Laura Dern on Being Laura Dern: Catching Up With the Busiest Woman in Hollywood (Exclusive)

Laura Dern
Photo by Christopher Patey/Contour by Getty Images

Talking 'Big Little Lies' and her new true crime drama, 'Trial by Fire.'

Laura Dern calls from the airport. She's just completed a few days of press in New York for her new film, the true crime drama Trial by Fire, and is flying to Los Angeles to finish the press tour. Before that, Dern was out promoting the Sundance biopic J.T. LeRoy and soon after she would begin a press blitz for Big Little Lies' second season. It's understandable, then, why one of the best times to reach her by phone is while she's waiting to board a flight. "I am calling from JFK," Dern tells me with a hushed laugh as not to bother her fellow travelers. "Glamorous JFK!"

If it seems like the actor, 52, is particularly good at the press facet of her job -- of being as winning as she is open, of a transparent gameness in every interview -- it's because she does genuinely enjoy it. "Actors, we're in the art of trying to figure it all out and talk about things that mean something to us and that we think hold value," she says. "In the current state of things, I think we would be considered one team, and it's a team that I really like being a member of. And so I really enjoy and admire and am inspired by journalism so deeply."

As it were, journalism is also what led Dern to her role in Trial by Fire. The film began with a New Yorker article by David Grann about the controversial 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham (played onscreen by Jack O'Connell). Dern portrays the playwright Elizabeth Gilbert (not Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame), who became an unlikely advocate for Willingham while he was on death row.

"I knew that she would have a very particular kind of soulfulness and a very particular kind of empathy that she would draw upon for this part," director Ed Zwick tells ET. "I knew that she would surprise me, that she would let things happen to her that weren't planned." And regardless of how in-demand Dern may be, Zwick says it didn't require much to convince her to sign on to his movie. "I know for others it may have been hard, for me it was ridiculously easy. I asked and she said yes."

Dern has been acting for 40 years, perhaps more so recently than ever before, in projects ranging from Twin Peaks: The Return with frequent collaborator David Lynch to Liam Neeson's latest action flick, Cold Pursuit, to Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Like many of her recent choices, Big Little Lies included, Trial by Fire fits squarely into what she calls "projects that matter."

"I love being an actor, but I also love when you're getting to continue to learn and ask yourself questions and have conversations that are about things that really matter," she says. "I feel blessed whether it was The Tale last year, which was around the subject of childhood sexual assault and memory, or in the case of this film, the great debate over capital punishment and the wrongful incarceration of individuals, and Big Little Lies, which is looking at issues surrounding a tribe. It also looks at domestic violence and sexual assault."

With Big Little Lies, in which Dern plays the deliciously type-A corporate shark Renata Klein, those conversations are served with a heaping side of camp and glamour, and thus officially completes the actor's transition from legend in her own right to undisputed gay icon. But what percentage increase has Dern seen in her gay icon-ness since season one premiered? "I must tell you that may be my favorite question I've been asked in a really long time," she hoots. (Which I only included because I believe it says more about her than any excellence in journalism on my part.)

"There is no question that the love that I feel is very deep and much appreciated and resounding," she says. "There is no more love that I have felt in my entire career and it makes me so happy -- and Renata is worth worshipping and I want to hear from you after season two, but maybe you'll even feel more love. I think you may. I'm going to dare to say."

With Big Little Lies now airing on HBO, her next project on the horizon is Greta Gerwig's reimagining of Little Woman, due out on Christmas. It's almost incomprehensible how Dern finds time to actually film the projects she's publicizing amid all of the obligatory promotional duties, let alone how her entire life doesn't feel like one never-ending press tour. "My kids at this point are so hilarious that they're like the ultimate grand leveler," she says of the "much-needed respite" that is raising son Ellery Walker, 17, and daughter Jaya, 14.

"I get home and they're like, 'Mom, we're supposed to go to the dentist,'" her voice pitches up. "'Mom, I got the part in the play!' 'Mom, you have to drive. You can't not drive me.' It takes me about six minutes to be, like, 'Wait, you're not asking me, When did I first know I wanted to become an actor?' Like, 'How am I having a conversation that's not entirely focused on narcissism?'" Dern laughs, and then it's time to board the plane, to return to her respite and some more press, too. "Forgive my having to go," she says in parting. "But back in L.A., I'm happy to jump back on the phone!"