BENDING THE RULES
Laura Dern’s efforts to age-proof her career seem to be paying off, writes Ellen Gamerman
At 50, Laura Dern is on the opposite career trajectory of most middleaged actresses. Instead of loading up on plastic surgery in the hope of playing traditional supporting roles for women of a certain age, she is digging into characters with wrinkles and jagged edges.
In May, she appears in the TV return of Twin Peaks, reuniting with director David Lynch, who helped launch her career with the movies Blue Velvet in 1986 and Wild at Heart in 1990. In December she makes a high-wire leap with an undisclosed character in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. She can be found on HBO playing anxious working mother Renata Klein on the drama Big Little Lies, and in her latest movie, the comedy Wilson, which is yet to secure an Australian release date, Dern portrays a former drug addict who clings to her fragile stability as she is drawn back into the messy world of her ex-husband, a truth-telling misanthrope played by Woody Harrelson.
In a way, she has been preparing for this moment since she was about 15, when during a flight with her dad, actor Bruce Dern, she complained about the lack of juicy roles coming her way.
“My dad said, ‘ You know what? If you decide now to be a character actor, if you at 20 can play fierce, sometimes unlikeable people and not be afraid of that girl, then when you’re in your 40s and 50s you’ll be working all the time,’ ” Dern recalls.
Dern says she rejected many parts that didn’t build towards a lasting movie career, but now she has put in that effort she feels more freedom to take whatever roles appeal to her. “I haven’t worked as much as I wanted to for many years — I missed some great opportunities by being so careful,” she says. “I’ve broken through my own barriers of what I should do the last year or so.”
The contrast between Hollywood roles for older men and older women remains stark. In the top 100 films of last year, men aged 40 and over comprised 52 per cent of all male characters, while women aged 40 and over accounted for 32 per cent of all female characters, according to a report released last month by the Centre for the Study of Women in Television & Film at San Diego State University. The majority of female characters were in their 20s and 30s, while the majority of male characters were in their 30s and 40s, the study found.
Knowing Hollywood’s attitude toward older actresses, Dern, whose mother is actress Diane Ladd, is taking French lessons. She thinks the French are more open to casting older women and one day she might work abroad. Reading scripts, she refuses to rule out roles that seem one-dimensional until she looks at them from different angles.
Her goal is to age on screen. Dern says years from now she wants to play a character like her late grandmother, a dynamo who, during the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, at age 79, drove over and made sandwiches for people. “As I watch myself shift, as someone who has been watching myself on film since I was 11, it should be exciting, it shouldn’t be daunting,” she says.
A number of writers, directors and producers are changing the rules around roles for older actresses. Ryan Murphy, co-creator of the TV series American Horror Story, has helped devise textured parts for women in their 50s (Angela Bassett) and 60s (Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates).
Dern’s experience in Hollywood, where she was raised and where her long-divorced parents remain working actors, is atypical. Steven Spielberg was a family friend before he cast her as a lead in his 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park. The years that followed include noted performances in the 1996 comedy Citizen Ruth and 2001’s I Am Sam, along with a string of lowerprofile roles.
In 2011, Dern re-emerged with the HBO show Enlightened, which she wrote with co-star Mike White. The dramatic comedy, which ran for two seasons before its abrupt cancellation, featured Dern as Amy Jellicoe, a woman striving for calm while her life spirals into chaos. Dern says she misses her character and does not rule out a return, though she has no immediate plans to do so.
“[Dern’s] always been pretty beloved in the acting and filmmaking community, and if people weren’t recognising it for a little while, they certainly are now,” says Wilson director Craig Johnson, who helped tailor the role of the exwife to Dern, turning an inscrutable character into someone more volcanic.
As she prepared for Wilson, she had a realisation about the universality of loss. “Most of us live with a grief that there is someone who we don’t get to share our life with,” she says. “I don’t know a person who hasn’t been through that, having someone in their life they don’t get to keep.” The finale airs on Monday; will air on Stan next month.