Laura Dern talks ‘Wild’, women in film, and Jean-Marc Vallée

by W. Andrew Powell
Laura Dern as "Bobbi" in Wild

Laura Dern is refreshing in almost every way–on screen and off. In her latest film, Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild starring Reese Witherspoon, Dern plays a role that is tough and beautiful, with layers that add meaning throughout the story. Maybe best of all, the narrative is refreshingly different, with an ending that is happy, but not what you might expect.

Based on the real life story of Cheryl Strayed, Wild follows Cheryl’s journey on a difficult walk across 1,100 miles of often treacherous terrain as she comes to terms with her own life and failures, with flashes that give us insight into her relationships, including with her mother, Bobbi, played by Dern.

During the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival Dern sat down to talk about the film, working with Witherspoon and Vallée, and even the changing filmscape and how women are playing a much larger part once again.

Wild opens in Toronto today; in Vancouver on December 12; Calgary, Edmonton, and Montreal on December 19; and on December 25 across all other major cities in Canada.

Laura Dern: “The good news for all of us is that I have awakened. It took about four interviews, and I don’t know what I said.”

Question: Was it difficult handling this role, and this story, since it’s based on a real person?

“Well, first of all, Cheryl being with us almost every day–it felt like we all got Bobbi. She just carries her mother’s memory in herself. It’s really beautiful to witness, so it was palpable in a very honest way, how her mother–through everything that she walked through–was always grateful. It wasn’t trite or pretend. She had a deep sense of gratitude that she earned, and that’s beyond inspirational for all of us and so from that place you try to pay tribute to the story. But it’s a very humbling place to start and one of a real authenticity, so hopefully you stay out of your own way to tell Cheryl’s story.”

Question: What was it like working with Jean-Marc Vallée? He seems like such a passionate, interesting soul that he must have been interesting to work with.

Dern: “He is amazing. You know his films probably more than most–his earlier films before Dallas Buyers Club, which I just love so deeply, and the women in the films are so honest and heartbreaking and beautiful, and I think the thing that moved me the most about him emotionally as a filmmaker and a person, is there was no conversation about the flawed protagonist. They’re people. And you felt that so much from Dallas Buyers Club. It’s like, you get all of it. Stuff you can judge, stuff you don’t like about the person, but this is the person, and this is the person who lived this life, and I think that’s why so many people fell in love with Dallas Buyers Club, and why it’s so exciting to work with him as an actor, because, you know, this character is what you’ve been given, and speak to it without analyzing the rights and the wrongs.”

“So, I was really excited by that, and also, having been raised by actors, and particularly I’ll say actors who were making films in the 70s when I was a little girl, being on sets with the most imaginative and unparalleled directors, I feel like I’ve come home. He’s so inventive and on the fly and improvisational, and if you have five minutes–the next five minutes you could shoot something you didn’t expect to shoot. That’s the way it is every single day on set. It’s seamless, I think, for actors, because it’s sort of like actors get a little comfortable with the fact that they’re filming all the time. And I think in a way it’s a detriment to actors to wait in a trailer for three hours while they’re lighting, and then be told, ‘Okay, we’re going to lunch, we’ve got three minutes to do a couple of takes. Let’s go.’ The actor suddenly becomes a performer or something. So it’s very lucky when there’s an environment to play and explore and invent.”

Q: What was it like working with Reese?

Dern: “She’s amazing. I think we got really lucky because casting me was interesting in that Reese is playing younger, I would be playing older, we’re playing mother daughter, and yet most of it is her at 8 years old, and then it’s her at 25 and me at 43, or whatever. So, the ages, like her memories, kind of blur and pop around so much, but at the core of their relationship was this kind of sisterhood and this friendship that comes in a way from being really a teenager when you have a baby, but also going to college together and leaving an abusive household.”

“So, I feel so lucky that we’re close in age, and peers, and have known and loved each other for a long time as fellow actors but never got to work together. I think it was good for the movie, and great because I got an awesome friend out of it. Like, we are such a family now. We love each other so much.”

“Since we left Telluride, I’ve spent two days with Reese, I’ve talked to Cheryl’s children, texted with [Cheryl], my kids sent their kids a care package, and Skyped with Jean-Marc like three times. We are a big group love affairs–it’s really cool.”

Q: How does your relationship with your family affect your work in films like this?

Dern: “Having this peculiarly delicious relationship with my parents–of sharing the same job and watching them do what they love and getting to be beside them–it’s really amazing. And in the case of my mom, working together a few times, so I feel lucky because I understand the bond that Cheryl had with her mother, and that I’m really blessed for.”

“But, I don’t know if I could have done this movie–I’ve read interviews where actresses say, ‘Oh, becoming a mom has really deepened my…’, and I’m like, ‘Okay, okay…’ [Laughs] It’s so unfair, but they are right in one way, but particularly for this film, I think I’m very lucky to know what it is to love your children and to have this boy and girl in my life, and to want to do anything for them. And I don’t know if I would have understood that except through my own mother–that kind of lioness protector energy.”

“And so I think learning about ferocity really helped me, because I don’t think you can get to that kind of gentle gratitude that Bobbi had until you’ve been ferocious, and it takes immense ferocity in the early 70s to leave a violent husband because there were no resources. No hotlines. No ads about domestic violence–you know, you stayed. That’s what it was. And it was pre-Erica Jong, so it was such an amazing time where everything was shifting for women, which I thought Jean Marc captured beautifully even in little ways.”

Q: How important is it for these types of films to be made? And to get a woman’s perspective out in the marketplace?

Dern: “Huge. My mother told me about it when I was like ten, ‘You know they don’t make movies about women…’ and I’m like, ‘Oh my God. She’s so jaded.’ [Laughs] ‘Mommy, I saw a woman who was a girlfriend of the star… and she was in it,’ but totally not realizing that they were not the lead. But also, you know, my mom, she and Alan Bernstein were the stars of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and it was set in 1974, so I thought they did make those movies, but it changed and we went kind of backwards for quite a while. So it’s clearly circling back. The great news is that it’s also very helpful that great, powerful women in their 50s and 60s are starring movies that are making lots of money, and so there’s a strong voice of audiences saying ‘we actually want these films. Thanks for giving us a chance to show you that.'”

“But particularly for Wild… [the reality of the ending] is just incredible. I’m hopeful also that men see women’s films and television going, ‘she taught me so much’ because we’ve certainly had that experience with male characters in film and all of it should be universal, and it’s a bummer that men’s movies are for everyone, but when it’s a woman’s movie, ‘oh, it’s a woman’s movie.'”

“I just feel like they’ve categorized all of us, so hopefully we can change the story up.”

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