The Laura Dern-aissance: From Blacklisted After 'Ellen' to 2017's Scene Stealer
By Stacy Lambe
A formidable actress, Laura Dern has been working in
Hollywood since age 5. At 13 years old, the daughter of icons Diane Ladd and
Bruce Dern became the youngest Miss Golden Globe and soon thereafter earned
critical acclaim with her breakout role in Blue
Velvet. The 1986 film also marked the first time Dern and director David Lynch
would work together throughout her career, a pairing that continues with Twin Peaks’ celebrated return on
Known for her highly emotive face, Dern built a diverse and award-winning career as a working actress in the decade following Blue Velvet. She starred in Wild at Heart, her first reunion with Lynch; earned her first Academy Award nomination for Rambling Rose; and found blockbuster success as Dr. Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park. On TV, she picked up two Primetime Emmy nominations for roles in Afterburn and Fallen Angels. Then, in 1997, she played Ellen DeGeneres’ love interest in the two-part coming out episode of Ellen.
With a reported 42 million viewers, “The Puppy Episode” became the highest rated episode of Ellen ever, going on to earn multiple Emmy nominations, including one for Dern. But soon after it aired, a backlash followed, and the actress -- along with DeGeneres and Oprah Winfrey, who also guest-starred -- eventually found herself blacklisted. In a reunion on The Ellen Show, Dern says she didn’t work for a year in Hollywood after the episode, in large part because many people thought she was gay. “I started getting calls, which was so shocking to me, from friends and colleagues, even gay friends and colleagues, saying, ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’” Dern said on the show, recalling the negative feedback she began receiving soon after saying yes to the part.
Thankfully, Hollywood couldn’t hold her back for long. The year only served as a pause, marking the next wave of her career. Working her way back into the fold, Dern returned to grace with supporting roles in October Sky and Dr. T & the Women, a cameo in Jurassic Park III, and a guest-starring role on The West Wing. Soon after, she added gravitas to Lynch’s Inland Empire and won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Katherine Harris in HBO’s Recount. By 2011, the actress was seemingly back on top, earning critical praise and an Emmy nomination -- ultimately her fifth without a win -- for her starring role on Enlightened. Sadly, the HBO series was short-lived. But Dern persevered.
Following her second Oscar nomination, for 2014’s Wild, the actress is now in the middle of what many are affectionately calling “the Laura Dern-aissance,” thanks to back-to-back scene-stealing roles as Renata Klein on HBO’s Big Little Lies and as the coveted Diane on Twin Peaks: The Return. While playing Diane comes with its own praise and mystique (“Laura Dern is a psyche on fire,” Evan Davis recently proclaimed at Decider), it’s as Renata that Dern truly shines.
The HBO series adapted from Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name sees the actress reteaming with director Jean-Marc Vallee and Reese Witherspoon, both of whom she worked with on Wild. “I’ve only known Reese as my producer and [fellow] actress, both on Wild and now on this. [But] for me, it's an amazing gift,” Dern told ET of their reunion. Although she’s in a supporting role to Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley, who all deliver standout performances, Dern doesn’t waste a minute of screen time, leaning into Renata’s rage. And only she could believably start a mommy war, have loud bathroom sex, don an eye patch and still somehow make the villainous character likeable. “She’s just unapologetic, and there is something deeply refreshing about it,” Dern said of the role. In an interview with Backstage, which dubbed her “TV’s ‘It B***h,’” she revealed why it was so fun to play Renata: “It was about undoing what the audience felt about her as much as the people around her.”
In addition to the releases of The Founder and Wilson andstandout episodes of The Last Man on Earth and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Dern will close out 2017 with Alexander Payne’s Downsizing and The Last Jedi. Not much has been revealed about the highly anticipated Star Wars sequel except that she’ll play “a prominent officer in the Resistance named Vice Admiral Holdo.” In January, she told ET that she was “having the time of my life” as a franchise newbie. Later, when the first trailer for the film premiered in April, the Internet was dismayed that Dern was nowhere to be seen. This prompted Vulture to shame the franchise for holding out: “We could all die in a nuclear war next week, never having glimpsed Laura Dern’s space look. Is that fair?” Kyle Buchanan wrote. (Luckily, Vanity Fair offered the next best thing.)
Of course, Dern laughs off the idea of a renaissance, telling Bustle that it “feels like a little bit of a coming of age.” And at 50, she’s seemingly defying the odds of what it means to be “a woman of a certain age” in Hollywood, hitting a career high in respect to work and notoriety -- and possibly earning a long-deserved Emmy win this September. But at the end of the day, Dern is just so damn good at what she does.