Hollywood scion, career-longevity goddess, scene-stealer supreme: After more than four decades in the business, Laura Dern, 52, is more in her skin than she’s ever been — and on screen too, including an electric supporting turn in Noah Baumbach’s festival-season darling Marriage Story and a reprisal of one of literature’s most beloved mothers, Marmee, in December’s Little Women.
Recently, she spoke to EW about both those roles, as well as why she misses Big Little Lies’ Renata, how the world has (and hasn’t) changed since Enlightened, and why she’s still looking for her own Norma Rae.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are the couple disintegrating at the center of Marriage Story, but you get so many scene-stealing moments as Scarlett’s character’s divorce lawyer, Nora.
DERN: I mean, as an actor you can’t dream up speeches that delicious! It’s just crazy amazing. But let me just say, I’ve never cried so hard as when I first read the script. It wasn’t just the emotion of reading the story, it was the perfection of the screenplay. [And] being a parent, I understood this unbelievably sad, broken moment.
Nora does have some superficial similarities to Renata on Big Little Lies — they’re both high-powered woman with great wardrobes, taking care of business. But then you pretty quickly start to see that they’re really not the same at all.
Yes! Renata’s all about being liked, and that’s what I love about her. She’s also a rager, and complicated. This woman Nora, she plays it very carefully — she’s a total pro, she’s not rabid or losing her s–t ever. So I find it interesting [that people think that]. But if the comparison is me wearing high fashion, then I’m really comfortable continuing to play those women, because it’s awfully fun. My use of clothing in the past has been incredibly utilitarian, from like, hiking boots to playing a homeless huffer. [Laughs]
You’ve gotten to play so many great meaty roles over the years. Has that gotten harder or easier at this point in your career?
Oh my god, I thought harder. And I was scared. Hopefully, there’s been this paradigm shift in every industry now where everyone’s voices matter, and women can be in charge, women can be paid the same, all of those fights. But in terms of [acting], also that women can have ownership of complicated, raw, ugly, beautiful, sexualized — or asexual! — damaged, vulnerable characters. And actresses don’t have to be typecast because of one role, or because of ageism.
You’ve also worked with pretty much a murderers’ row of directors from Spielberg to Scorsese, David Lynch, Robert Altman, Alexander Payne, and you’ve dabbled in directing shorter things. Do you think you’d ever want to make your own feature film?
When I became a mom — and I think remembering the glory and the trauma of being a kid in the movie business — I’ve tried my best to figure out if I’m gonna hurl my passions into that, while raising these amazing creatures that live in my house. [Daughter Jaya, 14, and son Ellery, 18, with her ex-husband, musician Ben Harper.] But now that they’re getting older I would love to consider that. I know I could never do it unless it’s a story that really feels like home to me.
Your show Enlightened had a cult two-season run before it was cancelled in 2013, but your character Amy, that “woman on a verge of nervous breakthrough,” feels so prescient now. How do you think it would play in this moment?
You know, when it came out and we first started doing press, a lot of journalists were like [baffled voice] “What’s wrong with Amy? Do you like playing a bipolar character?”
I was like, She’s not bipolar, she’s just angry! And nobody else seems angry, you know? About Monsanto and big Tobacco and ownership of all our representatives in D.C. Now I just feel like we’re all Amy — we’re mad as hell and we’re not gonna take it anymore, we don’t know where to turn, we don’t know if our voices matter but we’re gonna use them, and we know it’s a shit show.
So I just feel like yeah, her rage is our rage. In fact you’re inspiring me, I gotta reach out to HBO and tell them they should show it right now. [Laughs]
Little Women has been filmed more than a dozen times, and it’s so beloved. What did you want to bring to Marmee in Greta Gerwig’s version that maybe hadn’t been seen before?
For me, Greta has made a film about what it is to find your muse, to be an artist. What it is as a woman to be free and independent in your choices, in your story, despite what the world or what family or what culture at that time, or any time, is saying to you.
Because girls now — I mean, I’m sorry to break it down, but we can watch this movie and go “Oh it’s a period film where girls are sort of told who they’re supposed to be.” You think social media isn’t doing that to our girls right now? It can be the 2000s or the 1800s, it’s all the same thing emotionally.
A different kind of corset, I guess.
Well exactly! And in terms of Marmee, the answer would be that she was essentially Louisa May Alcott’s [own] mother. She was America’s first social worker and a deep progressive, and that piece of the story I just hadn’t felt in this way, even though it’s been acted so beautifully [in the past]. She’s every bit of the Marmee we read about, and hopefully not saintly. Hopefully very human.
Your dance card is pretty full already, but is there anything that excites you and maybe scares you, something you haven’t done yet?
A musical. That would be really inspiring and scary and wonderful. But I was also raised on the films that made me want to bring social justice to storytelling… Network, Norma Rae, Silkwood. [I want to bring] that longing for a better world to someone whose voice doesn’t matter and then suddenly has to matter — my own Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Yeah! [Laughs] Yeah.
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