Nobody teeters on the razor’s edge between triumph and catastrophe quite like Laura Dern. Other actresses may excel at playing the invincible heroine, the impossible vamp, or the indefatigable funny girl. But the strength and beauty and humor of Dern’s performances ring true because her victories always feel so hard-won.
“We all have our gifts, we all have our complications,” she says one late January morning, shortly after returning to Los Angeles from the Sundance Film Festival première of her new film, Wilson, opening March 24. “I think if we can have compassion for ourselves about that, then maybe we can show it toward other people.”
About a year ago, still stung by the cancellation of her HBO show Enlightened, Dern looked at her options and decided, “You know what? I’m gonna try saying yes to all of it.” When we speak at the outset of a jam-packed year, Dern is on the cusp of her 50th birthday, somehow peaking at a time when Hollywood actresses traditionally fade.
She comes back to HBO with the limited series Big Little Lies, alongside her Wild co-star Reese Witherspoon, and she’ll reunite with her mentor and champion, David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart), on his reboot of Twin Peaks. This December, the woman who ran from T. rexes in Jurassic Park will even return to science fiction, with a role in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. In the very funny Wilson, Dern is featured opposite Woody Harrelson as a recovering addict who has made kilos of mistakes and is reconnecting with the daughter she gave up for adoption.
The daughter of actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, she learned from the examples of their careers and those of their inner circle. “I was raised by my mother and her friends,” Dern says. “I watched incredibly powerful, brilliant actresses, from Shelley Winters and Colleen Dewhurst to Maureen Stapleton and Gena Rowlands, with their own sense of self and sexuality and power, play characters and be fearless, and be fearless like the men. And that really excited me.”
Dern has been thinking a lot about what 50 means and how she’s changed over the past decade.
“I’m much more evolved than I was 10 years ago,” she says quietly, noting that she’s strived to model a different behavior for her 12-year-old daughter, Jaya (one of her two children with her ex, musician Ben Harper). “It’s unfair that my daughter has had to hear me say, ‘Oh my god, I’m entering my 40s,’ or listen to me talk about how I look in a dress.” In a business in which women are pitted against one another on every red carpet and box-office tally, Dern speaks thoughtfully about how she’s worked to stop comparing herself with her peers. “Comparisons are so easy,” she says. “You measure yourself as a woman, in a relationship …”
Now she worries less about how others see her and also about how men see her sexually. “Owning your sexuality is beautiful. You don’t in your 20s and 30s,” she says. “You don’t know it in the same way. Now I honor my sexuality and how it’s developed. Being a feminist also comes with the joy of being female.”
Unlike many Hollywood stars, she’s not chasing some high-tech fountain of youth, and that choice, instead of limiting her options, has opened her up to a whole new range of parts. “I’m proud of my body,” she says. “I’m proud of the face I was given. I’m finding the humanity in it, the beauty in it—and, depending upon what character I’m playing, the anger in it, the sadness in it.”
Early in her career, Dern says, she found it hard to build a community since there were so few female-driven films. “We were segregated,” she says. “There was one of us on a movie with five guys, so we became friends with the guys.” Now Dern has her own group of friends, including actresses, who share similar ambitions: “I talk to people I am very close to who also feel it—Julianne Moore, Naomi Watts, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman. We’re all of the generation of women who are getting to consider how you honor yourself. What story do you want to tell about being a woman, about being a woman as a mother, and as a mother of daughters?”
As she moves forward, Dern says she’s happy to be playing such diverse and restless characters. “They’ve been lovely and kind and sexy and angry and awful and delicious and iconic,” she says, nearly breathless as she runs out of adjectives and oxygen. “I hope that’s what the middle years as an artist are about—feeling free enough to not worry how you’re perceived but accepting all the many faces of being female.”