Premiere, September 1990, p. 86-90
No longer the wide-eyed innocent, Laura Dern transforms herself into a gum-snapping, chain-smoking sex bunny in 'Wild at Heart'
by Phoebe Hoban
Laura Dern is five feet ten inches tall, but director David Lynch, who seems to know a skewed thing or two about the feminine mystique, always calls her "the Tidbit." "She´s kind of tall, but she´s still a tidbit," Lynch insists. The tidbit factor is milked to the max in his latest film, Wild at Heart, which won the Palme d´or at the Cannes International Film Festival. Stateside, Lynch is a popcultural hero, thanks to his savvy, surreal television series, Twin Peaks. But at Cannes, his victory was greeted with vociferous boos by a Gérard Depardieu-crazed audience. A raunchy road movie that pairs Dern with Nicolas Cage in a Lynchian blend of whimsy, violence and sex, Wild at Heart was also in danger of being stamped with an X rating by the Motion Picture Association of America. A tad too much tidbitness?
"It´s certainly everything one would expect from David," says Dern of the film. "It´s pretty out there." (An X rating would have less to do with Dern´s sultry performance than with several scenes, including an abortion sequence, that only the mind behind Eraserhead could have dreamed up.)
But the Tidbit is definitely hot. "It´s a kind of funny feeling to see my daughter as a sex symbol," says Diane Ladd, who plays Dern´s mother in the film. That´s also their relationship offscreen. (The shared genes are obvious; just look at their faces.) "I mean she´s kind of a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly." After this performance, it will be hard to think of Dern as a little girl again.
A luminous, long-limbed blond, Dern has adroitly avoided typecasting, instead staking out her own private territory; childhood´s end. She has usually played the girl-woman, provocatively poised between innocence and sexuality. In Lynch´s inconoclastic, Blue Velvet, she´s a smart, sweet Nancy Drew, the good twin to Isabella Rossellini´s lewdly masochistic chanteuse. In Mask, she´s a lovely blind girl who is innocently ignorant of her boyfriend´s hideous deformity and imminent death. Even in her most explicitly sexy role, as the concupiscent teenager in Smooth Talk, her disturbing rite of passage takes place offscreen. Dern´s sexual breakthrough has always been about to happen.
Until Lula, the wild heart of Lynch´s Wild at Heart. "You´re gonna be so scared by this movie. I went to Jupiter with this one," she says happily over lunch at a restaurant near her apartment in a Los Angeles suburb. "It was so much fun. That´s the other thing that´s scary. I went to Jupiter, and it is cool on Jupiter!"
Dern, 23, looks a little like Alice in Wonderland after she ate the currant cake. She´s all neck and legs and long, flaxen hair. When she takes off her black leather jacket, her boat-neck blouse exposes a dancer´s exaggerated collarbones. She´s wearing a short, full skirt and cowboy boots. As she talks, her long earrings swing on either side of her slightly asymmetrical face; one earring is a golden angel clasping a pearl, and the other is a devil. The playful dichotomy is quintessential Dern. Or, as Lynch would say, the Tidbit.
It´s a balmy day, but there´s a fragrant mesquite fire burning in the Santa Fe-style restaurant. Dern, who´s just come from the gym, is slightly breathless. "There´s one scene that I just love. I mean, it´s just three lines of dialogue, but it´s weird, and I found this fantastic, very Marilyn Monroe little nightie. It was like, black sheer chiffon with a little fur at the bottom. I have a red satin G-string with a red bow, and crotchless black hose."
It´s hard not to stare as the words come tumbling out of the sophisticated-schoolgirl mouth. "The thing about Lula is she is her body, and everything is sexy. There´s a side of me that´s, like, that way, that nobody else but David knows."
She giggles. "I pray that I was able to create someone who is in control of her sexuality and her sort of bunniness, or tidbitness. She calls the shots, in a way. And that´s sexy to me. She´s a complete innocent in her wildness. And so is Sailor [Cage]. I mean they are kind of beautiful people. And they are just so in love."
Wild at Heart is Blue Velvet meets The Wizard of Oz, a surreal southern sortie into Lynchland. Lula, a vamped-up, punked-out Dorothy (down to the red shoes), and her Elvis-like ex-con boyfriend are on the run from Lula´s weird, witchy mother, Marietta, who has put her lover, gumshoe Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), on their trail. The couple cruises through the neon-lit hotels and speed-metal dives of the gothic South with a group of grotesque in hot pursuit. Willem Dafoe playsd a demonic villain named Bobby Peru - even his teeth are bad. Isabella Rossellini is back as the evil dude´s main squeeze, Perdita Durango, but this time she´s a blond. And Crispin Glover plays Lula´s bizarro cousin, who´s got a bug fetish that makes Kafka´s Gregor Samsa look tame. It´s a deeply deranged fairy tale.
"When I read Barry Gifford´s book," says Lynch, who talks with the eerie banality of his characters,"I pictured Laura as Lula just as plainly as anything. There´s a naive quality to her that is so, sort of, refreshing and thrilling and tender, so you just love her so much. I´ve gotten to know Laura. She´s a real good friend since Blue Velvet. She can do a Southern accent, you know, so well. So I never had any doubt at all. I pictured Nick Cage as Sailor from the time I read the first sentence. When I sat down with Laura and Nick, I just looked at the both of them. They are extremely beautiful - and at other times, there´s something odd."
Although she almost looks like one, Laura Dern is not your everyday all-American girl. Sure, she was class president at her private high school in the Valley, and homecoming princess, but she´s about as close to the cheerleader type as timberloving Lynch is to a lumberjack. Maybe it´s genetic. Dern comes from impressive stock: she´s the great-granddaughter of a former governor of Utah (who was also the secretary of war under Franklin D. Roosevelt) and the grand-niece of poet Archibald MacLeish. Her father´s family is blue-blooded; her mother´s family os down-home southern. Tennessee Williams was a cousin. In fact, Laura´s father, Bruce Dern, met Ladd when they were both acting in a production of Orpheus Descending. Their choices in projects have always been offbeat. They are Actors, not Movie Stars. So far, their daughter has followed a similar path. This is one golden girl who is not remotely interested in being a Hollywood babe. Although she´s the same age, Dern has stayed far from the Brat-ting crowd.
"I ´ve always felt like I´m in a Woody Allen movie," says Dern definitely, tossing back her astonishing hair. "I mean, my life is a Woody Allen movie. He has to have me in one of his movies, ´cause I´m totally one of his characters."
An only child - Dern´s older sister drowned as an infant - she was a "location baby." Her earliest cinematic moments were not the usual Sunday matinees. Just before Laura was born, Ladd starred in a film called Rebel Rousers with Harry Dean Stanton and Jack Nicholson. "It´s one of the infamous biker movies they all did," says Dern. "Jack was pounding on the top of the car, and my mother came out of the scene screaming, 'My baby! I´m three weeks from having this baby!'"
Dern caught a glimpse of her father´s severed head onscreen when she was about five. "The first time I tuned on the television and saw my dad, there was Bette Davis at the top of the stairs, and, oh, man, what a way to see your father! You know that open hatbox? And his lovely head came rolling down, and I´m, like, 'Mom!' That was pretty freaky. Every movie I saw of him when I was growing up, he was nuts. My parents always laughed in scenes where you are supposed to cry."
Dern and Ladd split up when Laura was two, and she was raised by her mother and maternal grandmother - two strong, outspoken women. "I grew up with my mom," says Dern. "I wasn´t as close with my dad as a little girl. But now we really are close. I think it was hard for him to deal with a child. He´s always been really thrilled about my work. I feel very fortunate, because as a kid I was around actors who wanted to do it for the right reasons. It´s the family business, so it takes away that sort of Hollywood-hype thing."
Dern didn´t lose any time getting into the family business. By the age of five, she had appeared in an episode of The Secret Storm, a soap her mother was starring in. When she was seven, she had a walk-on in Alice Doesn´t Live Here Anymore. "To let her be part of it, we had her eat an ice-cream cone," recalls Ladd. "She had to eat nine of them. I said, 'She´s gonna get sick,' and Marty [Scorsese] said, 'No, she´s not. She´s gonna be an actress.'"
By the time she was nine, Dern knew she wanted to get serious and began taking children´s classes at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. At first, Ladd did everything she could to dissuade her daughter. Being a cute kid on sets was one thing, but going into the business was another. "I wanted her to do what she wanted to do," says Ladd. "I certainly didn´t want her to be in this business because she was a child of parents who were. That was a one-way ticket to heartbreak. I tried to talk her out of being an actress, because if I could talk her out of it, she shouldn´t be in it."
Since her parents wouldn´t actively help her, Dern decided to network for herself. When she was about elevenm she approached an agent at a glitzy Hollywood party she had gone to with her mother and made an appointment to do a monologue. "I thougt, all right, let her go and find out about rejection," says Ladd. The agent sent Dern to read for the lead in Adrian Lyne´s Foxes. Lyne was looking for an eighteen-year-old; Dern lied and said she was fourteen. She ended up getting a small role, and Lyne invited Ladd to the screening. "He said, 'Your daughter is gonna be a giant star. She´s got what Katherine Hepburn had.'"
Dern celebrated her thirteenth birthday on the set of a Lou Adler film called Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains. She played a punk-rock groupie with two-tone hair. "It was really an eye-opener," she says. "I got to really see rock´n´roll. I was just out of eighth grade, and I was hanging out with the Sex Pistols and The Clash. It was, like, an amazing education. I got back to school, and the rest of the kids were blushing over The Diary of Anne Frank."
Dern managed to earn top grades in school while continuing to study acting. She audited classes with Strasberg when she was fourteen. The summer she was sixteen, she studied Shakespeare at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Then, planning to study child psychology, Dern enrolled at UCLA. Two days after the semester started, she landed the role of the coquettish teenager Connie in Joyce Chopra´s Smooth Talk. (Dern eventually completed a semester at UCLA but never graduated.)
Says Chopra, still a close friend, "We had read almost every actress between fifteen and eighteen on both coasts. But we still had not found Connie. On the page the part can read as just a bitchy, selfish little girl. The language was almost dead in other people´s mouths. But Laura has this inner light, so you understand that this is a film about a girl who´s seeking adventure, and it is not a question of right or wrong or good or bad but of complexity. Laura´s soul comes flying through." Connie is an innocent, alluring tease who´s just beginning to discover the power of lust. Her tentative explorations backfire when she´s confronted by a sinister seducer, played with exquisite sleaziness by Treat Williams. Dern never whines or condescends to the character; her Connie is a naive but feisty survivor.
She won the Los Angeles Film Critics New Generation Award for her performances in Smooth Talk and in Mask. Says her father, "I knew Laura had ability, but I was never blown away until Smooth Talk. I thought two things. One, she really is an actress. Two, she could be a movie star; she was glamorous. I´m proudest of the fact that she´s specific and focused in her work. There is a beginning, a middle and an end to every character she´s played so far."
Dern has always been very picky about the parts she plays. She´s got the savvy of a Hollywood kid with just enough cynism. "I was taught that 'hot' means the corporation that now owns the studio wants to make the most money at the box office, so it´s going to hire the most marketable person. I cannot commit to something if I don´t believe I´m the best person for the role. I´ve told my agent, 'This is a good movie, but there are a few actresses who could do this part.'"
Being the child of famous parents wasn´t always easy. Schoolmates taunted her with accusations that she was successful only because of her dad. But Dern has managed to establish a career in her own right. "It´s not as if people forget who my parents are, but over the past few years, I´ve been thought of as my own person."
After a tiny part in Teachers, with Nick Nolte and JoBeth Williams, and a larger one in Peter Bogdanovich´s Mask, her agent sent her to read the part of Sandy in Blue Velvet. Her meeting with David Lynch was, well, rather Lynchian.
"I was with my best friend, Bellina, sitting on the floor of this hallway, waiting to meet David. After he comes out, and it´s, like, 'Hey, I gotta go pee, I´ll be right back.' That was my first image of him. And then we went out and talked about everything, from meditation to movies to clothing designers to lumber. He decided he wanted me to be in the movie, and the next step was he wanted Kyle [MacLachlan] and me to meet and get to know each other, and the three of us had lunch at Bob´s Big Boy. And the rest is history." (Offscreen, MacLachlan and Dern had a four-year relationship that ended last year.)
Not all her choices have turned out so well. Dern cavorts in ornate costumes with the rest of the uncomfortable cast in Ivan Passer´s overheated Haunted Summer, yet another rendition of the Shelley-Byron yarn. And Roland Joffé´s ambitious saga of the making of the atom bomb, Fat Man and Little Boy, was ultimately a disappointment.
A Pollyanna with a point of view
Dern is an interesting combination of hot and cold: a Pollyanna with a point of view. "I always want to be an optimist, and I always want to believe in people. It´s easy to say that the world is fucked and we´re all going to blow up in ten years and it´s Armageddon. I mean, give me break. I see some friend who go through whatever it is, a breakup or a working experience, and they just turn off and say, I`m going to be bitter. I can´t do that. I don´t buy the screwed-up-brilliant-actor theory. The more honest I am, the better an actress I will be."
A few weeks later, New York´s Café Un Deux Trois is brimming with the usual pretheater crowd. Suddenly, there´s a ripple effect as head turn; it´s a smashing young woman in a tight black suit, her endless legs neatly set off by a miniskirt and cowboy boots, a thick mane of platinum hair floating down her back. Dern makes her way to the table.
Her signature angel/devil earrings swings as she settles back, surveying the fake ruin of the ceiling. "What I´m most intrigued by or attracted to is anything that exposes the truth," she says. "A lot of my movies have a fascination with the light and the dark. That kind of focus is often sexual - innocence as opposed to repression or dark sexuality. What I learned from Blue Velvet is that without the knowledge of the other side, you can´t fight it. There´s nothing wrong with feeling you represent soemthing that is beautiful or pure, but it´s nice to get in there a little bit more. And it´s sooo much more fun. In Wild at Heart, I just went all-out."
She pauses thoughtfully. "There´s this anger I usually see in film that goes with sexuality that´s very disturbing. It´s, like, I turn you on, you turn me on, and fuck you. The thing that is so great about Sailor and Lula is that it´s sooo sexy because of the love. And that´s the thing that´s so beautiful about David. Here´s this guy who´s so weird and does things that are so terrifying to the psyche. And yet there´s this purity in him and this belief in love that is almost cartoonlike and childlike."
Dern and Cage got into the mood of the film by taking a trip to Las Vegas. "We had a Sailor-and-Lula road trip. Beef jerky and gambling and the baccarat room. We got medaillons form Caesar and his wife, which was pretty cool.Whoa." Dern laughs. "I made up a CARE package, including licorice, chewing gum, cigarettes, chocolate bars. It was really fun, and by the end of the trip, we had it down. We had the candy wrappers and the body odor." Adds Lynch, "I didn´t think they´d ever come back."
Then the real work began. Dern had to transform herself into a gum-snapping, chain-smoking, lingerie-clad cutie. "I definitely had to do some searching during rehearsals. And then one day David said, 'You´ve just got to go for it. Let all the inhibitions go.' And I tried something. And he freaked out and screamed and said, 'That´s it! That´s it!' I think I needed not only someone who´s a friend but someone who´s a man to get me to Lula, because she´s a side of me that I hadn´t completely committed to."
Lynch pinpoints the precise instant that Laura became Lula. "I remember a day when bubble gum became a key to Lula´s character," he says. "It cracked the code, and Lula was born. After that, we just used the words 'bubble gum' and we knew what we were talking about. It got deeper and deeper, and now I can see a beautiful evolution of Lula in the film."
The movie has its share of shockers. In a reprise of the Frank/Dorothy duet, Bobby Peru gets Lula alone in a hotel room. "Of course, the little sex bunny is going to get fucked over for being a little sexpot," says Dern. "It´s a very weird scene, but in a way, I´m completely in control. In a way, she is thinking, oh my God, this scene is so sick, and here I am a victim all over again. Oh my God, oh my god. And I thought, wait a minute, not only do I get sexually satisfied, but I never give myself away. There´s the decision to let it turn her on, but not too far." Says Dafoe, "Laura´s the kind of actress you like to play across from. When you look in her eyes, you always feel like flying by the seat of your pants. It spurs you on to push things a little bit."
It´s Oscar night, but Dern and Cage are hard at work doing reshoots for Wild at Heart. "I think Laura is kind of the zenith of sincerity," says Cage. "She has a lot of honesty. She´s a very reactive actress and can dance with any choice or idea that someone else comes up with. It will probably blow some people´s minds when they see Lula. This is the sexiest Laura has ever been in a movie."
But Dern´s not about to strut her stuff in every film. A wellknown director wanted her to read for a revealing role in his upcoming movie about a ´60s rock band. "I told my agent to tell him I only do nudity for David Lynch," says the tidbit with a light laugh.
Phoebe Hoban is a contributor to PREMIERE and New York magazines.