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Unconventional Wisdom

Movies* Laura Dern, who's made a career of playing women outside the norm, is in a reflective mood as her latest film, `Novocaine,' opens.

November 16, 2001|ELLEN BASKIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Laura Dern has her hands full these days taking care of her newborn son and co-starring in two new movies that opened within two weeks of each other--the recently released '40s-era drama "Focus" and the dark comedic thriller "Novocaine," which opens today. But like others, she's also taking some time to reflect on the post-Sept. 11 world and the role movies should play in it.

"It's an interesting time for movies to be coming out," she says. "People need them and want them, but it's also nice to offer something of value. The way the world is, I think each of us is stopping to ask, 'Wait a minute, what does it mean, what do we do now?'"

For Dern, a further layer of heightened awareness is the natural byproduct of first-time motherhood. Ellery Walker was born this summer to Dern and her partner, musician Ben Harper. "I feel like I'm going through a double transformation, because as the world is shifting I'm also shifting into this new life," she says. During a recent lunchtime outing in Hollywood, "the first time I've been out since the baby was born," Dern confesses, she looks far too lean and lanky for a woman who gave birth two months ago.

"It's just the height," the 5-foot, 10-inch Dern says somewhat apologetically. "With height you hide more."

Dern completed her work on "Focus" and "Novocaine" last year and also appears in "I Am Sam," a drama starring Sean Penn, which opens next month. In an era when many would agree that fully realized female film roles have been in short supply, Dern has certainly had her fair share. This is due in part to her willingness to take on unconventional--and sometimes even unsympathetic--characters, from her Oscar-nominated performance in "Rambling Rose" (1991) to the amoral "Citizen Ruth" (1996) to her appearance in the 1994 coming-out episode of the sitcom "Ellen," which earned her an Emmy nomination.

"I was raised in the '70s, and the performances and films that inspired me were movies about unexpected heroes," Dern, 34, recalls, "such as 'Norma Rae' and 'Julia' and 'Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore'"--which co-starred Dern's mother, Diane Ladd, and in which the 7-year-old Laura (whose father is actor Bruce Dern) made her brief on-screen debut. "These were unlikely, flawed protagonists--and they were women. I loved that."

At first glance, Jean Noble, Dern's character in "Novocaine," appears flawless. Her outfits are color-coordinated from top to bottom. Even her mascara matches the hue du jour. And, as befits a dental hygienist engaged to be married to boss Frank Sangster (Steve Martin), she's got picket-fence-straight, gleaming white teeth. The prosthetic choppers were designed, according to writer-director David Atkins, along the lines of "Farrah Fawcett circa 'Charlie's Angels.'" And she's got the big, bouncy hair to match, too.

But there's a flip side to Jean, and it eventually becomes clear that underneath the picture-perfect facade she is a bundle of insecurities desperate to maintain control--whatever the cost. "She's a hoot," Dern remarks about her on-screen persona. "Jean is so wonderfully self-absorbed. She's this seemingly together woman who has to be in control of absolutely everything."

The actress was admittedly a bit disturbed when she learned Atkins had written the role with her in mind. "God only knows what twisted thing I did in the movies that made him think I was right for it."

Explains Atkins: "I envisioned Laura's character as a cross between the roles she played in 'Blue Velvet' and 'Wild at Heart,' with the added touch that she was an obsessive-compulsive dental hygienist control freak. And what was amazing was that when I sat down and met with Laura for the first time, we started talking and within five minutes, in front of my eyes, she transformed into the character. Suddenly she became Jean Noble."

Dern adds, "I think what David wanted was someone to be without fear, in terms of trying to find a way to make Jean extremely neurotic without giving away the story too much. It's such an interesting time to be focusing on issues like fear and control, because none of us can control anything these days.

"I love taking on characters that scare me," Dern says. "But I've never really had a passion to be in a movie that scares me," she continues, drawing a distinction that perhaps explains why audiences haven't seen her struggling through a woman-in-jeopardy genre film. Dern is best known for her work in independent features, her starring role in "Jurassic Park" (1993) and brief appearance in "Jurassic Park 3" notwithstanding.

"It's certainly not a case of, 'Oh I work in the independent world because it's better,' because I don't think that's necessarily the case," she says. "I've always done both studio and independent films, and I hope to always continue to do both. But from the beginning of my career I've been a fan of independent movies, because often it's a world that's more risk-taking."

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