The name Laura Dern needs no introduction—at least, we hope it doesn’t. A driving force in the acting profession, both on screen and behind the scenes as a member of the Oscars Board Of Governors, Dern was born into a famous Hollywood family, and has been a working actress since her early teens. In the years since, she’s played dozens of memorable roles: There are her collaborations with director David Lynch in Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart, Inland Empire, and Twin Peaks: The Return, of course, as well as Ellie in Jurassic Park, Amy Jellicoe on Enlightened, Vice Admiral Holdo in Star Wars: Episode VII—The Last Jedi, Renata Klein on Big Little Lies...
Her latest film is the death-row drama Trial By Fire, where she plays a real person: Houston playwright Elizabeth Gilbert, whose efforts to exonerate convicted killer Cameron Todd Willingham were the subject of a 2009 New Yorker article called “Trial By Fire,” and now a feature film of the same name. The case raises major questions about the ethics of the death penalty, and Dern had plenty to say about her passionate belief in abolishing capital punishment—as well as acting, what she learned from her famous parents, and the opportunity the Academy now has to right its past wrongs—when we talked to her by phone.
The A.V. Club: I’d like to start with the general question of what drew you to this particular story, because I’m sure you have no lack of offers.
Laura Dern: It was really an admiration of Ed Zwick as a filmmaker. I’m a huge fan of Glory, and all his other films. I heard he was working on something, and he wanted to send me an article.
And so the first thing I did was read David Grant’s piece in the New Yorker. And how do you say no to continuing a conversation that was so brilliantly laid out by David as a journalist, with such clear evidence of human error and outmoded scientific evidence, and now the DNA evidence? There is no way we can guarantee without a reasonable doubt [that they are guilty] before we are killing someone in this country. It also speaks to [Gilbert’s] compassion and lack of bias, to have a small act of kindness come from them, that is so inspiring to read about. And as an actor, we’re so lucky to kind of crawl inside of that experience and story. That moved me beyond measure. I was just privileged to get to be part of it, and learn from the Innocence Project, who were with us teaching us along the way as well.
AVC: The Innocence Project has exonerated so many people. It’s a big topic to grapple with.
LD: You know, I learned so much. As someone who wanted to see capital punishment abolished, I thought I understood—I thought I understood it on an emotional, empathic level, but I didn’t know the facts. And once you learn the facts, you learn that the states that still have the death penalty are also the states with the highest murder rates. So already, there, it’s not working as a deterrent, if that’s what people think.
I’ve heard so many people say—and somehow put my head around thinking it was true—that “why should we keep these prisoners alive or take care of them when they’ve done these heinous acts?” Like, “Why should we pay for them to live for 50 years in prison?” and blah blah. And then you look at the facts around how much more–I mean, literally, in some cases, five times more—having the death penalty costs a state. So even when you’re arguing based on statistics, it’s just so clear that it is a horror that we still have capital punishment in this country. And the fact that I’m in California, and we have a governor who just suspended the death penalty in California, it’s a very exciting time to have this conversation. Not that the conversation hasn’t been going on for years and years.
AVC: In this film you’re playing a real person, Elizabeth Gilbert. Does your approach as an actor differ based on whether you’re playing a real person or a fictional character?
LD: The biggest difference is that, as an actor, you hurl yourself into a world and a time period and a conversation with the script, which is your road map towards your character. And suddenly you decide you’re the expert on that character, along with the director. You explore all the different ways that this person can journey through their story. Right? But I’m not the expert here. I’m trying to get inside a life experience. It was lived and thought through by Liz, and so it’s just a lot more pressure to want to get it right for her. And not just her life experience, but her incredible impassioned battle toward justice for [Cameron] Todd [Willingham]. So I think that myself and Jack [O’Connell, who plays Willingham in the film] felt a lot of responsibility.
AVC: Did you meet Elizabeth Gilbert? Is that something that you like to do if you’re playing a real person?
LD: I did! It’s hard for Liz to travel [Gilbert was paralyzed in a car accident in February 2004. —Ed.] and so our relationship started on the phone. And then we started corresponding through letters and emails. And she was incredibly transparent, and shared so beautifully and very privately with both Jack and I. She even gave all of her and Todd’s letters to us. And so we really watched not only their dynamic, but the development of a deep love relationship between them, and her fight for the truth and for his innocence, and that justice be served. So that was really an amazing experience. Since then, we’ve met and in fact have been together all day to day doing press. And she’s remarkable.
AVC: In the film, when you’re reading the letters, are those actual letters?
LD: Yeah, they’re all their words. So heartbreaking.
AVC: This is a more general question. I interview a lot of different actors, and some people get really deep into character prep, and others just kind of try to be intuitive. Where do you fall on that spectrum in your process?
LD: I was raised by very serious actors who live and breathe acting as a craft and are obsessed with the journey, both as students and learning in collaboration with filmmakers. They both came [to L.A.] from New York, and the Actors Studio and theater, and so they sort of expected that of me as well. And I took that journey to heart. So I’m very invested in the truth, and in finding the truth in a story. So I think it’s a combination of all that you just shared, you know—caring about it, deeply wanting to get it right, wanting to research everything, wanting to be in the truth of a thing, wanting it to matter, wanting to gain empathy as an individual through this luxury of being an artist—and having a good time, hopefully. Taking it as seriously as anything, and not seriously at all. You know what I mean?
AVC: Especially on a film like this, dealing with really heavy, politically charged issues, you could put yourself in a very dark place. But I imagine you just can’t live there all the time.
LD: This film was not an easy film to shoot. Most days we were in prison—active prisons—and there was a lot of heartbreak and a real palpable awareness of wanting it to matter, wanting it to keep the conversation going. It’s amazing how films and television and journalists’ efforts in the pieces they’ve written and newspapers’ efforts—all of these things bleed into a community, and outreach toward justice.
And now that this film is coming out within weeks of Governor Newsom’s opinion, and with the state of Texas using language like “thou shalt not kill” and talking about the moral obligation as a state to ensure that no one unjustly dies [referring to] unborn children, and these abortion laws where women will potentially be up for murder charges [for having an abortion] after six weeks. So thou shalt not kill... but you’re still going to have the death penalty? I mean, let’s get our morality straight. Let’s all get on the same page. What does it mean when we say, “Thou shalt not kill?”
Because what we’ve learned now is that there is a margin of human error, and the Innocence Project alone in its work has exonerated over 200 death row inmates. So we can get it wrong. Innocent people do die. And that’s why in Europe, where [the death penalty] is abolished, they say we have “blood courts” because we are killing people.
AVC: And so many prejudices can go into it. This film reminded me of the famous documentary Paradise Lost, where those guys were essentially accused of murder because they were into heavy metal.
LD: Exactly. 100%. And they are such an amazing gift as a living reminder of what can happen when someone is exonerated, and what you can do to affect change. Not only to write about their experience, but to speak at law schools around the country and start to really look at their cases and use their cases as an example. You know, one of the great tragedies of working on this is to know that Todd didn’t have that opportunity because he would have been an amazing advocate for change.
AVC: As you mentioned before, your style of acting was influenced by your parents, and you started acting pretty young. Was there ever a time in your life where you considered another career?
LD: No, not since childhood. Before I became an actor, I wanted to be a child psychologist, or, you know, just work in and around protecting children, foster care children, children who are really going through hell we can’t imagine. AndI still really care a lot about that idea.
But as for becoming an actor, one of the great things that we’re all learning is that there isn’t just one lane anymore. I’ve got a production company now with my producing partner, Jayme Lemons. I’ve directed, and I’m interested in continuing to support other stories as a producer, as a director—any area of storytelling. I will continue to explore and be excited about that. But in terms of another job job, no. I’m doing the ultimate job currently, which is raising teenagers, which I have no skill at. But they’re raising me as well.
AVC: A couple of years ago, you were nominated for the role of Academy president, but ended up declining simply because you had too much going on. What do you think about the changes that the Academy has made in the past couple of years?
LD: As a member of the Board Of Governors, I can never speak for the Academy, but as an individual, yeah, I can share that. I think that like any organization, we have a lot to learn. We have growing pains. We have a great opportunity for growth. We have a great opportunity to reach gender parity and diversity parity. There are artists throughout all the branches that are giving us the opportunity to have a really representative board. And so we need to step up to the plate. We need international films, and international and diverse voices, represented within the academy so that we archive the narrative of culture, not just the narrative of the few and privileged.
So it’s a lot to do. Like what we have to do within the museum. There is a sordid tale to tell of who got to tell their stories, and who didn’t, for many years in the film industry. And that’s changing more and more. So as we look at our history and as we’re building the museum, it’s really interesting to see where it’s been egregious, and where it’s been pioneered for artists. We have a lot of work to do, and I’m happy to participate in that.
AVC: That’s something I think about a lot, all the stories that didn’t get to get told.
LD: Yeah. But you know what? Here’s the good news. You’re telling that story right now. Now we can tell the stories that haven’t been told. We can learn from who got left out, and learn quickly.