At the Strand Bookstore, Laura Dern bent to caress a stack of copies of â€œThe Catcher in the Rye.â€ Her davening torso and probing hands made her resemble a praying mantis. â€œThis was the book, when I was fourteen, that made me love books,â€ she said. â€œBefore that, I mostly read scripts.â€ The actress, the daughter of Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, appeared in â€œAlice Doesnâ€™t Live Here Anymoreâ€ at the age of seven, rode her bike to acting classes at nine, and, at fifteen, sued her parents for emancipation so that she could continue acting. Her best teacher, she said, was the director David Lynch: â€œWithout him, I would not have made the acting choices Iâ€™ve made, because he required me to play the girl next doorâ€ (in â€œBlue Velvetâ€), â€œto be completely untamedâ€ (in â€œWild at Heartâ€), â€œand to have no narrative at allâ€ (in â€œInland Empireâ€).
In her bracing new film, â€œCertain Women,â€ written and directed by Kelly Reichardt, Dern, now forty-nine, stars with Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and Lily Gladstone as women living in and around Livingston, Montana. â€œTheyâ€™re all fighting how the boys have arranged the system, and are ill-fitting in their lives,â€ Dern explained. Her character, Laura Wells, is a mopey lawyer whose client, a carpenter, wonâ€™t accept that his workplace-accident lawsuit is hopeless until he hears it from a man. After the carpenter takes a hostage, the cops ask Wells to put on a bulletproof vest and go in. Her face, as she grasps that her life has somehow been leading to this, is a study in misgiving.
Dern canted herself over the counter and waited to catch the attention of a bearded clerk. She inquired about â€œYou Will Not Have My Hate,â€ a memoir by Antoine Leiris, whose wife was killed in the Paris attacks last fall. â€œNot in stock,â€ he said. She apologetically withdrew.
Although she exudes a warm candor, Dern said that it isnâ€™t hard for her to tap into her charactersâ€™ sense of buried grievance. In â€œCertain Women,â€ she said, â€œI could relate to Lauraâ€™s longing to find a place where she doesnâ€™t need to fight, a place where she can say, â€˜This is my world, I own it!â€™ Which is my daughterâ€™s approach, whereas feminists of my generation still have the â€˜Iâ€™m sorry! Is it O.K.?â€™ approach.â€ She laughed. â€œI even apologize about making requests in restaurants, where Iâ€™m paying for the food.â€
She went on, â€œWhen I talk toâ€”I donâ€™t want to say younger journalists, but, basically, younger journalistsâ€”theyâ€™re excited by this film, by seeing women get to tell their stories. Thatâ€™s because they grew up in the nineties. But in the seventies, when I was growing up, we had â€˜3 Womenâ€™ and â€˜An Unmarried Womanâ€™ and â€˜Klute.â€™Â â€ Her fingers divvied up the generations. At her sonâ€™s elementary school, she was known as â€œthe mom who talks with her hands.â€
In the rare-book room, Dern picked up a first edition of Tennessee Williamsâ€™s â€œCamino Real.â€ â€œHe was my momâ€™s second cousin,â€ she said. â€œShe did his play â€˜Orpheus Descendingâ€™ in New York, and the actor opposite her got strep throat or something, and she had to go on with his understudy. And that understudy was Bruce Dern.â€ She smiled down at the book, then noted that her parents divorced when she was two. Dern and the father of her children, the musician Ben Harper, are also divorced.
She roamed around, stroking books by Arthur Rackham and Judy Blume. She opened Langston Hughesâ€™s â€œBlack Misery,â€ vignettes about growing up black in a white world. â€œOh, my God!â€ she said, turning the pages. Stricken, she read, â€œMisery is when you goÂ /Â To the Department StoreÂ /Â Before Christmas and find outÂ /Â That Santa is a white man.â€ She almost ran to the register with the book.
On her way out, Dern trailed her fingers over a Gabriel GarcÃa MÃ¡rquez novel and said, â€œNow I just want to read everything he ever wrote. But, as a child, instead of trusting MÃ¡rquez and his flights of fancy I trusted movie directors, who told me that things would not be all that magical. I watched â€˜A Clockwork Orangeâ€™ by myself at thirteen, I saw â€˜Raging Bullâ€™ fourteen times, and â€˜The Omenâ€™ and â€˜The Exorcistâ€™ messed me up.â€ Her hands framed a huge screen. â€œIt started with Walt Disney, actually, with â€˜Dumboâ€™ and â€˜Bambiâ€™â€”somebodyâ€™s going to die, innocence will be taken, and you will be left alone.â€Â â™¦