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 genuinly 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.
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?
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.
Cooper: That was me, actually.
Dern: Oh, that was you!
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.
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 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: 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!
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 whistleblower. That was the arc of the story.
Cooper: How do you get an apathetic society to change?
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: 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.