Actor Laura Dern has been working in Hollywood since she was 18 but her recent scene‑stealing roles playing uncompromising women have made us fall in love with her all over again.
Everything about Laura Dern looks reassuringly expensive: the bouncy hair, polka-dot blouse, perfect makeup, plus a piano in the background. I long for her to slip into her character from Big Little Lies and hiss that fabulous line: "I will NOT not be rich."
In the HBO series about Monterey's overprivileged, overburdened mums, Dern plays Renata Klein, a whip-smart businesswoman whose husband loses their fortune and screws the nanny. Her A-list co-stars, Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Meryl Streep, are predictably good, but it is Dern's raging speeches — "I will be rich again. I will rise up. I will buy a f***ing polar bear for every kid in this school. And then I will squish you like the bug that you are" — that are the acting masterclasses.
The role, which Dern says was "delicious fun", won her an Emmy in 2017 and a Golden Globe in 2018, while her portrayal of a cut-throat Hollywood divorce lawyer in Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story scooped her an Oscar for best supporting actress last year. Over a video call, I scan her Los Angeles living room for the statuette.
"Well, you can't spot it on the piano, but you would never have been able to see it [at all] till my daughter and Reese Witherspoon moved it, so that now, if you go throughout my house, you can definitely spot it somewhere," Dern says, somewhat cagily. "[My Oscar] is spottable because — and this was really interesting — the women in my life said, 'No, don't hide celebration. You honour it for yourself. This isn't you touting it around the streets of the city, but in your home. Why wouldn't you?'"
Admittedly "shy about awards" — Dern also has Oscar nominations for 1991's Rambling Rose and 2015's Wild — she suggests that her attitude somehow relates to hailing from a Hollywood acting dynasty. She was born and raised in LA, and her father is the twice Oscar-nominated Bruce Dern and her mother is the three-times nominated Diane Ladd; they divorced when she was 2and are both still working, aged 85. "My acting heroes, my legends," was how Dern described them in her Oscars speech.
Known for her versatility, Dern established herself in two David Lynch cult classics, 1986's Blue Velvet and 1990's Wild at Heart, before starring in the Jurassic Park blockbusters. (Alongside her rumoured former flame Jeff Goldblum, she is reprising her paleobotanist role for next year's Jurassic World: Dominion, the sixth film in the franchise.) In recent years the prizes and prize parts have led to this golden career stage being dubbed the "Dernaissance". What does she think of the portmanteau? "Well, it's hilarious," she says wryly. "It's been used in this house with great irreverence and mockery, I can promise you."
The reason for our interview is not Dern's red-hot acting work but because the 54-year-old is the new muse in a collaboration between Proenza Schouler, the New York fashion label, and Mercedes-Benz. Her 20-year-old son Ellery, whom she shares with Ben Harper, her musician ex-husband, also stars in the campaign. He's all cheekbones, curls and youthfulness; she's all windswept hotness in midlife prime. It's inspired casting by Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, the couple behind Proenza Schouler, which is loved by perpetual cool girls such as Chloe Sevigny and Emily Ratajkowski. "When we did Big Little Lies, it felt so right that my character, Renata, would be very high-fashion conscious and wore a lot of Proenza Schouler," Dern says. "On a work level and in my own life I love them and became friends with them. We went to the Met Ball together several years ago."
Renata Klein and Nora Fanshaw, the impeccably put together lawyer in Marriage Story, are superb power dressers. Does Dern, who is 1.78m (5ft 10in), lean the same way in real life? "No," she says without hesitation. "I definitely leave that to overwhelming characters."
She and Ellery, a model and aspiring musician, were wowed by the designers' commitment to sustainability, the gender-neutral collection and a fully electric Merc. "For so many of us now, and certainly my son and daughter's generation, they won't consider something luxurious if it's not protective of the planet," Dern says. "I'm so excited at the few leaders we have in high-level fashion, Proenza Schouler and my friend Stella McCartney as prime examples, who are really leading the charge."
It sounds as if Ellery and his 16-year-old sister, Jaya, are passionately eco-minded and politically conscious. Do they keep Dern on her toes? "Oh yeah. You mean shamed on a daily basis?" she says, her eyes widening as if to say, "You have no idea." "Thank God a generation has come along to shame us constantly until we actually change things. I literally think that's what they're here to do. 'Really? You're gonna say that? That's a microaggression.' 'Really? You're gonna do that? That is so wasteful.' Every question is pushing us to look at it differently."
In the limelight for her entire adult life — she was 18 when she appeared alongside Cher in the 1985 movie Mask — Dern has long been vocal about power abuses in Hollywood, the gender pay gap and political issues such as gun violence. Has anyone ever tried to rein her in? "Politically, no. In relationships …" she says, arching an eyebrow before quickly clarifying: "That's sort of a joke."
Dern married Harper in 2005, but they divorced after two children and eight years. Before that, in her 30s, she was engaged to the bad-boy actor Billy Bob Thornton, but when she was away filming he ran off and married Angelina Jolie and allegedly never spoke to Dern again. "Others may say that you left our girl and married someone else," Thornton told The Guardian in 2001. "But it made me happy and somebody else happy. I'm sorry it caused pain." Two years later he and Jolie divorced.
Dern doesn't publicly discuss her romances, but I'm interested too in her platonic loves. She ended her Oscars speech with praise for her friends: "You lift me up every day." Her female friendships are "everything", she says. "I've been blessed to find a handful of women that really have become my sisters. I feel so lucky to have sisters because I didn't have siblings, so it really means more than I can describe."
Five years before Dern was born her parents had another daughter, Diane, who drowned as a toddler. My parents suffered a comparable tragedy and later divorced after having a second "only" daughter named Laura, so I'm moved by Dern's use of "sister". How has that sibling loss shaped her? "Well, you know, like me, that a longing for some sibling is innate in us, right? Even just being raised as only children, but also with a larger story, I think there is an interest in sharing a family story, in friends who are like sisters or brothers to us because they know our family not just because they're great girlfriends."
One treasured "sister" is Courteney Cox. Dern has posted photos of the pair visiting Kensington Palace and celebrating Independence Day together. They met on a flight 25 years ago when Cox was at the height of her Friends fame. "We laughed the whole ride. We just started laughing hysterically about our eccentricities, our fears, our anxieties," Dern recalls, smiling. "That kind of friend where you meet someone and you tell them everything. And we've never been apart since."
Big Little Lies, based on the 2014 novel by Liane Moriarty, depicted solid friendships hauling women through the worst of life's slings and arrows. The second series came out in 2019, reportedly earning Witherspoon and Kidman about $1 million an episode. Will we ever enjoy more of Renata's acidic one-liners — "Do not f*** with my daughter's birthday" — in a possible third series? "I have some friends, being the entire cast of Big Little Lies, who all love each other so much and love working together like nothing else, so I think you would have a very intrigued group of women," Dern says, slightly teetering into girl-power platitude territory.
Talk turns to ageing. So far, Dern is delighted with her 50s. "I feel very vital, very healthy. I feel, oddly, far more energised, athletic, connected to myself, far more excited about acting than ever before. It's just a really alive time."
Her 30s were the difficult decade. "The world has told you you're a woman now and you're supposed to be a grown-up, and it's the introduction of a biological clock. It's the introduction of culture telling you you're supposed to find him, her, some kind of partnership," she says, talking fast and on a roll.
"It's your belief that you're supposed to already be at a finish line [and] you don't even know where the race starts, or that there is one and you're racing against yourself, so it's ridiculous. I found it brutal."
After 40 minutes the line is lost. I'm told Dern's laptop has died. She calls back on a mobile for a quick goodbye, sounding as if she is already on the move. I picture her heading into the California sunshine, power dressed as Renata Klein, ready to conquer another day.
Written by: Laura Pullman
© The Times of London