Dern for the Better
By Allison Adato
Photographs by Patrik Andersson for GEORGE
Laura Dern isn't just another bleeding-heart Hollywood liberal.
Unlike most celebrity do-gooders, this soft-spoken, steely
actress doesn't lie down when it comes to a good fight.
Can Laura Dern save the world? Can she liberate Afghanistan from the
Taliban? Protect abused women and molested children? Save the elderly from
neglect? Shield animals from inhumane treatment? Keep abortion safe, legal,
and available in America? Can she save the whales, the seals, the spotted owls, the rain forest?
Tall order, yes. But Dern, don't forget, is an
actress. A tall, photogenic, well-spoken, and deeply
concerned actress. So as long as the public prefers
to get its news of Tibet from the hunky star of
American Gigolo and not, say, the secretary of
state, people like herself or Richard Gere are
perfectly placed to shine a spotlight on the issues
that trigger their compassion.
"I don't have any more reason to talk about this
than anybody else," Dern says with a bluntness that
is part of her otherwise earnest demeanor.
"Certainly a lot less than people who have been
through it. But if I have an opportunity to talk
about it when other people don't have a voice, then it's my obligation to do it,
because my outrage is there."
Celebrity perks at the beginning of the century include not only a personal
assistant, a Web domain, and the private reservations line at Nobu, but also a
platform from which to speak one's conscience. "There's an appreciation that
you should give back, a sense that you should consider doing something," says
Donna Bojarsky, a political consultant for, among others, actor Richard
Dreyfuss. To optimize the pulpit fame affords them, some in the industry
(including Barbra Streisand, Rob Reiner, and David Geffen) retain people like
Bojarsky to set up foundations, coordinate events, and advise them on when
and how to speak out. With her assistance,
Dreyfuss has appeared in Congress on behalf of environmental and health
issues. "Actors don't pretend they are experts, and every statement isn't
perfect," Bojarsky acknowledges. "They don't expect to be making policy, but
when they go to an event, it gets covered."
To that end, Oscar podiums become soapboxes and movie junkets sometimes
sound like Meet the Press. As long as they've got a reporter asking
questions about what it was like to work with Robert Altman, they may as well
mention labor abuses in sweatshops. If more people pay attention to where
their tennis shoes are made, terrific. If they have a warm feeling about the
star's benevolence and decide to see his movie, that's great, too.
Laura Dern has done something unusual by Hollywood standards: She has
consented to have a reporter trail her for three days, and she has no movie to
promote. She is allowing a glimpse into the life of a celebrity activist and, in
doing so, generating press for some of the causes that are dear to her. At
present, that list includes women's rights, reproductive choice, am nesty for
political prisoners, animal rights, environmental protection, hunger,
domestic abuse, and conditions for the elderly. Not long ago, her then-fiance,
actor-director Billy Bob Thornton, a father of three from his previous
marriages, introduced her to two children's charities he supports.
"I spent my twenties wanting to participate any time something upset me,"
says Dern, now 33. "I've done a little bit of good for a lot of different causes.
As much as I've been happy to do that, I'm still a very scattered person who
really needs to focus."
Because she has yet to commit wholly to one or two issues, Dern isn't a
political powerhouse like Streisand or Gere. "You can't do everything well,"
says Bojarsky, who advises her clients to "focus on one issue and create a
depth of activism."
But Dern's heart is in the right place, even if it is all over the map.
result, she's become a magnet. Several times each week, she is called by some
group seeking her involvement. Sometimes the request is as simple as wanting
an article autographed for a charity auction. "What chaps my ass a little bit is
fundraisers where people talk about their latest deal while drinking
champagne," said Thornton before his split from Dern. "They're just there
for the publicity. But Laura's genuine. It's not like she's doing what her
publicist tells her to do."
On a Monday night, Dern goes to New York's W hotel for a Feminist Majority
Foundation event publicizing the plight of Afghan women living under gender
apartheid. The real powers behind the evening, which will feature music,
speakers, and a documentary shot in Afghanistan, are Feminist Majority
president Eleanor Smeal and Mavis Leno, wife of the Tonight Show host, who
have tirelessly lobbied Washington on this issue. But the photographers and
reporters stalk the glossier names, and an evening like this draws a strange
mix: Dern, Meryl Streep, Al Franken, Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows,
Melissa Etheridge, and Marlo Thomas. "At least if I'm in the picture," notes
Smeal, who frequently jumps into the frame, "they will have to identify me,
mention Feminist Majority, and, hopefully, mention the event."
As each new celebrity emerges from the greenroom, the press gets a chance
elicit bite-size quotes on the heinous treatment of women by the extremist
Muslim Taliban regime. After a few interviews, Dern escapes to join a circle
made up of Streep, Etheridge, and singer Joan Osborne. They chat about
Osborne's upcoming album and how Streep's teenage daughter can't stop
playing Etheridge's last CD. But they're also trying to fathom how this chic
gathering in this trendy hotel will aid oppressed women. It is not a fundraiser.
Besides, it's nearly impossible to get aid into Afghanistan. So far the only U.S.
action has been to ban trade with the country. Somehow the stars can't help
wondering just what they're doing here.
"We're amplifying," says Streep, who says Smeal told her the publicity
prompt people to pressure the government to act.
"Amplifying!" repeats Etheridge, nodding rhythmically and psyching up her
huddle of famous teammates.
"Amplify," says Dern, smiling. She knows why she's here. She is angered
stories of Afghan women and girls being beaten for wearing nail polish or
accidentally showing an ankle; of women being forbidden to work, study in
school, or see a male doctor; and of girls being forbidden to sing, play, or feel
the sun on faces perpetually covered by full-body burkas. She seems to
operate on the "it can't hurt" theory of activism: Her presence might help,
she says, and "it's not some difficult offering."
Later, Streep will deadpan from the stage, "I'm a celebrity. I'm pretty
that's why I was asked here tonight." But her quip raises the question: What is
the impact of an actress reading a letter in which a 12-year-old Afghan girl
asks, "Is it a crime to be a woman?" Wrenching, yes, but constructive?
"When a celebrity has taken a stand on what's right," says Bojarsky, "that
sets a tone for the country, and I think that's enough. Even if it seems
hopeless, you want an issue on the table."
But good intentions can be tainted by the slightest whiff of scandal. When
O'Donnell denounced the gun industry, she was forced to resign her job
shilling for Kmart, which sells firearms. Campaign for animal rights, and
you'll be skewered for eating meat. "I'll say it now: I am a hypocrite," Dern
announces over a sea bass lunch the next day. "I love animals, and will
dedicate part of my life to animals. Am I a vegetarian? No. I was for six years,
and I became anemic. I started eating meat, and I feel good. I'm sorry if I
Like such sensitive souls as Rush Limbaugh. "I heard he was talking about
on his show," she reports with some pride. "Saying how gross it is that Laura
Dern's worrying about animals. 'What about children? What about cancer?' I
was like, 'You know what, man? I wouldn't want to be your dog! You don't even
know what I spend my life doing.'"
Two days later, Dern is the lone celebrity at a New York luncheon for NARAL,
the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. At the start of
the decade, abortion was a hot issue, evidenced by a chorus line of stars,
including Jane Fonda and Whoopi Goldberg, leading a march on Washington.
But seven years into a pro-choice administration, NARAL president Kate
Michelman now sees "a complacency" that makes it difficult to line up famous
names. She expects interest to pick up if George W. Bush wins the White
House, because he would likely appoint conservative Supreme Court justices,
who might vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.
"This is not an easy issue," says Michelman, who asserts that most actors
violent pro-lifers. "Some people get scared when they see the radical
convictions of the other side. But Laura is a woman who lives her principles."
That she could be considered brave for reading a prepared speech strikes Dern
as ridiculous; on the same stage with her is a nurse who suffered severe
injuries in a clinic bombing.
Dern's role at the NARAL luncheon is far less vague than at Monday night's
event. Guests have ponied up to $1,000 each to eat grilled chicken with the
actress who played the title character in Citizen Ruth. The 1996 film, a
poignant black comedy about a pregnant, glue-sniffing addict volleyed between
zealous pro-choice and pro-life groups, will forever link Dern's name to the
"I love that it's so radically offensive," she says of the cult film. "You
inflict abortion on Ruth, because she's going to destroy her infant. But she has
as much right to make a choice as anybody else, and we have to honor that."
After the NARAL lunch, Dern decides that we should see a show at the
International Center of Photography. Inside are Work Projects Administration
pictures by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and, Dern's favorite, Marion
Post-Wolcott. Their subjects are poor Americans, photographed to elicit
government aid during the Depression. Isn't it remarkable, she notes, that out
of an appeal for social justice such beauty can result?
Before she ever made a film of her own, Dern saw how the medium could
influence public opinion. "Growing up, I would go to screenings of my parents'
friends' movies." Her parents are the actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, who
separated when Laura was two months old. "I was seeing Network and
Norma Rae and Silkwood. And I thought, Wow, films about social
injustice! This is what I want to do with my life."
Dern has done just that. Although she isn't ideologically above a blockbuster
like Jurassic Park, her work often underscores her commitment to various
causes. Down Came a Blackbird dealt with human rights abuses, and
Rambling Rose, for which she and her mother received Oscar nominations,
was a subversively feminist Depression-era piece. Last year the Sundance
Institute honored her for roles such as the glue sniffer in Citizen Ruth and
the trailer-park mother in The Baby Dance. "A lot of white trash, yeah,"
she says, laughing. "But sometimes when we see simple people telling us the
truth, we relate to it more."
Dern has been an actress since childhood and an activist for nearly as
She was first seen at age seven, eating an ice cream cone in Ladd's film Alice
Doesn't Live Here Anymore. In 1983, when Dern was 16, her mother
toured Central America with a group that hoped to end the U.S. military
presence there. "My mom saw things that were devastating: mutilation, rapes.
That really affected me." In high school, Dern recalls, "we started this
wannabe Peace Corps. Everybody brought their own cause to it, and we all had
to participate in one another's."
But the early 1980s offered slim pickings for well-off liberal kids reared
their parents' stories of the civil rights movement and anti-war marches.
Besides protesting U.S. involvement in Central America, she says, "'No Nukes'
was it. I believed that we were going to blow ourselves up." (Later, while
working on a film about the Manhattan project, Fat Man and Little Boy,
Dern learned that her great-grandfather, George Dern, was Franklin
Roosevelt's secretary of war and an opponent of the bomb.)
Dern went to the University of Southern California but dropped out in order
work with directors David Lynch on Blue Velvet and Peter Bogdonivich on
Mask. Now she is slowly trying to earn a degree in psychology and religion at
maternal grandmother. "I love Mary, and I love
Raised as a Catholic, Dern still attends Christmas mass,
but only in deference to her 87-year-old
Three years ago, when Ellen DeGeneres's TV alter
ego came out as a lesbian, Dern played her
prospective lover. While taping the episode, she
met Thornton, who appeared in a cameo. After relationships with actors Kyle
MacLachlan and Jeff Goldblum and director Renny Harlin, Dern seemed to have
found a strong match in Thornton, who shared her dedication to good works.
The couple announced their engagement in early 1999. "I don't think I could
share my life with someone who wasn't a humanist," she says.
Midway through their relationship, which ended in April with Thornton
reportedly linked to Angelina Jolie, the Oscar-winning screenwriter offered
Dern the ultimate Hollywood valentine: He wrote her a movie. "He really is a
remarkable godsend in that he cares so much about integrity and honesty,"
Dern said of her fiance just after they had finished shooting the dark comedy
Daddy and Them. "He knows that I so desire doing these kinds of movies. And
he saw my frustration that they're so rare to find."
Thornton was equally smitten when he spoke about Dern just before they
broke up. He insisted that, of the two, she was clearly the more committed to
causes. "She's watching the news," he said, "and I'm thinking about pie. I don't
know if I would have survived if I hadn't met her. She's like Clara Barton, my
personal Red Cross."
And, from time to time, the world's. Maybe her East Coast tour hasn't secured
abortion rights or markedly improved the situation in Afghanistan, but has it
at least enhanced her own public image? "That's just so gross!" says Laura
Dern. "If you ever get to that point, you need to just take yourself out of this
world for a little while."