of the only female directors to find consistent work in the 1980s. Dern played Rose, a bubbly, borderline nymphomaniacal orphan who comes to work at a rich family’s Georgia home in order to escape a life of prostitution. Ladd was Mrs. Hillyer, the Columbia-educated matriarch. Rose’s sexuality disturbs the order of the household; both father and son are some combination of infatuated and repulsed by her. It took a certain kind of magnetism to play a character who could convincingly throw a family — and an entire town — into disarray, but Dern pulled it off. In one scene, she dons her favorite short dress, persuades Mr. Hillyer (Robert Duvall) to drive her into town, and comes alive as she struts down the street and turns every head in her presence. Marvels Mr. Hillyer, watching her from the car as she flirts with her latest conquest, “Girl strikes like a cobra.”

Dern nabbed her first Oscar nomination for the performance, and Ladd her third. They became the first mother-daughter pair to earn Oscar nominations for performances in the same movie.

Dern and Ladd’s most fraught onscreen relationship came in the form of HBO series Enlightened, in which Amy Jellicoe (Dern), a whistleblower on the verge of a nervous breakdown, moves back home to live with her caustic, elderly mother. But their most memorable pairing has got to be Lynch’s 1990 hallucinogenic fairy tale, Wild at Heart. Traditional mother-daughter fare this is not: Dern’s Lula is a speed-metal-loving, sex-crazed wild child, and Ladd’s Marietta is, well, a gloriously grotesque villainess who tries to sleep with her daughter’s boyfriend and then sets in motion a plot to have him murdered when he declines. Ladd, who was nominated for a Oscar for the role, gets to play one of the most unforgettably bizarre scenes in Lynch’s oeuvre (which is saying … a whole hell of a lot), when she smears red lipstick all over her face and calls her private-detective boyfriend on the telephone. Imagine being in a movie where your mom did this:

“She came up with weirder ideas than I would have,” Dern said at the time. “At one point she was supposed to be watching my [character’s] abortion, in that flashback where I’m on the table. David said, ‘We’ve got to do something different, Diane. We need something there.’ And mom got a lollipop and started waving it in my face, like, ‘Honey, if you’re good you’ll get a lollipop.’ In the middle of an abortion, your mother offers you a lollipop?”

The day after Ladd wrapped, Lynch and Dern had lunch. He asked her, bemused, “Who would have thought your mother would turn out to be the ultimate David Lynch actor?”

Dern’s first scene in the David Lynch universe, as Sandy in Blue Velvet, is one of film’s great entrances: eight seconds of dead black, and then she — radiant in bubblegum pink — steps out from the shadows to the swell of Angelo Badalamenti’s score. It’s like a surreal Douglas Sirk homage, shot with palpable affection for both character and actress. The only thing that takes you out of the haze of 1950s throwback innocence is that her first line refers to a severed body part: “Are you the one that found the ear?”

“I wanted to go to Jupiter,” Dern said later. “That was my plan from day one, and David gave me the ticket.”

Dern was 17 when Lynch cast her as Sandy (and for maybe the first time, she played her age). In place of an audition, they had an hourlong conversation; in a documentary about the making of the film, Dern recalls them talking about everything from “astrology to grafting peach trees with pear trees” to their shared passion, meditation. Lynch wanted her to meet her love interest in the film, Kyle MacLachlan, so he invited them all to a Bob’s Big Boy for a kind of chemistry reading. “We ordered malts and French fries and David was doodling on napkins while Kyle was doodling with a knife into his ketchup,” Dern remembers. “And I mean, a girl either goes, these are really bizarre men and they are twin souls, or I am in love with both of these people and want to spend the rest of my life with them, which is how I responded.”

Sandy is basically the inverse of Wild at Heart’s Lula: wholesome and virtuous on the outside, but secretly driven by a fascination with the dark and gruesome parts of human nature. Sandy is the daughter of a police detective — the plot only really gets into motion when she admits to McLachlan’s Jeffrey that, from her bedroom, she eavesdrops on her father’s phone calls. There’s a campy element to Jeffrey and Sandy’s scenes together, but Dern plays her with just enough heart and human complexity that she transcends the ridiculous and often reaches something sublime. (Take her famous “dream of robins” speech, which manages to be both over-the-top and genuinely moving.) Sandy’s presence (and ultimate triumph) in a film as warped as Blue Velvet projects a similar idea to Dern’s overall working relationship with Lynch: No matter how chirpy and sunshiny the surface, there is a darkness and a morbid curiosity alive in all of us. It’s the great equalizer.

Dern channeled her dark side much more overtly in her most recent feature with Lynch, 2006’s nightmarish Inland Empire. It’s Lynch’s most meandering film, but his faith in Dern’s unhinged performance shows his devotion to her talent. During the campaign season for the 2007 Oscars, Lynch sat outside for days next to a live cow and a large banner that read, “For Your Consideration: Laura Dern.” As Lynch (sort of) explained, “I feel that the Academy members must be sick of seeing ad after ad costing a fortune with no one really paying attention. Honestly, I’m out there with the cow, and meeting the greatest bunch of people. The other day, we had my friend (director of USC’s Polish Music Center) Marek Zebrowski out there playing piano. It was so beautiful, such a great day, out with Georgia the cow, beautiful piano music, meeting so many great people.”

Dern didn’t get the nomination(s), and at the 2007 ceremony Helen Mirren took home the Academy Award. (Dern was nominated again in 2015, for her wrenching performance as Reese Witherspoon’s mother in Wild.) Dern might not have an Oscar yet, but, to look at it another way, Helen Mirren has not yet inspired David Lynch to sit outside next to a live cow and a large picture of her for several days.

Until recently, TV was a much more prohibitive medium than film, and Dern accrued some small-screen setbacks that now prove only that she was ahead of her time. Never forget that she played the sitcom love interest to whom Ellen DeGeneres famously, groundbreakingly came out (“Susan, I’m gay”), and that the success of that episode depended on Dern’s character being infinitely more crushworthy than the male interest vying for Ellen’s affection. On a recent episode of Ellen’s daytime talk show commemorating the 20th anniversary of the episode, DeGeneres noted that Dern “didn’t work for a year just because [she was] on that show,” since Hollywood executives were presumably spooked by the controversy, and possibly assuming she was a lesbian. (“I hurt straight people through this,” DeGeneres self-deprecatingly quipped.) But DeGeneres praised Dern’s supportive presence on set, and her patience when they had to do take after take, because DeGeneres kept bursting into tears when it came time to say, “I’m gay.” “Of all the things I feel privileged to experience in my life,” Dern told DeGeneres, still getting choked up about it two decades later, “there’s no greater gift than being the person that was with you and looking into your eyes as you said those words.”

Dern delved further into a TV character’s psyche a decade and a half later, working on HBO’s critically beloved series Enlightened, which she cocreated and costarred in with the director Mike White. The format offered a new challenge: The show ran for two years, and she’d never had to stick with a single character for as long as series protagonist Amy Jellicoe, a flawed but big-hearted woman recovering from a nervous breakdown and trying to decide whether or not to blow the whistle on her corrupt company. “Because I’ve had to live with her a few years now,” Dern said, “I’ve never felt more attached to a character, more protective, or more defensive of a character.” Despite effusive praise from critics and online exhortations attempting to get people watching the show, Enlightened never got great ratings and was canceled at the end of its second season in 2013. “It irritates me,” White said toward the end of the show’s run. “If we had a male lead character, I think people would have approached it in a different, kind of more serious-minded way.”

Though it’s been only four years since Enlightened’s cancellation, changes in TV production and consumption are happening so rapidly that it’s worth wondering if Dern and White’s show would have met the same fate today. Streaming services have allowed shows with small but devoted audiences to thrive and play out their entire story arcs. And, to White’s point about female characters, it’s only recently that the land of “prestige TV” is becoming slightly less of a boy’s club. Though more star-studded than Enlightened, one series that recently proved that also features Dern: Big Little Lies.

Certainly Dern’s most GIFable role (see: Exhibits A, B, C, and D), vengeful, uptight power mama Renata Klein smoldered with barely contained rage. (Her poolside primal scream has, rightly, become one of the series’ most iconic moments.) But in taking on Renata, Dern had to pull off a crucial shift in tone late in the series, showing that Renata was far from the irredeemable villainess viewers once thought her to be. Her blossoming friendship with one-time rival Jane (Shailene Woodley) turned out to be the show’s most satisfying pleasant surprise. Dern had to dig deep to find what would make someone like Renata likable, and it’s a feat she pulled off with ease. By the triumphant end of the series, you’d practically forgotten why you’d once been rooting against her.

Big Little Lies was a huge hit for HBO, and its initial format — seven-episode, female-driven, star-studded limited series — is likely to be replicated often in the years to come. And yet, the show’s billing and ad campaign spoke to the ways in which Dern is still taken for granted. Though Renata was no less crucial to the show, only Dern’s three costars (Woodley, Nicole Kidman, and Reese Witherspoon) appeared in Big Little Lies’ ubiquitous ads. There is a sense that Dern’s sheer uniqueness — that inability to be a “salable persona” that her costar Treat Williams spoke of years before — has kept her just a rung below A-list. That feels like a flaw in the star system more than any fault of Dern’s.

Which brings us back to that question: Does Dern have a particular star quality? What makes Laura Dern so … Laura Dern?

The trouble in defining it — and thus its power — is that it’s a bunch of contradictions. After considering some of Dern’s best performances, I would say it’s a total openness to both ecstatic giddiness and deep, wounding pain. It’s the invisible through line between Lula’s euphoric happy feet and the sentient-tragedy-mask Sandy’s face morphs into when Jeffrey breaks her heart. It’s an earthy daffiness, a certain flower-child Diane Keaton vibe. A blithe sensuality and an ease in a somewhat unconventional body. It’s Renata Klein standing so sure of herself yet flexible enough to see things she likes in a one-time enemy (“Touché”), and Amy Jellicoe wanting so badly to clean up the world that she’s oblivious to the messes she makes along the way. It’s Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ellie Sattler as she exits the Jeep that first time: capable, tough, and thoroughly competent, but never without the capacities for wonder, sublimity, and joy.

It’s a quality that makes a person equally close with both Reese Witherspoon and David Lynch. An eccentricity that’s more forceful, hidden, and deeply felt than the external surface reveals all at once, right away: a certain wildness of heart.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.