Interview: Laura Dern

Having lost both my grandmother and father to illness this year, I can uniquely appreciate the need to find away to get yourself back into the world by any means necessary.  Wild (in Toronto this Friday) is the story of Cheryl Strayed, played by Reese Witherspoon, but the latest film from Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee (Cafe de Flore, Dallas Buyers Club), but at the heart of the film is veteran actress Laura Dern.

Strayed, who in real life wrote a book about her experiences that the film comes based on, loses her mother and closest confidant (Dern) to cancer.  Directionless, adrift in life, and addicted to sex and drugs, Cheryl resolves herself to walk herself along the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail to get back into the woman that her mother always believed that she could be.

During the Toronto International Film Festival, I got the distinct pleasure to sit down with Dern to talk about playing Bobbi Strayed, how the film relates to her own upbringing in a Hollywood family, how this female driven film humanist epic, and about working with Jean-Marc Vallee.


Dork Shelf: Bobbi really was the inspiration for Reese’s character to do everything she did and go on this journey.  How hard was it for you to as an actress to be able to live up to this real person who feels pretty amazing?

Laura Dern: Well first off, with Cheryl being with us on set almost every single day it felt like we all just got who Bobbi was as a person.  Cheryl just carries around her mother’s memory in her ceils, and it was a really beautiful thing to witness.  It was so palpable in a very honest way; how in everything that Bobbi had to walk through was always so incredibly grateful.  Nothing was trite or pretend. She had a deep sense of gratitude that she absolutely earned, and it was beyond inspirational for all us.  From that place you try to pay tribute to the story, and it is admittedly a very humbling place to start as it’s one of authenticity. With any luck as an actress you just stay out of your own way in order to tell the story and tell right.

DS: Can you describe your experiences working on set with someone as outwardly passionate as someone like Jean Marc Vallee is?

LD: He was simply AMAZING.  I mean, you’re probably much more familiar with his films up here before Dallas Buyers Club, which I simply adored, and the women in his films are just so honest, heartbreaking and beautiful.  I really think that the one thing that moved the most about him from an emotional standpoint is that there was no conversation about portraying a flawed protagonist or anything like that. These characters were just people and that came through so well in Dallas Buyers Club.  You get all of it, the good and the bad things but here it is unvarnished and they lived this life.  I think that’s why so many people fell in love with Dallas Buyers Club and why it was so exciting to get to work with him as an actor because we don’t analyze it. We embrace who this person is and it was a very exciting prospect.

Plus, having been raised by actors, particularly by actor’s making movies in the 1970’s when I was a little girl, and being on set with the most imaginative and unparalleled directors, it almost feels like I’ve come home.  He’s just so inventive and improvisational; just working on the fly with such great energy and if you have five minutes to spare then that’s five minutes you have to shoot something you didn’t expect to shoot. It’s like that every day on set.  It’s seamless  because it makes for such a comfortable environment, and I think it’s such a detriment to actors to be waiting in a trailer for three hours then be told OK, we’re going to lunch and we’ve got three minutes to get a couple of takes.  Suddenly the actor becomes a performer, which is never good, and Jean-Marc creates this safe environment where we get to explore, play, and invent each and every day.

DS: Did you have just as good of an experience working with Reese as well?

LD: Oh she’s so awesome. She’s amazing.  I think that we got really lucky. Casting me was interesting in the fact Reese is playing it younger than she is, I am playing it older, and we would be mother and daughter. Yet most of it is in different age ranges, and, like her memory, they blur and pop around, but at the core of their relationship was this kind of sisterhood and this friendship that comes in a way from being a teenage when you have a baby,  going to college together, and leaving an abusive household.

I feel so lucky that we’re close in age and peers and have known and loved each other for such a very long time as fellow actors but never got a chance to work together before.  I think it was good for the movie, and I got this awesome friend out of it all. We are such a family now.   I mean, since we left Telluride I’ve spent two days with Reese, I’ve talked with Cheryl’s children, texted with Cheryl, gotten care packages from my own kids, and Skyped with Jean-Marc at least three times, it’s just this big love group affair that came together because of this story.

DS: Family is such a key component to your character, and coming from a family of actors and getting to go through the whole experience with your dad last year when he was nominated for Nebraska, I’m wondering how much you drew on your own life while working on this character?

LD: Having this peculiarly delicious relationship with my parents of not only having the same job, but getting to see them do what they love, and getting to be with them in the moment sometimes is just so amazing.  In the case of my mom [Diane Ladd], we have gotten to work together a few times.  So I’d have to say I feel really lucky because I understand the bond that Cheryl had with her mother ,and I am really blessed because of it.  And while I certainly have read other interviews with actress where they saying being a mom really deepened my connection to the character…yada yada yada (laughs), but they were so right, and especially for this film to have this boy and girl in my life, and to want to anything for them.  Except for maybe through mother I don’t know if I would have ever been able to understand that lioness protector type of energy.

I think learning about ferocity has helped so much because I don’t think that you can get to that gentle gratitude that Bobbi had until you had to be ferocious, and it takes IMMENSE ferocity to be a woman in the early 70’s and leave a violent husband. There just weren’t any resources, no hotlines, no ads, nothing.  You just stayed and that is the way it was, and pre Erica Jong, it was such an interesting time where that shift truly was starting to happen.  I think Jean-Marc captured it so beautifully in even some very quiet, little, and understated ways.

DS: In any walk of life we all have jobs that we have to take in order to pay the bills, etc, etc.  I’m ultimately curious in regards to your process going into a project. How does it feel, and how rewarding is it when you get the opportunity to play someone real and with the kind of layers that Bobbi has?

LD: Amazing, simply amazing.  I pray (knocks on wood) that I always get to do that.  I mean, I have tried to do that my entire life, and it’s an incredible balancing act for all of us; this question of commerce and art is always around us, and we are privileged enough to be able to get to do what we love with integrity. I’m sure you walk through that struggle every single day, but it’s such an awesome thing.  I’m really grateful that I have gotten to be in movies that are saying something without being this sort of morality tale, and they are teaching me something just by my being a part of it. Hopefully they hold that in cool ways.

Laura Dern as "Bobbi" in WILD.

DS: I was such a big fan of Enlightened, and I was sorry to see it go, and this goes back to that collision of art and commerce because Wild is getting a fall release on a major high profile platform and for a female led film that hasn’t always been the case.  How important is it for movies like this to get made and given as high exposure as possible in the marketplace?

LD: Oh, it’s absolutely huge.  My mother told me about this when I was, like, ten about how the system just doesn’t make movies about women, and I would think that was just so jaded (laughs), not realizing that weren’t the lead of course.

My mother and Ellen Burstyn were both the leads in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore ,which came out in 1974, and I thought they did make those kinds of movies, but it changed and we went backwards for quite awhile. But we have ultimately changed again, or we’re at the very least circling back to movies like that.  Plus it’s also very helpful that great, powerful women in their 50’s and 60’s are making some great movies that are making a lot of money, and audiences are letting their voices be heard, as well because they want these films.

Particularly with Wild it’s such a paradigm shift. Think about it: when is the last time any of us have seen a movie where the female lead at the end of a movie, had no prospects, no job and no money, but it’s actually a happy ending?  That’s incredible and fantastic, and Reese worked so diligently to get this story made.

All the way around it isn’t necessarily a story about feminism, it really is more about humanism.  I’ve talked with more men than women about how this movie impacted them ,and how they had lost a great love, be it a father, or a grandparent, or whatever, and that’s the core of the film.  We’re all on a similar journey to just try and figure ourselves out, and Cheryl has such a unique and honest voice to her that it kind of shifts perspective. It makes me hopeful that men see women’s films and marvel at how much that they’ve learned. Because we as women have had that experience with male character in films, and it’s truly a bummer that men’s movies are for everyone, but a woman’s movie is just for women.  The amazing thing about this show that I did for HBO about a maladjusted and flawed forty year old woman is that the majority of the audience that watched it were men.  Some days I feel like that they have categorized all of us, and I’m glad that we can at least start to change that up a little bit.

DS: Motherhood is such a universal theme in many of Jean-Marc’s films. How did approach that theme and work on it with you?

LD: You know, he’s just such a beautiful and honest soul. He shared a story with us about how his mother had died of cancer and what an amazing woman she was. It drove us both to tears in the very first conversation that we had together.  I think that his bond to honor Cheryl and her mother allows that to be at the core of the movie.  How he weaves all of the memories together to give us the entire picture is truly remarkable.

This was built in the editing room, and it was done so well; you can just feel it.  Something like Cafe de Flore, which is such an amazing movie, that has a story of grief as well.  I think him having told a story of grief through divorce also adds so much to this experience and really helps to inform Wild in such a great way. You feel her grief about this broken marriage.  I guess it’s true what they say about French men (laughs), but he embraces the women in his film in such a beautiful and gentile way that I’m not sure if anyone else could have made this movie as well as he did.  It’s got dignity, there is no judgement, and such an elegance to it that’s unparalleled.

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