Laura Dern Talks Motherhood & Her New Show (It's "Crazier Than Stranger Things")

Photo: Broadimage/REX/Shutterstock.

On the heels of Big Little Lies, and as she’s promoting a new motherhood-focused charity initiative, I had wanted to speak to Laura Dern about her identity as a mom. Instead, I witnessed that identity play out.

The name Jaya Harper was on the security list when Dern’s reps confirmed our meeting Thursday. I assumed her 12-year-old daughter with her ex-husband, singer Ben Harper, would just be coming to watch, or maybe a reason for the actress to keep things quick. Dern wore a striped spring power suit and a very easy smile; she could’ve been a well-dressed corporate lawyer bringing her kid into a meeting. She asked if it was okay that Jaya join us for our interview — and then asked Jaya if it was okay to talk about her while she was in the room. Jaya, in a silky bomber jacket and very timely Comme des Garcons Play T-shirt, later asked permission to speak, too, unsure of the rules of engagement around a recording device.

Dern punted questions to her daughter and gave her credit for elevating the political discourse in their household (though Dern was raised by activists and has long been one herself); she asked Jaya if she was okay sitting in the sun, and squeezed her on the shoulder a couple times as if to say she was being a real sport for playing along. Dern explained the kind of cultural advances that have made interviews like this even possible — “In the ‘70s, which seemed like it would be hippie and progressive and inclusive, you never brought your child to set.” Jaya, for her part, explained to Dern what Snapchat glasses were, and let loose just one very teenager-y sigh to see her mom learn what a Boomerang is on Instagram.

During our chat, I learned that Dern’s political identity was brought to life before our eyes, too, as Amy Jellicoe from the short-lived HBO series Enlightened: the idealistic do-gooder trying not to be subsumed by angst about her situation (an uphill battle against the powers that be). A few years and a new president later, Dern wants a full-fledged revolution — for girls, for women, for all families and every child — and it sounds like her daughter is already working on it.

“I’m deeply invested in our country and our moral obligations to the wellbeing of other families,” Dern said, “and she’s teaching me what’s happening in the world in a really profound way.” Laura and Jaya are taking New York by storm to promote the Global Moms Relay: For every Like, share, or post of content from the site (including a video of Dern that’ll be up on May 14), Johnson & Johnson will donate to organizations working to end malaria in children, bring down maternal mortality rates, help girls access education worldwide, and support other causes under the umbrella value that each child’s “birthright,” in Dern’s word, is to be cared for.

I spoke to Dern about work, motherhood, and the resistance, and how they are all part of the same. But there’s also some good Renata Klein revelations and a tease of her upcoming David Lynch reboot of Twin Peaks: “It’s like nothing you’ve seen on TV.” Dern is often found on the cutting edge of her craft. It’s no wonder she’s finding a new way forward for feminism, too: mothers and daughters operating on a level playing field, uplifting and educating in both directions. Dern said, “She’s teaching me: ‘You don’t wait for the country to change; you start the revolution right here.’”

I want to talk to you about motherhood — and the many ways you experience it on- and offscreen, as a child of actors, and as an actor with children.
“Well I think it’s amazing that my daughter’s with me — how cool is that? But I would say that the beginning of motherhood, for me and a lot of women I’ve spoken to, feels like, how am I going to do this ‘other thing’ called motherhood, as we’re busy finding our own lives? But with some time it starts to integrate, until every thought you have is, how am I going to do this as a parent, or for my or with my children? And, how am I going to be of service as a parent? Your life shifts instantaneously. I was always an activist. I cared deeply about environmental health, particularly for families and children, but then you become a parent, and it’s not that your priorities shift; it’s the amount of intent starts to shift in a really interesting way.”

Talk to me a little bit about modeling womanhood for your daughter.
“I feel like Jaya’s modeling to me more than I’m modeling to her most of the time.”

That’s true, I think, of her generation as a whole — I’m just constantly inspired by teens and how respectful, inclusive, and accepting they are.
“Well, she’s holding a revolution in her hands [her iphone]. She’s also holding a detriment, because it can be part of a lack of communication, and that’s something we have to work on. But it’s also a place where they’re sharing, literally, everything and connecting to people around the world. So she’s teaching me in a really profound way, by modeling: ‘You don’t wait for the country to change; you start the revolution right here.’

“[Around the election,] it was amazing to watch [her] generation, particularly girls, want to become involved. It is oddly a very exciting time, as a mother, to watch a generation of girls feel empowered in a way that we weren’t even. My stepson is 20, and even for him this is a different generation, because of technology, but also because of the brokenness of things.”

You don’t wait for the country to change; you start the revolution right here.
Laura Dern & Jaya Harper

So many of us are just trying to cling to our inner Amy Jellicoes — that idealist just fighting for the greater good.
“LISTEN. I know I am. That character came from somewhere. And people are like, ‘Interesting, playing that role, did you feel like you related to her?’ And I’m like, uh, that’s why my name says ‘co-created by.’ It’s definitely an internal brainchild for myself and Mike White — that feeling of angst.”

On the topic of shambles in our country: You won a Golden Globe for your role in Recount, and used your acceptance speech right before President Obama was inaugurated to acknowledge him and the new era that his election heralded. If there were to be a movie about this moment that we’re in right now —
“Which I think there will be. And I am hearing rumor that even the director that did Recount might be cooking something up, which might be amazing, because he did such a beautiful job with that. But yes, if there were…”

Who would you want to play? What, in this moment, would you want a chance at? “Well I have to say one of the things that I loved about doing Big Little Lies was we were shooting during the campaign trail period, and I loved getting to play Renata, because I was witness, like we all were, to projection, and I was playing the woman you love to hate: the woman who is more powerful, more intelligent, has a more powerful job...who can work in a man’s world and even take over. And the perception, not even culturally, but of the women around her, was, excuse my language, ‘Bitch, must not have a good marriage, must not be a sensual or sexual being, not a caring mother, totally unavailable.’ And we were watching that play out on our television every day, and that was fascinating.

“I haven’t been inside the experience of what it must be like in the corporate world for women, certainly for Hillary Clinton, but regardless of politics: [I’d want to] play out what it is for a woman once she has success, how it must be cut in a way that men don’t experience — undercut, devalued — by men and sometimes by women who feel insecure because it makes them less. And so if this were to be a film, right now, that’s the most interesting part to me: the Hillary part of the story.”

This kind of reminds me of the main takeaway I had from Big Little Lies, which is that when women rise above our various differences to come together, we really are unstoppable.
“Well, it’s middle school behavior that we’re so divided. Entering a room with this sort of scarcity belief system, and it was always that way for women: Maybe they’ll let one woman in, and maybe it’s me, so protect what I have. Or, you know, there are 15 guys to one lady at this party, I’ve got to make sure that guy likes me. And now, we are making it together. We are making it happen. We are creating a platform as activists. We’re taking over the boardrooms. We’re the ones.

“I remember as a little girl, not to speak of something crass, but I remember my mom and grandma talking about women sticking together, and my mother said, ‘It takes a woman for your man to cheat on you.’ And we either choose to support each other, or we want to get what we can. We learn from mistakes, and from playing all the roles in our lifetimes. We’ve left and we’ve been left — certainly by my age, we’ve been through a lot in relationships — but to learn to do things with dignity and respect for everybody and particularly other women is really cool. How to do that, I don’t know; there’s no book.

“But girls are entering the world of corporate structure, banking, science and math, like never before. What an exciting time to support each other, because we’re pioneering in so many areas. And so we have to be each other’s advocates.”

Women are making it happen. We are creating a platform as activists. We’re taking over the boardrooms. We’re the ones.
Laura Dern

I think that’s why young people had such a read on this election — to them it was so clear that one side’s rhetoric was so inappropriate.
“And Obama’s farewell speech to Jaya, and your generation, nothing was more applicable to this time. We grew up when it was like, ‘Well, hopefully some very well-educated white man will show up and know how to fix this problem.’ And, like in Hamilton, which obviously we all worship, you see that historically that is not the truth; the truth is that immigrants come together and try to reinvent the story. So Obama said to you guys, you want a country? Grab a clipboard and become an activist. Run for office. And that is it now. I hope that momentum continues.”

Back to your day job, you have a ton of exciting projects on the horizon. You have Twin Peaks coming back this summer, Star Wars coming out in December, and Jurassic Park is always —
“Looming.”

The looming question of if you’re going to bring Dr. Ellie Sattler back.
“She’s a feminist!”

Any tidbits for our readers who are fans of any of those franchises?
“I just couldn’t be any more excited than anyone reading. I loved being a part of Big Little Lies. I am so rabid about Twin Peaks, I worship David Lynch; he broke the mold as an artist and for television forever, and so what he’s about to bring back is nothing like what anybody’s ever seen, but also it holds Twin Peaks in it. It’s also for a new generation. Like my son’s friends go, ‘Stranger Things was so CRAZY, we’ve never seen anything like it!’ They’re in this 15-to-25-year-old audience that didn’t see the original. I’m like, okay, guys, get ready to. I loved it, but get ready, you’ve got to watch Twin Peaks and catch up, and get ready for something you can’t believe was on television.”

Tell us a little more about your Global Moms Relay.
“I feel like it’s been a time of paralysis for a lot of people, you know? We work so hard — does our voice matter, can we make a difference? And it takes so much effort. Everything feels like it takes so much effort. The reason I wanted to join this campaign with Johnson & Johnson and with the United Nations is the idea that protecting the health and wellbeing of families can start with you and me, right now. That one mom, or one daughter, can get on social media, and with one Like or post in this seven-week period, Johnson & Johnson will give a dollar to these five nonprofits that are beautiful. One of them being Girl Up, which I’m so excited about, as well as Unicef and the U.N. Population Fund, protecting children from malaria.

“We were looking at Girl Up today, and all these bicycles they sent to girls in Guatemala who couldn’t get to school in neighboring villages, and now they’re going to school. It took a bike! All you have to do is Like a photo, and a bicycle is being sent to a girl who gets to go to school now. It gives me chills.”

Every single child in this country deserves health care. That is not a partisan issue. Everyone deserves a healthy planet. That is not a political issue.
Laura Dern

That’s the change, to me, of motherhood. Hearing things like that and the way you react so viscerally.
“Exactly! I know! Or, watching Jimmy Kimmel. He inspired me to then get on my Instagram and share that my son had a surgery at birth and it was life-threatening and we were in terror. I was sitting in rooms with families who didn’t have as much ease knowing if they could get health care or not. And that’s what Johnson & Johnson is doing. They’re saying, we’ll donate money if you share your story; you can Like or you can just share something from your own family that makes a difference. That’s so exciting, that we can use our voice; we can get on our phone — it takes two minutes!"

The fact that it’s all centered around sharing stories is the main difference between mothering now vs. when your mom was raising you: We are coming out of the shadows to be active.
“And we’re active on the cause because we went through heartbreak. Because we all know loss. Because our grandmother raised us to be the people we are, because she didn’t get the education she wanted. We are a family, and no one can tell anyone in this country different. And anyone who believes we are divided is looney tunes, because we are a family of people. Every single child in this country deserves health care. That is not a partisan issue. Everyone deserves a healthy planet. That is not a political issue. For our children and our environment, we are one family. And we are one click away from sharing our story and making a difference. That? That’s a blessing.”

Speaking of women telling stories: You recently starred in an all-female Western film, which is part of Refinery29’s Shatterbox anthology.
“Yes! You guys supported a short film that I was part of for Courtney Hoffman, Good Time Girls. It really turned out awesome, and the assistant costumer was Jaya Harper! Wasn’t it an amazing experience? Jaya’s been on so many movies with me where it’s me and one other girl — other than Big Little Lies — on the set. And it was all women; we literally had two men working on it. And it was a Western! We’re developing it into a feature now. I’m really excited; we’re amassing a great group of women. That’s the thing that’s so exciting about being in this area right now. Every room you walk in, women are running the story.”