In her latest film, Inland Empire, Laura Dern gives an astonishing performance as an actress coming unmoored from reality. Directed by David Lynch, Inland Empire is a nonlinear, three-hour digital experiment that nonetheless topped several year-end best-of lists. And much of that can be laid at the heels of Dern, who has made searing turns in movies such as Citizen Ruth, We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Rambling Rose, and Wild at Heart, the latter also directed by Lynch.
Though Dern grew up the child of famous parents – Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern – she is the celebrity mother now. Along with her husband, musician Ben Harper, she has two children – a boy, Ellery Walker, five, and a girl, Jaya, two. We talked with her about coming of age onscreen and raising kids in an era of “time out.” – Sarah Hepola
You were in films at the most crushingly self-conscious age, in your teens. It can be hard to see your face in the mirror, far less on the big screen.
It never occurred to me. Don’t get me wrong; it occurs to me now. In this movie, there are a couple shots of me that are . . . maniacal. But recently I went to the funeral for the cinematographer of Smooth Talk, James Glennon. He also did Citizen Ruth. And they showed a lot of clips from Smooth Talk at his funeral. And in that movie, I had no makeup. My eyebrows weren’t plucked; they were thick and natural. And I watched my face and thought, “If this were shot today, they would have made me up, and people would have been all around me, fixing things.” Again, it was a different era than the Lindsay Lohan era of being a teen actress. Things are so intense, even in fashion. Back then, you didn’t think of what you wore. Well, I did, because I was obsessed with design.
I just love interior design, architecture, set design. I love to see how restaurants are designed, I always want to know the name of the designer. I’m a lover of furniture and photographs and clothes. Oh my God, I love clothes.
Are you fascinated because you have some talent for design?
I throw things together in an eclectic way, but it’s scary to me. So I’m very impressed by bravery. My husband and I have eclectic tastes, but he has an incredible style. He’ll wear some Louboutin suit with high-tops, and he looks amazing. It’s not necessarily my skill, but it’s something I’m interested in. I love how people can eff it up, you know? Throw together a Louis XIV headboard with some modern side tables and an antique quilt, and you look at it and go, “Wow, that’s brilliant.”
You’re starting to sound like a director.
Am I? I’d love to direct. I directed a short film years ago. It took me years to feel ready as a person to direct a movie, and now I have to find the right material. There was a book I loved, and the script never came together. It was a wonderful southern book called She Flew the Coop, which I loved very much. We owned it for a while. And now I feel like I’m ready to do something different. Like Diane Keaton; she’s got such an incredible eye.
You’re doing another movie with your mother, Diane Ladd. It’s your sixth movie with her?
That’s right. We’re both in this movie. It’s crazy.
For most people, the last person they would want on a set would be their mother.
My parents [Ladd and Bruce Dern] are so out on the same limb that David is, in terms of art and their eccentricities. I mean, when they’re parents, they’re parents. My mom was a very strict, traditionalist parent. She’s from a southern, Catholic, old-school family. But when it came to a movie set, it was boundary-less.
I always assumed your parents were liberal, bohemian types.
Because of my parents’ tribe, everybody thinks they were hippies smoking pot. But neither of them smoked pot, or did any drugs, and they were very old-fashioned about me with things like boys and drugs.
Do you see that in yourself as a mother?
I’m lucky, because I’m raised in a new generation of parenting where there are books everywhere you turn and educators running progressive schools in most major cities. My mom never heard of “time out.” They didn’t know what that was. My mom did quite well without tools that are common now. So I don’t think I’ll be a traditionalist, but I think I’ll be a more progressive parent. Because it feels right. But hopefully I’ll be the same in my support for all they want to explore.