BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - A stampede of shopping bags, lunch ladies attached to their handles, rustles into the garden restaurant, destroying intimacy, disrupting digestion, generating a frisson of high-end, highly caffeinated disorder.
"They're all going to Athens," Laura Dern says, as the air-kissing Olympics commence, without benefit of a starter's gun.
These are Dern's people - kinda, sorta. Born and raised in Los Angeles and the hotbed of Hollywood, she's seen it all. Joan Crawford at the swimming pool. Childhood memories of Jimmy Stewart. The rise and fall, and maybe the resurgence, of serious moviemaking.
The noise level at that nearby table has risen precipitously.
"Uh, we're having a conversation here?" Dern says, sotto voce, but leaning into the tape recorder. "We know you wanna talk about Botox, but we are talking about infidelity? And my career! So hush up!"
At the moment, infidelity defines her career: We Don't Live Here Anymore, scheduled to open in Baltimore on Friday, is garnering Dern some of the more laudatory reviews of her many years in film - which began about 1974, when Martin Scorsese put her in the background of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.
Her first credited role was in Adrian Lyne's Foxes (1980), in which she starred with Jodie Foster and Cherie Currie. She was 13 the year the movie was released.
She's not 13 anymore, or the semi-nymphet of Smooth Talk (1985) or the unguided missile of David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) or Wild at Heart (1990) or the aerosol-and-glue-befuddled, pro-choice poster girl of Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth (1996). Laura Dern is 37, a mother, and We Don't Live Here Anymore is very adult.
The new film, directed by John Curran, is about the relationship of two couples, best of friends, which comes unraveled via adultery. The film, one of the first to be released by the fledgling Warner Independent Pictures, is not an easy sell.
"My first instinct was not to do it," says Mark Ruffalo, whose character, Jack, is husband to Dern's Terry. "I didn't know too many directors who could handle it. And then, I was wondering about the girl I was going to do it with. But Laura is the kind of actor who's willing to throw herself into it, leave her vanity at the door."
What you get from Ruffalo - and even more from Dern, who has a breathless exuberance about everything, and eyes the color of the Pacific reflected in pewter - is a willingness to do whatever it takes to put their new film across to a public disinclined to serious drama. And they share a real enthusiasm about the movie.
"But I've been lucky," Dern says, wading into her mozzarella and tomatoes, "because I feel that way about most of the things I've done."
"But in this case, everyone was passionate about it, especially from an acting perspective, because you just don't get parts like this," she says. "And I think everybody loves John Curran 'cause he's a gracious, generous, excited, passionate filmmaker, and we know that's rare."
Dern and Ruffalo, who star with Naomi Watts and Peter Krause, come out of the same "root stock," as Ruffalo put it: method acting, although Ruffalo says he's more of the Stella Adler school, Dern more of the Lee Strasberg variety. Regardless, both disciplines are about the actor's drawing on self to create his or her character, which makes We Don't Live Here Anymore a particular challenge:
"Laura is a free spirit," says Sandra Seacat, the celebrated acting coach and a longtime associate of Dern's. "She's also a great student and a dedicated artist - and there aren't very many people I call artists. But the entire cast of this film, they're all true artists, dedicated to their own inner truth, and they have the courage to share that. You don't find that very often."
'Way out there'
Who is Laura Dern? To judge by her genealogy, a mix of the historical and the bohemian. Her great-grandfather, for instance, was governor of Utah. "The first non-Mormon governor," she clarifies. "He was an amazing man. George Dern, who was secretary of war under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, governor of Utah."
Her father, actor Bruce Dern, on the other hand, is a provocateur, she says.
"All he wants to do is have a banter, to drive you crazy," she says.
Laura Dern wishes she worked more. On the other hand, she's happy with what she's done; there aren't any embarrassing entries that will eventually vanish from the filmography. Her personal life seems balanced. And she wants it to stay that way.
"I think there are ways to get so caught up in your career and being so heavy and dramatic, and everyone wants to be a tortured genius," she says. "If we could all figure out a way to just be true to ourselves and have a good time doing what we're doing, it would be a lot more fun."
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