Big Little Lies actress talks #GayTwitter fans, Little Women queerness and embracing the ‘other’
By Chris Azzopardi | Photos courtesy Sony Pictures
#GayTwitter icon Laura Dern’s queer cultural contributions – being the first to hug Ellen DeGeneres after she came out publicly, the Renata Klein memes, the belted khaki shorts in Jurassic Park – are bountiful fodder for social media hyperbole. Every big and little thing Dern does – a new pair of glasses! Baby Yoda! – is met with great, dramatic exaltation from queer Dern-heads on Twitter. Once, I even read a tweet that asked us to imagine what the gay world would be like if gay men treated other gay men like they treat Laura Dern.
She is beloved for a vast filmography that includes parts in, of course, Jurassic Park, Twin Peaks, HBO’s gone-too-soon Enlightened, and on DeGeneres’s sitcom Ellen, where she portrayed DeGeneres’s out lesbian love interest, Susan. More recently, she’s acquired International GIF Fame thanks to her scenery-chewing performance as one of the messy Monterey Five on Big Little Lies: the aspirational “I will not not be rich” Renata Klein. Surely, too, #GayTwitter hasn’t forgotten that Dern also played one half of a lesbian couple trying to conceive in the 2005 indie comedy Happy Endings. Your straight mom who doesn’t even know what Twitter is loves Laura Dern too, but not like you love Laura Dern. Actually, on #GayTwitter, Dern is your mom.
Her four-decade career, which began in the early ’70s, continues its upswing, where the 52-year-old actress can be seen in two of this year’s best movies: as Scarlett Johansson’s steely divorce lawyer in director Noah Buambach’s Golden Globe-nominated Marriage Story, currently on Netflix, and in writer-director Greta Gerwig’s contemporary take on Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women as Marmee, the March sisters’ mother. In Gerwig’s richly moving update, the mother-of-two shares at least one obligatory parenting principle with her onscreen matriarch: they both love their children unconditionally. A safe place for her daughters, Beth, Meg, Jo and Amy, she is wise, tender and merciful – so understated Dern tells me she thinks she would make a really boring meme for the gays. But watch the Oscar-nominated actress ruminate on how she’s angry “nearly every day of my life” and how she’s “not patient by nature,” as she explains to Jo that she wants only the best for her, and then watch Dern demolish her husband’s prized room full of pricey collectors items in Big Little Lies with a baseball bat. In other words, Laura Dern will not not have range.
In conversation, Dern is everything #GayTwitter already knows her to be: gracious, warm, thoughtful and generous (like a mom, she tells me “lots of love” before we part). Get her talking about sexual identity in film, and like her career as of late, she’s an unstoppable force – six minutes over our scheduled block of time, I was the one ending our talk. Her voice bubbles and bursts as she giddily reacts to the mere existence of a Laura Dern Gay Twitter. In between those moments, Dern traversed talking points like how her famous actor parents, Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, raised her in a household that embraced otherness; the gratitude she received from parents of LGBTQ kids for doing Ellen, and how her own coming-of-age may have been different if she were growing up with the gender and sexual fluidity of our modern era.
One of your first lines in Little Women is “Call me mother.” Just making sure that you’re well aware that that’s exactly what every gay man on Twitter wishes you’d say to him?
(Gleefully shrieks; enthusiastically laughs.)
That’s going to be a meme.
But here’s the only thing we have to change in the meme: I don’t know that they want Marmee to say that. I think they want Renata Klein to say that! (Laughs.)
I think they want their memes to say whatever Laura Dern says.
Oh my god, that’s adorable. I feel very honored. (Laughs.)
How has social media changed your awareness of gay culture’s affection for you? I mean, I see it. You must.
Awww. Well, let’s just start with social media in general: I think I’m very lucky to be over 40 and discovering social media, because it gets to be a deep place of connection and instant information about the world and culture and the needs of the world. So as a woman, as an activist – and to connect me to other people and, yes, gay culture, as you say (laughs) – it’s the greatest thing in the world.
But I’m not discovering who I am and being defined by it, and I don’t know how my children’s generation is handling it. It seems incredibly overwhelming, and I think I would’ve been way too insecure to navigate it well. So I just get to be in the fun of it. And in that way it is just the best time ever. Particularly, with Big Little Lies, to see the joy that is being had, to play dress up as our characters – well, even with Star Wars too – I did start to discover the fun of memes and just, you know, I never laughed so hard or had a better time or made more great new friends.
Have you ever sent a Renata Klein meme in a text?
(Reflects.) No, I have never sent (one). In fact, I send memes of other actors sometimes to people, which is really fun. I always send Oprah memes, because you look up Oprah and it’s always the perfect meme for something. I think Noah (Baumbach) and Greta texted me something recently that really made me emotional in an overwhelming way and I sent what I’m told is a meme of myself crying in Blue Velvet.
Which is the meme Greta wore on her sweater recently at the Gotham Awards, where they presented you with the 2019 actress tribute.
She did! They’ve hit the hip-hop world, and I think it’s time because they’re amazing. Raf Simons (who designed the coordinated sweaters he and Baumbach wore as part of his 2019 fall collection) is a genius, and any designer that also pays homage to (Blue Velvet director) David Lynch makes me so happy.
I’d like to talk to you about your devoted LGBTQ following. How do you explain this connection you have with LGBTQ fans, Laura? Where did that start? When were you aware?
I’m pausing, frankly, because I probably need your help with this answer.
Well, I guess I wonder if it was before you did “The Puppy Episode” on Ellen in 1997 or after that.
I mean, I would say I feel privileged to have been raised by independently minded, radical artist parents, and I think that they have lived their lives relating to and feeling like and understanding the other, as actors, as humanists. My home was never not filled with people who might have categorized themselves as the other. There was never a conversation or a sit-down that happened in my childhood that involved same-sex relationships or quote “people of color” or disability. My upbringing was being raised by everyone.
My mother’s assistant, starting from when I was age 6, was the most wonderful man in the world, and when my friends were being dropped off by a really perky, cute, blonde babysitter, I had this most amazing man, Tony, and he would babysit me. Sometimes we’d go to his apartment after school if my mom wasn’t home. I met his partner, who was the most amazing man, and they were the sweetest, most loving and maternal people in my childhood, and this amazing couple. And I remember being 7 and them explaining to me, when I was like, “Are you guys married?” – as a 7-year-old would ask, when two people loved each other – that they weren’t allowed to.
That was such a huge part of my childhood, not understanding that. And I am just so grateful to my parents that I got to be a kid who, at 7, wouldn’t understand that, instead of being confused by a same-sex couple. And I’m raising biracial children, and it’s not part of their life’s conversation, but it certainly is part of their story. So I don’t know. I feel like it’s just always been my life, and I feel very lucky for that.
You’ve said doing “The Puppy Episode” shaped and continues to shape you as an activist, advocate and parent. How did it affect you in those ways?
I would say, yes, that that moment was pretty profound. And you could feel the gratitude of the moment for everybody involved – and the consequence. That’s part of what made it so amazing, that I was so thrilled (DeGeneres) asked me, and I got to be part of that experience. And then after it aired I did not work.
But still, you seem to have gratitude for being a part of that moment. What kind of acknowledgement did you get from the LGBTQ community at the time?
There were a lot of threats and challenges in the immediate, and then, suddenly, after some weeks passed, the letters started coming in. The thank-you letters from parents and grandparents for being part of something that gave them more understanding around their loved one coming out was what just really hit me hard.
I watched that episode when I was a teenager with my mom and it helped me to eventually come out to her.
Aww. Literally top three moments of my entire life: staring into (DeGeneres’s) eyes and feeling her shake as I was holding her hands, the tears welling up as she said those words for the first time in her life, out loud. So I just feel so lucky to have been on that journey with her, and then in and around the tragedy of the loss of Matthew Shepard for (human rights organization) Amnesty International we did a lot of fundraising concerts.
Melissa Etheridge, who is one of my best friends in the world, and I did these presentations and rock shows to raise awareness, and we had our intro. She’d be like, “My name’s Melissa Etheridge, and I’m a lesbian,” and I’d go, “My name’s Laura Dern, and I play one on TV” (laughs) and just from that Amnesty tour we had so much fun meeting so many people who were so grateful for that show. It was an amazing moment. So yeah, definitely that was a shift. But I guess (regarding) my previous comment: It never occurred to me it was a community; it was a part of my childhood. And that’s why I forever am grateful to my parents to have raised me that way.
Let’s shift to Little Women, which is essentially a story about identity.
And we see that particularly with Jo (portrayed by Saoirse Ronan), who, as a rebel spirit, has been sort of a literary queer icon. More than any of the other films, this version strongly alludes to Jo’s queerness. How might this particular version of Little Women resonate with the LGBTQ community more than previous iterations?
I would say particularly held in Greta’s work, in the adaptation, in the spirit of the film, but also in not only Saoirse’s performance but in the relationships between myself and Saoirse and between she and Timmy’s characters (Timothée Chalamet plays Jo’s neighbor, Laurie). I think that there’s a real gender fluidity between she and Timmy’s characters: role play, a real comfort in self, a real clarity about longing and different kinds of love and redefining what love looks like in their relationship. It’s my interpretation and I believe Greta’s, because (Saoirse) and I have a scene where we are talking about love, that I am letting her know that she should be free to love who she wants. I think it’s very clear that that mother is letting her know that she knows she needs to be her true self and whatever that looks like for her is incredible.
So you think Marmee would be accepting of a queer Jo.
What’s incredible is when I was growing up – and I don’t know if it was this way for you – it was like, are you straight or are you queer? And my kids don’t define it like that at all. Love is love. And it’s so gender-fluid that none of them are being defined. They don’t identify as anything but loving people, and I feel like Jo is an even more modern icon in that she loves men, she loves women, she loves being alone, she loves her own independence, she doesn’t want to be tied down by relationships, she feels attracted to everybody. That is Jo.
Do you think having less restrictions at Jo’s age would’ve changed the way you explored your own sexuality? I think about that sometimes.
I do too. I think certainly removing stigma from our own childhoods would make us all wildly different. And I say that not just in sexuality but as artists: If shame had been removed we wouldn’t have had to define, like, “OK, well, you’re a writer, and you’re an actor and you’re straight and you’re gay.” “And if you like dresses” … I mean, my son (fashion model Ellery Harper), who has an amazing girlfriend, spent his childhood so comfortably – like, literally his entire childhood – loving to be in dresses, loving manicures; he loves fashion, he wants to design, he’s always painting his nails, he’s always wearing rings, he loves to explore. And he doesn’t need a definition. Ahh!
You sound so inspired by him.
I really am. I do believe that it would have shaped me differently. I don’t know what my choices would’ve been, but they definitely would’ve been different, without question.
Regarding your role in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I want to ask you what it’s meant to you to have Holdo celebrated by the queer community for her interspecies lust?
(Excitedly, boisterously laughs.)
Is that the most accurate way to describe her sexuality?
I think that’s genius! (Laughs.) And I know there was lots of very interesting speculation about her sexuality. It’s so exciting to play a character in that world that also will not be defined. I praise both (writer-director) Rian Johnson for his creativity, and I praise Oscar Isaac (who portrayed Poe Dameron) for playing up his sexism toward what a leader should look like. And so it is not just a character on a page, and it is certainly not me as an actor bringing that to it; it’s me only as one of the participants in creating an iconic character based on what everybody invested in it.
It really was exciting what they wanted a hero to look like. I mean, all the way to having the privilege of (Star Wars composer) John Williams – I mean, such an icon – come up to me to say, “Do you like your theme?” And I said, “What?” He goes, “Laura, it’s the first time, ever, that it was such a profound moment that I just took score out and went silent.” Isn’t that beautiful? She was like the ultimate badass that even John Williams went, “No, there should be no sound.” I’m like, amazing.
What did you think of the fan-fiction that said Holdo and Princess Leia were lovers? Did you read any of it?
I did! And Rian was like, “God, that sounds fantastic.” I can’t say it’s true, or that was in our minds, but I love that we live in a world where it’s all possible. How gorgeous that, if we think of the resistance as an advanced species, that we might consider fluidity as one of their traits, as opposed to the less-evolved being the outsider or the outliers. I don’t know. I like our club, guys. I like that the other – whatever that looks like – are now the popular kids.
It’s invigorating and inspiring, and I could talk to you more about sexuality and identity, but I know you have a busy day of press.
But I am thrilled to talk to you, and I am thrilled to talk about what it means to think differently about everything. I’ll share that, for example, when I’m trying to understand who I am as a woman at this moment in my life and what that looks like, I have the privilege of meeting a lot of different writers to say, “I need someone who’s gonna get me.” One muse was (Enlightened co-creator/writer/producer) Mike White, and more recently I had the great, good fortune – the person I’m currently collaborating with on an idea is (Slave Play playwright) Jeremy O. Harris because I feel like he’s gonna get what it is to be a woman in her late 40s trying to understand her sexuality. So you know, we all are figuring it out together. It’s an exciting time. So my love affair is equal to anybody’s who’s willing to be a part of this party. It’s a really exciting time, and I feel privileged to talk to you.
Thank you. I admire the choices that you make and continue to make. To end, let’s bring this back to the beginning: What are your parting words for all of Laura Dern Gay Twitter?
(Laughs hysterically.) Oh my GOD!
Because you know, they’re gonna read this, Laura.
Um… (ponders deeply, committing wholeheartedly to the question like the professional #GayTwitter icon she is). Let’s see: May we never again read or hear the quote, “I’m gay and I’m proud,” ’cause, girlfriend, if you’re gay, you already know you’re proud! It’s redundant! I’m over that!
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.