The Oscar-nominated actress and co-creator and star of HBO’s Enlightened shares why she loves her character in the cable series and explains why “Amy” was made for her.
Actress Laura Dern
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Laura Dern back to this program. The talented actress is the co-creator and the star of the new HBO series “Enlightened.” The critically acclaimed new show airs Monday nights at 9:30. So here now a scene from “Enlightened.”
Tavis: (Laughter) So what are you trying to say, Laura Dern? (Laughter)
Laura Dern: She’s just trying to –
Tavis: What’s Amy trying to say, yeah?
Dern: Yeah. She’s trying to seemingly speak the truth but also get some things handled.
Tavis: Yeah. It’s good to see you.
Dern: It’s so great to see you.
Tavis: I feel like I see you every day. These billboards are, like, everywhere. I see your face on every major thoroughfare in Los Angeles right now. I think HBO wants this thing to succeed.
Dern: They’ve been very generous, God knows, putting that fantastically memorable, emotional face all over, so.
Tavis: Yeah. So tell me about Amy, about this character.
Dern: I love her so much, and I –
Tavis: You should, since it was written for you.
Dern: Yeah, listen –
Tavis: That helps.
Dern: – yeah, there’s a problem. Amy is someone hearkening back to our love of “Network,” who’s as mad as hell and she’s not going to take it anymore, and I think that’s the moment we meet her in the first episode.
What’s interesting about sort of her growth or evolution within the season is that this really is about a person, even though they’ve hit bottom, and she clearly is someone who’s very reactive and feels everything in an enormous way, she is willing to take to the streets, if you will, about everything – in her relationship with her mother, with her addict ex-husband and with a greedy corporation. She’s not going to stop until there’s change made.
Tavis: I think you’ve just answered some of the questions I want to ask now, but – and I don’t want to overstate this, because there’s still so much lack of parity in this business for women as compared to men, so I want to be very clear about that up front. I’m very much aware of that.
But there does seem to be this move over the last few years where women are getting a chance to star in their own shows. Certainly on cable there are a number of these shows. So I raise that to ask what you think makes Amy different than these other women characters that are getting this kind of opportunity.
Dern: Well, first to speak to the incredible women that are working, and film actresses who are working in cable television and playing deeply complicated and flawed characters, which is the beauty of cable television, and even network at this point, that we are given room to explore what it is to be a human being without a real judgment of the character, and that’s extraordinary.
What I think is different about Amy, and I’m really excited to be part of the exploration of this, is yes, this is a person with deep flaws, but instead of Mike White writing a show where we’re watching someone’s descent into hell, we’re actually watching someone at bottom longing for growth and longing for healing and longing for making the world better, and believing that maybe in fact if we use voice, we can effect change in the world. So there’s a deep truth to its irony or satire as well that I’m moved by.
Tavis: Speaking of irony, I wonder whether or not you think that there’s irony in terms of this series coming to air now, and I’m asking that against the backdrop of what you’ve just said about the human condition, and that this is looking at it one way as opposed to what we typically get, and whether or not you think that that narrative resonates with the American public right about now. Do you get my point?
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Dern: I must say my background experience, in terms of the development of the show, was that I had done the film “Recount” for HBO, and they were very generous to say could we develop something and what kind of character are you interested in. I myself spoke to them, as did Mike White, and we were collaborators and friends before the show, saying there’s this very overt cultural apathy in this country and where are the people who are taking to the streets? What’s happened?
What’s happened to something that we feel is sort of a part of the fabric of this country, and why aren’t people applying it to the millions of things that we see every day on the news that are upsetting us so much?
So it was from that that we wanted to create and develop Amy, and I think that that was sort of our mission statement or our plea, in a way.
Tavis: To your point now, Laura, about the apathy in our culture on so many different issues that we ought to be outraged by, these Occupy Wall Street protests growing, of course, every day are indicative of the fact that there is something happening in the country now that’s starting to stir the soul of people who are upset, are no longer apathetic about a variety of things.
To that point that you made a moment ago, what’s your sense of what is – I’m going beyond the show now, tapping into the social critic in you now – what’s your sense of what’s happening in the country that gives us reason to believe, I think, if you look at what’s happening, that people are starting to get a little more edgy, more antsy and more excitable about issues that no longer are going to just sit dormant.
Dern: I couldn’t be more excited.
Dern: I am always fascinated that people would find someone’s voice scary. I am deeply interested in what people feel and what they have to say, and that’s something that hasn’t scared me. It’s something I’ve longed to develop in myself and my greatest wish for my children in their own development is to be true to your own voice.
I remember when we were working on the show I thought ooh, will people get this desperation that I think we’re all holding, because we are looking at the world currently and not seeing change being deeply affected by these voices, and then Egypt happened actually while we were in the middle of production, and I thought my god, with a voice and an iPhone it doesn’t matter who you are.
If you’re willing to get in the street and send a picture to a friend or put something up on Facebook, you might change the world. You might change your administration. That was so palpable, and I feel amazed by Wall Street. I’m sure people are like, well, do they really know what they’re fighting for? Do they know their house was foreclosed on? Do they know that they got screwed?
Yes, they know. The country’s falling apart. Somebody doesn’t have a job, the kids aren’t insured. That’s all they need to know. I say get in the street, that’s fantastic. I don’t think – what I love about Amy is we’re not – maybe what we need is people who are willing to be that angry and don’t know who you’re supposed to and not supposed to say it to. Maybe people who are boundary-less, who say more than the people who know the checks and balances.
Tavis: You started to intimate this earlier in this conversation, but tell me more about the back story of Amy and more about her and where we meet her at the start of the series.
Dern: She is from Riverside, California, and she is someone who has had a very complicated background, a fairly recent divorce from a character played by Luke Wilson, who’s an addict and struggling with a lot of issues. She has worked at the same place for probably 15 years.
Maybe she started real low level and finally, after years, has worked herself to a fairly decent midlevel job working in the health and beauty division of this conglomerate called Abbadon, which does a lot of interesting things, we learn over the course of the season.
At the moment we meet her in the first episode she has what one would call a nervous breakdown. I might say it was a tough day. I’m not going to lie. (Laughter) It was a little bit tricky.
Tavis: You had a bad day, yeah, I got it.
Dern: Yeah. Everybody’s had a bad day, give Amy a break. It’s a memorably bad day and she gets sent away for treatment and recovery and goes to have anger management in Hawaii at a treatment center, and comes back determined to change the world and herself.
Tavis: I referenced earlier these women that are headlining a lot of these shows, that they’re on cable and other places now, to your point. But it must be cool, though, to not just have a character written for you but to be involved in the writing of that character for yourself.
Dern: It’s been incredible and a really, I think, amazing process for Mike White and myself both. He is such a visionary as a writer and he has such a beautiful tone to his work that is always as deeply reverent as it is irreverent. It’s neither one nor the other, and as an actor it’s what I long to work with, words that are written in that fashion, and we know how rare it is.
I think we both feel deeply as citizens about the changes we would like to see in this country and throughout the world, so I think that was a wonderful starting point for our fantasy of Amy and the journey she takes.
I kind of hurled a huge wishlist at Mike and Mike went away and wrote an entire season of television, which is also rare, because usually there’s a staff of writers, and he really wrote it as one sort of long-form film, and we shot it as such. I think that was a great luxury, too.
Tavis: More than anybody I know, I think – I think more than anybody I know you have this perennial gift of being able to bring your mom to work day. (Laughter) You are always bringing your mama to work.
Dern: I tell you what –
Tavis: It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a beautiful thing to watch, but it must be really cool to actually pull off.
Dern: It’s really cool. It’s particularly cool, as I’ve said to her, when you’ve become a grownup. I said, “Mom, isn’t it great? When we worked together on ‘Rambling Rose’ I was 20 and, like, everything you said triggered me. Now I’m 40 and every eighth worth you say triggers me.” (Laughter) But we actually have a very close and beautiful relationship, and with grandkids, she got to come to work and there were babies to play with. So she was blissed out.
Tavis: Oh, that’s even more fun, yeah. Speaking of cool, how cool was it, this honor, this Hollywood Walk of Fame, a whole family?
Dern: So awesome.
Tavis: You, your mama and your daddy.
Dern: Yeah. It was amazing.
Tavis: I should say Bruce Dern, of course.
Dern: It was amazing, yes, and it was amazing for my children to see their grandparents and their mom receive this honor together, and for them to celebrate their work and for me to be included in any way. Because I was just thrilled to watch them have that honor, because I’m such admirers of both of them.
Tavis: Laura Dern is living a good life. (Laughter) Somebody upstairs likes you.
Dern: Oh, I hope so.
Tavis: Yeah. It’s a wonderful series, it’s called “Enlightened,” on HBO, as if you didn’t already know from all the billboards you’re seeing all around this city and around the country. Laura, good luck with the project. I’m glad to have you on the program.
Dern: Thank you so much.
Tavis: Good to see you.
Dern: So great to be here, always.
Tavis: Glad to have you here, always.
“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.
“Announcer:” Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.