“Can I trouble you—I never do this—to put you on hold for one second? It’s just my daughter’s school is calling.”
I’ve been on the phone with Laura Dern for about ten minutes when this particularly meta moment occurs. We’re talking about the new season of the Big Little Lies, starring Dern alongside Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, and Zoë Kravitz as a group of affluent mothers whose seemingly perfect lives dissolve to the point of murder (and now with Meryl Streep). The interruption is so on the nose given the topic of conversation that I’m almost tempted to ask whether Amabella is still being bullied by another student at Otter Bay Elementary.
“I’m so sorry to do this—I’ll come right back and make sure I make up the time!” she says.
Dern is sincerely apologetic, which is the only signal I need that I’m still talking to her and not Renata Klein, the high-powered and high-maintenance venture capitalist she plays to perfection on the HBO series (based on Liane Moriarty’s novel). Like Dern, Renata Klein is a go-getter now at the top of her game.
But Dern is eons more modest about it. As the daughter of acting legends Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, Dern started acting when she was 11 years old and has been working nonstop in the four decades since. And while she’s been beloved by fans for several years, it’s only in the last few that she’s earned the sort of widespread admiration that’s led us to the so-called Dern-aissance we’re living in today. With two buzzy films due later this year and only more projects to come, it’s no wonder Dern has to take interviews in between meetings while also intercepting calls from school.
“Thanks for your patience—she couldn’t find her ride,” Dern says when she returns. “You know, always a mother first!”
Renata was originally a supporting character on Big Little Lies, but viewers clearly couldn’t get enough of Dern’s cutthroat performance as Monterey’s most outrageous mom. Slinging out one-liners (“Do not fuck with my daughter’s birthday”) as effortlessly as she downs a glass of Chardonnay, Renata has only been given more room to shine (and one amazing red dress) in the new batch of episodes airing this summer. With everything at her daughter’s school settled, Vogue caught up with Dern about the return to Monterey and what’s in store for the season ahead.
What excited you most about returning to the character of Renata?
I think that we all share this collective conversation about what that night, death, trauma, and exposure to Perry’s violence did and how it impacts each person differently. Probably Madeline and I being the two that are on the outside of it. For Madeline it’s a little less so because Celeste is her best friend, and I’m the most on the outside of it. But I was still witness to something so traumatic and now have to hold the lie and the secret. And how it impacts everybody differently obviously affects us all. But I’m the one character with this whole other kind of story line that’s also about betrayal and lies and marriage and abuse. It was so interesting for Renata to also have this whole other world that still deals with money and who has the power, and what it means to be a man versus a woman.
What sort of research did you do for this season once you knew what was in store for Renata?
With this story line, one specific person was amazingly generous to really walk me through the world of hedge funds and a little more into what must be the world of Gordon. Renata is an incredibly smart and powerful woman who knows money and would know the ins and outs of his screwups. Because frankly when you hear about these insider trading cases, I never really understood it. I understood it was bad and that you can’t do it, but I didn’t even understand how an innocent person who’s not in the business of it screws up. And what’s so troubling is how easy it is if you don’t know the business. If someone goes, “Hey, I found out it’s a guaranteed bet that you should buy a bunch of stock in this company,” why would you think it’s illegal? That is in fact insider trading, that’s illegal. The details of it seem muddy enough that it’s very easy to fall prey in these situations…unless you’re Gordon and Renata. And the fact that he says, “I sort of bet the ranch...our ranch”—it’s like, No, no, no, no, no, my ranch. (Laughs.) A massive part of their world is her money, and because it’s community property she’s lost everything. That’s just...woo.
That’s not gonna fly for Renata.
It’s fascinating to think about. The heartbreak of David Kelley to say to me, "Okay, this season we’re gonna look at domestic violence, sexual assault, being a woman in the workplace. And for you, Laura, you’ve gotta explore what it feels like to lose wealth and have people empathize with you.” (Laughs.) It’s an interesting leap, but when you get inside of it what you’re looking at is someone who never had it, right? Who then builds from nothing and then has a man, because of marriage, make you lose everything. It’s not your screwup. And to have a man betraying her and their daughter by jeopardizing their lives and putting himself in jail? I think there’s a lot of room to really have deep empathy for her in moments where you really don’t expect to. And that’s what I love to do as an actor. It’s such a delicious opportunity.
There are so many amazing moments of Renata going completely ballistic and unhinged this season. Do you see her behavior as her losing control or sort of justifiably coming into her rage and anger?
Oh yes, coming into it. She deserves it. Before she was just unleashed, and now it’s rightful. Between me and Meryl’s character, you feel all the angst, and then we just shock people with what might be considered extreme or odd behavior. But of course they feel that. In the case of Renata, it also addresses what it is for women to be the boss of a man’s world where the men hate you and the women hate you. That’s who we met last season. This is a very interesting story line for a woman who, after all the power that she has held, still doesn’t fit in anywhere. She’s not safe at work, she’s not safe at home, she’s not safe at school. She’s always compared to men, manipulated, betrayed, or judged by men. And also by women! I understand our judgment of someone like that. We’ve all done it, right? You know we did it in the last election. There’s the brilliant, tough woman in the power suit, and people go, “Oh god, she’s tough. She’s a nightmare.” Like, really? What are we saying about the person she’s running against? We were in the early debates and primaries when we started Big Little Lies, so I was watching Hillary Clinton and Trump start to debate each other, and it was very inspiring. Not in terms of the individual, but in terms of what we say about a male bulldog versus a female bulldog.
With each of your characters do you go in already pre-judging or thinking of them in a certain light? Or do you always try to empathize with them?
Always. I’ve played a couple of people who I didn’t necessarily respect or like, but I can still empathize with what they longed for or what was broken in them. In Renata’s case, I’ve really grown to love her. Not that emotionally I don’t have my rage and my demons and I find that really relatable, but there’s so much of her that does feel like, as an actress, an amazing opportunity to create a character outside of myself. I always love when something feels foreign to me and then you start inhabiting it. It’s like, Oh my God, I live and breathe this person. Which is very scary because people are like, “Do you take your character home?,” and I always found that so silly. But the minute we started up again, I could find myself kinda...Reese and I, we improvise a lot, and we play, and in that energy the two of us would constantly be in it, and if somebody was like, “Do you want a coffee?,” we’re like, “Well, what do you fucking think?” (Laughs.) I learned it’s just best for me not to be social while shooting Big Little Lies.
Do you get to improvise a lot as Renata?
The writing is brilliant. The book created such extraordinary characters, and David has certainly given me some of the greatest one-liners I’ve ever gotten to say, so I say it with great respect to everything we’re already given that the dialogue is a jumping-off point. With Renata, a lot is improvised.
I know season two only just began, but could you imagine a world where Big Little Lies comes back for future seasons?
I could never not imagine a world that it wouldn’t be delicious to explore Renata in. These are really deep, soulful, and funny characters. It is so deliciously rare that I think it speaks to the culture, not just the content, that we’re all giddy to see six complicated, powerful females in one piece. It’s been so amazing to hear from teenagers and frat boys and moms and fashion designers and all my different friends or people that I meet who love these characters. Every time we do it, we say we’re only doing this—so I don’t know what to tell you! I for sure thought we were just doing a limited series. It’s definitely interesting to think about it creatively. I just don’t know if it makes sense to everybody. I know that what’s great is that it was such a collective effort. It was an audience saying, “We wanna know more about these people, go wherever you wanna go!” I think that gave Liane, our novelist, the room to look deeper into their lives and their recovery from this event and not continue to need the same energy of a whodunit. We're all audiences because we all have our own story line. We know our scripts very well and are with each other every night for dinner and have become like family, but we weren’t there watching scenes shot that we weren’t in. We too are like an audience going, “Oh my God, is that what Shailene is doing, oh my God, she’s telling her son. I can’t handle this right now.” We’re so invested and really touched by things and moved by characters in ways I didn’t expect, so I know I’ve really loved moving in the world of these people.
I read that Shailene was refusing scripts and considered quitting acting before Big Little Lies came her way. Have you had a moment in your career where you went through something similar?
Oh, both. I started acting when I was 11, so I hate to say it, but I felt like Shailene a few times. I was raised by actors, so I’ve seen them go through it, you know, five different times. Particularly my mother and particularly my friends. Through the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, my father was starring in many movies and my mother was extremely beloved as an actress but parts were few and far between. And it’s not that it’s never happened before. It’s a lot of work, and it’s women across all industries creating respectful workplace environments with pay parity. There are some women who’ve gotten the opportunity to be the one woman invited in the boardroom, but they’re not getting paid the same. And there are 13 guys in that boardroom and one woman. I’m speaking right now on the world of tech since I learned so much from Renata. Actresses, they think it’s tough....That’s why I have such sympathy for Renata. I’ve learned why she has so much anger and had to be tough.
A lot of artists keep their personal views completely private, but you’re incredibly vocal on social media and in interviews about the causes you support. Why?
I’ll start with thanking my mother and my grandmother. That’s just the way I was raised: Use your voice, say what you feel, say what you mean, be honest, be authentic. Both my parents taught me that it’s hard to want to be a deeply honest actor but then not be authentic in your life, in your world, in the world we live in. So I’ve always been open to share my opinion, and I’ve been very blessed to work on films that have a deep longing to talk about something that we all need to wake up to, like Recount, about what happened during the 2000 recount with voter fraud. And who knew in 2000 that we’d be talking about hanging chads and could never have imagined we’d ever be talking about other governments stealing our elections? I’m excited to talk about those things, but I think the main reason why today I’m outspoken in any way—it’s not outspoken, just honest—is, like Renata and all these women, I’m a mom. When you learn the stats and you know that’s what we’re leaving the next generation, there’s just absolutely no option as a parent not to consider doing everything you can to clean up the mess that a generation before has made, and continue to make instead of going, Oh, let that be their legacy.
That sort of idea is so omnipresent in our day-to-day lives now.
Exactly. Even with school shootings. Columbine was this insane event where the world stopped, and we all sat with our friends and family and cried in front of the television. We couldn’t get our brains around it, and now every week since January there has been a mass school shooting in the United States. And we don’t stop. If you’re at work or I’m on set, nothing stops. Instead we go, “Oh my God, did you hear there’s a shooting right now?” And it just keeps going. There are 25 things that need us and need our voice every day, so I think if something moves you, whether it’s Planned Parenthood or gun safety or honoring human rights, which should include everyone’s identity and all identities or the refusal to be identified as anything….What an exciting time that my daughter can say, “Nobody tells me what my identity is, nor do I need to answer those questions!” We never grew up thinking we had a right.
It feels restrictive in retrospect.
And to be 16 and to go, I’m not straight or gay. I don’t know if I’m really in a body I can relate to. I don’t know what God means to me yet. I’m a meditator, I’m trying to figure it out. I’m biracial, but I’m not gonna talk about what I am, I’m just gonna be me. Even a 25-year-old today doesn’t relate to that world, which is amazing. Kristen Stewart and I just did a movie together, and Kristen was like, “The way your kids talk about sexuality, I don’t understand that.”
It’s amazing how even with just those few years difference, the dialogue around those issues has been elevated so much.
That’s why I feel like we need to use our voices. That thing of, “Wow, they’re catching up, and they’re coming in with a new mission statement that we never knew, so we have to help them not only learn from our mistakes but from our heartbreak, from our hard pasts.” It’s truly exciting.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Originally Appeared on Vogue