Laura Dern is about to enter her fifth decade in Hollywood, and it's quite possibly the busiest — and most impressively scattered — period of her career yet. On HBO's wild hit Big Little Lies, she's Renata Klein, a control freak in Chanel hell-bent on protecting her family, making crazy bank, and getting home in time to mainline rosé while watching the sunset. Later this year she'll star in Jennifer Fox's The Tale as a "globetrotting journalist" whose rediscovery of a story she wrote as a child completely disrupts her life. In the next Star Wars installment (The Last Jedi), she'll play a mystery role that neither she nor anyone involved in the production is allowed to discuss for fear of certain death. And in May, there's the new season of Twin Peaks, in which she plays a mystery role that neither she nor anyone involved in the production is allowed to talk about for fear of certain death.
I'm meeting Dern at New York's Whitby Hotel to talk about yet another project: Wilson, a dark indie comedy adapted from Daniel Clowes's graphic novel that follows multiple misanthropes making questionable decisions. Of course, considering her zigzag of a year, Dern's role in Wilson, out March 24, is nothing like those I just described: As Pippi, Dern is an ex-crack-addicted-prostitute with frizzy bangs and a rage-control problem who, along with the compulsively blunt titular character (Woody Harrelson), decides to casually stalk the teenage daughter (Isabella Amara) she gave up for adoption 17 years earlier.
As I soon discover, Pippi is also the polar opposite of Dern; mere hours after I watch Dern, in character, beat the shit out of Cheryl Hines (who plays her onscreen sister) and wallop Harrelson with a handbag, she greets me with a massive grin, incredibly good hair, a warm hug, an offer of water, and a compliment about my outfit. We proceed to have a lovely conversation about American rage, how she manages to say "Amabella" with a straight face on a weekly basis, and the strangest thing David Lynch has ever said to her.
MTV News: Wilson is about at least three deeply troubled, socially awkward people. Your character is, in particular, extremely angry, and all but decimates her relationships. Alternatively, I just read an interview wherein you were described as "sunlight." Where and how do you access this enraged, violent persona?
Laura Dern: [laughs] Maybe I have it and I'm getting to leak it out through these characters so I can have the sunshine! I'm sure that's true. I'm sure. But it's not just a personal rite of passage to get in touch with all kinds of feelings, it's vocational. If we're given opportunities — whether we're journalists or actors — to express female voice, then we have to use it. More than ever. So I'm proud and grateful, and hope I'm tapping into the zeitgeist.
And I think Pippi and Wilson are characters a lot of people can relate to right now. And that really interests me too. It's interesting that people's response to Daniel Clowes's characters might be, "Oof, he's so in your face, telling you the truth — those people are so complicated, those people are hard." As though con men aren't harder. As though liars aren't harder. People want to buy into a bag of goods, because they think, "Oh, life will be better when we have it like that." Whether it's a first date or a campaign for political office [raises eyebrows], we want to be hopeful that something will be as good as it sounds on paper.
But I don't want liars. I want Wilsons. I want somebody who goes, "Can you get off your phone and just look at my eyes and connect with me?"
So you sympathize with his character, with that sort of uncomfortably honest person.
Dern: So deeply! And with Pippi. She's never been seen, never been acknowledged, never been accepted. In her own home, with her own family, with her own relatives. She's had to numb herself to just get through. She had one shot at parenting, and was selfless enough to, beyond her addiction, get through a pregnancy and give her daughter what she thought would be a safer and better life — and run from a man who was the love of her life, because she knew she was dangerous, a fuck-up, whatever she thought. Excuse my language. Ultimately, there's something beautiful about that. There's something beautiful about someone longing to be acknowledged, to be seen.
I think we can all relate to that. Even if it's not addiction or we don't have her story, we have the story of needing to be enough — and you try, and you try, and you try. At some point, you gotta hit the wall. I feel like Pippi hits the wall for all of us. [laughs] I was in an audience in Los Angeles, and women stood up on the [Cheryl Hines] punch. Like, "AHHHHH!" I was [accessing] this rage. I think it's beautiful timing. I hope every American sees this movie. I think we need it.
What's the most misanthropic thing you've ever done, if anything?
Dern: Probably politically, if I don't agree, I'm certainly very comfortable in my voice. So that might be considered misanthropic. I remember there being a period of time when I had a baby and I was so sleep-deprived that I'd get into having no filter, and that was not good. Even at the market or something, I'd be commenting about how someone would be carrying themselves. If someone was inappropriate to someone else, there was no ... I'm like a road-rager. I'd get in their face. Not in a rage-y way, but just directly commenting, "I don't understand how you can treat people like that."
And this isn't misanthropic, but one thing I've really loved that my kids think is so funny: I've met ragers on the street, and I have approached them with, like, overtly joyful response. And they're so horrified by it! I recommend it highly. It's seemingly misanthropic, but it actually works. If somebody gets out of their car like, "That was my spot!" Just be like [affects extremely cheerful voice], "Oh my god! Was that your spot? Oh my god, so great to meet you! I'm so glad you got out of your car so we can say hi." [laughs] People freak out. They're so scared of you. I did it to this guy the other day after he told me I took his spot, and he was so dumbfounded and so uncomfortable because he wasn't met with rage.
How many of these people do you think are also dumbfounded because they just yelled at Laura Dern?
Dern: I think this guy was in such a fever, I don't think he cared who I was. Maybe he was particularly pissed off I was female and taking his spot. But I have no idea if anybody's clocking anything to do with the kind of person I am or what I do for a living. They just wanna hate. They just need to hate. And I get it. I get it.
Big Little Lies has become a huge hit, but it seemed that people initially underestimated it as a "show for moms." Did you guys anticipate that underestimation? Because at times it seems like the show sends that up, or addresses it directly.
Dern: I certainly assume Nicole [Kidman] and Reese [Witherspoon], in wanting to have the book and be part of it as producers, must have known that it contained a lot that would be interesting to people. For me, I didn't really think about it. I just loved the character, loved the idea that in a weird and wonderful way all of these women make up a woman. There are so many aspects of self that you can relate to — and be horrified or repelled by — in these central characters, and that's kind of delicious. I found that really interesting. But I try to not ... This is why press is so interesting. I just said to [a publicist], "People are loving these characters. It's so great, because you never know how people will connect to it." It's like presenting your child to the world.
The way you say "Amabella" with such a consistently straight face is so incredible to me.
Dern: [laughs] Oh my god.
Where does your version of Renata come from? Do you know someone like her?
Dern: Oh my god. I don't know. I'm so afraid of myself that I understood her so well [laughs]. I think for Jean-Marc [Vallée] and I both, we had such a delicious time with David [E. Kelley]'s writing, and with the cooking up, on the spot, of where to take her and how to play around with her. Having had an unparalleled love story that Reese and I got to be part of together with Jean-Marc — the film Wild — to be back and just hate each other so much is just so much fun. I think that's driven us even further than we might have gone. It's given us permission to unleash. And because we're so close, there's a safety in that, I think, as actors. An unapologetic fever.
I know you can't tell me anything about Twin Peaks. But now that you've worked together on three films and on this show, what's the weirdest direction David Lynch has ever given you?
Dern: Well. They're all very simple and very exact. But from the outside they would seem really strange. One of the most profound directions he ever gave me was "bubblegum." I'll never forget it. It was literally what he needed that he wasn't seeing. He will give you, like, "I need more wind." Or "more mystery." Something very elusive. But the genius in it is, you're not directing an actor toward a thing they can't achieve. Because direction is elusive. So it's like he's painting, and he says, "I need a little more blue," and you get to define what blue looks like.
It takes the right and wrong out of it, which shouldn't exist on a film set. So when directors hold respect for the various craftsmen and -women who are telling the story, it's the greatest result. Watching David or Paul Thomas Anderson go to their set decorator, and it's like, "Something's lost, and it needs to be more saturated." And they get it. As opposed to, "I hate that chair." I think people do their bravest work when given an elusive canvas. That would be seemingly the weirdest, but also the most wonderful.