Laura Dern’s latest role – as a victim of sexual abuse – braved important territory for the survivors,
AT 51, Laura Dern – Hollywood royalty and two-time Oscar nominee – is not just having a Hollywood moment.
She’s enjoying a ridiculously well- deserved second act.
The daughter of actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern began her career as a child actor, making one of her earliest impressions as a teenager having an affair with a teacher.
It’s a story mirrored in her new made-for- streaming film The
Tale – the autobiographical story of director Jennifer Fox’s sexual relationship with her school athletic coach. She was 13, he was 40. It was only many years later that Fox realised, with the benefit of hindsight, that she was the victim of sexual abuse.
Although Dern has built her career on handling difficult material – from her Golden Globe-winning performance in TV drama series Enlightened; to her most recent impact in season one of small- screen blockbuster
Big Little Lies – this role triggered all of her maternal anxiety.
“I have to say it does make you incredibly paranoid, and I was already paranoid,” Dern tells TV Guide.
The mother of two, including 13-year- old daughter Jaya, admits it’s one acting gig that has “deeply impacted my parenting.”
“It strikes a chord in how we want to protect and be the champion for kids to know their own boundaries and to honour themselves,” she says.
Dern, who plays Fox as an adult, explains: “In order to survive her own trauma, Jennifer
retold herself this tale – that this was her first love. And I think that was the way she survived it for a number of years, until she was really able to look at what the truth of the story was, and the level of trauma that had occurred for her.”
The Tale also stars Australia’s Elizabeth Debicki, Ellen Burstyn, and Common (with whom Dern had a brief relationship off- screen).
She recalls an extremely heavy atmosphere on set during the filming of the sex scenes between Fox’s younger self (Isabelle Nélisse) and the coach (Jason Ritter). “Isabelle was 12 or 13 years old when we filmed it,” she says. “It was important for Jennifer to find a girl who had not yet gone into puberty. And the reaction was very emotional. Tough guy grips on the crew were bawling, coming up to me saying, ‘ I was sexually abused as a child [or] my sister, my mother, my friend,’ and that’s when you see how rampant the experience is. And also the shame that people have held many of these stories in.”
Dern looks back on her own adolescent years on sets – making her first appearance age six in her mother’s film White Lightning.
“No one told us about this kind of thing,” she says. “I was making movies at 12, 13, in a very adult environment. Many of my auditions were held in the Chateau [Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles], where you sit in a hotel room on the bed to read the lines with a filmmaker and there is nobody else in the room.”
She leans forward for emphasis: “And you are a 13-year- old actor. No one was clocking how protective we needed to be. For all of us, for the adult and the child.”
Dern has been shocked into spontaneous advocacy by the statistics, explaining: “Every eight minutes a child is sexually abused in the United States. And 93 per cent of the time, it’s by someone they know.” She adds: “I think [director] Jennifer’s greatest hope, which would be mine, is that The
Tale will act as a cautionary tale, as well
as an opportunity for people healing, who haven’t caught up with their own story yet.”
Away from filming, Dern lives in Los Angeles, and is reportedly dating NBA All- Star player Baron Davis.
She is raising two children [son Ellery is 17] with her former husband, musician Ben Harper (they divorced in 2010 after five years of marriage before reuniting briefly in 2012).
For any mother, Dern included, The Tale’s events are unimaginable. “If someone messes with your baby, all bets are off. That’s just the truth of mothers. We have that ferocity.”
Dern plays a ferocious mother of a different kind in Big Little
Lies – starring opposite Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley and Zoe Kravitz – which just wrapped filming on its highly-anticipated second season.
Her character Renata, an over-the-top and thoroughly unsympathetic career woman, is one of the program’s least likable; which is precisely the thrill of it for Dern.
“I like to be a rebel as an actor, so I like and am interested in the unpopular person, the lesser understood character,” she says.
“It’s a bold choice to try to find empathy in an unlikable place in storytelling.”
Laura Dern stars alongside Isabelle Nélisse in TheTale; below, Dern with her BigLittleLies co-star and close friend Nicole Kidman.
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