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Laura Dern's Liberal Lust

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 12, 1997

"Mile High Lemon Pie . . . " Laura Dern savors the poetry of the image. "I love food with titles!" she exclaims. Life, even a business lunch, seems to be an ongoing adventure for the 29-year-old actress, who pores over her menu in search of more food that sounds fun.

"I order things I usually don't even eat," says Dern, who sometimes uses a similar criterion in her choice of roles. A liberal, born and reared, Dern says she played right-wing extremist Vicki Weaver in TV's "Ruby Ridge: An American Tragedy" because Weaver was the last person on earth she wanted to portray.

Though she has experimented with mainstream "stand-behind-your-man" roles in "Jurassic Park" and "A Perfect World," Dern specializes in bringing heart and humor to the flakes and freaks of independent films. She won Oscar's notice for her sympathetic portrait of a nymphomaniac au pair in 1991's "Rambling Rose." But Rose smells sweet compared with the skanky antiheroine she depicts in "Citizen Ruth," a droll social satire that opened here Friday.

Dern, whose own addiction is Chanel suits, is barely recognizable as Ruth Stoops, a pregnant spray-paint sniffer who is arrested and charged with a felony for endangering the fetus. The judge offers to reduce the charges if Ruth, already the mother of four, agrees to "take care of the problem."

As it happens, Ruth's syrupy cellmates are antiabortion protesters -- called Baby Savers -- who post Ruth's bail and promise to care for her and arrange an adoption for her baby. Not to be outdone, a gang of abortion rights activists kidnap Ruth, give her a good talking-to and offer to pay for her abortion.

Dern frets, "People will get hung up on the abortion issue, but the real subject is fanaticism. Both sides are so into their own clubs that they forget about what's right for the individual."

And if she were in Ruth's position?

"I'd hope I'd be savvy enough to `take care of the problem.' I don't see any reason to have a child when you're four months pregnant, snorting every chemical known to man, incapable of taking care of yourself, let alone a baby, you have no money, you're homeless and you've already got four other kids and you don't even know where two of them are."

At present, matters of reproduction seem not to be an issue for Dern, whose relationship with boyfriend Jeff Goldblum is on hiatus. It was Goldblum, with whom she was living, who gave her a copy of the "Ruth" script, written by director Alexander Payne and his partner, Jim Taylor. She read it, loved it and immediately pleaded for the role. (Asked whether her pleading entailed anything drastic, she says, "You mean like wearing a cat suit?" and giggles.)

Payne and Taylor compare their movie to Preston Sturges's social comedies, but Dern is reminded of "Being There." Like Chance the Gardener, Ruth is a bit slow but manages to outmaneuver the myopic bullies who would manipulate her.

Though the film spoofs both factions, antiabortion activists have responded more favorably than their opponents at special screenings. "They totally got the movie," says Dern.

"But our biggest feminist magazine was bent out of shape that the pro-choice leaders were lesbians. This reporter was, like, `How offensive,' " she fumes. "I just loved that. It's great when Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband's penis. . . . `All right for women!' . . . but sending up stereotypes is offensive! Excuse me!"

Dern herself has been stereotyped as a bean-sprout-and-tofu-eating Valley Girl. Conceived during the filming of Roger Corman's biker rumpus "The Wild Angels" -- her parents, Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, starred -- Dern wasn't born to be bland. Nor was she reared that way.

"Mother was . . . is off in the fourth dimension," bubbles the Champale blonde, who herself remembers wearing a copper pyramid on her head in hopes of contacting E.T. ("It had a crystal on top so it was, like, a double whammy.")

When she was growing up in new age California, everybody was into "woo-woo," Dern's term for any and all spiritual alternatives to conventional religion. And to this day, she says, "I'm very interested in spiritual things, but I don't like to talk about them because I'm always mortified when I read what I said."

Has she been misquoted? She stops to think. "No, I'm afraid I come off exactly as I am," says Dern, who says she believes actors must fully expose themselves if they are to give truly great performances.

By way of clarification, she adds that she's not talking about nude scenes. "I had this girlfriend who agreed to do a nude scene because it was a great film with a brilliant director. Then she finds out that it's going to play at the Cinerama Dome, and she said, `Oh my God, my pubic hairs are going to look like giant blades of grass.' After that, I could never do full nudity again."

Not that's she shy. After filming David Lynch's racy road movie "Wild at Heart," she walked away with a wardrobe of G-strings, thank you very much. According to Steven Spielberg, she drove the men on the set of "Jurassic Park" wild with her devilish, lustful humor.

"Woooooo! He's pretty devilish and lustful himself," says Dern, demure in a gray polyester pantsuit. "I'm interested in how someone searches for love, approval, caring and sexuality. Out of that comes eroticism, terror, violence and stupidity. Somehow we live our whole lives trying to fulfill those longings and we never get quite full. And nobody's going to fill us up. That's the lesson we all need to learn, and maybe we get there and maybe we don't. I certainly haven't."

On the other hand, she enjoyed playing an asexual character like Ruth Stoops. "There's a wild, ferocious nature to her that is maybe sexy, but this isn't someone who likes or wants sex on any level."

Nevertheless, the film includes one of the most dismal sex scenes in film history. Dern's partner was a scuzzy local who looks like he's fresh fresh from a warm neighborhood bar stool. For the most part, she has been blessed with a classier sort of leading man.

Only the night before, Dern had run into Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper at a White House wingding. "I went by myself, and I was, like, `Oh, I'm not going to know anybody.' And there they were. I thought, `Wow, I've worked with some interesting, amazing men.' "

Though she'd been invited during other administrations, this was Dern's first visit to the presidential digs, and she was enchanted by the formalities. "I knew it was going to be `My Fair Lady,' but I didn't know it was going to be soooo `My Fair Lady,' " she exclaims.

She went through the receiving line twice, because the first time she forgot what she wanted to say to the Clintons. "Being with Bill and Hillary was like an E-Ticket ride at Disneyland," gushes Dern, who worked for the Clinton campaign. "I told him that I had other invitations, but I didn't want to come unless I loved my president."

Dern inherited her liberal politics, as well as her long legs, knowing eyes and angular face, from her parents. Heaven only knows what she has gleaned from her godmother, Shelley Winters. In any case, she loves them all unreservedly.

Her mother has a cameo in "Citizen Ruth" as well as "Wild at Heart," but the two worked together most closely in "Rambling Rose," which netted them the first ever mother-and-daughter Oscar nominations. "It was a little anxiety-producing because she'd been nominated three times and I really loved her performance," says Dern, "and I wanted her to win. When it comes to our mothers, we can be protective, us girls."

Dern made her debut licking a banana ice cream cone opposite her mother in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore." After 19 takes and as many ice creams, Martin Scorsese assured the 7-year-old that she was born to act. Her parents disagreed, although she talked them into letting her become a Method actor at 11.

She feels fortunate to have been raised by actors: "I'm hard on myself in all the areas of my life, but I think, thanks to them, I'm easiest on myself watching my own work. The first couple of times, I watch a film to see if my choices were right. But they taught me that my work ends with the filming . . . so I've never been too tortured watching myself.

"I would never try to intimate that my childhood, or any childhood, for that matter, is normal, because it isn't. I go to therapy; I'm totally interested in working things out. But I never felt I wasn't able to talk it out. And I hope I can give my kids that great gift."

In a photographic session after lunch, Dern invites publicist, manager, photographer et al. up to her "boudoir" for some glamour shots. She flops about happily on her unmade bed, posing for the lens in the day's last long, lonely ray of winter sunlight.

Dern offers one final insight. "Harold Clurman, this incredible theater director and teacher, once spoke to my acting class. He said our failures were our manure: `Don't forget: Life is a flop. You die. But what a fantastic flop it is. So we must not be afraid to try stuff. It's the only way we can grow.' "

Laura Dern isn't one to avoid the manure of life.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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