In Laura Dern's cinematic universe, as in real life, saintly schoolgirls are capable of conducting secret lives, and chain-smoking tarts can also be pure hearts. In her earliest work—Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Foxes—Dern is just the daughter of actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, elbowing her way onto a movie set. By 1985, she begins to exhibit her peculiar touch, in Smooth Talk, as a sulking teenager who disposes of her virginity with equal parts zeal and trepidation. Dern's bits were flawless in two David Lynch films. In Blue Velvet, clothed and chaste, she showed a remarkable tolerance for weirdness. Unzipped, in Wild at Heart, she displayed enough confidence to surprise her fans. In Rambling Rose, which won Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for both her and her mother, she made unchecked horniness seem beguilingly innocent.
At some point, you made the change from playing the girl next door in a sundress to a sexpot in a halter top. Which are you?
The wild girl and the innocent virgin are in all of us. I'm most proud of Rambling Rose because I think both types of girls are in that character. That to me is what's sexy.
In feminist circles much has been made of the male gaze. When is it all right for men to look?
When I was shooting a film in the Mojave desert, we went to a Tex-Mex club. I was wearing this little red-velvet top and tight jeans and cowboy boots, and I got in the middle of the floor and went insane! The music was great, and I was surrounded by cowboys. If it had been me alone at a club—forget about it. There were guys leering at me, but somehow it was abstract. I felt completely free, really safe. And I enjoyed that everybody was just looking at me. But yesterday I was wearing a pair of tight workout shorts and a leotard. And I came out of a parking lot and these valet parkers went "Wooooo!" and were just staring at my ass. I wanted to kill. That really pissed me off. As opposed to, "God, she's pretty," there was a sense of disgust in the air, like, "Look at that fucking slut." It was gross. You know, sometimes it's really fun to act like a bimbo. But it's fun to act like a bimbo only when people know that you really aren't one.
You were raised by your mother and your grandmother, both of whom are from the South. What are the privileges of being a Southern belle?
Southern women have grace. They're great listeners, which makes them gracious hosts. My grandmother loves to listen to everybody's stories. She taught me that there's always a dichotomy in people. There's always repression and sexuality, kindness and calculation--there's no person who's just one thing. She's a Catholic woman. Doesn't like cuss words. Very proper. But at the same time, anybody who meets her—and she's 74 years old—says, "Boy, she's so much like Marilyn Monroe." She's a doll. She loves to flirt with men and she wraps them around her finger. She's a little sexpot and she makes wild comments every once in a while. I took her to see Mambo Kings one weekend. Forget about it. Every time Armand Assante appeared on the screen, she was, like, "Wooooo!" Yet she goes to church every Sunday and is very straight. I love that about her.
We understand that you meditate. What's the hardest thing to get out of your mind when you sit down to meditate?
Everything. I am not gifted at sitting down twice a day and giving myself thirty to forty minutes just to sit. One week I'm completely dedicated to it and the next week I'm crazed. The hardest thing for me to get out of my mind is what I've forgotten to do. Unless I'm going through a major crisis, it doesn't even get into emotional pain. It's just the real piddly stuff. Ultimately, it floats away and you can focus on yourself.
In preparation for your role as a blind teenager in Mask, you spent some time discovering the world with your eyes closed. How have you applied what you learned in Mask to your own life?
It was definitely true that I was nicer and people were nicer to me. It was because I had to be more in touch with what I was feeling. When you're standing there with your eyes closed and you have to feel if something is in front of you, then you're going to be obviously much more in tune with your and other people's emotions. If I had my eyes closed and I heard you say, "I'm really sad right now," well, all I have to focus on is what I'm hearing you say. Whereas, when my eyes are open and you say to me, "I'm really sad right now," it's, like, "Oh, God, I'm really sorry, but there's the telephone and it reminds me of someone I forgot to call." Or I'm thinking that I'm really thirsty or hungry. There's so much else that I'm taking in. There's much more clarity with your eyes closed. Also, you just have to trust that people will protect you. Once, we were going up in the mountains on horseback and I was on cliffs and the guy who was working with me said, 'Just remember, the horse is not going to take you anywhere he doesn't want to go." I had to trust that the horse would lead me carefully through these mountains. It was scary, but it was also an incredible experience. It made me think about what an amazing exercise it would be to blindfold yourself for 24 hours and trust your lover or mate to take care of you. I wonder how much it would alter the relationship. I'm sure it would. But that's a whole other story.
[In a low, suggestive voice] "Blindfold me, baby."
What do you and your cat have in common?
Every time my ex-boyfriend calls my house, my cat gets sick. I get a bladder infection, my cat gets a bladder infection. He can pick up the energy from how I react to things.
In Rambling Rose, both you and your mother make out with Robert Duvall. Did you and she compare notes afterward?
Whoa! I don't think we ever compared notes, because I never really thought about it until this second. We never even talked about it. But Mom and I have always been pretty open about sex. Before I ever had sex, she'd answer any question I had, and that's really cool. And once I started having sex, I didn't want to talk to anybody about it. Or at least not to any parent.
Mooning has a proud tradition. But it is not often a female extravagance. We understand that you participated in the multiple celebrity mooning of director James L. Brooks at a restaurant. What premoon thoughts went through your head before you did it?
It was one of those things where everyone agreed, "When Jim gets back from the bathroom, let's all moon him as a joke." So Jim came back and I saw everybody stand up and I thought, Oh, my God, we're really going to do this. You don't have time to think in that situation. We were at a restaurant in this private room upstairs and we all did it really fast so nobody in the restaurant could see. And Jim goes, "Man, I've never seen such a group of great asses in my life. I didn't know which one to look at first." So then Glenn [Close] and Woody [Harrelson] mooned the entire restaurant. And the restaurant loved it. Then Woody got Jim to play this game. Woody said, "If you lose, you have to moon the restaurant." And Jim said, "Oh, c'mon, you can't do this to me." And I remember Glenn going, "C'mon, Jim, you have to do it. If we did it, you have to do it." And Jim says, "That's easy for you to say, you don't have an L. Ron Hubbard tattoo on your ass!" Which I thought was pretty funny. So Jim walked up to the balcony and he screamed out to the restaurant customers, who at this point were all looking up, waiting, and he said, "I refuse to moon you!" And everybody started applauding. Everybody there had such a good time. In fact, one group of people, a table of six, came up to us afterward and said, "Thanks for a great night."
As a follower of politics, tell us: Just how honest do you want a world leader to be? What's the difference between honesty and full disclosure?
A politician has to be careful about where he places his honesty. And to be discreet about it. It's like being in a relationship: You want honesty with discretion. I always thought people should be honest, no matter what. But I've learned, being the victim of honesty in a relationship, that sometimes it's less hurtful not to know everything.
Some women make good decisions about men and some make bad ones. Which of those are you?
I'm starting to learn that there's no good or bad. My decisions are based on my personal struggles and my issues about relationships. I pull in men that teach me about what I need to learn to get me to another level as a person. I mean, you can't hate a man for being incapable of monogamy and then move on to another guy who cheats on you also. It's not that all men are that way. There is something affected by that in you. What is it that, if a man is unfaithful, makes me say, "Oh, my God. He wants everybody else, he doesn't want me"? And "I'm nothing, I'm shit." What is it in me that makes me feel so attached to the need of that man to tell me what my value is? If he wants other people, then he clearly doesn't want me. And I deserve to be with somebody who wants me. That's the healthy, wonderful way I'd like to look at things.
It made me think about what an amazing exercise it would be to blindfold yourself for 24 hours and trust your lover or mate to take care of you.
You've been romantically linked with actors Kyle MacLachlan and Vincent Spano and producer Renny Harlin. Would you like to talk about the specialness of dating someone outside of the business? Someone who doesn't have anything in development?
I can't answer that question. I've always dated people who, on some level, were in the arts or in film. I would like to be able to answer that question, so I did know the difference. But I can't.
How do you mend a broken heart?
Time. Pampering yourself. Don't get into that "What did I do wrong? I must be unworthy" thing. That gets boring really quickly. Drink lots of water. Meditate. Do lots of yoga and don't eat sugar. It all depends on what makes you feel good. Once, I stayed at Isabella Rossellini's for a couple of weeks and we listened to tons of Billie Holiday. That totally put me in great spirits.
What areas of expertise do people think you have that you really don't have at all?
A lot of people think I speak many languages, and I don't. They start speaking to me in Spanish, Italian, sometimes even Japanese. I speak some French, but I'm not fluent. People also think I wear contact lenses—which I consider an area of expertise, one that I have not acquired at this point in my life. And people don't know that I do wear glasses—I'm Miss Coke Bottles.
What Hollywood affectation are you most horrified to discover yourself doing?
Being in a situation where I have to find something nice to say to somebody. You go to a premiere of a film, and on the way out the producer or the director asks you, "What did you think?" What I try to do is not lie but find the thing that I feel is good about it. Great performances! That was something, wasn't it? Nobody really wants to hear the truth. So much effort goes into making movies that nobody really wants to hear that their movie is bad. If I'm at your premiere, I'm not going to go, "That was a stinker. And you sucked in it." I have to find something to say. And there are always positive things, like, "You looked great," or "It was a challenging role," or "You guys really went for it." Every movie has talent in it. Even if it's the gaffer.
Most children fantasize about changing their name. What did you want to rechristen yourself as?
I've always loved my name. When I was in the fifth grade, some boys in my class, whom I really loved, kept calling me nerd. They'd say, "Dern spelled backward is nerd, and that's what you are." And I'd cry. Then, in the sixth grade, I was making a painting and one of the boys called that out to me and I wrote it down. It wasn't until that moment that I realized that my name spelled backward was not nerd, but nred. It took me an entire year to figure this out.
As a serious collector, describe the utility and allure of the G-string.
I hate panties. G-strings are so much more comfortable. I think they used to be a toy thing, like playing dress-up or something. But now they're common. I mean, Calvin Klein makes them.
Some writers wear hats so their ideas don't fly off. Is that why actresses who play sex kittens hold their heads?
In Wild at Heart, it was a character choice. It's slightly Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn would put her hand on top of her head, but in a slightly different way. I think that Lula liked feeling her hair. She liked to pose.
Shelley Winters is your godmother. Godparents are responsible for a child's spiritual education. Did she take this responsibility to heart?
She's very supportive. I lived with her in New York for about a month and she let me be an observer at the Actors Studio when she was moderating there. That was great. I got to watch a lot and talk to her about what I loved about acting. She was a great influence.
In Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park, you play a paleobotanist involved in a cloning experiment that goes awry. What inspired you to make your action-adventure film debut? Did the promise of working with special-effects dinosaurs play a large part in that decision?
It was like some weird dream, being in this action-packed Steven Spielberg adventure movie. It's pretty wild: Sam Neill, me, Jeff Goldblum and Richard Attenborough. In a dinosaur movie? Hilarious. When I was mulling it over, Nick Cage said, "I hear they want you for a dinosaur movie. How can you not do a dinosaur movie?" The way he said it made me realize that it was something I just had to do.
You were on Kauai when Hurricane Iniki hit. What were you thinking when all the weather in the world was outside your window?
About nine A.M., I walked out to the beach with Sam Neill, who plays my boyfriend in Jurassic Park. The hurricane wasn't supposed to hit until three P.M., but it was getting windy and the waves were getting strong. But it still looked somewhat normal. We were walking on the beach, and I said to Sam, "Do you think this is going to blow over?" And he said, "No, I think this is going to be a horrible catastrophe. Take a picture. Because it may be the last picture of the hotel ever looking like this." And I said, "Boy, are you Mr. Doom and Gloom," not realizing how terrifying the situation was. As we turned around to take a picture of the hotel, a wave came out of nowhere and washed over us, and, suddenly, we were soaked.