Laura Dern Discusses 'Trial by Fire,' Restrictive Abortion Laws and the True-Crime Trend

Trial By Fire Still - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

The actress, who plays a tireless advocate for the innocence of a Death Row inmate in the film by Ed Zwick, wants more Hollywood titles focused on immigrant parents separated from their children: "Where are those stories?"

From her roles in Big Little Lies to The Tale to Star Wars, Laura Dern has recently been on a tear of playing women with complex moral compasses. Her role in her latest film, Trial by Fire, is something of a departure from these flawed individuals: In Ed Zwick's adaptation of a 2009 nonfiction New Yorker story, Dern plays Elizabeth Gilbert, the Texas playwright and single mother-turned-tireless advocate for the innocence of a Death Row inmate as new evidence comes to light and his execution date nears. In other words: a total hero, full stop.

It was a tricky part for Dern, who signed on after reading the New Yorker piece and talking to Zwick about his vision for the film, which the director spent 10 years developing and financing. Still, Gilbert's undistilled heroism "was my only problem with the script," Dern said. "Kind people do shitty things, and noble people are complicated, and that’s the thing that interests me about acting." Zwick was conducive to tweaking Gilbert's character, and while speaking with Gilbert herself, Dern found the activist open to discussing some of her more complicated characteristics.

For instance: Gilbert first met Cameron Todd Willingham (played by Jack O'Connell), the Death Row inmate for whom she later became a champion, when she spontaneously volunteered to write letters for inmates in a moment of bourgeois largesse. "She said, which I thought was really funny, 'It was one of those moments where I was like, "Okay, I'll be a good person, I’ll be amazing and I'll do this thing that's an act of service to feel better about myself,"'" Dern says.

Dern chatted with The Hollywood Reporter the day before the film opened in Los Angeles, which was also one day after Alabama's governor signed the nation's most restrictive abortion measure into law. Dern, one of the Hollywood organizers behind Time's Up, discussed the irony of states supporting the death penalty while restricting abortion on the grounds of the sanctity of a human life. She also talked about why she selects projects with justice themes and the "thousands" of men and women that reached out to her following her 2018 sexual abuse movie The Tale.

How did you prepare to play Elizabeth Gilbert, and did you meet her over the course of your research?

There’s a moral obligation with a living person that you want to get it right. You know that they’re going to understand at some point that there is some license of invention because you're having to presume how someone else feels, and sometimes even your family can't know that. Liz Gilbert was patient [with that], thank god, and she’s also a playwright, so she really understands how it works, but she also understood my intent, Jack O’Connell’s intent and Ed Zwick’s intent. So, with that generosity, she opened her heart to me and we had a great deal of correspondence. It's hard on her to travel, and we had never met; we had only had numerous calls and emails and Skypes and got to know each other in that way. Only after the film did I spend time with her in person. But she was amazing, and most notably, she gave myself and Jack, ultimately, all of the letters between she and Todd, some of which you hear in the film, to help us the track the relationship and how it developed and her fight to expose injustice.

Gilbert is essentially a hero in the film — she’s called a “saint” by her husband. How did you approach playing someone who is essentially good?

You know, it was my only problem with the script. And I only say this because Ed said it in an interview the other day, and I thought it was fair, that he and Geoffrey Fletcher have such respect for her and the way to pay homage to her, they felt, was to present the level of compassion she holds. But it was seeping into informing the scenes, and kind people do shitty things, and noble people are complicated, and that’s the thing that interests me about acting. And so with Liz’s guidance, she let us go on a journey of mining some of her emotional life, her parenting life and her complicated and appropriate feelings in and around her own profiling of Todd. She learned about this program of letter-writing to people on death row, and as she said, which I thought was really funny, "It was one of those moments where I was like, 'Okay, I'll be a good person, I’ll be amazing and I'll do this thing that's an act of service to feel better about myself, or whatever people do.'" I love that she accessed, for me, a commonality to it. But then you're inside it, and the individual becomes someone close to you. In Ed’s beautiful willingness to allowing that to evolve, we tried to find some commonality, some normalcy, to who she is, versus Mother Theresa. Because not only is she not, and didn't want to be perceived as such, but the goal is to influence all of us toward a small act of kindness, because that may be all it takes to change lives, to change the justice system, to impact your own life. That's definitely the hope.

What differentiates Trial by Fire from other films about the death penalty, such as Into the Abyss or On Death Row, in your view?

I can’t speak to the other stories, per se, but I can say that from The Innocence Project and Barry Scheck’s perspective, this is a landmark case. It debunked science: That proof that Dr. Hearst exposes did not save Todd’s life because Texas refused to give a stay of an extra 30 days to investigate further, but it exposed that the science was wrong. And in fact the new science, that proved that it was not arson, saved a man's life in another death row case only months later. Then you have not only someone who recanted [their witness testimony], admitting that they had lied, but proof in the DA’s office about how [Johnny] Webb's sentence was lightened; he was offered a truck. This is a case that check-boxed every area where you worry that there could be margins of error in a death row case, and still, they did not agree to a 30-day stay to investigate further, they went ahead and pushed his execution forward and killed him days later. That is a very essential story to tell because it’s about the difference between empathy, doing what’s right and justice and being a political pawn.

Justice [Antonin] Scalia said in 2006 that if anyone had been killed for a crime they did not commit, "we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby." That was in 2006, and since the mid-1980s to that time, there were 340 cases of exonerated individuals on death row because of DNA evidence. So we're screaming from the rooftops, and all these movies help, and Serial helps and Making a Murderer helps. I think it’s in the zeitgeist because we’re all capable of profiling, we've all done it, but I think there’s such injustice and horror and we're so fed up with what is happening that we’re getting that same fever-pitch met by putting our energy into injustice. We have to scream from the rooftops. I mean, Justice Scalia gave us our order papers.

How Hollywood can translate this appetite for true-crime or criminal-justice stories that can provoke outrage into real action?

Prayers. It can’t hurt to try, and that’s your hope every day. Someone can say, “Oh, what, you really think marching in the street can effect change?" It can if there are enough people that show up, it can if there are enough marches, it can if there are enough movies. If one person sees this film and suddenly it becomes their mission statement and they are a loud enough voice, that might just be the one more voice that is a tipping point. A very important judge wrote an op-ed piece in Texas about the film a few days ago; there are continued conversations that are really, really profound around it, just as I’m sure any news reporter hopes to make a difference. And I can see the difference.

I could say, why don't I just be in movies that are really easily accessible? But we made this film, The Tale, and I can't tell you how many thousands of women and men — even more men than women — have reached out to me with their stories. Colleagues that have come forward about their own experience. To not be in the shame of the thing is the healing. And so that has been a real reminder. Big Little Lies [has been a] massive reminder, for all of us, every day. We’re on a group text: One of us is hearing a shared experience about domestic violence or sexual assault [and so we text each other]. These stories matter, people need to see themselves reflected so they don't get isolated because of abuse of power and thinking they're the only one that was small enough to be victimized. We all have worked to change that narrative. There is no victimization here, nobody is going to take our voice from us, and we just have to keep using it in every way possible.

As you mentioned, Big Little Lies and The Tale touch on themes of injustice. How important is your sense of justice to the projects you choose?

Very important. Someone mentioned Star Wars in comparison to me the other days, and Star Wars is an amazing myth, it’s something we’ve all been connected to since we were kids, and I played this unbelievably heroic female leader. It does show up in a myriad of ways and genres and kinds of movies, so I had no predisposition for what it has to look like to try to make a difference or have something hold value. It does mean a lot and I try to work on movies that reflect certainly something to me, where I need to gain more empathy.

Did you feel like you had to gain more empathy in any particular way for this movie?

I was raised by a family that did not believe in capital punishment, but I didn't know the facts. I didn't know why there is such a margin of error, where the injustice is in even witness identification, I didn't know what a slippery slope it was. I've learned so much, so now I'm invested in a new and different way, I perhaps care more thoughtfully. I do movies because I have a lot to learn, and I hope people see movies for the same reason.

I so easily, and many others, can go to vote with as easy a judgment as anyone had about Todd Willingham — "That guy's a reality TV star, he's not a politician, so he’ll look out for me because he’s one of us." What are we talking about? We’ve lost our way. So the only way we’re going to find it back is to demand that we get the truth, and the only way to know the truth is to educate ourselves about the things that matter: What are people fighting over about gun safety, how can we meet in the middle? And I believe that capital punishment is the same issue. For governors to say that "not one of God's children will be killed in this state," which is why they're going to illegalize abortion, but they can’t wait to kill somebody on death row, but that person may be innocent, and in fact we know [death row] has killed innocent people — it's so confusing, isn’t it? So I just think we all have to help each other get a little bit clearer.

What are the justice-related issues that Hollywood should do more storytelling about?

I feel like there are so many stories to tell. My dearest friends who are filmmakers, actors, producers, I feel like everybody's on fire — every meeting, every meal, every delicious hang, is still like, "You know who's never been talked about?" "You know whose story is amazing?" It’s a very alive, exciting time to be making content and there are so many places you can do it. I think the more we open floodgates to actually caring about representation in the media, the more aware we are of how many stories there are to tell. Most importantly, we need to see all sides.

Talk about profiling: I know families who have come from horror that we cannot imagine in Central America and have bravely, legally fought and risked everything, single moms with babies, children, crossing the border to legally seek asylum. They are now back in Central America, and their children are in prison in Texas, in San Diego. What’s that story? Where's that story? There are lots of those stories to be told.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.