Even though Laura Dern has been a movie star for her entire adult life, I was surprised how glamorous she was in person. Her rangy body was clad in a striped sweater dress and her hair is that perfect shade of bright, but not gaudy platinum, blond. It’s a shock to see Dern so well-groomed, because every day when I get out of the subway I’m confronted with a poster advertising her new HBO show, Enlightened, which shows a closeup of Dern's face, distorted and crying, mascara running down her cheeks in thick smeary lines. “Meet the new face of tranquility,” says the tagline above her miserable moue.
In Enlightened, Dern plays Amy Jellicoe, who starts the series as a health and beauty executive at a sterile corporation in Southern California. In the first scene, she has a nervous breakdown in the office because an affair with her boss has gone awry and she’s being demoted. She ends up going to a kind of rehab/retreat in Hawaii after her emotional explosion, swimming with turtles and meditating. Then Amy returns to Riverside, moves in with her mom, and tries to be a better person—hence the series’ title. Though she’s desperately trying to do the right thing with her possibly evil corporation, her ice-cold mother, and her drug addled ex-husband (played by Luke Wilson, the best he’s been in years), Amy still has those intense spikes of rage that no amount of yoga seems to cure.
I spoke with Dern about the new series, her past and future collaborations with David Lynch (she might be able to drag him back to the director’s chair!), her devotion to Transcendental Meditation, and whether or not Jurassic Park 4 is actually going to happen.
Slate: How did Enlightened come about? You have a history of collaborating with directors (David Lynch in particular) that you work with. Was this a script that Mike White sent to you and the character was fully developed, or did you have a hand in creating Amy Jellicoe?
Laura Dern: I got my hands very dirty for Amy. Mike and I both wanted to work together again, and HBO had talked to me about doing a series after having done Recount. I told them that I was really interested in playing a rager who becomes a whistle-blower. That was the inception of it. Mike, with his brilliant brain, started patiently sitting through breakfast after lunch after dinner with me as we talked through the idea of this show. Then he went off, once we had the show, and wrote the episodes.
Slate: When I watched the pilot the first time, I thought Amy was just clueless and overwhelmed by her emotions. She is trying to do better, but she just really doesn’t know how. But then I watched it a second time, and I zeroed in on the scene where she gets her company to rehire her. She’s reading the room like a pro and she seems so cunning, underneath that veil of cluelessness. Did she blunder into getting that job, or was that intentional?
Laura Dern: I think she’s both clueless and cunning, and that’s what I love about her. I think she does come from a place of being overwhelmed by her emotions, but she does have her pulse on right and wrong, and what should be fought for at all costs, and where to stand up. From that place, I think she finds a highly intelligent route toward uncovering scandal, deceit, betrayal, things like that. She’s not a true intellectual, but she knows what she’s doing.
Slate: Luke Wilson is really well-cast as Amy’s drug-addicted ex-husband. How did he end up in that role?
Laura Dern: I think we knew in order to understand Amy, if not love her every once in a while, her ex had to have charm. I don’t mean surface charm, which Luke has, but a deeper charm. Luke has that way where he kind of cocks his head and you feel like he’s taking people in and adoring them for who they are. I think Owen does too. Those boys have a real warmth about them. He plays the damage and the addiction so beautifully, the freight train that’s coming at both of them. Mike and I were hopeful that he would be able to do it, because obviously he’s a film actor and hadn’t done a TV series.
Slate: Amy goes to a New Age-style healing retreat in the first episode. I read an interview where you said that you had a lot of spiritual “woo-woo” growing up. What is your orientation toward all of that now?