On the final day filming Jurassic Park in 1992, Hawaii was hit by the largest hurricane in its history. Laura Dern stood on the beach with her co-star Sam Neill and watched the waves rise. Was he worried, she asked? “You know, I think we might die, Laura,” he said. She laughed.
That sounds about right. Dern is an optimism pro, cheerful and resilient as a windsock. Yes, humans are probably doomed, she thinks, but what an exciting time to be alive!
She beams behind the face mask (she’s currently shooting a movie, so catching Covid would be expensive). Doesn’t the Soil Association in the UK do wonderful work? Isn’t the popularity of plant-based protein terrific? “And look at the hopeful rediscovery of bicycles!”
No negative words have yet been spoken about Dern, an actor of depth and daring who also happens to be game and engaged. None will be added here. She is immediately convincing. A category four hurricane didn’t stand a chance.
Anyway, back in Hawaii, the cast and crew holed up in their hotel ballroom. Steven Spielberg played cards with the children. Dern shared rations with Neill and Jeff Goldblum, who was about to become her boyfriend for four years. The chandelier rocked and the ceiling buckled. The power failed. Gusts reached 145mph. By the morning, all the sets had been destroyed. The shoot was cancelled. (Richard Attenborough slept through the whole thing.)
“You go through something like that and it changes everything,” says Dern. “Steven and Jeff and Sam became my family. And remained my family all these years. Steven was there when my baby was born, and at my son’s baptism.”
Dern, it should be said, has been claimed by a lot of tribes. David Lynch, her five-time collaborator, is “home”. Her Big Little Lies co-stars (Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep) are “sisters”. She has “a really beautiful familial energy” with the couple Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, who directed her respectively in Little Women (as beatific Marmee) and Marriage Story (her ruthless divorce lawyer won her a Bafta, an Oscar and a fifth Golden Globe).
But the Jurassic WhatsApp group sounds especially intense: “It’s all: ‘I got married! I gave a speech! I directed for the first time! I had a baby!’” That is because, she says, making the new movie induced a surprising level of deja vu: “There was a sense of family that you could never otherwise get … unless you were on the first Jurassic Park.”
The shoot began in July 2020. Jurassic World Dominion was one of the first productions to start during Covid – and had the highest stakes. If it failed, there was a real sense that the industry might follow. The cast, the producers and the director, Colin Trevorrow, holed up in the Langley hotel, near Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, for five months, with a 107-page safety manual. They had a gym, a pool and Frisbee Sundays. Judging by the videos, Goldblum never stopped playing the piano.
“We lived together,” says Dern. “We made food together. We figured out what made us scared. We went through the presidential election together. It was a huge time. Huge.”
A strange and unsettling shoot, then, for a strange and unsettling movie. The sixth film – and the first to reunite Dern, Goldblum and Neill – is an unexpectedly radical beast.
Dern’s character, Dr Ellie Sattler, has moved from paleobotany to soil science. She is divorced and happy, unlike her old flame Dr Alan Grant (Neill), lonely with his fossils. “Ellie’s like: ‘This is amazing. It’s kind of sexy! I do whatever I want! I’m dating! My children are grown! I’m a major scientist effecting change!’”
Her current focus is a plague of enormous locusts ravaging the globe, feeding solely on non-GM crops. Might they be the creation of the enigmatic owner of a a hi-tech dinosaur reserve in the Dolomites? Along with Grant, she goes to find out, on the invitation of the “in-house philosopher”, Dr Ian Malcolm (Goldblum).
All pretty topical, Dern thinks. Even pre-Covid, Trevorrow was sending her news stories about “genetically modified mosquitoes being released in Florida to help potential disease issues. A swarm of locusts seen over Kansas who weren’t eating certain seeds. I’m reading these articles and I’m like: we ain’t in science-fiction any more! Jurassic Park is an everyday story now! Other than a T rex walking down the street.”
In the film, Goldblum’s Malcolm is promoting a book called How the World Will End. How does Dern think it will happen? She is not sure, she says, “but I’m not incredibly hopeful”. She recommends John Doerr’s book Speed & Scale, a net-zero manual by the former venture capitalist. “I like to believe that compassion is a required academic course in high schools. Considering other people’s safety and wellbeing should be our priority. Nurturing our soil, reforesting, sacrificing our dependency to eating beef and cheese.
“We’re the consumer,” she continues (Dern has a winning way with emphasis). “So if we say we’re not gonna buy things that are genetically modified and sprayed with petrochemicals, then put on a truck in a ton of plastic and shipped to our house, because we’d rather have them today than in three days, I think we’d change a lot of companies’ mindsets.”
Her hope is that Earth returns to “a massive gorgeous ocean of predominantly sea life”, with animals free to roam as humans “spread out a bit more” thanks to “planetary travel”. “I like that idea. Because the other answer is full extinction. Just like the movie proposes.”
That’s the thing about Jurassic World Dominion. It is more ideologically ambitious than you might at first clock. Yes, there is the overt caution against genetically modifying dinosaurs for use as weapons of mass destruction. But the discussion of how to manage a peaceful coexistence between humans and animals who ought to be extinct is, Dern explains, intended as political metaphor.
“It’s brilliantly subversive and kind of tongue-in-cheek,” she says. “How are we modern people gonna peacefully coexist with the ‘dinosaurs’ who were here first? And those boys made all the rules. And when they enter the room, we are dealing with bullies.”
She lowers the mask for coffee. “I feel privileged that you and I can have this conversation so that you can impact people reading. We are all having the same conversation, but in isolation, which is how bullies work, right? They isolate us and we think the world is so paralysing that hopefully we’ll do nothing so they can keep making more money and not have to worry about the inevitable, which is climate change. We gotta all figure this out together, because otherwise we’re not gonna have a home any more.”
Few could accuse Dern of not being a doer as well as a thinker. She made her film debut at seven, in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the Martin Scorsese film starring her mother, Diane Ladd. That summer, she spent time with her father, Bruce Dern, on the set of Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot.
At 16, she gained legal emancipation from her parents, not because they weren’t close – a book of conversations between Dern and Ladd is out next year; Bruce’s 86th birthday was heartily celebrated on her Instagram on Sunday – but so she could work adult hours. At 18, she made Blue Velvet with Lynch. Wild at Heart came a few years later, then Rambling Rose, which won her and Ladd Oscar nominations.
On Goldblum’s advice, she followed Jurassic Park with Alexander Payne’s abortion satire Citizen Ruth. The template was set for a smart shuffle of popcorn and credibility. She made Little Fockers, then The Master; Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, then The Founder, a broad biopic about the man who started McDonald’s. Star Wars: The Last Jedi was followed by The Tale, a story of surviving sexual assault.
It has been a similar story on TV: high-profile, but happy to be unpopular. Remember not only her raging alpha mother in Big Little Lies, but also that Dern played the lesbian to whom Ellen DeGeneres came out in her sitcom in 1997. It stalled Dern’s career for a year and led to death threats of such plausibility that she required a full security detail.
Her confidence came young and consciously. Her parents had already lost a daughter, Diane, who drowned at 18 months, and Ladd was told that she couldn’t have any more children. Dern was a welcome surprise, but her parents, still reeling with grief, separated when she was two.
“I was terrified, being on my own with Laura,” Ladd has said. “I had to force myself not to be overly protective because I had lost one child. The result was that it worked the other way. I allowed her to be a free thinker, and that helped her become her own person.”
Indeed, Dern’s precocity – and perseverance – has extended outside her profession. At school, she led a successful student protest against their teachers’ low wages. At 17, she left home and moved in with Marianne Williamson, the self‑help guru and 2020 US presidential candidate, then in her 30s and running a metaphysical coffee shop. Activism was prioritised over washing up.
Since then, Dern has campaigned for immigrants’ rights, Down’s syndrome awareness and gender pay parity, among other causes. Last month, she and her daughter marched in New York against anticipated changes to the US’s abortion laws.
When we meet in London, it is two days after the Uvalde shootings. Her daughter and her friends – who, she tells me proudly, recently persuaded their school to switch to electric buses – are proposing a mass walkout. “What if we just said: kids in America aren’t going to school, because schools aren’t safe until you change gun laws in this country?”
Dern has spoken about how much her children – Ellery, 20, and Jaya, 17, by her former husband, the musician Ben Harper – were affected by the shootings a decade ago at Sandy Hook. Their sense of fragility has deepened, she says.
“The shock for them over the last five years, of watching how our country has changed and seeing a level of racism that may have been there but, as progressive, biracial kids growing up in LA, I don’t think they were aware of – I think that has been devastating to witness.”
It is the inertia that is most enraging, says Dern. “There has never, ever been a world where any Democrat or liberally minded politician or caring conservative parent said: ‘We are gonna take everybody’s guns.’ So they created a story. The narrative is: ‘They’re gonna take our guns!’ and it’s been feeding American culture all these years. And now we have weekly mass shootings.
“No boy with mental health history – no human being – should ever be able to go into a store and legally buy an AR-15 and 300 rounds of ammunition. You can have a hunting rifle and you can have guns to protect your family or whatever, but there are still profound ways we can effect change so that semiautomatic and automatic weapons and no background checks are not a part of our country.”
Dern leans forward, all poise and cogency. Forty years of professional empathising, as well as navigating Hollywood, have made her a realist. These are moderate opinions, coherently articulated – she is not calling for a ban on guns, after all.
In the first film, Sattler’s aside about dinosaurs eating man and women inheriting the Earth was hailed as a welcome note of radical feminism in a mainstream blockbuster. In the new film, the prophesy appears to have been fulfilled – a female scientist has reproduced though cloning. Dern is far too warmly inclusive – and too politic – to cheerlead for such a future.
“I really appreciate a great man,” she says, laughing. “There’s nothing like great men. I’m raising a really kind son. I think it’s such an exciting time to be knowing a new generation of young men who respect and love women and lift them up as leaders. And that’s just so gorgeous. My son and his friends go: ugh, how do we not have a female president running this country?”
What do they think is the reason? “Oh, they just don’t understand it,” she says. “And I know exactly why.” A mirthless chortle.
In Jurassic World Dominion, the stable door is swinging open and the velociraptors are licking their lips. It is too late to learn lessons; there is time only to try something new in a last bid for survival.
Dern has adopted that mindset. She quotes a member of staff at her daughter’s school: “Compassion and advocacy are the only two things I really need to teach any of you. I don’t know that history is ever going to be as valuable.”
Modernity must be embraced; its advantages far outweigh the pull of the past. “We have such constant access,” she says, gesturing at my phone. “The gift of that is that we can’t turn away from the faces of the children that are lost, or the faces of newborn babies whose mothers are having to hand them over at the border to Poland.”
She lowers her mask again – for urgency, not coffee. “We don’t get to cover our eyes any more. We’re constantly reminded how many people need our help, if we’re privileged enough to help.”