From her Lynchian beginnings in Blue Velvet to escaping an errant T-Rex in Jurassic Park, to becoming the superpower that is Renata Klein in Big Little Lies, Laura Dern has perhaps one of the broadest ranges of any actress in our time. And this season once again showcases her dynamism, as she digs into two vastly differing roles: the spiky divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, and the socially-conscious, soft-hearted matriarch Marmee March in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. In Marriage Story, Dern delivers a skin-stripping feminist monologue that’s had viewers cheering, while as Marmee, she brings depth and edge to Louisa May Alcott’s beloved literary character.
DEADLINE: It’s so interesting that you got to work with both sides of the Noah Baumbach/Greta Gerwig partnership in a year.
LAURA DERN: It’s been incredible. It’s been a profound equal partnership, which is what’s so radical, by two auteurs, whose writing is meticulous, who have their own rhythm, their own language, who know exactly what they want, who are precise, who are major researchers, and inspire research in you. And honestly, they have made, both of them, absolutely perfect movies. I spent my year with them and it’s just been amazing. We really are a family now—family, like, “Let’s be together for Thanksgiving” family. I really love them.
DEADLINE: Did each film feel like a collaborative effort with both of them involved? There’s Marriage Story from Noah’s point of view, and then you’re telling this very female-driven story with Greta.
DERN: Yes. I think Adam Driver speaks so beautifully of his relationship with Noah, that he feels like it’s all just one long conversation from the four movies they’ve done together. And I had not felt that other than with David Lynch, where you are family, and you’re going to be in this lifetime journey of making art together. I had found that in Noah and Greta, that feeling, that it’s a continual conversation. As wildly different as two characters can be, it’s a continued conversation about what it is to be human, what it is to be female, what it is to be a woman in power, what it is to be influencing others. All of those considerations came up in these wildly different stories. And for this couple to give me not only the opportunity to be part of their stories, but to play the most unbelievably different female characters I could ever play back-to-back was amazing.
DEADLINE: Your monologue in Marriage Story—did you get the sense Noah was looking to faithfully represent the female side of that divorce experience? What did he tell you about his intentions for that incredible scene?
DERN: He let me discover it in the writing. I fell in love with it. He let me elaborate a little bit and really get to the core of it in the writing of it, which was amazingly fun, to collaborate in that way. I think he wanted to give [a sense of] who she was when she first got into it [being a divorce lawyer] and what her actual intent is, that it’s not just some stereotype of a woman who needs to win, that there are intentions that are based on how women are measured in the world, and how women have to enter a room, and how women have to fight, and how women have to go up against men in their workplace environment. All of those things were being considered. And how mothers are measured differently than fathers… it’s like, “Oh my God, he made dinner for his kids. He’s amazing.”
Noah said, “I know how it goes.” I just thought it was a very thoughtful and evolved way to look at how mothers and fathers are measured in the world, you know? And that he caught that part of it in the storytelling for Adam and Scarlett [Johansson]’s characters as well, which is amazing.
DEADLINE: Nora’s physicality is so interesting to me, too. She’s had to hold herself in a way that’s all sharp elbows.
DERN: Both Noah and I researched several lawyers, family lawyers, in LA and New York. Every woman is different. Every woman handles her work differently, but with a couple women specifically, I watched how they used their bodies in a primarily sexist business. And there was the female body as armor, female body as manipulation aspect to this character that Noah played around with, and we explored in our many conversations, in meeting with these attorneys, which I found fascinating. Like bringing their femininity and even the men’s awareness of it in the room to sort of say, “Slow down. I know who I am. I’m in charge. I’m going to use everything to make you forget what we’re fighting over, and then tell you who’s winning.” I feel like every breath she takes is a strategy, and that was what Noah presented in a really exciting way for me as an actor.
DEADLINE: In Little Women Marmee is very honest about her anger. I didn’t actually realize that was in the book, because that’s not how people remember Marmee. Does it feel like you’ve resurrected the real Marmee here?
DERN: It was definitely our goal and definitely Greta’s goal. She so inspired me, as did Concord, Massachusetts, where the real family lived. And the history is there to be in that space, to understand not only the revolution, but the literary revolution, and the feminist revolution that was occurring at the time. To learn that the real Marmee, Louisa [May Alcott]’s mother, was America’s first social worker. She was an abolitionist. She was hiding slaves in her home as part of the Underground Railroad. None of this was something that we saw, and yet, when you go back and see it from this lens, it is all in the book.
You feel the revolution in her, and feel that that mother must have raised Louisa. She didn’t come from the prim and proper, “ladies only speak when spoken to” household, and then write Little Women. And I think Greta wanted to pay homage to the household that was allowing her to find her own self, and find her art, and find her truth—that gave her room. And I think she really has done such tribute to Louisa and her mother’s real relationship. Saoirse [Ronan] and I care a lot about it as well, and we read all their letters, this beautiful book of all their letters. We really got lucky to learn so much. The few people who’ve seen the movie, the line they keep bringing up to me is that, “I’ve been angry every day of my life.” I think that admittance from a mother to a daughter is very impactful.
DEADLINE: How did you build that family with the cast? It feels so real to watch.
DERN: Greta and [producer] Amy Pascal made sure we had not only rehearsal time, but we basically literally moved in together for several months, and that was just a miracle, you know? It was amazing to be able to spend months together and really become a true family.
DEADLINE: When you’re reading a script, what is it that will immediately pique your interest?
DERN: It starts with the filmmaker. On that, they had me at “hello”. I mean, when David Lynch and Noah Baumbach, or Greta Gerwig call you and say, “Let’s play,” you’re already pretty excited. And I would say the thing you’re looking for, or longing for, is something you’ve never done before. Some opportunities for self-discovery, or human discovery that’s not been a part of your journey yet.
DEADLINE: I also couldn’t help thinking about Big Little Lies’ Renata Klein, because here’s a woman who’s really fighting for equality. She’s powerful, but she’s also having to, a bit like Nora, use her elbows, because that’s where we’re still at. Did you feel any parallels there?
DERN: Well, I love what you just said, which is so astute. I mean, perhaps the parallel is, “Oh, we’re seeing characters who are women in positions of power.” And there are parallels because they’re women in positions of power. We don’t see that many onscreen. She’s strong and even vulnerable, but it’s always about the emotion of a woman, not her actual role in the world. So, I hope we see many more women like this that have nothing to do with each other. I mean, I do think that’s their only connection.
I think Renata is incredibly insecure, always cares what everybody else thinks and can never control herself, and is just longing for anybody to be her friend. And this woman [Nora] doesn’t care what anybody thinks. She’ll never lose her cool. She’s incredibly stealth and unbelievably in control and has no insecurity. I mean, I’ve never played a character who’s not insecure at all. But I think that’s how she moves through the world as a divorce lawyer. And so, it’s interesting. Like, oh, wow, I’ve played indigent women, addicts, vulnerable broken flowers, all these different characters, and I’m now getting to play women in positions of power. People are like, “Oh, wow, look at these two characters who get to be bosses, because we were never bosses before.”
The more the world is shifting, may we see more and more incredibly diverse and complicated versions of what women do with these places, just like we’ve been watching male characters do.
DEADLINE: There’s another Jurassic Park installment on the horizon for you, with Jurassic World 3. What do you love about that role?
DERN: Well, I think the thing I love the most about playing Ellie Sattler, and this was the early ’90s, was that it was the first CGI movie ever. It was going to become a franchise, but we didn’t call that. We were less familiar with that as an idea. We were going to do, it felt like, this wild thing that Steven [Spielberg] wanted to attempt, which had never been done before. And he wanted to make sure that if all worked well, that the female in the center of the story was as much of a badass and as fearless as anyone else. He took it seriously, and she was kind of a feminist.
I’ve had so many girls and women come up to me over the years talking about her being an icon for them, and that’s meant so much to me. So, the idea of reconsidering it is really to look at like, Oh, now she gets to be even more of a grownup and really own who she is, and what she was willing to risk to protect and educate as a scientist and humanist, and like, what would that look like now? It’s exciting to continue that journey and see what they come up with, and I’m excited to learn. Steven seems excited. Sam [Neill] and Jeff [Goldblum] seem excited, and I love that, so it’s really fun to think about.
DEADLINE: I talked to Nicole Kidman recently, and it seems it’s not impossible that more Big Little Lies could happen at some stage. Would you be excited about that if it happened?
DERN: I could not love these women more. I could not love the privilege of working with them more. And I feel like, just selfishly, how could I not want to play Renata Klein more? I mean, it’s the most fun anybody could ever have. So, it would be impossible for me to not consider any more time with her. As exhausting as she may be, she’s the most fun you could ever have. So, I think that’s why we all would keep that thought alive.