Laura Dern is living proof that the acorn does not fall far from the tree. The talented offspring of equally talented parents -- Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd -- the 45-year-old actress shone in the movie "Rambling Rose" (Oscar nomination), the TV series "Fallen Angels" and "Ellen," and the TV movies "Afterburn" and "Recount" (Golden Globe awards for both). She's also turned in highly acclaimed performances for David Lynch in "Wild at Heart" and "Inland Empire," and co-starred in the megahit "Jurassic Park." In the HBO series "Enlightened," which she created with writer-actor-director Mike White, Dern plays Amy Jellicoe, a self-destructive woman trying to get her life together after a meltdown. The performance earned her a Golden Globe last year as best actress in a television series -- musical or comedy (see photo). She spoke with Newsday contributor Lewis Beale.
"Enlightened" is incredibly uncomfortable to watch, because your character is so intense, and unaware of the effect she has on people. It makes you cringe. Is that the reaction you wanted from viewers?
I think my and Mike White's orientation is an interest in the sad, funny world we live in. Comedy that has a lot of tragedy in it. I grew up watching "I Love Lucy" every day, and I cringed every day. She was so impossible, but you loved her, nonetheless. And I've been lucky to play characters where you have to walk a fine line to gain empathy. All those things set the stage for our taste level.
So how do you make people empathize with the character?
I am really interested in the part of all of us that I think can relate to Amy. What I find uncomfortable is when we look in a mirror and don't realize it. I wanted her complicated, to make poor choices, so we can laugh at her, and cringe. What interests me as a citizen who was confused about our cultural apathy in this country, what I thought would be exciting to connect to is a character who is someone who can watch CNN and not turn it off. She is riddled with the agonies of the day. She can't stop feeling, and I think we're all becoming just like her.
What is it about Mike White and his contributions that seem to click for you?
He's a brilliant writer, and within his writing, he writes complicated humans. There's duality in all the characters. He's hysterically funny but never intentionally looking to land a joke. And his episodes are so beautifully directed.
In the show your character is living with her mom, played by Diane Ladd, your real-life mother. You've worked with her several times before. What are the pros and cons?
The amazing gift of this show is that the con no longer exists. It did with youth, and now, entering my 40s, I can enjoy her. Now it's purely about the artistic experience. It's been seamless. Now that I'm a grown-up, I can enjoy the woman. I was always afraid every choice she made reflected on me, but I was a kid, 19, 20. It's a refreshing and amazing experience. When you look into your own mother's eyes, there is nothing but the truth.
What lessons did your mom and dad teach you about the business?
My mom, as a woman and go-getter, is very politically and socially involved. She taught me a great deal about getting your own made. And both of them are not interested in the limelight. They were never clocking their magazine covers. And my dad taught me an immense amount of reverence toward an impossible character. He played impossible people, yet had empathy for each of them, and that inspired me.
You obviously like working with David Lynch, since you've been in three of his films. What is it that you like about his work?
He is one of cinema's great geniuses, he's one of my best friends, and my mentor and my maestro. As a director, I've had a life with him. He asked me, at 17, to be Sandra Dee, the girl next door , then in a couple years play this sexual vixen , then in another film he wanted me to be all the characters . His vision and his bravery, in terms of experimenting with film, it's like painting.