LAURA DERN — WILD & Enlightened

Laura Dern stands smiling in a dress with thick waves of warm colors.
Photo by Jack Guy

Her long-running career has included plum roles in such films as “Mask”, “Blue Velvet” and “Jurassic Park”. Along the way, Laura Dern’s won two Golden Globe Awards: One was for her portrayal of Florida’s secretary of state in the HBO film Recount, and the second for her role as Amy Jellicoe in that cable network’s series, Enlightened. Dern also scored a best actress Academy Award nomination for her performance in the film, “Rambling Rose”. Just last year, she appeared in spate of films, including “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Wild”. ABILITY’s Chet Cooper recently caught up with Dern in Denver at the Global Down Syndrome Foundation’s annual fashion show, and subsequently had a nice chat. She has this genuinely sweet energy about her and is incredibly well spoken.

Chet Cooper: How’s the campaign for Wild been going?

Laura Dern: Good. Our job is done, thank goodness. Reese Witherspoon and I have been promoting it since last August at the Telluride Film Festival, which was our first screening. It’s amazing how big of a machine promoting movies has become. It used to be a weekend on the press junket, and then you were finished.

Cooper: Did the roll out of the film entail a lot of travel?

Dern: It did.

Cooper: So you’re tired and you don’t want to talk. We’ll talk to you next month then.

(laughter)

Dern: I’m ready!

Cooper: Did you have a chance to reflect at all on the Global Down Syndrome Foundation (GDSF) gala, and your take away from that event?

Cooper: Did you get to talk with any of the models—the kids and young adults there with Down syndrome?

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Dern: I spoke with several of them. One little girl was one of the models. She was so adorable and infectious that every time I saw her which, in a matter of two and a half hours was probably, like, 12 times, she would come charging at me and hurl a hug onto me that would throw both of us to the ground.

(laughter)

Cooper: That was me, actually.

Dern: Oh, that was you!

Alec Baldwin and Jamie Foxx both escort two beautiful young ladies dressed to the nines on the catwalk.
Alec Baldwin and Jamie Foxx escort young ladies on the catwalk

(laughter)

A couple of people gave me candy as a gift, and she would make sure that I understood that the candy was actually meant for her. She was very clever, warm and loving; meeting her stands out as one of my favorite experiences of the whole event.

Cooper: Did you get to speak to any of the young adults?

Dern: Briefly. The thing I remember about everyone I spoke to is that they were hilarious. They were so full of personality, so sweet, funny and sassy. Many of them loved to dance, and I noticed a lot of flirtation going between some of the young adult boys and the cheerleaders who showed up.

(laughter)

Cooper: That was funny.

Dern: It was hilarious. Everyone had an incredible sense of humor, which made it a lot of fun. I spent less time with the children than I would have liked to, but look forward to other opportunities.

Cooper: I was wondering about the role that you played in “I Am Sam”, and if you put that experience together with some of the people you met at the gala.

Dern: I was very moved by not only how beautiful an actor Sean Penn is, but how committed he was to honoring the gift that comes along with the challenges that people may have. I think he did such a beautiful job with that in the film. And so did the actors who were in it with him. Jessie Nelson, who wrote and directed that project, is one of my closest friends. She was fiercely committed to making sure everyone was honored. But I was working with an actor playing someone with a mental challenge, not someone living with it. Seeing John C McGinley (who has a son with Down syndrome), and meeting some of the families the night of the event, deepened my understanding and longing to support the research and extraordinary work that’s being done in Denver. That’s the part that just blew my mind. The research in genetics was phenomenal and will serve so many areas of medicine where there’s a lack of knowledge about aspects of the disease.

Cooper: What I noticed about your career is that you’ve been involved in different projects that have a connection to mental illness. Have you thought about that with regards to the different characters you’ve played? Has it increased your awareness within your own life?

Dern with arms folded looking serious on the set of "Enlightenment: with a backdrop of rows of blurred out TV screens.Dern: I’m interested in human nature. That’s why I chose to become an actor. Whatever people are struggling with, the struggle is often where the drama is. Whether it’s dealing with cancer in the last couple of films I’ve done, or dealing with a breakdown in my show Enlightened, or the drug addiction in “Citizen Ruth”. I think it’s about not just the crisis you’re in, but how do you get to the other side? How do we heal? How do we survive this experience, while remaining hopeful instead of filled with despair? That’s what interests me.

Cooper: The pilot of your series shows you having the breakdown and then going to Hawaii for recovery. Did they actually send you to Hawaii, or was that just sand on a back lot?

Dern: Oh I did go to Hawaii! That was the luckiest part!

(laughter)

Cooper: In the show, what were you diagnosed with? Anxiety, depression? What did the rehab reveal?

Dern: They didn’t really go into it because our interest The Global Down Syndrome Foundation’s gala brought several familiar faces to the catwalk was in questioning what madness really is. I was inspired by the political state of affairs at the time, and the fact that people didn’t take to the streets. It was during the 2000 election that I started thinking about it. Faced with an apathetic culture, which is what it felt like to me, I started asking the question, and then I asked Mike White, my partner: What does it take to risk everything and stand up? What does it take to be a revolutionary? Could our greatest challenges or weaknesses also be our greatest gifts? That’s a conversation that continues to interest me, and it’s a line of thought that your magazine explores. What’s the challenge and what’s the gift inherent in each thing? And for my character on Enlightened, the challenge is that she feels everything in an enormous way, so when people are unjust to her—starting with a guy who totally screwed her over; the company that fired her; people who treat her like trash—she gets in people’s faces and goes insane. But in fact, it takes someone who will actually get in the face of a company like Monsanto or Pfizer or any drug company; someone who will say to big food, big oil, or big drugs: “You’re poisoning Americans, and we want a change.” We were interested in taking somebody who was considered impossible, insane, or an embarrassment, and making her a whistle-blower. That was the arc of the story.

Cooper: How do you get an apathetic society to change?

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Dern: With the technology, we’ve become more apathetic, because we don’t look in each other’s eyes any more as we attempt communication. But at the same time, with one iPhone, we can start a revolution. If there’s injustice, you just film it and post it. And suddenly people are tapped into a current event they wouldn’t otherwise see, and that’s incredible. Again, with the challenge comes a gift, such as the Million Person March.

Cooper: We’ve been watching it ourselves, and it seems that action requires a fairly extreme tipping point before people do something. And it usually has to hit home in some way for people to move.

Dern riding horse as Reese Witherspoon leads the way across the farm in a scene from the movie, "Wild".

Dern: That’s why 2000 was so extraordinary, because this is a country where we actually do have a voice, and the right to use it, and yet we still honor authority in a very odd way, as though the bosses don’t need to be questioned. If they’re making a decision, it must be okay. So when the Supreme Court says: “I know you voted for this one guy, but we’re going to let the other guy win,” nobody took to the streets on that. We just allowed the decision to stand. Having played Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who had a lot of responsibility in that decision, and learning what I learned about what happened in Florida, it really made me outraged, because Al Gore won the presidency of the United States. Whether we’re Republicans or Democrats, that’s what happened. People voted and said who they wanted, and it was Gore, and yet George Bush still became President. I don’t understand why people weren’t in the streets. That’s just bad. That’s where it really began for me

Cooper: I didn’t like it because they kept saying “hanging chads” and my name is Chet. There was some confusion going on, and it wasn’t my fault.

(laughter)

Cooper: I’m curious about your involvement with awareness around heart disease.

Dern: I haven’t been that involved. Barbra Streisand has been such an extraordinary spokesperson for the cause, bringing attention to heart disease in women in America and how shockingly common the problem is. The statistics are staggering. That opened my eyes to the issue. But my energy has been focused in the area of environmental health, particularly for children. That’s been the thing I know more about, and there is so much to learn because there are so many problems.

Cooper: I was going to ask you about that. What’s your feeling from the research on GMOs?

Dern: I’m very disturbed by the quality of food in America, in general. I mentioned Monsanto before. It’s so devastating to consider how we’ve been impacted by big oil and now, particularly with fracking becoming such a huge health concern throughout our country, so many people are cropping up with various cancers who are living in and around areas where there’s fracking, and where the water table is severely affected. That has a huge impact. Companies that deal with toxic chemicals, PVC, and plastics, which, you know, are used in the Mississippi River… There’s unbelievable poisoning going on there. We didn’t think that they were going to necessarily add the poisons to our food, but they’ve been doing it for years. We thought we had control over it by making sure we supported local farmers and had organic, pesticidefree produce, and then they injected the feed with chemicals. Even when you think you’re eating fairly healthy, corn really isn’t corn. The chemicals are in everything. If our corn and our wheat are genetically modified, we’re losing nutrients. And when we’re asking people to raise healthy children, I don’t know how we do that if we’re eating and breathing chemicals constantly. It’s a tragedy.

Cooper: And speaking about apathy, you’re talking about big oil and all they’re doing that’s polluting the environment. If you have a sick environment, you’re going to have sick people. It seems like the powers that be have more force and support behind continually regulating the allowance of these issues. Just today I think they pushed again for the pipeline—

Dern: In Alaska?

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Cooper: Yeah. It’s a constant struggle between big money, if you will, and civilians: people who are getting the brunt of it, especially the poor.

Dern: And where we’re dumping has the biggest impact on the poorest areas, the lowest-income neighborhoods. They’re building factories in those areas, and the people’s voices are not being heard. No matter how many protests a group of impoverished people has to protect their children, we need it picked up by the media on a national level, and we need celebrities to make it a mission, and then maybe the news will cover it.

Cooper: Let’s end on an a positive note.

(laughter)

Left: Dern escorts a young lady in a wheel chair on the catwalk.Right: John McGinley escorts a very excited young lady waving.
Laura Dern and John C McGinley escort young ladys on the catwalk

Dern: We care. We’re using our voices. We’re not apathetic. This is awesome. I get inspired. I hear you guys, and it makes me go, “Okay, see?” You’re out there bringing the truth and that’s awesome.

Cooper: We try. So, lastly, what do you do for fun?

Dern: I’ve learned to love the things my kids love to do, whether it’s cycling or stand-up paddling or things in nature that I never did before, or was less inclined to do. I’ve always done yoga and exercise, which I love. I’ve always loved to travel, any opportunity I have to see the world through my children’s eyes is an incredible experience.

Cooper: How old are they?

Dern: A 10-year-old girl and a 13-year-old’s a boy.

Cooper: Have you surfed with John C. yet?

Dern: You know what? We never have. I’ve known him forever, but we never have.

Cooper: Maybe we’ll all meet up and surf. We’ll try to keep in touch with you about any travel opportunities. We do these things around the world, from Beijing to Dubai… If something comes up where there’s an event, or if we could get someone to sponsor—

Dern: Please do! I hope to come back [to GDSF’s event] next year. Any news that’s coming out with their research or any way I can lend my time, my name, keep me posted, please.

Cooper: We will. I don’t see why Michelle Sie Whitten wouldn’t invite you back to the GDSF next year.

Dern: How awesome is she, and her whole family? She’s just like the biggest rock star in history!

(laughter)

Cooper: Once she got involved in this, there was no stopping her.

Dern: With her level of drive, it’s going to get done.

Cooper: Absolutely. You know, I just thought of something: There are at least two movies that you and your mother [Diane Ladd] have been in together. What’s it like to work with your mother?

Dern: We’ve been in several movies together: “Rambling Rose”, “Wild at Heart”, she had a scene in “Citizen Ruth”. We did a movie for television together, and our series Enlightened, so, like, five times. It’s amazing. It’s a lot more amazing to work with your mother when you’re 40 than when you’re 20. I really enjoy her art and her friendship. I pray I get to work with my dad, but so far I haven’t been given the opportunity. It’s our big dream. I hope we get to do it.

Read more articles from the Laura Dern Issue.

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