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Now starring in a dual role

Blending motherhood with her movie career, Laura Dern emerges from a three-year family leave without missing a beat, inhabiting another tortured character in 'We Don't Live Here Anymore.'

August 15, 2004|Mona Gable | Special to The Times

Laura Dern is missing. It's a Tuesday afternoon and the blond, willowy actress is supposed to be in the sunlit garden at the Chateau Marmont having her picture taken to plug her new film, "We Don't Live Here Anymore."

Despite vanishing from Hollywood's radar three years ago, Dern, who plays a disaffected wife in the film, has throughout her career managed to find substantial, memorable roles to tackle, and this one is no exception. "It's a great comeback film for her," says her costar, Mark Ruffalo, who plays her husband. "I think it will be one of the great performances this year."

But at the moment not a soul at the famously laid-back hotel seems to know where she is. Finally a page comes in with a message from Dern's publicist. The actress emerges sometime later and immediately apologizes. "I am so sorry," she says without the slightest hint of the prima donna about her. In a brown, nubby skirt topped with a teal sweater and looking out from dark glasses, she has just come from a cable TV show that producer Peter Guber is hosting ("Sunday Morning Shootout") -- a sort of "Hollywood Crossfire," she quips -- and the interview went way over.

The 37-year-old actress is four months pregnant with her second child, and though the news is all over the tabloids, she never mentions it. (Dad is musician Ben Harper, also father to their 3-year-old son, Ellery.) Now that she's here, Dern plops down at a table while her makeup person touches up her face for a photo. She is gracious and warm but manages somehow to stop short of gushy. When a photographer shyly offers that he shot her father, actor Bruce Dern, at his home in Malibu Colony 25 years ago, she smiles enthusiastically. "That is so cool," she says. "It is so nice to meet you!" Later, at lunch, when the waiter brings the bread she requested Dern responds -- "Oh, thank you! Thank you so much!" -- as if he just handed her a bouquet of flowers.

Her colleagues from "We Don't Live Here Anymore" are effusive. "She's just jaw-droppingly good," says the film's director, John Curran.

"She is not only one of the most remarkable actresses working today," agrees Ruffalo, "but also one of the most lovely human beings in this business."

Which raises the inevitable question: Where has Dern, known for her gutsy performances in independent films such as "Citizen Ruth," been lately?

"We Don't Live Here Anymore," which opened Friday, is Dern's first feature film since the 2001 drama "I Am Sam." It's an interesting choice for the actress, who earned an Academy Award nomination for "Rambling Rose" when she was just 25.

Art imitates her life

The film about marriage and motherhood has some striking personal parallels for Dern, who hasn't been highly visible because she's been tending her personal affairs. A year after her public breakup with actor Billy Bob Thornton, who abruptly dumped the actress and married (and since divorced) Angelina Jolie, Dern found love with Harper, whom she met through a concert for Amnesty International. In July 2001, Dern became pregnant. She and the 34-year-old rocker are engaged and, like any couple, trying to find "balance." The extraordinary actress has become that ordinary thing: a working mom. Nursing her son on the set. Scouting out preschools. Handling tantrums.

"Ellery, Mommy's got to do a work call for a few minutes," Dern says patiently one afternoon to her son, who's screaming bloody murder as she's trying to talk on the phone.

Seated now in a banquette in the Chateau's dining room, Dern picks lightly at her beet-and-mozzarella salad as she talks about the hiatus she took. "I called my agent and said, 'I'm about to have a baby. I'm not going to read anything for the next year. I don't want to talk about movies. I just want to be with my child.' "

Still, after three years of full-time motherhood, Dern was a bit restless. So she told her agent, "I'm really ready to go back to work. I need to act now, and I just want something I can sink my teeth into as an actor, a really well-written character." A few weeks later "We Don't Live Here Anymore" came her way.

Based on short stories by Andre Dubus, "We Don't Live Here Anymore" is a brutal look at the consequences of infidelity. Shot in somber tones, the film plunges into the uneasy intimacy of two couples whose marriages are unraveling. Dern plays Terry, a disheveled housewife whose husband, Jack, played by a bearded Ruffalo, is fooling around with her best friend, Edith. Naomi Watts plays Edith while the boyish Peter Krause plays her aloof husband, Hank.

Like many of Dern's previous roles -- a glue-sniffing derelict who's swept into the abortion issue, a sex-crazed young woman, a loveless orphan hooked on sex -- Terry is unhinged. She screams, she drinks, she throws things. Her house is a shambles.

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