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Big Little Lies’ Laura Dern on mastering the onscreen freak-out

Photo: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO

It’s always a pleasure to watch Laura Dern lose it on screen. And she does just that in both Wilson, the Daniel Clowes adaptation due out Friday, and the HBO limited series Big Little Lies. In the former, Pippi, a recovering addict, uses her handbag to unleash her frustration on her ex, the titular character (Woody Harrelson), but goes completely berserk when faced with judgments from her stuck-up sister (Cheryl Hines). Dern’s Big Little Lies matriarch, Renata Klein, isn’t quite so physical. But she unleashes a maelstrom of pained vitriol upon learning her daughter has been bitten by a peer.

Both characters’ complicated, unfettered female anger feels almost cathartic in this day and age, and when The A.V. Club sat down with Dern this weekend she did not hesitate to draw parallels between her work and the current political climate. We also tried (and for the most part failed) to get her to divulge details from the Twin Peaks revival.


The A.V. Club: Daniel Clowes wrote Wilson’s script, but there’s an ineffable quality to his art. How did you work to convey that on screen?

Laura Dern: Beyond a template, it’s like seeing inside the soul of a character, inside the world that he invents. The thing that moved me the most is that he paints a world that seemingly is void of humanity. It’s banal, it’s everyday, it’s stuck in the mire. And then he puts these characters in it that look to us, the art looks to us, like they’re misguided misfits. They’re the throwaways. But they overwhelm the spaces that they’re in. They do it because they want humanity. They want to be seen, they want to connect, they want to be heard, they want to be loved. That’s the thing that’s so beautiful about them. Specifically, Wilson, Pippi, and Claire, the daughter. They are all like, “No one gets me, no one sees me,” and in a way, the heartbreak of the film is these three people actually see and get each other, and they will never be seen by other people in the same way. Maybe they’ll have decent lives, but they won’t be seen like that.

Photo: Fox Searchlight

AVC: Are there specific elements from the art that you brought into your portrayal of Pippi?


LD: I think the longing. Obviously, it’s hilarious and it’s raw, but I did this film Citizen Ruth, this Alexander Payne film, and it felt the same way to me. They are very similar in their writing. You think you’re looking at one thing, which is like, “Ugh, these people are awful.” And yet all you want is for them to be okay. You feel almost parental toward them. I think that longing for them to make it—it’s crazy how it becomes visceral through seeing his work, so that’s one thing that I hope to imbibe through acting.

AVC: At one point this was going to be an Alexander Payne film, right?

LD: Yeah. Before me, but we’re very close so I knew about him developing it and his talking to Daniel. We never got to the place of whether he would cast me, and [director] Craig [Johnson] on his own wanted me in the film, which is kind of amazing. I’m not necessarily physically like the character, but I think both Alexander and Craig seemed to connect me to this writing or these kinds of characters, so I feel really lucky.


AVC: You’re one of the masters of the onscreen freak-out.

LD: I’m so excited by that.

AVC: Here you go at it with Cheryl Hines, but in everything from Enlightened to Big Little Lies, you convey rage. What’s the key to doing that for you?


LD: For me the key is years of the blessed filmmakers I’ve worked with giving me permission to be bold and jump off cliffs and to be boundaryless. I would put David Lynch at the top of that list. To start with him as a 16-year-old [in Blue Velvet] means you’re moving toward a longing to be unbridled in sexuality, in rage, in comedy—whatever is required, there’s a forgiving environment to show it. And Alexander and Robert Altman and Jonathan Demme and Mike White. I just am really blessed. I don’t think one could have been without the other. And particularly right now I’m so proud of Wilson. I hope everyone in America sees this movie, more than anything. Because we have forgotten what the truth looks like, and we are afraid of it and we want to be comfortable and we want to be hopeful. So we’d rather believe a conman than have a guy sit next to us who’s like, “Hey, get off your phone and tell me who you are.” Pippi would rather run to addiction than be with the love of her life who’s going to tell her who she is. And that is like the essence of what I think as a culture we’re struggling with right now, and I think it’s essential that films push us to our deepest shadow, which I think is about our comfort with the truth.

AVC: From a completely practical standpoint, what was it like doing that scene with Cheryl Hines? Was it intensely choreographed?


LD: Very intense. I think it was the only thing that we deeply rehearsed before filming. Everything else was pretty much done on the day. We worked and obviously made sure that everybody was safe, even though we did a Q&A a couple of days ago in Los Angeles and [Hines] told a story I was so freaked out by. She said one of her most terrified moments was when I supposedly—and I don’t even remember this—turned to her and I was like, “I know exactly what we’re doing. I’m just worried that when I’m in the adrenaline of my character’s rage, I don’t know what will happen,” or something like that. She was like, “What does she mean?” But no one ever got hurt. In fact, I think I’m the only person who ended up getting hurt. I just banged myself up so much on this movie. I hurt my neck. I fractured my knee. Because it’s hard for me not to hurl myself. Me and Woody Harrelson, we’re twins. We’re the same person. I should only make movies with him. We are like Wilson and Pippi. I don’t think anyone else will understand me like Woody. It’s a delicious combo.

AVC: On Big Little Lies, Renata is on one hand portrayed as a villain, but especially in one recent episode, we empathize with her after seeing the bite on her child. That’s one of the most horrifying things you could imagine for a mother. How did you navigate that?


LD: Jean-Marc Vallée, Jean-Marc Vallée, Jean-Marc Vallée. I mean he’s incredible, and he demands both from me. And if it’s not bitchy enough, then we have to go further. If I’m not scathing enough, then we have to go further. It’s been an amazing partnership because we don’t stop until it feels true. We’re both pretty boundaryless.

Photo: HBO

AVC: With this villainy of her—well, maybe “villainy” is the wrong word because it’s so complicated…

LD: I think it’s fair because we’re also trying to service a plot. We want her the way she is, and then as David Kelley and Jean-Marc weave us through the story we want to find empathy, I think both for my and Reese [Witherspoon]’s characters. You want to hate and find empathy for them throughout, but also projections are also a wonderful opportunity to consider, “Oh my god, who did it or who gets done?” And that works for this storytelling too.


AVC: Big Little Lies occupies this luxury world. Renata has this beautiful house, she’s on the Paypal board. What was it like stepping into that?

LD: Amazing, especially because I had the privilege of a couple of guides that I spoke to being CEOs and listening to them talk, one of them in the world of publishing and one of them in the world of tech. They’re the king and queen right now. They are in it, and they are on the board, and they are the head of a board of 15 men and them. And it sounds horrible to not have any female connection within your world, and you’re running the show and you’re dealing with sexism, even though you’re the boss. So the dynamic that exists in the workplace I think is very, very complicated for these women who are wives and mothers. I’m so proud that I got to play Renata as this election was going on and listen to the projections on Hillary Clinton. It was like, “Oh, well, she’s so smart, obviously they are not really a couple.” Or, “She’s so powerful, she’s so tough.” Horrible things said about his sexual life as though it’s a judgment on her. They do that about women all the time. Our culture has said, “Women in positions of power aren’t romantic, sexual, warm, the marrying kind, mother types.” And who’s cutting her down? Women. It’s the other women who are insecure or jealous that they are not as whatever, that go, “Well, she’s not a good mother.”


AVC: Because she’s not picking the kids up at school…

LD: Exactly. The majority of women in the world who have lives that look nothing like Renata relate to Renata if they are mothers because they all feel guilty all the time. Most of us are working. There are women holding down five jobs to get through, and they can’t be there and they can’t pick up and their kid is riding a bus to get home. So I think that’s an innate feeling that you’re not doing enough. The luxury isn’t the Paypal boss. The luxury is the woman who gets to be home with her kids. So it’s fodder for a lot of interesting drama.

AVC: You mentioned David Lynch earlier, and the Twin Peaks revival is a reunion for you, David, and Kyle MacLachlan. What was it like coming together all these years after Blue Velvet?


LD: Amazing. I mean, being with David is something I’ve been doing consistently, so that’s incredible every time. I’m home and I’m with my family in the deepest way, but with Kyle, just seeing him is definitely a reunion. Or being a part of this thing that they made when we were all very close. So that’s beautiful. And I didn’t get to be a part of the original, so being any part of it is wonderful.

AVC: Did you get to work closely with Kyle? Did you get to do a lot of scenes with him?


LD: I can’t say if I was even in a scene with him. We don’t know that, but we know that we were all on it and that it was such an enormous part of their story that I wasn’t part of. So that just feels like it’s full circle to get to be part of that.

AVC: You’re sworn to secrecy a lot because you’re also doing Star Wars. Have you and Woody—?


LD: Commiserated. Well, let’s be clear. When you see Wilson and you see our characters, you go, “Star Wars.” They have to go to space.

AVC: What was your reaction to the title The Last Jedi?

LD: It’s exciting. I think it asks a lot of questions. I’m very interested.

AVC: You connected both Wilson and Big Little Lies to the election. What has it been like filtering these roles through the current moment?


LD: It’s been amazing. I’ve been thinking about these themes for a long time, not just playing women who want to use their voice but women who didn’t even know they were entitled to one. So now the fever is higher than ever in that we now are in a position where we’re blatantly being told we shouldn’t be entitled to one. So I’m going to work harder and be louder than I’ve ever been, for sure. Pippi really makes that easy.

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