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Dern, Baby, Dern

[whitespace] The Baby Dance It Takes More Than Two to Tango: Laura Dern portrays a poor and struggling woman who gives up her baby to an infertile yuppie couple in 'The Baby Dance.'

David Gray

Laura Dern moves from 'Jurassic Park' to a trailer park in TV drama 'The Baby Dance'

By Zack Stentz

THE FORTIFIED WALL that once separated the realms of feature film and television has long since been breached, but few performers travel between the two mediums with the dexterity and frequency of Laura Dern. Although best-known for her big-screen work as a wide-eyed paleontologist in Jurassic Park and her more-offbeat turns as David Lynch's muse in Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, Dern is increasingly making forays into prestige TV projects.

Devastatingly effective in the made-for-cable drama about political torture Down Came a Blackbird, Dern appears Aug. 23 and 31 in the Showtime film The Baby Dance, an adoption feature written and directed by playwright and screenwriter Jane Anderson (How to Make an American Quilt, It Could Happen to You) and executive produced by Jodie Foster.

Dern herself projects a persona nearly as multifaceted as the characters she plays: sexy, sisterly, intelligent and guileless, all wrapped up in a delightfully contradictory bundle. This particular summer's day, she's speaking over a crackling cell phone as she shuttles around Southern California caring for an ailing grandmother while still trying to promote her film.

Explaining the appeal of this latest project, Dern says, "I like the script because it's not about adoption per se but about economics and how babies in our society have become a purchasing point. It's such a weird thing that because of economics, the most nurturing parents in the world may not have the ability to raise a child the way they should be able to."

Dern's own character in the film, Wanda, is definitely not the world's most nurturing parent--despite her and her husband's desperate financial straits, she keeps popping out kids with alarming frequency. Enter Rachel (Stockard Channing) and her husband, a well-to-do couple who can't have children of their own. They visit Wanda at her rundown trailer park and strike a tenuous bargain to adopt her next baby.

"What attracted me was the dynamic between these two women and their struggles," Dern says, "and each of them dealing with her own heartbreak in terms of pregnancy. One because of her poverty and life situation and her inability to raise children the way she wants to, and the other because she can't have children. That fascinated me."

If the scenario rings a bell with Dern fans, it should. Her last big feature role, in Citizen Ruth, had her playing a comically unfit mother who's used as a pawn in the abortion debate.

"Actually, I passed when first offered the role [of Wanda] for that very reason," Dern explains. "But Jane kept coming back, and Jodie kept trying to convince me that the two characters weren't similar at all. I think the major difference between the two characters is that Wanda wants to be a mother, is trying her best to take care of her children and wants to keep her baby, but she can't because of her situation in life--not because she's completely ill-equipped like Ruth."

When she first saw the script, Dern adds, "I thought, 'Great, another woman pregnant with some odd-numbered child, who's poor and struggling.' But then I saw how different they were and saw a chance to say something different and new with this character, so I went for it."

DERN IS UNDENIABLY skilled at playing working-class characters (see her turn in Rambling Rose), which is somewhat strange given her own upbringing as the child of actors Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd.

"I don't know why I keep getting cast in these roles," she says. "If I was lucky enough to pick my career, I'd pick that path. But it's also just the way things worked out. I want to work with filmmakers who interest me and characters that interest me, and also I like doing all kinds of different things."

In explaining her varied career, Dern also credits her earliest roles. "When I first started acting as a teenager," she says, "and was auditioning for everything that was out there--TV series, independent films, studio films, whatever--the films I was first cast in (Smooth Talk, Blue Velvet, Mask) were really great independent films with interesting characters to play."

Surprisingly, Dern even has fond memories of working in Jurassic Park, just the sort of effects-heavy film that requires staring at a blue screen and pretending to be terrified for hours on end. "What's so amazing about working with Steven Spielberg is that he has all the storyboards and technical aspects in order a year in advance, because he's creating dinosaurs or God knows what," Dern says. "And yet, there wasn't a scene or take in where he didn't let us improvise and try stuff. And he never told us where to stand or what to do specifically. He made me feel as an actor that I was creating a character and having fun, and that was within the confines of Jurassic Park.

Still, like many working actresses, Dern is frustrated with the dearth of interesting roles for women in film. This frustration partly accounts for her many appearances on the small screen. "I'd like to be working more," Dern admits, "but I've made a choice to try to do things that are different and human and have some content that to me means something. Sometimes I'll get scripts that are great but are things I've already done a lot of. And I'm never gonna take a job when I think I can't be my best, because there's someone else out there who's more passionate about the part and would do a better job of it."

Dern interrupts her own monologue with a laugh. "Sometimes I must be a drag to my manager and my agent, because I really think through stuff before I commit to a project. I really try to give everything I can when I'm working, even if it's just a fun thing for a friend, like the Ellen Degeneres coming-out episode."

Strangely enough, this favor for a friend turned out to be one of Dern's most-watched performances. "I only said yes when I knew I could give everything I could to the episode for those couple of weeks," Dern recalls. "Of course, it was made easier by the fact that the episode was so well-done, and she was so raw and real in her performance. I don't want to sound like I don't enjoy any of this, though. Acting is hard work, but it's also a lot of fun to do. There's nothing I love better than acting, just as a writer loves writing."

Dern is currently at work on writing and directing a short film for Showtime, a follow-up to her short of two years ago, The Gift. Could this signal a new career path? "I have no ambitions to write," she claims. "I find it terrifying and really hard, but the struggle with it has been an education.

"But I've had a lot of fun directing," Dern adds, "and I think it's a great thing for an actor to do, because it teaches you so much about the process of filmmaking, both on the set and in postproduction. I understand so much better now what the director's job is and how it's different from my job as an actor."

Forget directing, though. What true Laura Dern aficionados want to know is if she'll ever reteam with David Lynch in a follow-up to Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, a two-film arc in which she went from virginal symbol of goodness and decency to wild girl on a tear. Will they be working together again? "I have a feeling," Dern says, a bit slyly. "We talk about it all the time, so I'm sure it will happen at some point. Maybe I'll be 60 or maybe it'll be next year."

The Baby Dance airs Aug. 23 at 9pm and Aug. 31 at 8pm on Showtime.

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From the August 20-26, 1998 issue of Metro.

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