Playing the woman who attracts Ellen didn't faze the star of the controversial ''Citizen Ruth''

”You smell like sandalwood,” murmurs Jeff Goldblum as he sniffs Laura Dern’s hair in the rather restrained restaurant of L.A.’s Four Seasons Hotel. Dern — her leopard-spotted Dolce & Gabbana pants pressed against his lanky frame — responds softly: ”Do you like my manicure? I did it with my teeth.” The former lovers and Jurassic Park costars smooch noisily, hamming it up. ”I love Jeff,” says the 30-year-old Dern after he exits. Does this mean their on-again, off-again wedding is back on? ”You never know,” she teases. ”That’s where he’s going now, to get his tux, but don’t tell him I told you. Doesn’t that pique your curiosity?” Well, yes. After all, in recent days, the actress is reported to have been similarly (i.e., publicly) demonstrative with Sling Blade‘s Billy Bob Thornton, sparking speculation that she is the cause of the breakup with his wife, Pietra. (Dern’s publicist denies any involvement.) But the timing of this piquant heterosexual moment with Goldblum may be no accident. Dern is about to play a historic part, as the gay TV producer who rings Ellen DeGeneres’ chimes on the much-trumpeted coming-out episode of ABC’s Ellen (April 30, 9-10 p.m.). The message seems clear: Laura Dern is only acting with real-life buddy DeGeneres.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising, given the reaction of some of her dearest friends. ”It’s shocking, the responses I got from people supposedly cool with homosexuality,” says Dern. ”You know, like ‘I don’t judge it, but don’t you think America is going to think you guys are lovers?”’

Dern and DeGeneres were friends at first sight. Their bond was cemented at DeGeneres’ birthday party in January. ”Ellen invited all her friends over to watch Citizen Ruth,” says Dern. ”We were cracking each other up so much. Several Ellen writers who were there said: ‘Omigod, you guys have such a connection. It’s great to see two people click like that.”’ When DeGeneres was looking to cast her TV crush, she needed the support of an actress she felt comfortable with. ”The issue isn’t homosexuality, but people who care about each other. [The emphasis should be] ‘These two people are great together,’ as opposed to ‘Oh, she’s with a woman!”’ says Dern, who, in solidarity with DeGeneres, is joined in the episode by Thornton, Oprah Winfrey, Demi Moore, k.d. lang, and Melissa Etheridge.

Dern has never questioned her own sexuality for a second. ”I’m so straight — unfortunately, probably, for me,” she says with a laugh. ”I like the whole package, if you know what I’m saying. Gotta have those boys. Oh, I can’t say this — this is a magazine! Can I turn [the tape recorder] off for one second?” She clarifies just what it is she likes about men, then snaps the recorder back on.

”Oh, God, I love being a girl — a ‘human girl person.”’ Dern is lifting a line from her Oscar-nominated title role in 1991’s Rambling Rose, a pure-hearted nymphomaniac who protests, ”I am only a human girl person, and I ain’t always perfect.” Which is precisely what makes her perfect for the Ellen part: Throughout her career, she’s made sexually daring, even outrageous, characters seem fully human.