The actress Laura Dern has played almost too many memorable roles to count: from the hard-edged Renata Klein in Big Little Lies and the feminist slogan-slinging divorce lawyer in Marriage Story, to director David Lynch’s leading lady in films like Wild at Heart and Blue Velvet. She also recently reprised one of her most famous roles as the most capable scientist trying to avert a dino meltdown in Jurassic Park: Dominion, which is set for release in 2022.
But Dern’s latest role as an activist is working with the American Lung Association’s LUNG FORCE Walk to raise money for lung cancer research and education. She talked with ELLE.com about her personal ties to the cause, her secret next project, and Lynch’s ongoing campaign to get her to shave her head—for a role, of course.
I know this cause is an important one to you personally. What made you want to partner with the American Lung Association and why now?
Well, a few things. Thank you for asking. I had an experience of losing my grandfather to lung cancer when I was really little, and was living with him and my grandmother during the last year of his life. So I really walked through his most heartbreaking battle with lung cancer.
Those are not memories you forget. Not to mention, obviously, walking through grief as a small child for any of us. So when I had the privilege of playing Cheryl Strayed’s mom, Bobbi, in the film Wild, based on her book, it was such an opportunity for healing and a re-triggering of all those memories as we shared our experiences together, Cheryl and I. I realized how much it would mean to me to learn more and be an advocate for others in any way I could.
The American Lung Association invited me to participate in an event where one of my mom’s dearest friends, the amazing Valerie Harper, was also going to be at that event. Being beside Valerie as she was not only advocating for others, but doing it while she was battling this cancer herself, was such an inspiration.
And I thought, if given the opportunity to learn more and support ALA’s work more in honor of Valerie, and my family, and Cheryl’s mom, that would be a great blessing.
You mentioned family and this community around the ALA. Everyone’s been looking for sources of comfort this last year. What are some things, big or small, that have been an unexpected source of comfort for you during quarantine?
Family—I think for all of us. Sharing the privilege of what seem like the little moments, cooking a meal with my kids, learning to cook together, sharing stories. My Mom had pneumonia and specifically was high-risk in terms of her lungs. So, being so protective of her, it was a very locked down time, like so many of us with a high-risk family member.
Watching how my children rallied in being so protective of her was really gorgeous, and watching movies and taking care of each other. And also frankly, diving into educating myself more, and miraculously, ALA opened their doors to that more so. And they were doing such amazing work around COVID, obviously, given that it’s a respiratory disease. It gave me more opportunities to learn from them and learn more about their work. And I think that’s been a big time for all of us, right? Just educating ourselves more about how little we know.
You’ll be revisiting your famous character Dr. Ellie Sattler in Jurassic World: Dominion. I wanted to ask about one of your lines from the original Jurassic Park, where Dr. Sattler talks about “sexism in survival situations.” What’s your take on that line, and has it taken on any new meaning during the survival situation that’s been the last year of COVID?
Even pre-COVID, of waking up during the MeToo movement, and Time’s Up and gender disparity in workplace environments, I feel honored that Ellie Sattler has been brought into the room a few times with quotes. And it means a lot to play characters that reflect a point of view or a mission statement in the dialogue I’ve gotten to say.
And in playing her again, most recently, I feel proud to play strong women who, yes, are feminists, but more importantly are just standing up for what’s right environmentally, in terms of respect, with humility and with dignity. And even when I play awful and complicated people who are selfish and misguided, those characters also give room to learn from them in a varied kind of way.
You’ve played so many electrifying, complicated female characters that defy easy categorization. Of all the roles you’ve played so far, which one was the most difficult for you personally to step into? And what’s a role you’re dying to play?
The most challenging and most exciting was probably a film I did, Citizen Ruth, because she was deplorable and unforgiving and awful. It’s such a brilliant satire because the concept was, well, then she’s a throwaway. You don’t have to worry about her, think about her, consider her rights, especially because she’s ungrateful.
It was such a level playing field at considering her rights and considering the grace she deserved merely by the nature of being a human being with pain and their own experience. So that was really profound. And in terms of who I want to play, both on and off camera, being an advocate means a lot to me. There’s a profound and extraordinary woman in government who did some remarkable things. I can’t speak to who it is specifically yet, but in developing a film about her, I’m excited to play someone who stands up for others and risks everything. That feels exciting.
And why I’m here with you today. And to think of it again. The small task of you and I being here, to have a conversation about life, and women, and advocacy, and art. And I can say to you, “Hey, you can help me by also reminding readers that all I need them to do is go to lungforce.org/walks.”
And if they sign up, because right now we’re launching this nationwide Lung Force Walk for 2021. And we’re launching it during Turquoise Takeover, which is May 9th to the 15th. And all we’re asking people to do is join me. I have a team. Join my virtual walk, be a teammate with me, or join a Lung Force Walk locally. And by joining, you will help us raise millions of dollars. That is such an incredible, empowering thing, that we can have a small act of you and I having a conversation.
And if thousands of people are willing to jump online and join together, we’re making a massive difference for research, and advocacy, and education about lung cancer and lung health. And again back to your question, being an advocate, it takes very little, right? It’s one small act of kindness and we can change someone’s life. And with the money we raise, we can speak about disparity in communities of color. And like what I said to you, doing the work I’ve been doing with American Lung Association, just the misnomer of this concept of who gets lung cancer and learning that lung cancer is the number one cancer killer for women, which I had not known.
Them teaching me as a mom of teenagers, the horrors and dangers of vaping, and being able to spread that messaging just within this bubble of a household during COVID, when I’m trying to protect their lung health during a pandemic, was massive. So I think both on and off screen, really thinking a lot about advocacy through small acts of kindness and through awareness has been a lot for me.
I’m not sure if you’ve been keeping up on David Lynch’s daily weather reports—
I love his weather reports.
But a few months ago, he teased a big announcement that fans took to mean news of an upcoming project, or maybe even a follow-up to Twin Peaks: The Return. I was wondering, are you in touch? Do you have any plans to collaborate again in the future?
We are very in touch. He’s my family. I may have just enjoyed a cappuccino in his company. And he is never not making art. He is my great inspiration in life. And I think fans should expect more and more radical, boundary-less art from David Lynch.
I know it will make my life better. And honestly, I think he considers me family and a confidant. I have no idea what it’s going to be. It’s not like I’m trying to hide it—he tells no one until he’s making it. It’s what I love about him, but I would say there’s a twinkle in his eye and he’s up to something radical and fantastic.
I was just doing a little reading before our interview and I saw that Lynch had called you “99 percent fearless” and said that the remaining one percent was that you had declined to shave your head for a possible role. With the year that we’ve all had, would you do it today or if the right project with David came along?
Let’s put it this way. He did not mention any of the things that make up the 99 percent, but he may have mentioned the fact that I won’t shave my head in our recent conversation.
I don’t think he will stop until I’ve shaved my head.
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