Guest of Honor

Laura Dern on Lynch’s Brain and Leisure Suits

Laura played Amy Jellicoe, an executive who has a nervous breakdown, attends rehab, and emerges with a blissed-out new age philosophy. Her zeal for change ultimately leads her to become a whistleblower in her own organization. We chatted with Laura about the show’s rising political consciousness, David Lynch’s brains, and Scott Baio’s leisure suit.

Laura Dern - Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

Actor Laura Dern has wowed audiences in everything from the “Jurassic Park” blockbusters to independent gems like “Citizen Ruth,” “Blue Velvet,” and “Wild at Heart.” Her latest performance – the lead in HBO’s dramedy “Enlightened” – has earned raves and netted her a Golden Globe – and this week, an Emmy nomination. (She also executive produced the show with writer-costar Mike White.)

(“Enlightened“‘s fantastic run is over, but you can find it on HBO Go or iTunes.)


Brendan Francis Newnam: Can you explain this Lucille Ball – Norma Rae comparison you’ve made to your character in “Enlightened?”

Laura Dern: That was the pitch, if you will. You know, what if Lucy became Norma Rae? What if that was the person who would be the whistleblower, who would actually get in the streets and be mad as hell, and not gonna take it anymore.

Our conversations started in and around the end of the Bush Administration, post-9/11, us going to Iraq, and there was a lot of cultural apathy, and a lot of questions about what does it take to get Americans riled up enough that they’ll actually use their voice?

Maybe it takes someone who feels everything in such an enormous way, and is without boundaries to be willing to throw everything away to just tell the truth, point out injustice.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So Amy’s truth telling is sort of what makes the show so riveting. Sometimes she tells uncomfortable truths, sometimes she tells the truth when people shouldn’t’ tell the truth. She says, you know, she’ll say things without any social grace.

Is it hard as an actor to play a character that the audience sometimes, well, as one critic put it, sometimes wants to cheer for and sometimes wants to slap?

Laura Dern: It’s wonderfully challenging, and in ways incredibly easy, because it’s without apology. It’s without veils. So, you know, to play someone who is so completely herself is an incredible freedom as an actor. You’re not self-absorbed. As a fan of Amy, which I have to be-

Brendan Francis Newnam: Do you have to be a fan of the people you play?

Laura Dern: Yeah. For me I do. That’s my way in.

Brendan Francis Newnam: One way of saying it is being a fan of the character you’re playing, but it’s finding the motivation behind this person, right?

Laura Dern: Yeah, you know, I meant to play an adorable woman who says it just right and the boys are enchanted and everybody just wants to be part of her story, and things are going her way, is not that interesting to me.

But someone being so genuine that it repels people is fascinating. Because why? Why are we repelled by he very thing we say as a quality we wish more people had? That is really interesting art to me.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So the show’s called “Enlightened,” partially because Amy considers herself enlightened. She’s always reading self-help books, she meditates, she espouses this positive life view that is kind of part Buddhist, part New-Agey, and we all know people like her.

Since she isn’t always portrayed in the best light, I’m wondering about what kind of feedback you’ve received from from the kind of self-help, New Age crowd.

Laura Dern: I haven’t heard directly from anyone who doesn’t get a kick out of it. I think Mike and I have shared the experience of walking by a yoga class as it’s coming out, and it’s sort of like being at a paleontologist convention, having just released Jurassic Park. It’s like you know, “Oh my God, I am so Amy.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: They’re just so excited to see you?

Laura Dern: They’re just so excited to see me or Mike. One of our favorite memories was when we were at kind of local Starbucks near an epicenter of yoga, and there was a woman coming out of yoga, really centered, really ready to affect change. As she peeled out, someone tried to cut her off, and she kind of got into the roadway, and she went insane.

It was just so perfect, cause it just, for me that is Amy. It’s like life is moment to moment, and we just are as good as the moment we’re in, and then we fall off and we have to find our way back.

Brendan Francis Newnam: We have two standard questions that we ask all of our guests, and the first question is “What question are you tired of being asked in interviews?”

Laura Dern: Probably, “Tell us a funny story that happened when you were working on “Blue Velvet.” That is probably the most common question that I think actors fumble over, because then you have to in-organically come up with the hilarious story.

Brendan Francis Newnam: The perfect anecdote.

Laura Dern: For the talk show that takes like three and a half minutes. Some of the things I would share are not typical hilarious fodder for nighttime talk show television.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Alright, well you’re welcome to share one of those here if you want.

Laura Dern: Actually, I do remember, David… oh I can’t even say it, it’s so gross. When I was 17, I remember David Lynch pulling apart a brain of something and putting it on the floor.

And I was like, “What is that?” He’s like, “It’s a brain!” I was like, “You mean like, somebody made a fake?”

“No, it’s a brain. You’re supposed to step over it, and it’s gotta be-” So I still to this day don’t know whose brain it is, or what kind of brain.

Brendan Francis Newnam: What a weird teenage life you had.

Laura Dern: And Dennis Hopper’s like, “Yeah, it’s a brain, it’s brain, what what? What’s so weird about that?”

I’m like, “Really? Have you been with brains on every movie you’ve ever done? Because I’ve never seen a brain.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: He’s like, “I usually fry them.”

Laura Dern: Yeah, exactly.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well I won’t ask you that question. And then I’ll ask you this. Tell us something we don’t know, and it could be about you, or it could be an interesting fact about the world.

Laura Dern: My most embarrassing moment was, I was 12 years old and my mother invited Scott Baio and his family over on New Year’s Eve, and Scott Baio was the biggest heartthrob on television and on film at the time.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Scott Baio, most people know him from “Happy Days,” right? And then “Joanie Loves Chachi” and “Charles in Charge.” Who didn’t want Charles in charge of them?

Laura Dern: And I had been in my first movie with him, which was called “Foxes.” And I was so excited he was coming over, he sat down on a couch in a white leisure suit. It was the year of “Saturday Night Fever,” and you know, he was beautiful and I was 12, and he was a grown up to me.

He was probably 18 or something. And, my dog passed him, and he was like cuddling her, and it was a very sweet moment, and I was so excited for him to meet my dog, and then I realized that my dog is in heat and she has an accident all over Scott Baio’s pants.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Whoa.

Laura Dern: And even worse, someone standing there is like, “You know what’ll get that out is club soda.” And he was like, “Do you have any club soda?” So suddenly all I know is I was 12, and I proceeded to have to clean it out of his pants with Perrier.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh my God.

Laura Dern: So that is probably the most troubling thing that’s ever happened to me that no one knew until this week.