How Being a Single Mom Made Laura Dern More Ambitious
"Raising kids gave me enough street cred to feel like I deserved the right to make money."
For our June cover, InStyle editor-in-chief Laura Brown sat down with the five stars of Big Little Lies to hear what they had to say about their hit series, their lives, and their relationships with each other. Each interview, like the show itself, touches on love, friendship, struggle, and ambition — which these women have in spades.
LAURA BROWN: How ambitious were you when you started out acting?
LAURA DERN: Not at all. “Ambition” was a dirty word for women when I was a little girl. Women who are ambitious are cold, calculating, and unsexy — that was the idea presented to my generation. To be sexy was to be demure, subservient even. And I was raised by actresses, like my mother [Diane Ladd], my godmother Shelley Winters, my mom’s friend Jane Fonda, and Gena Rowlands. I saw powerful women as artists or daring to challenge the medical profession and fighting to be doctors — but they weren’t in a boardroom. They weren’t CEOs. That’s where the pants came in. And women didn’t wear pants, so they couldn’t do that.
LB: Their legs didn’t work that way. [laughs]
LD: It’s been enough, I think, for Reese, Nicole, and me to be ambitious in our field. I was told growing up that to be an actress of quality you shouldn’t make money because serious actresses didn’t make money. Actors made money.
LD: In  I was lucky enough to be nominated for an Oscar along with my mom for Rambling Rose. We were offered a very prestigious hair campaign for high-fashion magazines. An agent told me, "Men can do it, but women who sell things are 'whoring out.'" Women were categorized as "whores" for being businesswomen.
LB: For selling things, making money.
LD: At the same time, men were producing. And I remember once talking about how inspired I was by Robert Redford and what he was doing as a producer for social-justice films and how he created Sundance [Film Festival] as a lab for film. In the same conversation I was told, “Well, Robert Redford can do it, but Jane Fonda can’t. Women shouldn’t produce. They should stick to what they know. Let the men do the hiring. Let the women do the job at hand.”
LB: How did that affect you?
LD: I think Nicole and Reese were raised with a little more street fight in them, because they didn’t come from the business. I came in thinking I should apologize for already having a name. And I was lucky. I got to work with David Lynch, Robert Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jonathan Demme, and Peter Bogdanovich — filmmakers who were getting to make their movies [without interference], cast who they wanted, have the endings they wanted. Their movies made only so much money, but I learned growing up in the [director] Hal Ashby school of the ’70s that we’re lucky to get to make our art. And I don’t regret anything. I’ve realized the kind of actor I want to be, the kind of storyteller I want to be, what kind of content I want to make now because of those teachers.
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LB: How the hell did you come out of Hollywoodland normal?
LD: I surround myself with like-minded people. It’s normal saying I’m complicated because everybody is. My family looks complicated because all families are complicated. Life is scary because we’re all scared of it. There’s no hiding behind this “I’m great, everything’s fine, I’ve been normal my whole life.” And I love that.
LB: You’re one of the least cynical people I’ve ever met, which is quite against all odds.
LD: I will say, the thing I feel proudest of is that I can be cynical about businesses, politics, and the environment, but I’m not really cynical about love on any level. The more I learn about my mistakes as a mother, the deeper I enjoy how fully I love my children [son Ellery, 17, and daughter Jaya, 14]. Because I can let them know I really screw up sometimes. I hide from blame in a lot of areas in my life, but I’m trying not to do that as a mom. This is the first time in my life that I am being ambitious because I am a single parent. Raising kids gave me enough street cred to feel like I deserved the right to make money. This moment in my life is so sexy and freeing because I’ve had many relationships, I’ve had a marriage, I have my amazing children, so I’m not hiding who I am to get somebody who is willing to have kids or be married.
LB: Do you remember the first time you had that epiphany in a relationship of “I need this, and if you’re not into it,” something clicks, and you’re like, “See ya”?
LD: I remember being in Toronto years ago and having a boyfriend say to me, “You know what your problem is?” He shared it, and I, with a panicked voice that cracked, said, “No, it’s not.” And I remember the moment 10 years later, walking down a street in Santa Monica, when a man who I was in love with said to me, “You know what your struggle is?” — better word than “problem” — and when he said it, I laughed and said, “Oh! You are so right.” I enjoyed being called out. I wasn’t crushed.
LB: Yeah, you weren’t like, “Something’s wrong with me.”
LD: Or trying to hide it so they wouldn’t leave. Because the fear was always about the leaving, and now half the time it’s about hoping they will if they don’t want to be here. If it doesn’t work for you, that’s so OK. But if you’re into what my flaws are, you find them funny, complicated, and delicious, then great. Because I’m trying to figure myself out too, and I’m ready to play and have fun. That’s what I’m interested in.
LB: How has that affected what you’re choosing to do professionally?
LD: I love being an actor. I love film, art, documentaries, narrative storytelling. I’ve been given more opportunities to do those things. And that’s great. The deeper thing that’s happening now is I’m starting to feel that my voice can matter.
LB: In the great male/female, #MeToo, Time’s Up pendulum swing we’re in, how do you navigate so many things that are polarizing?
LD: I live in a constant state of multitasking, and it’s very stressful. I have a lot to learn from women who do it with such grace, like my mom. She recently saw a talented young actress at a university play. When she went backstage and told her how good she was, the young girl said a filmmaker had sent her a script after seeing the play and wanted to meet. My mom said, “Great. I’m your manager. I’m going with you.” [When she told me this] I said, “You’re Diane Ladd. They’re going to know who you are when you get there.” She’s like, “I don’t care. I can say I’m managing a few people now. She ain’t going alone.” And I just thought, “That’s what we’re [supposed to be] doing for each other: lifting up other voices, giving women shots they haven’t had, and protecting them in the room.” It’s one thing to say, “Young actors should always protect themselves.” But here is what you never do: Don’t go to a hotel room by yourself. Make sure a casting director is always in the room. We’ve learned what we learned. Now we have to educate others.
LB: OK, let’s get to the juice: What did you love about the second season of Big Little Lies?
LD: It felt amazing to be back with a community of true friends — you know that’s not BS. It’s so deeply appreciated because it’s rare. And I don’t know if any of the other Big Little Lies cast mentioned we have a new actress. She’s good.
LB: It’s Meryl ... Streep. Do I have the name right?
LD: She’s lovely and very smart. We’ve shaped her a little bit. We’ve helped her out. She just needs to trust her instincts. [laughs] But with that said, we’re the luckiest women in the world to get to work with our muse, our guide, our hero. I mean, for me, she’s not just an actress but a woman who has shown me the way, from organic produce in the kitchen to parity in the boardroom. She fights for change for everyone.
LB: And there is no grandiosity about her at all.
LD: I never once felt intimidated until they called, “Action.” And then I was like, “Oh, wow, OK, that’s Meryl Streep.” Even though I knew her for several years before that.
LB: What has been the best time you have all had with each other off set?
LD: Our dinners are like 10-day vacations on a deserted island. Every dinner is three and a half hours minimum with food and wine. We break it all down. It’s how I think all of us feel when we get together with a group of women, particularly in the same field, like you’ve been crossing the desert for five days and you see water.
LB: As an actor, how important is mystery versus sharing with the culture?
LD: I think created mystery is absolutely uninteresting. I like available people. Like, “How is this person so open despite their life?” I prefer that kind of mystery. I’ve learned a lot with this tribe — Meryl, Nicole, and Reese in particular — about that. There’s no science as to how it should be done. I know, for myself, I like to be open about my passions and my opinions. But I will always protect my children by keeping some mystery around the things that the three of us hold dear.
LB: What have you learned from each of the ladies?
LD: I’ve learned that self-care is key and not selfish but compassionate. I’ve learned that gossip needs to be ignored. I’ve learned that divorce is tough no matter who you are. I’ve learned that heartbreak hits everyone and stays with you your whole life. I’ve learned that every woman knows abuse — not just as a small statistic of some kind. That was an incredible insight that came from doing this show together, because domestic violence, sexual assault, and psychological abuse are all part of the conversation. It runs the gamut, so we’ve talked about it through the work, with the press, and with women who come up to us. We realize that everywhere we turn, being female means you’ve had some experience [of that]. I did not know that. Because they isolate us.
LB: From each other.
LD: Yeah. So being part of a tribe handling this subject matter and realizing everybody knows these stories has been really healing and powerful. I’ve also learned that bliss is a birthright, and so is ambition for what we want to achieve, how we want to change the world, and the person we see ourselves growing into.
Photographed by: Pamela Hanson. Styling: Julia Von Boehm. Hair: Creighton Bowman for Tomlinson Management Group. Makeup: Pati Dubroff for Forward Artists. Manicure: Michelle Saunders for Forward Artists.
For more stories like this, pick up the June issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download May 17.