On Saturday, May 17th, the Seattle International Film Festival awarded Laura Dern their Outstanding Achievement in Acting Award at the celebrated Egyptian Theatre. She appeared genuinely thrilled to accept what looked like a tentacle wrapped around a sparkly party hat from her old friend Eddie Vedder. Family in tow, Vedder delivered his lengthy, rambling introduction dressed as a dad at a PTA meeting. He mixed metaphors like a college party cocktail, comparing her career to a painter’s palette and to his own vocation. (“I’m in a band,” he helpfully exposited.) He described her performances as “classic albums” and attempted to highlight her dedication to the craft with an anecdote about how Dern became emancipated at age 12, not to separate from her revered parents, but so that she could work longer hours on “Ladies and Gentlemen… The Fabulous Stains.” (Dern later remarked that the 4 months she spent in Vancouver with the Sex Pistols turned her off drugs for life). “Laura Dern,” Vedder concluded. “She can play.”
And with that, the theatre darkened and we were treated to a lovingly curated highlight reel, beginning with a clip of Amy Jellicoe’s epic meltdown on HBO’s original series, “Enlightened.” This 10-minute scene was shot in one take and it perfectly illustrates Dern’s intensity and commitment to a character. “I will bury you, m**********r!” she screamed after forcing an elevator door open with her bare hands. It was the ideal introduction to a retrospective of diverse characters ranging from rebellious youth to morally ambiguous women to self-righteous head-cases and a couple of mainstream roles in between.
Dern seemed somewhat unprepared for the reel, saying that she hadn’t revisited many of her characters in a long time. She remarked that her children, also present, were not yet allowed to see a large chunk of her body of work (possibly a response to the trauma of having “seen [her] father’s head roll down a staircase” in “The Exorcist” when she was a little girl). However she admitted that they were no strangers to their mother’s potty mouth. Regardless, neither they nor the Vedders would stay for the post-Q & A screening of the family unfriendly, “Wild at Heart.”
The Q & A moderator was Elvis Mitchell, host of NPR’s film personality interview show, “The Treatment.” Mitchell conducted the interview in his customary conversational manner. Dern was excited to share her stories and methods, and to discuss film in general. In addition to her parents, actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, she named Lucille Ball as her hero (which makes perfect sense in light of her signature cry face). When she’s working, she isn’t concerned about her appearance because glamor is the enemy of authenticity. This approach to acting comes from her parents, who told her, “An actor’s job is to transform.”
She cited her children as her greatest source of inspiration, observing, “Just when you think you can guide someone, they end up guiding you… you have to let your kids define their own life experience.”
Of course, she is also highly influenced by the tremendous directing talent she’s worked with over the years, including Alexander Payne (“Citizen Ruth”) and the incomparable David Lynch (“Blue Velvet,” “Inland Empire”). Lynch looks for loyalties over performances, often conducting interviews in lieu of auditions. He insists that his actors be “perfectly authentic,” which is likely challenging considering his frequently fanciful narratives.
His most fanciful narrative to date was his most recent film, “Inland Empire.” Dern recalled his pitch to her: “You’re gonna star in my next movie… And there’s no script… And you’re gonna play all the characters in the movie.” (Incidentally, Dern does an excellent David Lynch impression.) Despite the lack of information about the story, Dern delivers a series of incredible performances that make enduring the intimidating running time (180 minutes) worth the effort.
Tired of dealing with studios, Lynch funded “Inland Empire” completely out of pocket. He had no trouble coming up with the production money, but was frustrated with the seemingly mandatory expense of film promotion. In protest, Lynch’s entire publicity campaign for the film was to sit on Hollywood Blvd with a cow on a leash and a sign that read, “Laura Dern for Best Actress.” Of course, people took videos of the stunt and it went viral, thus eliminating the need for traditional promotion.
Dern fits well into Lynch’s mode because she’s also an insatiable risk taker. “If other people say you shouldn’t do it,” she remarked, “I like to do it.”
After the Q & A, the die-hard audience members stuck around for a screening of David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” (1990), starring Dern, Nicholas Cage, Diane Ladd and a delightful assortment of Lynch regulars. This warped take on “The Wizard of Oz” is a highly quotable love story set in the darkest time line. It’s also meant for the big screen, allowing the viscera to pop and Lynch’s meticulous sound editing to envelop you. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.