The daughter of Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, Laura Dern was never a stranger to Showbiz. Her earliest gigs were as uncredited extras in White Lightning and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, two movies featuring her mother. Her speaking-part debut, at the age of thirteen, was in the camp classic Foxes, followed by several made-for-TV movies and the role of Diana in Mask.
Dern’s appearance in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet established her as a budding indie queen; her title canonized by a sexy follow-up role in Wild at Heart opposite Nic Cage and defended with films like Rambling Rose and Citizen Ruth.
In Robert Altman’s latest, Dr. T. and the Women, Dern steals the show with a hilarious performance as Dr. T’s sister-in-law Peggy, an alcoholic mother of three with a tendency to face plant. Pratfalls aside, Dern’s portrayal is wonderfully comic, but tinged with sadness.
Recently, Dern talked about the role and what a wonderment it is to work with Robert Altman.
How difficult was it to play, with such subtlety and delicacy, a people-pleasing alcoholic socialite that in so many ways could have just been broad comic relief ?
First of all, I attribute everything to Robert Altman with total pride. He’s amazing. He’s the most original, amazing, fearless, brazen, bold, brave creature there is.
I take it working with Altman was a dream for you?
I’d always wanted to work with him; I always have dreamt of the opportunity. And he asked me to do the movie before I knew the script or the part or anything else. What a thrill to just immerse yourself in a world of Robert Altman. He creates an environment in which production designer, costume designer, actor, whomever you are, you are challenged to not be goal-oriented. You are challenged to be completely in the moment and try everything you’re capable of trying and never question what it’s going to look like as an end result. That’s the way movies should always be made. I mean I have to say, I think there’s no filmmaker that should be more supported in the world we all work in and live in because he’s just someone who’s there trying it every time out.
So how did Altman help you discover the character of Peggy?
What he said was, “There is this one part that I really want to be like a comic relief of the piece, and I want her to make us laugh. But…we’ve got to pay for our laugh.” I said “Great. That’s all I need to know.”
So I kind of went in with that. I sort of fell in love with her from that place. “What is it that’s heartbreaking about her and, hopefully, has room for lots of fun, too?” I think particularly women constantly question within themselves that fine line between having such longing to make everybody else okay, but not knowing how to do it for oneself. I think that’s why Peggy drinks. You know, many people drink out of a self-indulgent or self-destructive or narcissistic place and I think that she really drinks to numb this emptiness that she feels because of this dysfunctional, matriarchal energy that she has. She so anxiously wants to make everybody happy and be this character she’s created for everybody. And I think she doesn’t have any concept of who she is, so she just dresses it up literally. And drinks it up.
The character she has created for everybody isn’t your typical rummy. I mean, she’s drinking bubbly from crystal champagne flutes…
Yes. Absolutely. And really expensive champagne. Because she’s a class act. The classy alcoholic. That’s not real alcoholism, is it? It’s like people who I know who are clearly alcoholics who say, “They’ve discovered now red wine cures heart disease.” And it’s like, “AND you’re an alcoholic, that’s what I just discovered. I’m glad you won’t have high blood pressure while you’re an alcoholic.”
How do you play drunk without looking like you’re playing drunk?
I drank. (laughter) No, no, I did not. Thank you. God, I wanted it to look real for him and everyone else, too. It’s like working for Dad, you know? You just want to do good for Dad because he just inspires this boundary-lessness.
It’s a wonderful gift, and I feel like it’s cheating a little bit, almost. I always imagined Peggy as sort of this racehorse who, before the floodgates opened, she’s like hurling herself through them. Like, the horse is down and they have to shoot the horse because the horse has injured itself so brutally by trying to get out of the gates before the race has started. That’s so Peggy. It’s like, “Slow down, honey!” She just throws herself into experience.
Which is why this thing started happening, which we didn’t plan for, that I just kept falling. Every time I was in a scene, for some reason I just would throw my body in some way that would end off making me take a major dive. And Bob kept loving it. He was like, “Keep going!” So everything I did was always sort of whacked out. And that’s what I mean when I say I feel like it’s cheating because that energy is such an intoxicating almost sort of drunken state, because it is larger than life. Once you’re already in that, instead of thinking, “How am I gonna play drunk?” which people try to limit. It’s gotta be small somehow and brooding. But her whole energy is so out-of-it that I would just throw myself into that place I thought I was sort of drunk. Whatever that is.
Peggy is a drunk and a mother of three. Were you able to wrap your head around what motherhood means to her in her drunken fog?
You know, I have been a huff addict with kids in Citizen Ruth, and I’ve been a chain-smoking, coffee drinking white-trash woman with kids in The Baby Dance, and now, an alcoholic mother. As I like to reflect on it, I’ve played women with children but I’ve never yet played a mom. And I look forward to the day when I can be a mother and that’s sort of the way that I approached it. “Approach.” Ooooh, that sounds so actor. I mean the way I kind of looked into how to do it.
And how is that?
Everything’s been happening to her so damn fast she can’t catch up. It’s like this one kid shows up, now there’s another one, then there’s another one. That’s sort of how I think she’s related to motherhood. It’s like, “Man, they keep coming.” It’s like, “You know what? You actually have involvement in this whole process.” But I don’t know that she was in her body enough to really know that. It feels to her like circumstance, and I think she loves her kids so much and would make sure that they’re always taken care of and that the nanny is always with them. Need I say more?
Altman pretty much let you have total freedom to explore as an actor. What’s the challenge of that?
The greatest challenge was not allowing my ego to get in the way. And how my ego can get in the way. Ego is such a tricky thing. We think “ego” means when we’re high-falutin about ourselves, but ego is also the place where we’re self-deprecating and put ourselves down, because that’s arrogance. It’s arrogant to not have self-respect in a way, you know?
It’s like this weird thing where I cannot be caught up in what other people are gonna think so that I didn’t come in as an actress saying, “Okay look, this is a written scene, Richard Gere’s the lead. It’s a scene about him dealing with his daughters in his office.” The greatest challenge was to never once as the actor go, “Oh, I don’t want to go too far here because I don’t want them to think I’m trying to steal the scene or…” You know what I mean? To completely let myself go as Peggy would and never be afraid -- because we were all aware of the balance of it being this wonderful ensemble effort.
What’s written is “Peggy is there.” No dialogue. Robert Altman asks me to come in the room, take over the scene and don’t stop talking. Now none of the other actors know. They know the scene they studied that day. They’ve learned their lines. They know that I don’t say anything. And I haven’t worked with Richard Gere yet. And I’m just like, suddenly, I was just all over this guy. I was falling all over him.
I don’t even know if it’s in the movie, but there was one point he wasn’t listening to me as I was trying to get his attention because he was doing a scene with an actor that he believed he was supposed to be doing. And I got so frustrated with him that I grabbed his face and made him look at me, which was so perfect because I’m supposed to be drunk and he’s supposed to be affected by the fact that she’s out-of-it. It’s like, “What the hell are you doing?” Which was kind of the response Richard gave me. Which was appropriate.
Dr. T and The Women seems to be a total male fantasy and at the same time a satire of that. Do you think men and women will respond differently to it?
I can imagine a couple going and a man sort of saying, “God, women are amazing! What a celebration!” and the women saying, “God, this is so misogynistic!” Or it might be the other way around. Well, it could be all of it.
I think the most misogynistic tragedy in art, in our culture and, God knows, in politics, is we have defined people as stereotypes, and we’ve all held on to stereotypes with great attachment. Which is why, God forbid, we separate our President from his personal life. We can’t do it. God forbid someone holds up a mirror to us and says this is what we are, we’re all of it. We’re human frailty, and we can be brilliant, and we can be lost, and we can be addictive, and we can be loyal. We can be all of it. That’s human nature, and it terrifies us. I think maybe it is easier to think of us as Madonna/whore, or good girl/bad girl, hero/villain. But life isn’t like that. And I think that’s what’s so great about Robert Altman’s movies. He creates one character by creating twenty and they’re all -- to me anyway -- they’re all aspects of self, and that’s what I love about this movie.