Laura Dern's role in The Son continues her family's legacy of method acting

Actor Laura Dern sat down with Q's Tom Power at TIFF last fall to discuss her latest movie, The Son.

In a Q interview, the actor spoke about vulnerability, mental health and a few of her iconic roles

Laura Dern arrives at the Ralph Lauren Spring 2023 Fashion Experience at The Huntington in Pasadena, Calif.
Actor Laura Dern sat down with Q's Tom Power at TIFF last fall to discuss her latest movie, The Son. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

The full conversation with Laura Dern is available on our podcast, Q with Tom Power. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Now 40 years into her career, Laura Dern has become known for taking on complex roles that deal with the messiness of real life.

The actor credits movies for teaching her about human behaviour, and her parents for teaching her the emotional process behind acting. Born to actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, and trained at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, she's no stranger to being vulnerable on camera.

Dern first appeared on film at just six years old in White Lightning (1973), sharing the screen with her mother. The two went on to appear in a number of films together, including Rambling Rose (1991), in which they became the first mother-daughter duo to be nominated for an Academy Award for the same film.

In a new interview on Q with Tom Power, Dern spoke about the difficulties of filming in a pandemic for Florian Zeller's play-turned-film The Son.

"We really bonded over allowing ourselves to tell our story to each other. And from that came a place of I think real community and friendship," she told Tom Power.

WATCH | Laura Dern's interview with Tom Power:

Dern said the bonding was needed, because The Son was a painful movie to film. It tackles the mental health crisis, parenting and childhood — something the actor had a hard time detaching from. She discussed this with Power last fall when the film had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Here's some of that conversation.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

So when you first read the script, what went through your mind?

Reading a flawless script is a rare gift as an actor. It's a flawless piece of work and that alone is such a rare privilege because you're already as a reader being invited into the storytelling and it's so profoundly moving. I was weeping at the end of just reading the screenplay.

But the longing to be part of it — yes, the character is beautiful and I love playing this role, but the longing comes from the mental health emergency that we're in globally. And my personal longing as a friend, daughter, mother — that I have just to be in conversation and community around the unspoken dialogue about the pain that so many of us suffer whether it be anxiety or depression, or not having the answers. Or in the case of this brilliant line that Florian presents in the movie: "sometimes love is not enough." And the awareness as a loved one of someone in pain or in a mental health crisis that love may not be enough to give answers on how to heal someone else.

WATCH | Official trailer for The Son:

How do you get into that mindset of someone who is dealing with a child who is experiencing depression?

Well, you crack your own heart open and you listen to your other actors and your director and their life experience. You share your own so that you're deeply bonded in the intimacy and the vulnerability around this conversation. You just allow your feelings around it to come forth. 

For me, just being a parent means that I'm in constant anxiety about the fact that I don't have all the answers and I don't get to control the outcome of their lives. That alone is a very vulnerable-making position. And this character, particularly, was so profound to play because I realized that her guilt around their family going through divorce, or her lack of wisdom in terms of how to help her child actually would be a relief for her because then it could be the reason. Even if she was the one at fault, it gives her some sense of control. But there are no answers. There are no reasons. 

It's not that simple as shame or blame or guilt. It's a crisis we don't have answers for. And that is just so vulnerable-making. So for me as an actor, when I say cracking oneself or one's heart open, it's to get to the rawest space of vulnerability and try to explore that.

It must be a challenge as a parent to be forced to act out these emotions, I can't imagine what that would do.

Well, Hugh was a self-described hot mess, and we were in it together. We were in the middle of the pandemic. It was a very heightened time in lockdown in London, where we started shooting, and we had each other, literally. We couldn't see anyone else and we just shared everything, along with Florian and the other actors, we really bonded over allowing ourselves to tell our story to each other. And from that came a place of I think real community and friendship, which was the way we survived what was truthfully a very painful and beautiful movie to make together.

What do you do after a scene? Do you have a ritual that you can do to chill?

Well, that was incredible. At the time we were being asked to only be in each other's bubble. Hugh and I stayed in the same place together so either the two of us, or sometimes with Zen, we had dinner or walked in the park. And that was it. That was our weeks and weeks of being together on this ride. It was all so extraordinary.

It affords healing. What we learned from the experience — and from the storytelling — is when you discuss the unspoken conversation around mental health you start to free yourself of the isolation around it. If I hope for anything for the audience, it's that it starts community conversation around what you think you're isolated in because, particularly for adolescents and young adults, many think they're the only one feeling this. And it's an epidemic.

Are you able to turn your brain off at the end of the day or are you still affected by the emotions you have to process? Is it easier for you to separate acting from yourself because you come from a family of actors?

I say that it is. And I believe that I can separate myself at the end of a work day and just be in the recovery of something. But I remember speaking to a friend and extraordinary psychiatrist working with adolescents, and I was talking about that process and he said, "But your cells don't know that. If you've been crying all day, you've adrenalized and gone through that emotional experience. When you think about what your body is feeling, and you say you're emotionally exhausted at the end of the day, you've still cried for 12 hours." As much as I've always tried to prove that I'm detached from it, my physical body has gone through something all day long, especially on a film like this. 

As much as I felt I could always be detached — and have been raised by method actors who set the example of that — this movie did not make that possible. For sure. It was not one that you can distance yourself from when you're in the middle of it.

It's interesting that your parents would have taught you the delineation between life and work.

There's a lot of misconception about method actors. Whatever any actor needs, that's their process and I have zero judgment on what people need. But certainly for my parents, being raised in the actor studio with Lee Strasberg being their teacher, and my dad even teaching at the studio for many years, what they taught me is about the emotional process, which affords healing because it's about self-discovery and looking at wounds.

The artist as the wounded healer idea, in terms of storytellers, has always been very moving and Jung spoke about it a lot. That really interests me because movies have been my healer, anecdote, answer to, you know, everything. I love movies so that's been my great teacher in life about human behaviour. And certainly as an actor it's been the same. But when you're in the middle of a pandemic and you're isolated from your children and you're in a bubble, and they can't come to you, and you can't come to them, it sets a very different space.

You've worked with surrealist filmmaker David Lynch for years. Why do you work together so well?

I mean, because I'm the luckiest person in the world. I think anyone that would get chosen by David would be the luckiest. He cast me as a 17 year old and has let me be along the ride for his creative journey all these years. He's been my greatest teacher of the subtlety of human behaviour because you have to be so real and so true to make something so radically absurd work. I think that's the key to David's films, and I think it's the comedy in David's films that gives space for absurd, almost satirical humour, amidst insanity, but only by the actors trying to and him guiding us to be as true and even subtle as possible at times.

In the first Jurassic Park movie you acted alongside puppet dinosaurs, which is so different from the way we use CGI now. It must have been strange!

Those actually were real dinosaurs and raptors are scary. Well, actually, I was sort of joshing you. But those animatronics were so incredible that it did feel so real. In the most recent one, we went back to relying on animatronics for a massive chunk of the film and they're so amazing. It's just mind-blowing. 

The original Jurassic Park was the first movie that used CGI, or the beginnings of it, which is amazing. I remember as they pulled this VistaVision out, and we were standing with Dennis Muren from Industrial Light and Magic and Steven Spielberg, trying to figure out as we were going to use this camera. They were explaining that they were going to paint an image on a computer next to us, and we were doing the moment where Sam Neill turns my head in the Jeep and I look up for the first time. We were like, "Oh my God, where am I going to look?" It was the first time ever that everyone had to stand around and figure out what my eyeline was going to be. I remember sort of feeling like, "Oh no, is this really gonna work? Seems crazy," and it changed cinema forever. 

It's the 25th anniversary of "The Puppy Episode" — the episode of Ellen where Ellen DeGeneres's character comes out and does so through a crush on your character. I've seen a lot of conversation about the backlash Ellen dealt with after that, and then I saw that you were also experiencing backlash. What was that like for you?

Well, interestingly, Ellen, myself and Oprah (who was on the show playing her therapist) spoke about it together, not knowing for years that we also were having the experience of hate in our country and delusion around sexuality, and people's fear around an individual's sexuality. During "The Puppy Episode," there were severe security issues which continued. But even in my career, I experienced a lot of issues around that career choice, and there was a stigma.

Having just come out with Jurassic Park, I had just been nominated for an Oscar and it was a wonderful time, and then "The Puppy Episode" was on and there wasn't work for a while. There was a lot of really interesting conversation around it with my amazing representatives who helped walk through that journey, and learned a lot from it. Being so outside the experience, but also inside by proxy. 

What I will say is I was blessed with a palpable experience of what it means to say to the world "this is who I am" with deep bravery, and all the years of stigma and shame that come with that story. It was a gift to be the person that got to hold Ellen's hands as she said for the first time in a public forum, "I'm gay." I was holding her knowing the line was coming and felt her shaking like a leaf, and I'll never forget what that took. Therefore, I have an understanding of that level of bravery every day, and I wish it were true, and it was for a little bit, that we thought the world had changed forever. But sadly, it didn't. When we saw those amazing rainbow colours on the White House, we thought, "Wow, it's amazing, we have finally grown as a culture." There's still a lot of fear and hate around what people don't know, or what they feel shame about in themselves or in their own family. So I pray for continual healing and bless Ellen for her radical bravery at that time.

Written by Lian McMillan. Interview produced by Vanessa Greco.


Lian McMillan is a pop-culture writer, creator and consumer. An alum of the University of Toronto and Humber College, Lian is co-founder of the band ‘cutsleeve,' which has been featured in Exclaim!, NOW magazine, and CBC. She can be reached on Twitter @lian_mcmillan.