The year 2000 proved to be very good to Laura Dern. That was when the actress first met Ben Harper, the musician who would become her husband and the father of her children (Ellery, 6, and Jaya, 3). It also paid professional dividends for Dern, as the turmoil around the presidential election laid the groundwork for one of her juiciest roles yet. The catch is, she had no idea at the time.
Eight years later, Dern is starring in Recount (premiering May 25 on HBO), which tells the story of the five-week battle between George W. Bush and Al Gore to claim Florida’s 25 electoral votes. Dern plays Katherine Harris, Florida’s big-haired, overly made-up, and much-lampooned secretary of state, who certified the state’s election results and secured the presidency for Bush.
A lifelong Democrat — ”like, out of the womb” — Dern was none too thrilled watching 2000’s election night and the Florida nail-biter. But the actress says she set aside her personal views while making the movie, concentrating instead on portraying Harris as a believable figure rather than the power-crazed wacko that Saturday Night Live made her out to be. ”I never thought my job was to have empathy for the choices Katherine Harris made,” says Dern. ”But certainly I had a job to understand her perspective.” Says Recount director Jay Roach, ”She suggested a few new moments that weren’t in the script. It wasn’t like an actor saying, ‘I think my part should be bigger.’ She was dead-on with pointing out opportunities for a sense of a character arc through the story.”
Dern stresses that the film, which plays like a thriller despite its wonky subject matter, tries to be politically unbiased. But not everyone agrees. On May 14, Gore’s campaign chairman William Daley complained to The New York Times that the film presented Democrat bigwig Warren Christopher (played by John Hurt) as a ”wuss.” ”I never thought he was a wuss,” says Dern. ”What I got from the script was, he’s from another time — when nobility meant something. But that doesn’t fly with this administration. That’s the tragedy.”
Recount is just the latest provocative movie in the Oscar nominee’s (Rambling Rose) filmography: Her breakthrough film, David Lynch’s 1986 Blue Velvet, shocked cinemagoers with its graphic violence, while her turn as a paint-huffing pregnant woman in 1996’s Citizen Ruth satirized both sides of the abortion debate. Dern says she simply chooses projects that are ”about flawed protagonists, not about archetypes,” which she attributes in part to the idiosyncratic careers of her parents, ’70s movie icons Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern. The pair split when she was just a couple of years old, but the actress says ”they’re very close.” In fact, she plans to appear alongside both in Bruce Dern’s directorial debut, Hart’s Location, a drama about an estranged family. ”My therapist will be on the set,” deadpans Dern.
While the actress declines to confirm her age, reported at 41 — ”Do we have to? Let your editors say whatever they want” — we do know that more than two decades after Blue Velvet Dern’s thespian skills remain very much in demand. She’s wrapped Tenderness, a thriller costarring Russell Crowe. And it looks likely that she’ll reprise her role of paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler and once again walk with dinosaurs — or run the hell away from them — in Jurassic Park IV: ”It’s on [my IMDb page] so that’s what I’m doing!” she jokes. ”The word is that they want to do it and my character’s in it. But they take time developing those things.”
Of course, there is the possibility that this year’s presidential election will also prove movie-worthy. And if that comes to pass, there is going to be a juicy part for one lucky actress. Laura Dern as Hillary Clinton, anyone? ”She’d have to change her look even more. But, man, she’d be great to see in that,” says Roach. Laughs Dern, ”I’m ready! I’m for hire!”
Dern details her extreme makeover for ‘Recount’
Laura Dern’s physical resemblance to Katherine Harris in Recount is impressively accurate given that in real life the blond, slender actress looks precious little like the busty, dark-haired politician. ”There was so much that was different,” says Dern. ”It was hair color, eye color, makeup. They had to change the shape of my lips.” On achieving a certain fullness of figure, Dern admits, ”I was padded up — bust, waist, hips. It was trying to re-create a shape that we recognized.” Dern knew the transformation was a success when last Halloween, in Florida filming Recount, she simply stayed in hair and makeup to go trick-or-treating with her two children. ”They let me have an hour dinner break so I could start trick-or-treating with my babies,” she remembers. ”And I went as Katherine Harris. People didn’t know it was me. They just thought I was a mom and that was my costume. People said, ‘Oh, my God, you’re Katherine Harris, that’s hilarious!”’