BEND­ING THE RULES

Laura Dern’s ef­forts to age-proof her ca­reer seem to be pay­ing off, writes Ellen Gamer­man

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Big Lit­tle Lies Peaks Twin

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.

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