QA Laura

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LAURA BROWN: How am­bi­tious were you when you started out act­ing? LAURA DERN: Not at all. “Am­bi­tion” was a dirty word for women when I was a lit­tle girl. Women who are am­bi­tious are cold, cal­cu­lat­ing, and un­sexy—that was the idea pre­sented to my gen­er­a­tion. To be sexy was to be de­mure, sub­servient even. And I was raised by ac­tresses, like my mother [Diane Ladd], my god­mother Shel­ley Win­ters, my mom’s friend Jane Fonda, and Gena Rowlands. I saw pow­er­ful women as artists or dar­ing to chal­lenge the med­i­cal pro­fes­sion and fight­ing to be doc­tors—but they weren’t in a board­room. They weren’t CEOS. That’s where the pants came in. And women didn’t wear pants, so they couldn’t do that. LB: Their legs didn’t work that way. [ laughs] LD: It’s been enough, I think, for Reese, Ni­cole, and me to be am­bi­tious in our field. I was told grow­ing up that to be an ac­tress of qual­ity you shouldn’t make money be­cause se­ri­ous ac­tresses didn’t make money. Ac­tors made money. LB: No! LD: In [1992] I was lucky enough to be nom­i­nated for an Os­car along with my mom for Ram­bling Rose. We were of­fered a very pres­ti­gious hair cam­paign for high-fash­ion mag­a­zines. An agent told me, “Men can do it, but women who sell things are ‘ whor­ing out.’ ” Women were cat­e­go­rized as “whores” for be­ing busi­ness­women. LB: For sell­ing things, mak­ing money. LD: At the same time, men were pro­duc­ing. And I re­mem­ber once talk­ing about how in­spired I was by Robert Red­ford and what he was do­ing as a pro­ducer for so­cial-jus­tice films and how he cre­ated Sun­dance [Film Fes­ti­val] as a lab for film. In the same con­ver­sa­tion I was told, “Well, Robert Red­ford can do it, but Jane Fonda can’t. Women shouldn’t pro­duce. They should stick to what they know. Let the men do the hir­ing. Let the women do the job at hand.” LB: How did that af­fect you? LD: I think Ni­cole and Reese were raised with a lit­tle more street fight in them, be­cause they didn’t come from the busi­ness. I came in think­ing I should apol­o­gize for al­ready hav­ing a name. And I was lucky. I got to work with David Lynch, Robert Alt­man, Paul Thomas An­der­son, Jonathan Demme, and Peter Bog­danovich—film­mak­ers who were get­ting to make their movies [with­out in­ter­fer­ence], cast who they wanted, have the end­ings they wanted. Their movies made only so much money, but I learned grow­ing up in the [direc­tor] Hal Ashby school of the ’70s that we’re lucky to get to make our art. And I don’t re­gret any­thing. I’ve re­al­ized the kind of ac­tor I want to be, the kind of sto­ry­teller I want to be, what kind of content I want to make now be­cause of those teach­ers. LB: How the hell did you come out of Hol­ly­wood­land nor­mal? LD: I sur­round my­self with like-minded peo­ple. It’s nor­mal say­ing I’m com­pli­cated be­cause every­body is. My fam­ily looks com­pli­cated be­cause all fam­i­lies are com­pli­cated. Life is scary be­cause we’re all scared of it. There’s no hid­ing be­hind this “I’m great, ev­ery­thing’s fine, I’ve been nor­mal my whole life.” And I love that. LB: You’re one of the least cyn­i­cal peo­ple I’ve ever met, which is quite against all odds. LD: I will say, the thing I feel proud­est of is that I can be cyn­i­cal about busi­nesses, pol­i­tics, and the en­vi­ron­ment, but I’m not re­ally cyn­i­cal about love on any level. The more I learn about my mis­takes as a mother, the deeper I en­joy how fully I love my chil­dren [son Ellery, 17, and daugh­ter Jaya, 14]. Be­cause I can let them know I re­ally screw up some­times. I hide from blame in a lot of ar­eas in my life, but I’m try­ing not to do that as a mom. This is the first time in my life that I am be­ing am­bi­tious be­cause I am a sin­gle par­ent. Rais­ing kids gave me enough street cred to feel like I de­served the right to make money. This mo­ment in my life is so sexy and free­ing be­cause I’ve had many re­la­tion­ships, I’ve had a mar­riage, I have my amaz­ing chil­dren, so I’m not hid­ing who I am to get some­body who is will­ing to have kids or be mar­ried. LB: Do you re­mem­ber the first time you had that epiphany in a re­la­tion­ship of “I need this, and if you’re not into it,” some­thing clicks, and you’re like, “See ya”? LD: I re­mem­ber be­ing in Toronto years ago and hav­ing a boyfriend say to me, “You know what your prob­lem is?” He shared it, and I, with a pan­icked voice that cracked, said, “No, it’s not.” And I re­mem­ber the mo­ment 10 years later, walk­ing down a street in Santa Mon­ica, when a man who I was in love with said to me, “You know what your strug­gle is?”—bet­ter word than “prob­lem”—and when he said it, I laughed and said, “Oh! You are so right.” I en­joyed be­ing called out. I wasn’t crushed. LB: Yeah, you weren’t like, “Some­thing’s wrong with me.” LD: Or try­ing to hide it so they wouldn’t leave. Be­cause the fear was al­ways about the leav­ing, and now half the time it’s about hop­ing they will if they don’t want to be here. If it doesn’t work for you, that’s so OK. But if you’re into what my flaws are, you find them funny, com­pli­cated, and de­li­cious, then great. Be­cause I’m try­ing to fig­ure my­self out too, and I’m ready to play and have fun. That’s what I’m in­ter­ested in. LB: How has that af­fected what you’re choos­ing to do pro­fes­sion­ally?

LD: I love be­ing an ac­tor. I love film, art, doc­u­men­taries, nar­ra­tive sto­ry­telling. I’ve been given more op­por­tu­ni­ties to do those things. And that’s great. The deeper thing that’s hap­pen­ing now is I’m start­ing to feel that my voice can mat­ter. LB: In the great male/fe­male, #Metoo, Time’s Up pen­du­lum swing we’re in, how do you nav­i­gate so many things that are po­lar­iz­ing? LD: I live in a con­stant state of mul­ti­task­ing, and it’s very stress­ful. I have a lot to learn from women who do it with such grace, like my mom. She re­cently saw a tal­ented young ac­tress at a uni­ver­sity play. When she went back­stage and told her how good she was, the young girl said a film­maker had sent her a script af­ter see­ing the play and wanted to meet. My mom said, “Great. I’m your man­ager. I’m go­ing with you.” [When she told me this] I said, “You’re Diane Ladd. They’re go­ing to know who you are when you get there.” She’s like, “I don’t care. I can say I’m man­ag­ing a few peo­ple now. She ain’t go­ing alone.” And I just thought, “That’s what we’re [sup­posed to be] do­ing for each other: lift­ing up other voices, giv­ing women shots they haven’t had, and pro­tect­ing them in the room.” It’s one thing to say, “Young ac­tors should al­ways pro­tect them­selves.” But here is what you never do: Don’t go to a ho­tel room by your­self. Make sure a cast­ing direc­tor is al­ways in the room. We’ve learned what we learned. Now we have to ed­u­cate oth­ers. LB: OK, let’s get to the juice: What did you love about the sec­ond sea­son of Big Lit­tle Lies? LD: It felt amaz­ing to be back with a com­mu­nity of true friends—you know that’s not BS. It’s so deeply ap­pre­ci­ated be­cause it’s rare. And I don’t know if any of the other Big Lit­tle Lies cast men­tioned we have a new ac­tress. She’s good. LB: It’s Meryl ... Streep. Do I have the name right? LD: She’s lovely and very smart. We’ve shaped her a lit­tle bit. We’ve helped her out. She just needs to trust her instincts. [ laughs] But with that said, we’re the luck­i­est women in the world to get to work with our muse, our guide, our hero. I mean, for me, she’s not just an ac­tress but a woman who has shown me the way, from or­ganic pro­duce in the kitchen to par­ity in the board­room. She fights for change for everyone. LB: And there is no grandios­ity about her at all. LD: I never once felt in­tim­i­dated un­til they called, “Ac­tion.” And then I was like, “Oh, wow, OK, that’s Meryl Streep.” Even though I knew her for sev­eral years be­fore that. LB: What has been the best time you have all had with each other off set? LD: Our din­ners are like 10-day va­ca­tions on a de­serted island. Ev­ery din­ner is three and a half hours min­i­mum with food and wine. We break it all down. It’s how I think all of us feel when we get to­gether with a group of women, par­tic­u­larly in the same field, like you’ve been cross­ing the desert for five days and you see wa­ter. LB: As an ac­tor, how im­por­tant is mys­tery ver­sus shar­ing with the cul­ture? LD: I think cre­ated mys­tery is ab­so­lutely un­in­ter­est­ing. I like avail­able peo­ple. Like, “How is this per­son so open de­spite their life?” I pre­fer that kind of mys­tery. I’ve learned a lot with this tribe—meryl, Ni­cole, and Reese in par­tic­u­lar—about that. There’s no sci­ence as to how it should be done. I know, for my­self, I like to be open about my pas­sions and my opin­ions. But I will al­ways pro­tect my chil­dren by keep­ing some mys­tery around the things that the three of us hold dear. LB: What have you learned from each of the ladies? LD: I’ve learned that self-care is key and not self­ish but com­pas­sion­ate. I’ve learned that gos­sip needs to be ig­nored. I’ve learned that divorce is tough no mat­ter who you are. I’ve learned that heart­break hits everyone and stays with you your whole life. I’ve learned that ev­ery woman knows abuse—not just as a small statis­tic of some kind. That was an in­cred­i­ble in­sight that came from do­ing this show to­gether, be­cause do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, sex­ual as­sault, and psy­cho­log­i­cal abuse are all part of the con­ver­sa­tion. It runs the gamut, so we’ve talked about it through the work, with the

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