The second season of the critically adored but criminally underwatched HBO series Enlightened is ultimately about life choices. The heroine, Amy Jellicoe—played by a riveting Laura Dern—is choosing to go after the crooked, thoughtless corporation she works for so that she feels like her existence has a greater purpose; her ex-husband, Levi (Luke Wilson, in his best performance in years), is choosing to try to stay sober; Amy’s coworkers are choosing to help her in her quest to bring down Abaddonn Industries rather than stay in their comfortable, if soul-killing, jobs.
Certainly none of these choices are made easily, or without embarrassing setbacks. Amy is constantly struggling against her narcissistic, bombastic nature when she’s attempting to become a whistleblower. Laura Dern makes this complicated, sometimes unlikable, woman completely fascinating.
But this is just one role in an impressive career full of unconventional choices for Dern. Since she broke out as a teen actress in the early 80s, Dern has worked with some of the most original writers and directors in Hollywood: David Lynch, Alexander Payne, and Adrian Lyne among them. Though not every film she’s made has been a critical or commercial success, the roles she picks are never predictable—and they’re never boring.
We spoke to Dern about how she picks her parts, why the biggest choice she made came after her greatest success, and the best advice Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese ever gave her.
I think all actors aspire choose roles with some dignity. But god knows that can be challenging on an economic level. There have been moments in my life when I’ve been lucky enough to choose things that don’t pay me, so I have incredible reverence for the many actors who would probably choose brilliantly but can’t be able to afford to.
As the child of actors [she is the daughter of Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd], I also will say that I was hopeful that I was choosing what interested me, and what spoke to me. I was deeply influenced by the kinds of filmmakers and characters that my parents, and my godmother [the actress Shelley Winters] and the friends of my parents would consider. I think their prerequisite for choosing roles was a filmmaker with a vision where you could become a collaborator in achieving their vision. It was the way most of the movies of the 70s were made, when I was a kid and decided to become an actor.
My father played a man who was a notorious bad guy [in The Cowboys, 1972]. He killed John Wayne on screen! He talked to me about being pigeonholed, and as grateful as he was for his career, he suffered with the challenge of being a great bad guy. So he spoke a lot about making brave choices early on, choices that would make me a character actor and not an ingénue and not a young innocent. I was very quickly labeled as one thing in my teens, and thanks to a couple of incredible filmmakers, I was typecast into another thing. And it opened the door to me to start to shape a career of being an actor first, and not the type.
I had the right warning system in place to pick and choose carefully. Even in my teens there were sacrifices in order to do that. I still would love to work more, but I care deeply about working with people I admire and characters I haven’t played before. If there’s one through line, they’re females searching for voice, or trying to understand if they even have voice. That’s a really interesting theme to me.
I was very influenced about 10 years ago by Steven Spielberg, who I am lucky to call a dear friend and mentor. I had been offered a series at the time, and he was very outspoken and supportive of me, about the kind of role I should play on series television. He feared I would be terribly bored if I weren’t playing a chameleon-like character. I was playing people who were ever-changing in the story that would unfold, even in a film. If I had to do a series, it had to be a character who was constantly changing as well. Even if I did it for years, I could really be inspired by the ebb and flow of the emotions of the character.
I had a very beautiful phone conversation with Martin Scorsese about 15 years ago where he commented on feeling that I was, in his words, building a body of work as opposed to being a working actor. He said I was [building a body of work] like a filmmaker would, and that I should always stay true to that. But the biggest choice I probably made in my career was what film to do after Jurassic Park. It was a very luxurious time and I was being offered a lot of movies.
I turned down a lot of things that were immensely successful. Instead I chose to do Citizen Ruth, with a first-time writer and director, Alexander Payne. It was a seemingly very brave choice, but I had an agent Judy Hofflund, who really got it. It was a life-changing role for me as an actor. That moment that you’re your most successful, you need to make a defining choice after the big studio movie. I don’t mean you have to choose something indie instead of another studio film. But the character, the filmmaker, the material you search for—you need to choose something that helps you stay true to yourself.