The incomparable Laura Dern has been lighting up the big and small screens alike with her incredible thespian talents for decades. Whether it’s as the innocent Sandy Williams in Blue Velvet or as the fierce Renata Klein in Big Little Lies, Dern has proven herself to be a versatile and multi-faceted actress capable of bringing magic to every set. No matter if it’s an indie film or a box office blockbuster, Dern can do it all.
A lot can happen in a lifetime, which certainly has been the reality for Dern, who’s been a model for aging gracefully and naturally in a notoriously difficult industry that prizes beauty over all else. But Dern hasn’t needed to succumb to the pressures of Hollywood, instead opting to be faithful to herself and a devotee of authenticity.
So how has Dern grown and changed over the years? How did she get her start in the film business, and what are her plans for the future? Here’s what you need to know about the stunning transformation of Laura Dern, who’s proven she has true staying power.
Laura Dern was born into Hollywood royalty
It would seem that Laura Dern’s destiny to be an actress was sealed by virtue of her bloodline alone: She’s the child of the iconic actress Diane Ladd and legendary actor Bruce Dern. That coupled with the era in which she was born (in 1967) sculpted her significantly. "I find myself radically lucky because I was raised not only by people who considered themselves craftspeople at a job, but at a time pre-social-media and pre-actors-on-the-cover-of-magazines," she shared with Vulture. She added that, at the time, actors weren’t featured on magazine covers like they are today — only models were.
However, just because Dern was born to two Hollywood greats doesn’t mean she was swimming in riches and living the high life. Rather, her parents were working artists, not celebs with posh houses and a fleet of cars. "My parents didn’t make a great living, just like anyone in the arts," she continued. "The kids of artists in L.A. were not the wealthy kids at school. We were workers." Talk about a different time!
As a child, Laura Dern was on "another plane"
Although Laura Dern’s parents were overjoyed to bring her into the world, they experienced real tragedy before she was born. Their first child drowned when she was only 18 months old, years before Dern was born. What a horrific thing to have to endure.
Even though Dern never knew the sister she lost, as her father tells it, she was connected to her in her own special way. "When Laura was seven years old, we were driving and she turned to me and she said, ‘I miss my sister.’ And I looked at her and I thought, What a thing to hear from a seven-year-old," he recalled in an interview with Vanity Fair. "And that made me know she is just on a different plane. Laura feels. Her sense of history is so strong."
Dern’s father says that reverence for the past is something she carries with her still today.
When she was 6, Laura Dern decided to become an actress
How old were you when you knew what you wanted to be when you grew up? Perhaps unsurprisingly, Laura Dern was only 6 years old when she made up her mind about her career, thanks to everything that was going on around her. "My dad [Bruce Dern] was shooting Family Plot with Hitchcock, and my mom was shooting Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore with Scorsese," she told The Guardian. "Believe it or not, at the end of that summer I was, like, ‘I think I want to be an actress.’" Clearly it was her destiny!
That made Dern a bit of an outlier as a child, as she had a precociousness about her that made her stand out from her peers. "My friends had posters of the cute boy from the band, [and] my wall had Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn, Édith Piaf and Lucille Ball," she shared in an interview with AnOther. Those were her first female role models.
Dern was also introduced by her parents to legends like Ellen Burstyn and Gena Rowlands, as well as Shelley Winters, her godmother. That’s a whole lot of girl power!
As a teenager, Laura Dern petitioned for emancipation
When Laura Dern was just a teenager, she petitioned the court to become legally emancipated from her parents. But while that might sound like things weren’t okay at home, Dern had a very specific reason for doing so. "To be emancipated and to be able to make my own decisions as an actor afforded me the ability to work more and longer hours and play older roles," she explained on an episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio (via The Ringer). "My parents totally supported me." She added that sometimes she tried to use her emancipation against her parents once or twice, but never did so effectively.
Dern’s parents were so supportive, in fact, that they attended court along with her and helped with the proceedings. "The judge said to her, ‘Do you make a living wage?’" her father revealed in a chat with Vanity Fair. "I was sitting in the back and she asked me, ‘Do I make a living wage?’ And I said, ‘Yes, you make more than $22,000 a year.’" Thus Dern was free to continue being a successful actor on her own terms.
Laura Dern had to leave college to film Blue Velvet
While Laura Dern had been working in Hollywood for several years by 1986, it was in Blue Velvet that she really broke out. She landed the role of Sandy after meeting with director David Lynch over French fries and milkshakes. That was essentially Dern’s audition, as Lynch was convinced she was the perfect fit — thanks to her innately pure nature. "It’s part of my constitution and I think David really likes that," she recalled in an interview with AnOther. "I can be dramatic or emotional or scared, but he needed Sandy, at her root, to be such a believer, so hopeful, such an optimist, and that really is my nature."
Interestingly enough, Dern had to drop out of UCLA in order to take the part, as the school didn’t think it was a good move for her after reading the script. "At the end, they read it and said, ‘Not only are you giving up your college career if you go make this film, but we can’t believe you would want to do this movie anyway,’" she told Vulture. Uh, the joke was on them because Blue Velvet became a classic.
Why Laura Dern chose her early roles carefully
Looking back at Laura Dern’s early roles — such as Sandy in Blue Velvet, Lula in Wild at Heart, and Rose in Rambling Rose — it becomes clear that Dern’s career took a different trajectory than many of her peers, including Molly Ringwald and Meg Ryan. Part of that was because of the example her parents set, and part of that was because Dern knew what kind of work she was looking for. "I’m getting quite a few offers, but many of them are teen exploitation films, which I don’t want to do," she explained to The New York Times in 1986. "There are a couple things that I’d love to do, but I’m still a little young to play 30."
Rather than pursue parts specifically for money and fame, Dern really wanted to dig deep and flex her muscles as a true actor. "What matters most is I play someone totally different than what I’ve done before," she added. "I always want to play bright people." She’s certainly done her fair share of that!
Jurassic Park made Laura Dern a household name
In 1993, Laura Dern’s biggest role to date came along when she was cast as Ellie in Jurassic Park. The film was a success by every measure, with its top-of-the-line special effects, A-list actors, and box office revenue. Naturally, Dern was thrilled to be on the call sheet. "I had forgotten what a pioneered film it was — it was so cutting edge and there had been nothing like it," she gushed in an interview with The Washington Post. "And it was the first CGI and it was so radical, it was such a cool thing to be part of." She added that she feels fortunate to have been involved in such a groundbreaking project.
It wasn’t just special at the time, either, as Dern believes that the film has a new resonance in contemporary times. "And genetic modification and the use of cloning is so huge in science now so it’s far more relevant than before," she continued. "Like, by the way? It actually could happen!"
When Ellen DeGeneres came out, Laura Dern was right there
When it comes to being a trailblazer, Laura Dern definitely stepped up to the plate in 1997. That’s the year that Ellen DeGeneres publicly came out, both in real life and on her ABC sitcom, Ellen. In the latter, Dern played Susan, the woman who DeGeneres comes out to, in the famous "The Puppy Episode."
Despite the fact that both DeGeneres and Dern paid a price for it — they both had struggles with security and/or work in the aftermath — Dern doesn’t regret it for a second. "If empathy and compassion are all we’re really here for, then I couldn’t ask for a greater gift than the experience of what it meant for Ellen to come out, to be with her at the moment that she said those words for the first time, to watch her change history, and to listen to and share so many stories from people around the world that moment impacted," she mused in an interview with People magazine. "It changed my life forever, I’m forever grateful."
In 2005, Laura Dern married this musician after a string of high-profile relationships
Over the years, Laura Dern has had some pretty high-profile romances, according to Vanity Fair. First there was Twin Peaks‘ Kyle MacLachlan, who co-starred in Blue Velvet with Dern. After that, Dern hooked up with Jeff Goldblum for about four years after they starred in Jurassic Park together. Then Dern and Billy Bob Thornton were an item, and the two even got engaged before he reportedly left her for Angelina Jolie.
But it was musician Ben Harper who had the honors of marrying Dern in 2005, according to an article in People magazine. The pair met at one of Harper’s concerts in 2000, after Harper had separated from his first wife. They went on to have two children together, one son and one daughter.
Unfortunately, the marriage wouldn’t last, as Dern and Harper finalized their divorce in 2013, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Laura Dern adapted to being a single parent
After Laura Dern and Ben Harper divorced, the couple agreed to shared custody of their two children. However, Dern is the primary guardian, according to the Los Angeles Times, rendering her essentially a single parent most of the time. "On good days, I am kind enough to remember that there are growing pains, and it is all overwhelming and not easy or always fun," she explained in a chat with Boston Common. "On the hard days, it’s stressful and there is too much going on as a single parent." She added that it’s often been difficult to snag some personal time, which is relatable for most parents.
But despite the difficulties that come with solo parenting, Dern is more than up for the task. "I have never had anybody else bully me in my single parenting life," she reflected. "I am lucky to have champions around me, but I can definitely do it to myself." Amen to that, Laura!
Laura Dern fully embraced this movement
When the #MeToo movement kicked into high gear in 2017, Laura Dern welcomed it. Given that she started making films at 11 and going on location at 13, she’s experienced her fair share of bad behavior at the hands of adults. "I remember every compromised situation," she recalled in an interview with Vanity Fair. "I was a child, and adults took advantage of me or tried, and I justified the behavior as me misunderstanding it."
As Dern tells it, she’s had to endure most everything except sexual assault, due, in part, to how Hollywood has historically operated. "What director or casting director needs a 13-year-old to go to the Chateau to audition in a room, sitting on a bed beside the director, to read a scene together alone?" she continued. "You just don’t create that scenario."
While that was the worst behavior that she witnessed, Dern says she was fortunate that she was able to extract herself from those dangerous situations.
Laura Dern won awards for her work in Big Little Lies
Arguably one of the most compelling roles that Laura Dern has played on television is that of Renata Klein in the hit HBO series Big Little Lies, in which she starred alongside the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Zoë Kravitz, and Shailene Woodley. In order to prepare for the role, Dern met with a variety of women leaders, such as Silicon Valley CEOs, in order to fully understand her character. "Renata is fierce and complicated and a nightmare, and also just wants a girlfriend and deserves to be seen because she’s lived in a man’s world her whole life," she explained to The Guardian. "And what it takes for a woman in tech, a woman in banking, a woman in publishing — who you have to be and what you have to walk through to get the one seat in that boardroom of 13…" Spoiler alert: It’s a lot.
Dern’s efforts paid off, as she won a Golden Globe Award in 2018 for best supporting actress for her work in Big Little Lies. Congratulations, Laura!
In 2020, Laura Dern won her first Academy Award
Big Little Lies wasn’t the only project that Laura Dern knocked out of the park in the late 2010s. She also lit up the screen playing the ruthless divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw in Marriage Story, opposite Star Wars: The Last Jedi actor Adam Driver and Avengers: Endgame‘s Scarlett Johansson, in 2019, a part that she welcomed with open arms. "I think she’s the first character I’ve played who doesn’t come from deep insecurity," she revealed in an interview with AnOther. "She’s in it to win, no matter the cost. She’s absolutely in control and will never lose her cool." Dern also called Nora a "boss," which, arguably, she really is.
Dern did such an incredible job that she snagged the Academy Award for best supporting actress — her first ever, if you can believe it! "Thank you all for this gift," she shared in her acceptance speech. "It’s just the best birthday present ever."
In light of the many successes Dern accomplished during this period, it’s no wonder that some called the moment "the Dernaissance."
Laura Dern has this goal for the future
With all that Laura Dern has accomplished in her life — creating an incredible, singular career, raising her two children, and blazing a trail for the women who came after her — you’d think she’d be content to rest on her laurels. But Dern still has goals she’s set for herself, as well as some pretty romantic plans for the future. "My kids know I want to move to Paris," she shared in an interview with The Guardian. "When I’ve still not done face work [cosmetic surgery] at 70, there will be directors there who will hire me and we’ll get to explore while allowing me to be my age."
But before she does that, Dern is hoping to play her next great role. "As an actor, I’m waiting to be challenged to the depths again, to throw myself into the deep end," she revealed to Vanity Fair. We can’t wait to see what she’ll do next!