Laura Dern embraces “mother roles,” that supposed bane of actresses in their 40s. Or at least some mother roles.
Playing a stable, loving parent, as Dern does in the current film “Wild,” and did earlier this year in “The Fault in Our Stars,” presents its own challenge when one is accustomed to unconventional roles and projects. (Dern has been in three David Lynch movies, for goodness’ sake).
“I am so excited to play grown-ups, and to be considered as having any dignity,” Dern, 47, said during a recent phone interview. Her best-known mother character before now, Dern pointed out, “was huffing paint and pregnant with (her) fifth kid.”
Dern, who laughs often and is otherwise lovely during the phone call, is referencing her role as aerosol aficionado Ruth in director Alexander Payne’s first film, “Citizen Ruth.”
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Dern appears with fellow Payne veteran Reese Witherspoon (“Election”) in “Wild,” which is based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about her 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail and made $4.2 million at the box office its opening weekend.
Witherspoon plays Strayed. Dern plays her mother, Bobbi, whose death, at age 45 from cancer, sent Strayed into a spiral of drugs and sex with strangers.
Though the idea of Dern playing Witherspoon’s mother initially sets off Hollywood-ageism alarm bells, those bells quiet once you see the actresses on screen together.
Witherspoon is 38 but (believably) plays much younger in “Wild” (Strayed lost her mother at 22 and hiked the PCT at 26).
The nature of the real-life relationship they portray also helped keep her pairing with Witherspoon from being jarring, Dern said.
Bobbi left her husband, who is presented in the book and film as being physically abusive, when her children (two in the movie, three in real life) were young.
“She was raising these kids as a woman (in) her 20s, in poverty, and I think it creates a dynamic of deep friendship” with the children, Dern said. She played Bobbi’s interactions with Cheryl as more “girlfriend or sister than matriarchal.”
Bobbi isn’t the usual on-screen parent role that exists only to cheer on, or discourage, a protagonist. She’s the reason for the protagonist’s journey. Cheryl views her PCT hike as a spiritual trek back to being the strong woman her late mother wanted her to be.
“Cheryl says, ‘My mother was the love of my life,’” Dern said. “And we have never seen this love story in that kind of way” on screen.
In the movie, Bobbi appears to Cheryl as flashes of memory as Cheryl walks the trail. That some of these flashback scenes bathe Dern in shadow helps sell the illusion of a 20-plus-year age gap between the actresses. So did the presence on set of makeup specialist Robin Mathews, who won an Oscar for her work on “Wild” director Jean-Marc Vallée’s previous film, “Dallas Buyers Club.”
“We would change (Dern’s) hair, and the way she was dressing, and there was some make-up involved,” Vallée said by phone. Mostly, though, the actresses sold the mother-daughter bond through performance, the director said.
“They meticulously portrayed these characters – they knew they had to pull it off,” Vallée said. “There is so much love (evident) between them, and it is happening with a simple way of touching the other, or looking at the other.”
Mother herself to a middle-school-age son and daughter (with her ex-husband, musician Ben Harper), Dern and her career always have been linked, in the public consciousness, to family. The daughter of actors Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, she’s associated with her parents to the same degree fellow second-generation stars Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda are with theirs.
Dern and her parents – who divorced when she was 2 – received Hollywood Walk of Fame stars together in 2010.
Dern and her mother have worked together often, most recently on Dern’s 2011-13 HBO series “Enlightened.” In 1992, both were nominated for Oscars for “Rambling Rose,” in which they played, respectively, a randy Depression-era maid and the lady of the home in which the maid was employed.
Laura Dern introduced her father to Payne, who directed Bruce Dern in last year’s “Nebraska.” Dern drew his second Oscar nod – and first for best actor – for his performance as a gruff, heavy-drinking man out to collect a promised sweepstakes check. The renewed attention the film brought to Dern’s long career became one of that awards season’s best stories.
“He is an amazing person, so to witness people getting to share in his joy was particularly beautiful,” Laura Dern said. “It is one thing to appreciate someone’s work – and I watched that my whole life, because people love my dad as an actor – but to watch the larger story of a 78-year-old artist feeling as inspired as he had ever been was a great reminder for all of us in our lives.”
Dern spent a few weeks on the “Nebraska” set with her dad. But she rarely discusses the actual act of acting with either parent, Dern said.
“Process is its own private thing,” she said. “It is like talking about what works in your marriage or something. It is so unique and individual. … It is hard for actors to talk about.”
Even among family.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.