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It would be surprising if Laura Dern had not become an actress. At 7, she was already shuttling between her parents’ movie sets — which one summer in the mid-’70s meant exposure to dad Bruce Dern in Alfred Hitchcock‘s Family Plot and mom Diane Ladd in Martin Scorsese‘s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
“I thought I was in heaven,” she recalls.
Acting has been heaven for the Dern clan since the late 1950s, when Bruce and Diane were just getting started. The family made history when Diane and Laura were both Oscar nominated for 1991’s Rambling Rose, and they’re doing it again, receiving back-to-back stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Nov. 1.
“I was stunned that they’d take a family, three people at a time,” Bruce says. “I thought you had to go to the moon to have a star on the boulevard.”
Bruce and Diane were married in 1960; he was a former athlete from outside Chicago, she an outspoken Mississippi belle, and they met during a New York production of Orpheus Descending. While they lost a first daughter in 1961, Laura arrived in 1967, two years before her parents’ split. They remain friendly — Bruce calls his ex-wife “a good dame.”
Over the years, the trio independently have mapped out an unusual career spanning features and television — everything from Diane’s appearances on The Love Boat and Chinatown to Wild at Heart (along with Laura) to Laura’s role in Blue Velvet and Bruce’s in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Coming Home.
Fifty years after the parents began in the business, they’re still going — Laura and Diane in HBO’s Enlightened, Bruce with several feature projects. While the star on the Walk of Fame is great, the parents remain most proud of their other star.
“When we were filming Wild at Heart, [Laura] said, ‘Oh, mommy, thank you for the genes,’ ” Diane recalls. “I said, ‘Honey, your father and I made the car, but you’re the driver.’ “
Silent Running (1972), The Great Gatsby (1974), Coming Home (1978)
Favorite Moment on Set: “My happiest days were when we got to work with legends. You can’t be a legend today — the press and the world are too invasive, everybody knows too much about everybody. But these were legends because you wondered about who they were. They were bigger than life. The best time for me was any time I got to work with them — John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Bette Davis.”
Worst Moment: “I went to work one day on Gunsmoke in the mid-1960s, and the woman playing my mother came out — Bette Davis. I had tears in my eyes. I worked with her in my first Hollywood film, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and she said, ‘What’s the matter?’ and I said, ‘Bette, it’s Gunsmoke! ‘ and she said, ‘Well, who’s going to pay for my cigarettes?’ And I realized she didn’t give a s***, she just wanted to work. It was a good role and no one was giving her movies. I suddenly realized how frail this all was. She’s an all-time great and she’s doing television.”
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), Wild at Heart (1990), Rambling Rose (1991)
Favorite Moment on Set: “Laura and I were shooting Wild at Heart, and preparing for a scene on opposite sides of the stage. She went into the scene and she had to cry over Nicolas Cage, who’s in jail. So I come in and embrace her and she’s crying, and I’m crying. We’d both used our own thing to prepare, but we both looked up suddenly and I knew what she was using [to make herself cry] in that scene, and she knew what I was using — and it was like we saw into each other’s soul. We were embarrassed and started to laugh. The crew thought we were crazy.”
Worst Moment: “I worked all summer on Primary Colors with [director] Mike Nichols, and he told me I’d probably get a nomination or something — and then he came back and said, ‘I have horrible news. We have to cut 45 minutes out of the film, and the only person we can cut without ruining the movie is you.’ The whole role ended up on the cutting-room floor.”
Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990), Rambling Rose (1991), Citizen Ruth (1996)
Favorite Moment on Set: “While on Citizen Ruth, my character had to have a tantrum. I tried it a million and one ways and wasn’t limited to ‘this is how an adult responds.’ I realized I wasn’t obliged to be understood in the [acting] choices I made — and that was a really freeing moment as an actor. I also remember being on Blue Velvet, trying to be honest and true to the character while I’m stepping over brains and Isabella Rossellini is standing naked in front of me. It was such insanity that there was no wrong way to try things.”
Worst Moment: “I was auditioning for this play when I was 11, and I was supposed to be 15 — they were taking The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds to Broadway, and my godmother, Shelley Winters, was in it. So I was auditioning for this very developed, mature teen character — and I wasn’t there on any level. I was wearing this shirt that had a scarf attached to it that held my hair back, and here I am on my first big deal theater audition — and Shelley pulled the scarf back so they could see my face — and it opened the shirt and I stood there with tissue padding my very childlike body.”
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