Laura Dern Is Done ‘Normalizing’ Abusive Power
By Ashley Morton
The actor discusses The Tale’s connection to #MeToo, and why it’s a film everyone can relate to.
HBO: What drew you to this role?
Laura Dern: It’s a rare experience to have a writer-director ask you not only to play them, but also navigate through the telling of the most traumatic story of their life. That was already a fascinating possibility, and then I read the piece. I’d never seen someone capture the essence of protecting yourself with your own narrative, and how that shifts with age, distance, and new understanding. I thought that was brilliant. I was very moved and excited to participate in getting that narrative out there.
HBO: Jennifer Fox mentioned she shared her diaries with you and Isabelle Nélisse [who plays young Jenny]. Did you do any other research to prepare?
Laura Dern: Fortunately and unfortunately, having been a child, having been female, and living in the world we live in, that’s all the preparation I needed. I have normalized behavior most of my life, some in mild ways, and some dealing with egregious, inappropriate behavior. And I think we all have dealt with abusive power, whether it’s the most illegal or more subtle behavior, in our childhoods or in our workplaces. There is no one that I am not having this conversation with.
HBO: This film has been connected to the #MeToo movement a great deal. What do you think of that correlation?
Laura Dern: The #MeToo movement, and even Time’s Up, is seemingly labeled as a female-focused thing, but to me, it’s a human rights issue. This happens to be female story, but we know how many children are impacted — I believe it’s about every eight seconds a child is sexually abused, and 93 percent of the time the child is being abused by someone the family knows well. It is so shocking, and we don’t deal with it because we don’t want that person to be a bad person.
That is the thing that moved me so much in Jennifer’s portrayal of her experience. She told the gray in the story. Bill [the perpetrator, played by Jason Ritter] is someone you would feel safe to leave your child with. And in some ways he saw Jenny like no one else saw her. There was a love there. I think Jennifer gave us more ability and room to look at the nuances of how complicated this story is.
HBO: What was it like portraying the person who is also the writer, director and producer of the film?
Laura Dern: There were scenes I struggled with: I can’t believe she would say this to her mother, and her mother would say this to her. But there are scenes that are transcribed and documented, so despite my discomfort, it was really powerful that we had them. We could see how people protect, or how deeply people are in denial, or how people change their narrative for themselves or their children. That was fascinating to me.
HBO: Jennifer Fox mentioned your ability to improvise within a scene. How much of your own interpretation were you able to draw from for the role?
Laura Dern: Improvisation happened more in the modern storytelling between myself and Common [who played Jennifer’s fiancé, Martin]. We knew the story we were telling, but had to navigate the feeling of two lovers coming to terms with this narrative shift; what that does to a man who is now considered an intimate and protector, and his ability to not only confront her and tell her she needs help, but also, step aside and let her do her work and find her way through it.
HBO: Did you and Isabelle discuss how to play Jennifer together?
Laura Dern: We definitely spent time together. Jennifer took us through some rehearsals and we shared some time to get through the emotional independence and the physicality that is Jennifer. Jennifer spent beautiful and real time with her and Jason in order to feel safe.
It was important that a lovely person was cast in the role of Bill, both for the storytelling and for Isabelle. I was very controlling about that in terms of my participation because I know what it’s like to be a young actress. I thought Jason would be brilliant and take on something that seemed really daunting and terrifying. I was so grateful for his openness. Every crew member, every actor, everyone was there, just trying to understand this subject matter. It is rare to see these projects come together in such a raw way. We had time to make it true and right.
HBO: Do you feel there is a throughline that connects the different women you’ve portrayed?
Laura Dern: I’m deeply interested in women who even incrementally are finding their voice. I have been particularly blessed to play women who didn’t even know they were entitled to one. Amazingly, whether it’s Jennifer, or Renata [from Big Little Lies], or a homeless huff addict in Citizen Ruth, I see all the characters I’ve played as women who didn’t know anyone else cares, or is listening, and feel so judged or unsafe in their own skin. It’s a human problem, and maybe particularly a female problem. We are trying so deeply to shift out of that, and that’s why the timing of The Tale is so impactful.