Emmy-nominated actress Laura Dern

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The award-winning actress opens up about her character in the HBO series, Enlightened, which she also co-created.

As the child of actor parents, Laura Dern had an early taste of film sets and moviemaking. She grew up unafraid to tackle unglamorous roles and has appeared in such diverse films as Little Fockers, Rambling Rose—a performance which marked the first time a mother and daughter received Oscar nods for the same movie—and The Master. She also earned an Emmy nod for her turn in the telefilm Recount and, this year, for her role as an unconventional heroine in HBO's Enlightened, which she co-created and exec produces and is also her first television series. Dern is an outspoken activist and supports many charitable causes.


Tavis: (Laughter) Pleased to welcome Laura Dern back to this program. The Oscar nominee is enjoying great success on her latest project. It’s called “Enlightened.” The acclaimed series is now in its second season on HBO, airs Sunday nights at 9:30. So here now, a scene from “Enlightened.”


Tavis: All righty then. (Laughter)

Laura Dern: My mother cracks me up.

Tavis: Yeah. How cool is that?

Dern: It’s so cool, getting to work with my mama.

Tavis: Yeah. So you said “Mom,” it really is Mom.

Dern: Yeah, it is.

Tavis: I want to get to the series in just a second here, but since you were last here a few things have happened in your world.

Dern: Yes.

Tavis: SO number one, since you were last here, you actually won a Golden Globe for this series.

Dern: Yes. Which was so amazing. Thank you, Tavis, high five.

Tavis: (Unintelligible) yeah.

Dern: I will say both the foreign press and all the critics and you, there were so many champions of the show, which was huge for us to find our following and get to our second season.

Because it’s a half-hour comedy, seemingly, but it’s filled with a lot of pain and sadness and poetry, and tonally is a new format of the half-hour, in a way. So I think everyone supporting it the way they did really helped us a lot.

Tavis: Before I move on to these other things that have happened since you were here last, doing a half-an-hour comedy on HBO versus typical traditional network TV, what’s the –

Dern: All I can tell you is for me, I’m working on another independent film, which is my background, of sorts. I’d never done a series, and so people were like, “Wow, you’re working on a series. What’s that like?”

It’s a 12-week movie shoot where we work insane hours to make our film, and it happens to be five hours of content, or four, instead of an hour and a half film. So you’re scrambling in terms of how much work you’re doing in the day.

But it’s seamless, and I think that’s why so many artists are going to HBO and cable networks to do shows where you have less content than if you’re doing 20-plus a season, and a ton of flexibility.

It’s like working for United Artists in the ’70s. They wanted their artists to have their own vision and voice, and they’re awesome to work for.

Tavis: Some other things happened, in no particular order, since you were here last. You’ve become a Twitterer. You’re doing the tweet thing now.

Dern: (Unintelligible) Tavis.

Tavis: I’m laughing at this because (laughter) on this program, was it last – I guess last week, week before last, we had the actor Tony Goldwyn from “Scandal” was on, and he had not been a Twitter person until he started doing the “Scandal” show.

He was just going on and on and on about how amazed he is, how this thing actually works. So now you’re tweeting.

Dern: Well, I will tell you that it’s a huge story point this season for my character, and she and I are pretty much on par about how outrageously naïve we are about everything technological.

She doesn’t have a clue, I don’t have a clue. She writes on the show, which she becomes, she gets on Twitter and her first tweet is “My first twit.” (Laughter) That’s (unintelligible) which is why he wrote the line.

So I have no clue. But there were a group of friends, all of whom had not been doing it, and I think HBO and everybody thought it would be fun for me to do it because it’s a path that my character uses this season.

On another note, I think with what happened in Connecticut over the holiday, so many of us, in our devastation, wanted to support the families by speaking about the question of gun control, and suddenly, many of us thought, “My God, isn’t this wonderful that we can start to educate ourselves by reminding each other of where we can read and who we can call and what letters we can write.”

So that was the first inspiration, and then now it’s a great way to communicating with fans of the show.

Tavis: See, I was late to the game too on the entire social media thing, and I’ve still got my misgivings about it, because a lot of good can come from it, but there’s a lot of silliness and a lot of cyber hate and a lot of nastiness there as well.

But I think on balance, I have come over the years now to start to appreciate the social media thing. Are you starting to appreciate it?

Dern: I am. I’m looking forward to meeting (unintelligible) people. (Laughter) Online.

Tavis: So now you’ve got to go – yeah, now you want to be followed by millions.

Dern: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah. Starts out “I don’t want to do this.”

Dern: Yeah, I had absolutely no interest.

Tavis: Now you want millions of followers.

Dern: I’m like, “Wait a minute, nobody’s tweeted me back.”

Tavis: Oh, that won’t be a problem, trust me. So the third thing I was referencing that’s happened since you were last here is that I read an announcement that there’s going to be a “Jurassic” four.

Dern: There is.

Tavis: What do you know about that, are you signed up for that? What’s the story with “Jurassic” four?

Dern: I’m not signed up, and I think there was a lot of back-and-forth in the development of it, and still is, whether or not Steven would be directing. I think there’s an opportunity for them to do a whole new work and dinosaurs and everything else, but I think they’re figuring that out right now.

God knows working for Steven Spielberg is the great joy of those of us who have been lucky enough to have that experience. But what I do know, which I heard from him recently, is that I will have the pleasure of sitting in a dark room with bizarre glasses on, watching the original “Jurassic Park” in 3D soon, which is being re-released this summer and is going to be hilarious.

Steven said, “Do you feel like – we thought we could do press and really have fun with this. How are you feeling about it coming out?” I said, “Steven, I’m coming out in a blockbuster this summer and I’m 23 in it. I’m absolutely fine with it.” (Laughter)

This is like no actress could kind of write that for herself, so I’m really comfortable.

Tavis: So I’m not going to say the number, because I don’t know how you are about this, but you just had a birthday, like, this week.

Dern: I did.

Tavis: So happy belated birthday.

Dern: Thank you, and your class act –

Tavis: So what’s that, like 25, 26 now?

Dern: Exactly.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. “Jurassic Park,” that was just three years ago, so.

Dern: Yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: So back to this “Enlightened” series, HBO series. So you started up here, for those who follow the show, you were like up here professionally, and then you get kicked down to the basement, basically.

Dern: Yeah.

Tavis: So tell us about this storyline arc where your character is concerned.

Dern: Well, the first season was very much about her having had this breakdown and been demoted, and her trying to find her way back, literally from the basement up in this corporation she’d worked at for about 15 years.

The focus, I think, of the first season is very much about how to feel enough, how to find voice, how to be healthy, but as many of us do after coming back from the awakening realization that you have to keep your eyes on your own paper, Amy does that by deciding she’s going to change her ex-husband, change her mother, change her company, make the planet a better place – anything to avoid this self-focus.

I think that’s what happens. But as it grows, she believes that she can take this energy and this light and make the world a better place, and she just gets doors slammed in her face constantly.

At the end of the season she makes a decision to burn it to the ground, symbolically. Now this season starts with what is Amy going to do, and the question of what is a whistleblower and who are whistleblowers now.

As you and I spoke about the last time I was here, which I know interests both of us deeply, with the cultural apathy that has been going on in this country for a number of years now, who actually gets in the streets anymore?

Where are our voices? Does it take someone who’s crazy enough and overtly emotional and boundary-less enough that she’ll lose her job, lose her marriage, move back in with her mom at 40, just to make sure that injustice is seen and that we heal.

Tavis: I don’t know what the technical terms are, but I know you’re like a producer on this, and I’m sure you have a hand in the writing on this as well. This is your project.

How cool is it, or what is the challenge, you tell me, of having a vehicle like this, where first and foremost you want to entertain us, obviously, but you do get a chance to address in the storyline some of the issues that matter to you, that are important in the world, and not even just on the world stage, but the human dynamic of the things that we wrestle with, with regard to fear and to being truth-tellers?

Tell me more about how you process the opportunity to put that on the page through this character.

Dern: It’s the great dream. You hope your whole life as an artist in any capacity that if you have a vision that you feel can make the smallest possible little difference, that you’re going to have that opportunity.

So to go to HBO and say what if this outrageously complicated rager is the only person that’s going to use voice nowadays, and can we go to down, and can we look at an American corporation, perhaps like A, B, or C, and really make it somewhat overt who we’re commenting on.

Will you let us party and explore this? To give us carte blanch at that is an incredible gift, and a blast at the same time.

Tavis: This is a strange subject to raise, and I want to be very careful how I raise this, because I’m not making any comparisons. I want to be clear about that. But I do want to explore this issue and get your thoughts on it because we talked about whistleblowers.

Dern: Yeah.

Tavis: So we all know that famously and infamously, whistleblowers get treated a certain way. I think the country in the coming days is going to come to terms with having another conversation about this alleged cop killer here in L.A., Mr. Dornan, I believe is his name, and I’m very careful about this because my name was written in this manifesto that he put forth.

So I’ve been kind of a part of the story, given that my name is in it. But I raise that only because I think that the country is still a bit skittish about whistleblowers. You get a chance to do this through an entertainment vehicle.

Dern: Yes.

Tavis: But I wonder if you will share more about your thoughts about whistleblowers. Again, I’m not condoning in any way what he’s done, I don’t know the story.

All I know is that he said, “I was a whistleblower, they fired me,” and somewhere along the way he went off in the direction that he went off in. Again, I suspect at some point, now that the LAPD has reopened this case, and they said they reopened it not to appease him – this is the chief, Chief Beck, speaking.

They reopened the case not to appease him, but so that their process is transparent to the public. So apparently, LAPD was feeling sufficient enough pressure from somewhere to reopen the case, because they want to make sure that where whistleblowing is concerned, that the public doesn’t think that this guy was maltreated because of that.

Dern: Yeah.

Tavis: So again, I suspect in this city and beyond we’re going to come back to another conversation about what it means to be a whistleblower. With that as a huge backdrop, tell me more about why whistleblowing is a part of the theme of this particular show.

Dern: Well, I think we’ve turned an odd corner with the term. There’s such a misunderstanding. Corporations would love the word “whistleblower” to be a smeared name because it’s very complicated, and there is something called loyalty in the workplace.

You don’t want people airing the dirty laundry of the corporation, in theory. But the whistleblower was Dr. King. Whistleblowing was using your voice to put light on something that had been tried to be buried, and our greatest gifts to this country have been our purest whistleblowers.

What’s interesting in this story, and why we can do it, hopefully with irreverence and humor, is what if now the conscious, carefully strategized whistleblower does it in the “right ways?” Does that really effect change anymore?

People don’t get in the streets. They use cyberspace or they write an article, but do journalists really change the day? Ah, what if the person’s nuts? What if the person is like, “Oh, my God, you cannot believe what they just did.”

They’re dumping in the L.A. River, which is this last episode. The assumption is if it’s Amy Jellicoe, it’s like, okay, they’re dumping in the L.A. River. She’s crazy. But she’s going to keep saying it until someone hears her.

She will take it to the “L.A. Times,” and she will do things that other people think ooh, but I might lose my job. It’s probably not smart.

Tavis: See, now you’ve hit upon what I’ve been thinking about. Again, I’ve said nothing publicly about this until now, because again, my name is in this manifesto. But that’s what I’ve been thinking about.

If this particular guy here in L.A. had a legitimate case to make about whistleblowing, I wonder the extent to which whistleblowing has been given another black eye, another bad name, because of the way he responded after he felt that he was maltreated because of his whistleblowing.

But that takes me back to your point about Dr. King a moment ago. You’re right, Dr. King is the ultimate whistleblower, and I love the way you phrased that. Dr. King had to pay a heavy price.

Dern: Yes, exactly.

Tavis: With his life, in fact, for being a whistleblower –

Dern: That’s right.

Tavis: – if you will. Why take an issue that is so serious, such a serious issue, and choose to do it in a comedic setting?

Dern: Well, “Network” is one of my favorite movies of all time, and Paddy Chayefsky wrote a script that none of us will ever forget. The idea of the news man who gives us the news every day and is so fed up with how crazy the world has gotten that in the middle of this live telecast, which you could do right now if you wanted. (Laughter)

You could stand up out of your chair and go to the window, Tavis, and say, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” But it is one of the great moments in cinema.

Tavis: Tomorrow night, you’ll be tuning into reruns of “Barney” or something. (Laughter)

Dern: I don’t know, Tavis. I’m not going to say I’m trying to inspire you here, but.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Dern: But there is something really fun and wonderful to do with satire that you just can’t say the same things. I think internal watchdogs, internal whistleblowers, have become a huge focus in negatives and in positives.

British Petroleum being one. They felt that until board members were saying we might be interested in Tony Hayward stepping down because of how the oil spill was handled, no one was listening.

Because sometimes it takes people within the company to say hey, we may have known things that we didn’t make the safest or healthiest choices for citizens of that area.

You have a moral responsibility wherever you sit to use your voice. If it’s in your marriage, if it’s with your children, if it’s something you see on the street. My grandmother, I remember her having come from Alabama saying if somebody needed something, you cooked a meal for them and brought it out to them.

No one in your neighborhood didn’t have food at night, because if you had it, you would feed them. So I remember right before my grandma passed she’d seen some news report about a horrible atrocity in the streets of New York City, and how they said, like, 80 people were standing around watching this horror and no one did anything.

My grandmother couldn’t compute. There was nothing about her generation that could understand how that happens. So we have become anesthetized from that kind of connection, and the hope is that we continue to get fired up to the truth.

Maybe with irreverence and kind of stupidity and lameness, like my character will bring to the situation, we can get away with a lot more.

Tavis: Knowing you the way I do for the years I have, I don’t get the impression that anybody needs to fire you up. You’re pretty on point.

Dern: Oh, Tavis.

Tavis: You’re pretty much on point all the time. But I raise that to ask whether or not in the writing or the creating of a character like this or any other in your career you have come – I want to phrase this the right way.

In the writing or the creating of a character, have you ever come to see that character as a mirror?

Dern: Always.

Tavis: You see my point?

Dern: I – yes.

Tavis: You end up even learning from the character.

Dern: Absolutely.

Tavis: Challenged by the character that you’re creating.

Dern: I pray that I am quitting acting if I ever have to say to you that I don’t see a mirror.

Tavis: Right, mm-hmm.

Dern: There will be many aspects that have nothing to do with me, but that there is some core connection to and opportunity to take personal responsibility for some wound or place that I can learn or fun that I should be having with my own flaws.

Amy’s a wonderful mirror in that way, because truth is, she’s so honest. She’s not trying to hide that she’s a nightmare. It’s such a refreshing character to play. She’s like, “You people think I’m crazy. I am. I’m impossible.” She’s not guarded from her flaw, and that’s very refreshing, as we all tend to be very careful about anybody finding us out.

Tavis: How much is this process spoiling you? That is to say, this notion of being able to write the character, produce the project, star in the project. Not every project in this town works that way, so how much is this going to spoil you into the future of your career?

Dern: My children work very hard in the morning. I want a croissant, (laughter) I need my cappuccino with almond milk. I have a lot of needs. If you’re seven years old, you’re old enough to handle (unintelligible). (Laughter) So other than for them, who now have to serve me hand and food – no.

Hopefully, my – I don’t know why this is, but life will always give you opportunities for humility. Just when you think some things are easier, there are other things that make life also very difficult. So life is the grand leveler, and I wish for opportunities in both every day. The cappuccino and the –

Tavis: And the croissant.

Dern: – reminder.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. To your kids, how are you finding this process of raising these kids? I’ve known you, and by extension, the babies, for some time.

Dern: Yes.

Tavis: They’re no longer babies now.

Dern: I know.

Tavis: So how do you think you’re navigating this parental journey?

Dern: Yeah, I’m learning every day. They’re hilarious. So they teach me every day. Starting to navigate what it’s like to kind of co-parent and parent separately. With a split family, there’s a lot to learn in terms of figuring out how to best serve their needs.

So every day, I’m learning. I haven’t figured it all out. Still got a lot to learn, but. But they make it really funny. They’re hysterical.

Tavis: This might be too personal. If it is, tell me, because I know you and the father, your ex-husband, of these wonderful children. You mentioned your grandmother earlier in this conversation, and one of the things that that generation, although this is not a perfect parallel, but the divorce rate wasn’t as high back in the day as it is today.

Dern: I know.

Tavis: What would your grandmother say now about the challenge of parenting, as you put it, and co-parenting? Because you didn’t plan to do this, it just – life took a turn and so here you are. But what would your grandmother say about the challenge you were facing trying to do both of those?

Dern: She was always very forthright about my parents in a very Southern and amusing way. She would say, “Now, Brewster and (unintelligible). That is a fun dinner.” (Laughter) (Unintelligible)

Tavis: “That is a fun dinner.”

Dern: Yeah. (Laughter)

Dern: So that kind of sums it up. It’s like it could be a great dinner. But the take-home might be more complicated, and for the child of the take-home, maybe you just got to leave it at the dinner.

They are really fun to be at a birthday party with, of their grandchildren. But I think they – I got here, and I’m so lucky and blessed. I have amazing, brilliant, hilarious parents, but them not trying to shy away from why they aren’t together or how life just looks different in our family than this family or that family. Although like you said, it’s so common now that it’s –

Tavis: It’s so common now, yeah.

Dern: It’s just part of the process.

Tavis: So how much longer do you want this wonderful series to run? You’re in the second season, six, so you’re about at episode six now, of eight.

Dern: Yeah. I think when we first started talking about it we always very clearly saw three seasons in the description of sort of the three different phases of what Amy was navigating, so I think we’d be interested, intrigued, by completing that vision.

I’m not sure beyond that, but that’s a fun thought anyway. It’s such a blast playing her, it’s hard to say goodbye.

Tavis: Well, as long as you’re there, we’re watching. We’ll watch as long as you’re there.

Dern: Bless you.

Tavis: Tell your mama I said hello.

Dern: I will. She sends all her love.

Tavis: I send my love back to her. Laura Dern, of course, star of the TV series “Enlightened” on HBO. Good to have you here.

Dern: So great to always be here. Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: September 19, 2013 at 12:39 pm