Laura Dern Talks Death Penalty Reform in Trial By Fire Image

Laura Dern Talks Death Penalty Reform in Trial By Fire

By Lorry Kikta | May 19, 2020

I don’t know about you, but to me, Laura Dern is an icon. Her work with David Lynch alone is enough to put her in in the eternal echelon of greatness in my estimation. So when I found out that I was going to interview her in connection with her latest film Trial By Fire, I was thrilled.

Trial By Fire, directed by Edward Zwick, is the retelling of the true story in the wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham (played in the film by Jack O’Connell), a Texas man who was accused of arson resulting in the death of his three children. He maintained his innocence throughout the whole ordeal, and in the film you can see the agony he goes through, knowing he will die for a crime he didn’t commit.

Dern plays Houston playwright Elizabeth Gilbert, who starts corresponds with Todd and then develops a great rapport. She believes that he is innocent and sets the wheels in motion to get his conviction overturned, but unfortunately, it’s not soon enough.

In this interview we talk about Trial By Fire and so much more. I hope you enjoy reading the conversation as much as I enjoyed having it.

“…we were really inside their love story because it was a love story and I appreciated that Ed wanted to make a film that was not only about changing the criminal justice system,…”

I’d love to hear about your interactions with Elizabeth Gilbert.
Laura Dern: She was so generous to me and given the state of her physical health, really all of our correspondences through the movie where on the phone, email, Skype. So we weren’t actually with each other till after the film. She was so generous. I will share, she shared all the letters with me and let me share them with Jack. And so we were really inside their love story because it was a love story and I appreciated that Ed wanted to make a film that was not only about changing the criminal justice system,  and the brokenness thereof, but it was also about small acts of kindness and how one simple gesture can change the country, can change law, can change an individual’s life.

And she was feeling very heartbroken last night. We talked for a while after the screening. It’s very hard for her to watch the movie. And she said, “I didn’t do it (get Cameron Todd Willingham off of death row before his execution)” and I said, “But it’s only weeks later, another man on death row’s life was saved because of the fire science that you pushed to get from (Dr. Gerald) Hurst. You created groundswell” and Barry Scheck (famous American lawyer) was saying last night, Liz is a champion. She’s helping exonerate others now. So when you’re talking about human life, paying it forward doesn’t mean a lot. I respect so deeply that the heartbreak of losing Todd. But you know, as governor Perry so eloquently puts at the end of the film, we don’t want any innocent person’s life to be lost. And he made that commitment.

He believed in sentencing people to death, because no innocent person was killed. So now we’re letting him know that’s not true. So now we have to change the law. So he’s in agreement with us that for some reason—I’m deciding he is. I’m saying if you guys, as conservatives, are saying that we would never kill innocent people, well now we have to change the law because it’s happened hundreds and hundreds of times now through DNA evidence. I mean 200 cases alone of exonerees just from the Innocence Project’s work.

Oh, that’s incredible. At the end of the movie, I was just weeping, It was heartbreaking. And it’s so good that out of that, this positive result came, but it’s just so heartbreaking that someone had to die in order for that to happen.
Can I tell you in learning statistics about what’s happening with death row cases now, the statistics that honestly last night I could barely sleep. It was so haunting to me that of the exonerees, which are only a couple hundred exonerees that the Innocence Project has worked with, just those exonerees through DNA evidence. So think about how many hundreds or thousands more sit on death row right now who are innocent, but of those exonerees who’ve been proven innocent collectively the time served in prison that they served in prison is over 5,000 years of prison time.

Oh my God.
Innocent people who’ve now been exonerated have served five thousands of years of innocent people wasting away. So to kill is one part of the story. But the fact that we’re not looking at the criminal justice system and how innocent men and women, particularly people of color are sitting rotting for crimes they did not commit.

And now there’s for-profit prisons and all that stuff, which just kind of adds fuel to the fire.
Yeah. And you can go to jail for 15 years for marijuana possession.

“I mean 200 cases alone of exonerees just from the Innocence Project’s work.”

I mean, it’s a miracle now that in, well at least in San Francisco, I don’t know about the rest of California that they’re overturning those (marijuana) convictions. And I was hoping that that would start happening here (in New York), but we’re at a standstill with that. But I could talk about this all day.
Yeah. And then talking about sexual assault cases with privileged white men in California. Who get a slap on the wrist,  and if you’re a person of color, forget about it…you’re locked away for life.

Well, you know, Emmett till, etc. It’s just so insane
I know it’s a heartbreaking time. But we’re each together working together this very moment to try to, in our own ways, keep telling the story so we can, Hopefully, it will be resounding enough as we add, just like Liz was saying, as we add our voices to this conversation, we’re going to change it.

Yeah. I mean that’s such a wonderful attitude to have as well.
I mean we have to. We can’t give up cause idiots are running the show.

There’s an element of you being a mother in Trial By Fire and you’re also a mother in real life and you’ve played a lot of other mothers. And for example in Big Little Lies, Renata is like the ultimate helicopter parent. And then in Trial By Fire, you’re more unintentionally hands off. What does playing these different types of parents do to help you be a better parent in real life?
Well, it’s a great question and a question that is going to be with me all year. I mean it’s going to be with me for the rest of my life as a mother, but as an actor, because we wrapped Little Women in which I play my favorite mother in literature, which is Marmi (March). And so I’ve thought so much through all these characters about how to mother and it’s really impacting my mothering. I’m sure my children would say both negatively and positively. I’m learning from my own mistakes because life is about balance and I certainly haven’t learned it, but by playing out extremes, it really teaches you to find a way to navigate how to find a center.

And Renata’s taught me as much, Particularly this season. And I’ll just say there are some fun things to see. It teaches me a lot about parenting and what’s amazing is it’s so delicious because as complicated as Renata is, I don’t think there’s a mom who can’t relate. We just don’t do what she does, but we get it.

“…this boy was inappropriate on a bus and I was in third grade and she marched in and you know, told them like it was and that was her Renata moment.”

My mom had some borderline moments like Renata for sure.
I think we all have. I mean, especially in the school system, like “You messed with my kid!” I think every mother becomes Renata for a minute, marching into the principal’s office for some boy said da-da-da-da-da on the bus to my daughter (she says this is Diane Ladd’s accent), now I’m doing my mother…but this boy was inappropriate on a bus and I was in third grade and she marched in and you know, told them like it was and that was her Renata moment. God bless her. I mean, and by the way, she saved me from what could have become awful. So sometimes you got to get crazy or people aren’t going to listen to us.

I was wondering what kind of advice you would give to people, who want to have as varied of a career as you do… because you do high art independent stuff and then you do big box office and you do everything.
That was my dream and I can’t believe I became blessed enough to have my dream. Like, to have within my life story as an artist that I got to be in Jurassic Park and that David Lynch might consider me his muse or someone that gets to work with him throughout my life. Like that’s a dream, you know, and to keep continuing that story somehow, that is the hope that you can try it all. ‘Cause it’s all so fun and it’s all so delicious. And I think, you know, for my colleagues and dearest friends who have tried to do the same thing as independent actors, exploring character and doing a comedy or a traditional movie. You know my pack of buddies, which I’m so lucky and blessed to have of course like Nicole and Reese because we’re truly a family right now, but also Julianne Moore and Naomi Watts are two of my best friends, like where I think we’re all trying to figure that out, how we mother while really embracing art and pushing boundaries and also making intelligent choices about career.

And I don’t think there’s any clear roadmap, but you just hope that you’re lucky enough to get to do a lot of that throughout your life. My dad (Bruce Dern) was with me at an event and a young actor was asking a sort of advice question for me or something and they were like, you know, you’re such an inspiration because at your age on the—I’m not saying, I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant—I’m just quoting, which is funny about my dad. But not to quote something kind about me–it sounds so arrogant…but she said you’re an inspiration because at this age you’re saying like, keep going. Like, if you keep going, look, you can be in your late forties and get to do all these different things. And my dad goes “Bullshit, I call bullshit”

And she was like “Excuse me?”  and I said, “this is my dad, he’s an actor too.” She was 19 and my dad said “I’m just saying; what do you mean? She’s (Laura) a kid! She’s just figuring out now. I am telling people to keep going. Cause I got nominated for an Oscar at 80.” Keep doing what you love. And I looked at him, I was like, hey that is absolutely right. My parents are 80-year-old working actors doing what they love. My mom and I are developing a television series, talking to her with a writer/showrunner is the greatest because we did Enlightened together too and Wild At Heart. She’s so brilliant. She’s more on fire. She has better ideas than any actor right now. My dad just finished Terentino’s film and is on location with David Kelly for a show right now.

I am a kid just figuring it out. If you love it, you keep going and you try everything and you hope the story it tells is that you’re an actor and that you love hoping to navigate for all of us away toward empathy toward other human beings. That’s the goal. That’s what they taught me and the directors they worked with taught me. So I’m, I’m excited to learn from them.

“…my dad goes ‘Bullshit! I call bullshit'”

This is my last question. I know you have a production company,  So what are you doing with that? You said you’re developing the show with your mom. Is there anything else that you’re working on that you want to talk about?
Sure. Thank you for asking. Jaywalker Pictures is my producing partner, Jamie Lemons and myself. We have been working on a few things we’re very excited about. Some will be more announced than others soon, but one project we have is at HBO partnering with Issa Rae. We’re doing a limited series in-and-around the riots that occurred over the Cabbage Patch Doll. We have a very moving and exciting project with Alex Gibney, and we have a really exciting project based on a Vanity Fair piece that I really loved that will be announced soon for a series that we’re in the process of selling right now and it just keeps growing. We just got a book with another actor, producer, partner and that we love that we’re developing. And so it’s really, really exciting. Couple of independent films that we’re working on

That’s amazing that you get to help people with their artistic vision.
Oh my God, it’s so exciting and it’s so exciting to feel like there’s a real community, you know, to really be working alongside these women  I mentioned, you know, like fellow peers as we’re all finding material and going, “Oh my God, you this is not a role for me but you are so perfect for this. Can I produce it? Where do you want to be in it? Should we produce it together?” Like we’re all, as Reese (Witherspoon), who I didn’t know, but she very generously did with Wild. And that’s how we started our journey together.

I love that movie and Big Little Lies is incredible so I’m really looking forward to it.
I hope you like the second season. I’m really excited for it, but what I’ve seen so far.

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