Even though Laura Dern has been a movie star for her entire adult life, I was surprised how glamorous she was in person. Her rangy body was clad in a striped sweater dress and her hair is that perfect shade of bright, but not gaudy platinum, blond. It’s a shock to see Dern so well-groomed, because every day when I get out of the subway I’m confronted with a poster advertising her new HBO show, Enlightened, which shows a closeup of Dern’s face, distorted and crying, mascara running down her cheeks in thick smeary lines. “Meet the new face of tranquility,” says the tagline above her miserable moue.
In Enlightened, Dern plays Amy Jellicoe, who starts the series as a health and beauty executive at a sterile corporation in Southern California. In the first scene, she has a nervous breakdown in the office because an affair with her boss has gone awry and she’s being demoted. She ends up going to a kind of rehab/retreat in Hawaii after her emotional explosion, swimming with turtles and meditating. Then Amy returns to Riverside, moves in with her mom, and tries to be a better person—hence the series’ title. Though she’s desperately trying to do the right thing with her possibly evil corporation, her ice-cold mother, and her drug addled ex-husband (played by Luke Wilson, the best he’s been in years), Amy still has those intense spikes of rage that no amount of yoga seems to cure.
I spoke with Dern about the new series, her past and future collaborations with David Lynch (she might be able to drag him back to the director’s chair!), her devotion to Transcendental Meditation, and whether or not Jurassic Park 4 is actually going to happen.
Slate: How did Enlightened come about? You have a history of collaborating with directors (David Lynch in particular) that you work with. Was this a script that Mike White sent to you and the character was fully developed, or did you have a hand in creating Amy Jellicoe?
Laura Dern: I got my hands very dirty for Amy. Mike and I both wanted to work together again, and HBO had talked to me about doing a series after having done Recount. I told them that I was really interested in playing a rager who becomes a whistle-blower. That was the inception of it. Mike, with his brilliant brain, started patiently sitting through breakfast after lunch after dinner with me as we talked through the idea of this show. Then he went off, once we had the show, and wrote the episodes.
Slate: When I watched the pilot the first time, I thought Amy was just clueless and overwhelmed by her emotions. She is trying to do better, but she just really doesn’t know how. But then I watched it a second time, and I zeroed in on the scene where she gets her company to rehire her. She’s reading the room like a pro and she seems so cunning, underneath that veil of cluelessness. Did she blunder into getting that job, or was that intentional?
Laura Dern: I think she’s both clueless and cunning, and that’s what I love about her. I think she does come from a place of being overwhelmed by her emotions, but she does have her pulse on right and wrong, and what should be fought for at all costs, and where to stand up. From that place, I think she finds a highly intelligent route toward uncovering scandal, deceit, betrayal, things like that. She’s not a true intellectual, but she knows what she’s doing.
Slate: Luke Wilson is really well-cast as Amy’s drug-addicted ex-husband. How did he end up in that role?
Laura Dern: I think we knew in order to understand Amy, if not love her every once in a while, her ex had to have charm. I don’t mean surface charm, which Luke has, but a deeper charm. Luke has that way where he kind of cocks his head and you feel like he’s taking people in and adoring them for who they are. I think Owen does too. Those boys have a real warmth about them. He plays the damage and the addiction so beautifully, the freight train that’s coming at both of them. Mike and I were hopeful that he would be able to do it, because obviously he’s a film actor and hadn’t done a TV series.
Slate: Amy goes to a New Age-style healing retreat in the first episode. I read an interview where you said that you had a lot of spiritual “woo-woo” growing up. What is your orientation toward all of that now?
Laura Dern: I, like Amy, am certainly longing to uncover a deeper connection with myself. However, I get there. I’m a TM [transcendental] meditator. I do it with mediation as much as I do it with dinner with girlfriends. They’re of equal weight in different areas of my life. A good talking to from my grandma, all the different things we get balance from. My mom is and was of a generation of women who are big seekers, and it was new. That was considered very woo-woo, especially when I was a kid. Astrology, psychics, anything she could get her hands on she would try and check out. I feel like our generation is very lucky because yoga is a part of everyday life for a lot of people. Meditation is a practice that is considered mainstream: The NFL uses it, the NBA uses it, heart patients use it. It’s very easy to consider yourself a meditator and not be too alternative-minded. But I think for Amy, it’s a wonderful backdrop to her desperation, because she’s really just longing to be good enough and make a difference.
Slate: Your mother, Diane Ladd, plays your mother on Enlightened, and she’s played your mother in other well-received projects. Is it ever hard to draw boundaries? I would think that sometimes it would be difficult to disconnect from the characters you’re playing and get back into your real-life mother/daughter dynamic.
Laura Dern: Yes, yes it is. It’s unusual. I was 23 I think when we did two movies back to back together that were extreme. She was playing my mother in one when she’s a monster trying to sleep with my boyfriend [the David Lynch movie Wild at Heart]. I mean, just the worst mother; literally riding a broomstick as the Wicked Witch of the East in that film. The next film we did together, she plays the character of Mother who is the ultimate nurturer [Rambling Rose]. I’m an orphan who she sort of takes in. A therapist once said to us, “You guys don’t even need any work. You’ve done the antithesis of archetypes.”
The one thing we hadn’t played out, which is very opposed to our dynamic is this very restrained, unfeeling mother in Enlightened who probably barely hugged Amy in her life. You learn more about that as the series goes on. The easier part of stepping out of our characters this time is that it’s the opposite of my mother, who, if anything, as a child I thought engulfed me. She’s very affectionate, Southern, big personality. She’s really playing the opposite character.
Slate: Your collaborations with David Lynch are well-known and well-loved. A website called the Awl recently ran an article arguing that you are the only one who can persuade him to return to directing [“Laura Dern Is Our Only Hope for Bringing David Lynch Back”]. Do you think there’s a chance you can convince him?
Laura Dern: Well, if there were any truth in it, then over fried chicken last Sunday that website should know that I’m doing my job.
Slate: Can you tell me anything else about it?
Laura Dern: That’s all I’m saying. I went into this rant [to him] about how profoundly important that is. If he were to listen to me, I’ve done the best job I can of trying to persuade.
Slate: Millions of people would thank you profusely.
Laura Dern: He has to be in the world, just doing what he’s doing.
Slate: It must be so hard to have all that pressure. Knowing that you have this fan base that is not only so devoted, but has such high expectations of your work. I imagine that would make it hard to create.
Laura Dern: I think what helps him so much is that he just redefines art every day for himself, as everybody knows. On his website he’s doing paintings, he’s photographing, he’s directing. He’s making movies on a digital Super 8 camera. He’s just all over the map. I think he feels very alive because of it. He has so many things he wants to do. He’s working on a documentary right now. He has this David Lynch Foundation, which is doing extraordinary work teaching meditation throughout the world to underprivileged children in school systems, jails. He’s got a big life, so it would be easy for him to not have time to make movies, but I mean, with pretty much any threat I can wield I will beg him.
Slate: You’ll drag him back?
Laura Dern: Yeah.
Slate: In an interview with the Times from 1986, you said that you wanted to play someone in politics and you’d like to play a strung-out drug addict, and you’ve done both.
Laura Dern: That’s so hilarious!
Slate: You don’t remember saying that?
Laura Dern: Uh-un.
Slate: I think you were probably 19. Are there any other roles that you are dying to play?
Laura Dern: Enlightened is a big dream for me. Because when I became an actor I had two favorite films. One was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I always wanted to do a Ms. Smith Goes to Washington. The other was Network. To me, one of the great scenes ever in any film is [when disaffected workers] open up their windows and scream out, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” I basically said to Mike White: What if we could take those two ideas, but that someone goes to Washington and uses their voice to create change, not by being the befuddled innocent, but by being the raging innocent. Somebody who says, “This is fucked. We’re losing our country, and we have to use our voices or it’s going to be gone forever.” I feel like that’s where Amy lies: somewhere between the two.
Now I have dreams that are based entirely on very surface needs like, I really want to live in New York, so I want to do a movie in New York. I really want to move to Paris, so I think I want to go make French films. I’m seeing Jonathan Demme today who directed some of the episodes and who is a huge influence on the creation of Amy. I am ecstatic at the thought of making a movie with him. I was like, “Come on Jonathan. New York, Paris, great clothing, good food, French hours.” This is my new thing. Maybe it will happen. I kind of keep saying what I want.
Slate: Back to politics and rage—you’re a former member of the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee. How are you feeling about the 2012 elections?
Laura Dern: I wish I could be more articulate about my candidate, who is our current president, because I understand the frustration, because I have it too. I really feel that we have put this idyllic concept of what a president gets to do on a man that we knew, going in, was never going to achieve the goals he or we set out for him based on this shit storm that was handed to him. So, I’d love to speak more articulately in defense of him because I don’t see any other option.
Slate: After your excellent portrayal of Florida’s Secretary of State Katherine Harris in Recount, I feel like you could do a really good Michele Bachmann. You could really channel that inner rage she has simmering beneath the surface.
Laura Dern: Beneath the smile and the teeth. That would be a fun one to take on. That could be very exciting.
Slate: You’re in The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie about a religious guru in the ‘50s [according to rumors, the character is based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard]. Is your character an acolyte of this religion?
Laura Dern: It’s someone who is very involved, for sure. You know what I love about Paul, I love a zillion things about Paul like so many of us do, but Paul is old school in the best sense of the word. I was raised in the ‘70s and I’ve worked with people I love and I’ve been on sets with my parents, with people who run a set and require of actors a sense of liberty and freedom and exploration and failure into brave achievement. Other than Jonathan Demme, Paul Thomas Anderson, bless and rest his soul, Robert Altman, who was such a pioneer for Paul and myself, there are very few people making movies like that, so just working on a set with him is so extraordinary. In terms of the subject of the film, and all of the films he makes, he dances so comfortably in the gray. When he takes on the subject matter, any subject matter, he is there to examine what it offers; not just take anything down. It’s funny when people think filmmakers are irreverent. It’s like, “Ooh, what’s he doing. I heard the movie’s about dot dot dot.” They go, “I bet he’s really going to attack it.” In fact, he tries to uncover what he loves. What the worth is in something.
Slate: Jurassic Park 4. Is that happening?
Laura Dern: I hear it’s happening. I think it’s got a ways to go. Steven is about to immerse himself in Lincoln, which is really exciting and something he’s poured his heart and soul into for a long time. I’m so excited because Daniel Day-Lewis is playing Lincoln. Once that’s finished, there’s always been talk that my character is deeply involved in [Jurassic Park 4] somehow, but I haven’t heard yet.
This interview has been edited and condensed.