There’s something about the raspy warmth of Laura Dern’s voice, like sweet tea for the ears, and that glowing smile that makes her presence on screen calming, soothing, welcome, and happy—especially in her one-two punch-to-the-heart performances in this year’s The Fault in Our Stars and Wild. It’s an unmistakable Laura Dern-ness. And it’s that “something,” that happiness, that makes it all the more jarring when she cries.
We’re talking about her role in Wild as Bobbi Lambrecht, mother to Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl Strayed—a performance that is all-but-guaranteed to win the actress her second career Oscar nomination—when that raspy-warm voice cracks. Laura Dern starts crying.
To call Wild an emotional film would be an egregious disservice to its astounding journey to screen. It’s based on the memoir of Cheryl Strayed, a woman who walks the 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail to properly grieve the death of her mother, whose succumbing to terminal cancer sets Strayed on a drug and sex-fueled downward spiral. Witherspoon, in a physical, naked, reinventing performance plays Strayed, with Dern playing Bobbi in flashbacks.
In the film, Cheryl calls Bobbi the “love of my life.” In our conversation, Dern calls Wild a “mother-daughter love story.” She says working on the project was an “enormous gift,” a term that would read actor-y and canned, were it not said with such earnestness during an emotional conversation about grief, motherhood, loss, and unexpected bonds.
It’s when discussing the latter point that Dern starts crying.
In the flashback scenes that Dern stars in—being abused by her husband, suffering through chemotherapy, and rising above every struggle with otherworldly grace—Cheryl Strayed’s actual daughter, Bobbi, named after Strayed’s mom, plays Cheryl as a young girl. During filming, watching Dern interact with young Bobbi, Strayed told Dern that because the real Bobbi Lambrecht died before little Bobbi was born, Dern became the only grandmother the girl ever knew.
“I’m getting choked up already,” Dern says. “It’s so moving. For Cheryl to say to me, ‘You know when I lost my mother, one of my first thoughts was that she’ll never meet my children. Now I feel like my daughter has gotten to know her grandmother through you…’ I’m crying again. That’s so beautiful.”
Wild was filmed in the town where Strayed, whose memoir became a national sensation in 2012 when Oprah Winfrey chose it as the inaugural selection for her “Oprah’s Book Club 2.0,” currently lives, and as such the writer was on set nearly every day of filming. Dern’s children and Strayed’s children played together. Dern and Strayed sat on Strayed’s kitchen floor, looking at old photos and remembering the real Bobbi. It’s then that the idea that Wild, as much as it is about Cheryl finding and centering herself on the trail while reflecting on her past, is really about the love between a mother and daughter crystallized for Dern.
“I think we’re robbed of all love stories other than some fairy tale idea of how men and women are supposed to relate,” Dern says. “Same-sex love stories. Parent-child love stories. I think there’s a world to explore in what love looks like that is going to be very exciting in the future of film. So I’m really excited to be part of that, because our first true love and often the great love of our life is often a parent or grandparent.”
Dern herself is mother to two children, son Ellery and daughter Jaya, and this year has won rave reviews for her upbeat and hopeful performances as a mother in two very tragic cinematic storylines: mom to a teen suffering from cancer in The Fault in Our Stars and mom suffering from cancer with two children still to raise in Wild.
Dern, then, is responsible for carrying the emotional weight of some of the most wrenching scenes in the pair of tearjerkers. There’s the contrast between the Fault in Our Stars flashback, where her character weeps over her dying daughter’s hospital bed that she’s not going to be a mother anymore, with the scene near the end where she reassures Shailene Woodley’s then-recovering cancer patient that she’s taking college classes so that she could return to work should her daughter die.
In Wild, Dern shatters your heart to pieces with the delivery of one line—“just when so many things were beginning”—upon receiving her cancer diagnosis. But it’s another scene in which she leaves the character’s indelible mark. Witherspoon’s Cheryl is sitting in the kitchen with Dern’s Bobbi, who is singing and dancing blissfully while cooking food. Cheryl is irate. How could she be so positive after everything in her life has been so sad? Her optimism, Bobbi, explains, is a choice. A necessary decision in order to survive.
“To see this woman say ‘happy people sing’ after everything else we watched her walk through, it’s so profound and so inspiring,” Dern says.
At the risk of crossing into morbidity, we begin talking about the effect that playing a mother in two films about cancer and loss has had on Dern’s psyche—particularly as she is a mother herself.
“It’s not morbid, because it’s the thing we don’t talk about and it’s all around us,” Dern says. “We all have a friend or loved one who we lost to cancer or is going through cancer treatment right now. It’s everywhere. My kids have fellow classmates who have cancer, and they’re children. It’s become such an epidemic.”
The effect of this, and of Wild, Dern says, is that a conversation about grief may finally be beginning. “If you go to a therapist in America or a doctor, most often if you say I’m really struggling, I can’t get over my loss, they will give you a prescription,” Dern says. Strayed’s journey—both the rock bottom and the hike out of it—reveals that grieving is more complicated than that, and furthermore there’s no shame in the suffering that grief may cause.
“So to be part of the dialogue of grief as part of each of our stories, and have conversations like the one I’m having with you now about loss and love and first love and the fear of grief and cancer and how we navigate and find joy despite all these things we’re all walking through—aren’t we lucky to be having this conversation and not some typical Hollywood movie conversation?” Dern says.
And while trying not to sour the discussion with typical movie conversation, the fact remains that Dern has pulled off a remarkable feat for Hollywood actresses. She’s created two multifaceted characters from supporting mother roles, parts that are typically superficial and shied away from by actresses who either desire juicier material or are afraid that playing a mother would signal the ultimate Tinseltown taboo: that she is getting older.
Did Dern have any such hesitation or concern?
“You know, it’s a complicated question, because I do empathize with the worry,” she says. “I understand why actors fear age limiting them.” But at the same time, both of those roles offered the opportunity of a change in pace.
“I’ve spent the last decade of my adult life still playing girls. Several girls, meaning women who haven’t caught up with the fact that they’re grown-ups yet. A lot of arrested development, especially in this show I did for HBO, Enlightened,” she says. “I never really played a mother. The last mother I played I was huffing paint and pregnant with my fifth kid, and didn’t know where the other four were. I’m not the archetype of maternal. So to have the privilege to express in two very different ways what it is to mother has been beautiful for me—and a really cool opportunity for me as an actual mother.”
She’s quick to caution: “But I see it as another role, not something that I now have to do. Not like, ‘Oh now I’m playing moms. Next is grandmas.’”
Besides, she says, circling back to the love story that’s at the center of Wild, how could she have any hesitation when the role she’s played has ended up being so meaningful? At the end of our conversation she recalls screening Wild for the first time at the Telluride Film Festival, sitting next to Cheryl Strayed, who was watching her life unfold on screen.
“Watching Cheryl and thinking about her watching her memories with her mother, and thinking about all that we walked through—considering the people we loved, considering our mothers and our gratitude for them, considering our loves for our children,” she remembers. “It’s a deeply emotional experience, even for the people who made it.”
So did she cry? “Yes,” she says. “I cried like a baby.”