29 Things You Probably Don't Know About Laura Dern

The award-winning star of Marriage Story and Big Little Lies will celebrate a birthday tomorrow and is almost surely winning her first Oscar tonight.

By Natalie Finn Feb 09, 2020 11:00 AMTags
Watch: Laura Dern Feels "Lovely" About Oscars Supporting Actress Nom

The radiant Laura Dern has been lighting up screens for almost five decades.

If that sounds like a rather long amount of time, it's only because Dern got her start when she was 6, playing her mother's daughter in 1973's White Lightning. Her next film, at 7, was Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.

But such is life for the child of acting royalty, who it was soon apparent had the goods to more than hold her own, and who has been having one hell of a run for the past few years—one that in all likelihood is going to result in an Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress tonight for her performance as polished, no-holds-barred divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw in Marriage Story.

"We long to be of service to give voice to the voiceless. And thanks to the brilliant Noah Baumbach, I got to do just that. Give voice, pay tribute, to the divorce lawyer. Long, long overdue," Dern jested at the Golden Globes, accepting one of the dozens of accolades the part has earned her.

Then and Now: See the 2020 Oscar Nominees' First Red Carpets

Talk about acting one's age: Dern is turning 53 tomorrow, and we counted no fewer than 55 nominations and wins for Marriage Story, including from regional critics groups. This year so far she has run the table, collecting a Golden Globe, a SAG Award and a BAFTA, and her first Academy Award is seemingly in the bag after two previous nominations.

Of course, even if there's an upset, there is an embarrassment of riches to celebrate when it comes to Dern's storied career and presence in Hollywood over the years. So, before the big show, take a moment to learn all about the actress who seamlessly slips into every role but is also so obviously herself: 

1. Laura Elizabeth Dern was born on Feb. 10, 1967, in Santa Monica, Calif., a SoCal gal through and through.

2. Her parents are Oscar-nominated actors Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd. They divorced in 1969 but reunite often to support their daughter, such as when they high-fived in a tribute video for Dern when she was presented with a career achievement award at the 2020 Palm Springs International Film Festival.

3. Before Laura was born, Dern and Ladd had another daughter who drowned when she was 18 months old. Doctors told Ladd she probably wouldn't be able to have another baby.

4. Ladd has said that their marriage wasn't able to survive that initial loss. "We suffered the tragedy of our daughter's death together and thought another child would help us, but we were so bruised," she told Parade in 1992. "I was terrified, being on my own with Laura. I had to force myself not to be overly protective because I had lost one child. The result was that it worked the other way. I allowed her to be a free thinker, and that helped her become her own person."

5. Dern was 6 when she appeared in her first movie, playing Sharon Anne, the daughter of Ladd's character Maggie, in 1973's White Lightning with Burt Reynolds.

6. The following year she was "Girl Eating Ice Cream Cone" in Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, also featuring her mom as waitress Flo. 

7. In turn, Dern knew she had found her calling in life. "My dad was shooting Family Plot with Hitchcock, and my mom was shooting Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore with Scorsese and, believe it or not, at the end of that summer I was, like, 'I think I want to be an actress.'"

8. Following in a storied Hollywood tradition generally reserved for the offspring of the famous, Dern was Miss Golden Globe in 1982, when she was 14.

9. However, Dern sued her parents for emancipation when she as 17 because Ladd didn't actually want Laura to be an actress. But Ladd let her daughter leave home, on condition that she move in with her friend, future self-help guru and presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, who was 31 at the time. "I, by good fortune, found her," Dern recounted on Jimmy Kimmel Live in 2019. "She needed a roommate at the time I had just moved out and started my acting career and we ended up roommates."

10. She played a sweet blind girl in Peter Bogdanovich's Mask in 1985 and then promptly scored her breakout role at 18 in David Lynch's haunting neo-noir thriller Blue Velvet, the first of three movies she's done with the director, plus she was in the 2017 Twin Peaks reboot.

11. She and Ladd have been in seven films together, including David Lynch's Wild at Heart and Citizen Ruth, and two TV movies.

12. She has never done a movie with her dad, though they've worked for the same director, years apart: Laura starred in Alexander Payne's 1996 film Citizen Ruth, and Bruce starred in 2013's Nebraska.

13. Dern's first Oscar nomination came in 1992, Best Actress for Rambling Rose. Co-star Ladd was also nominated, for Best Supporting Actress, marking the first time a mother and daughter were nominated for the same movie.

14. Princess Diana was so charmed by mother and daughter acting together that she had them both flown to London for a royal screening in 1991. "She was empathy in cellular form," Dern recalled to The Guardian about the late Princess of Wales.

15. Dern has won five Golden Globes—all of them for roles in HBO productions except the one for Netflix's Marriage Story. Her first came in 1993 for the movie Afterburn, based on a true story about the widow of a pilot who demands answers from the military and the maker of the F-16 fighter jet after her husband is killed in a crash. The others have been for 2002's Recount, in which she played Katherine Harris, Florida's Secretary of State when a statewide recount was ordered during the 2000 presidential election; the dark comedy Enlightened; and Big Little Lies.

16. She auditioned for the role of Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs and, although director Jonathan Demme thought she nailed it, the studio was pressuring him to hire someone more famous, so he cast Jodie Foster, who went on to win an Oscar for her performance, her second in three years.

17. Dern did, however, beat out Gwyneth Paltrow (despite being Steven Spielberg's goddaughter) and Helen Hunt for the role of Dr. Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park, her one film to date that's been added to the National Film Registry for its cultural, historical or aesthetic significance. She appeared for a minute in Jurassic Park III but will be co-starring in the upcoming Jurassic World 3.

18. That whole chaos theory water trick really worked. Dern dated Jeff Goldblum after they made Jurassic Park, falling for each other amid the hurricane that blew through the Hawaiian island of Kauai where they were shooting. "I was struck," Goldblum said in a 1993 interview. "I'd been a big fan of hers. I think she's an amazing actress, and a spectacular person. I was struck from the beginning. But after the movie we realized we liked each other." He and Dern will be reuniting for Jurassic World 3.

19. That was Laura Dern in the seminal 1997 episode of Ellen in which the title character played by Ellen DeGeneres comes out as gay, to a few more people than she originally planned when she accidentally leans into a hot mic at the airport. Dern plays an out lesbian—a history-making bit of television to which Dern later attributed a year-long involuntary break from working in the late '90s.

"We all spent the next couple of years really struggling in work and safety," Dern told Vulture in 2019. "It was radical to experience that. It was the only time I ever experienced having to have to have full security detail. But what was amazing, which I will never forget, that when she looked in my eyes, she said it was the first time she said 'I'm gay' out loud." 

Dern called it the "greatest thing I could've ever been part of, honestly. An incredible honor."

20. After meeting him on the set of that Ellen episode, Dern started dating and eventually got engaged to fellow guest star Billy Bob Thornton. They made Daddy and Them together (also with Ladd) and were still a couple in 2000 when... well, according to Dern, he married Angelina Jolie that May while she was off shooting a movie.

"I left our home to work on a movie, and while I was away, my boyfriend got married, and I've never heard from him again," she told Talk magazine. "It's like a sudden death. For no one has there been any closure or clarity."

Melissa Etheridge concurred, telling Andy Cohen on his SiriusXM show in 2016, "I was around when Angelina was not doing nice things with Billy Bob to Laura Dern. I helped Laura move out of her house with Billy Bob—I like broke into their home to get their stuff out because it was so nasty."

Jolie and Thornton divorced in 2003.

21. Dern met musician Ben Harper not long after her relationship with Thornton ended. They had two children together, son Ellery Walker in 2001 and daughter Jaya in 2004, before marrying in 2005. The actress was said to have been blindsided when Harper filed for divorce in October 2010; the paperwork said they had been separated since that January. They continued to co-parent amicably and attempted a reconciliation but Dern reinstated the proceedings in 2012 and they reached a confidential settlement in 2013.

22. Dad Bruce and her kids were Laura's dates to the 2015 Oscars when she received her second nomination, Best Supporting Actress for Wild—in which she played future Big Little Lies co-star Reese Witherspoon's mom.

23. Ellery and Jaya are 18 and 15 now, but being a single parent can still be overwhelming, Dern told Boston Common magazine in the summer of 2019. "On good days, I am kind enough to remember that there are growing pains, and it is all overwhelming and not easy or always fun," she said. "On the hard days, it's stressful and there is too much going on as a single parent—and it can be hard to carve out a minute for yourself. I have never had anybody else bully me in my single parenting life. I am lucky to have champions around me, but I can definitely do it to myself."

24. The Screen Actors Guild Award she won in 2020 for Marriage Story was her first win in four nominations.

25. Dern doesn't foresee plastic surgery in her future, a road countless actresses have taken. "My kids know I want to move to Paris," she told The Guardian in 2019. "When I've still not done face work at 70, there will be directors there who will hire me and we'll get to explore while allowing me to be my age."

26. Her mom's initial reservations aside, Dern has been happy to learn from her parents through the years.

"When she was 9, she said, 'Dad, I want to be an actress. What's the drill?'" Bruce Dern recalled to the New York Post in 2019. "I told her, 'Two things. No. 1, you have to learn to dance— dance around all the problems behind the camera. Everybody wants to get outta there and go to the Lakers game, but if you're in a scene, stay there till it's done.

"'What's the second?' she asked. 'Take risks,' I said. 'Go on the cliff and take roles other actresses won't take.'"

27. Dern proceeded to do just that, not being afraid to tear into really complicated characters, such as pregnant drug addict Ruth Stoops in Citizen Ruth, whistleblower Amy Jellicoe in Enlightened or Renata Klein in Big Little Lies. But it's the directors who have been seeking her out to play these roles for some time. She steals all her scenes in Marriage Story as Scarlett Johansson's sure-we'll-play-nice-but-really-we-won't divorce lawyer.

28. She's also the endlessly patient, understanding and progressive-in-her-own-way Marmee March in Greta Gerwig's Little Women—which, like Marriage Story, was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture.

29. And last February, she was once again in theaters with a brand-new movie, the thriller Cold Pursuit with Liam Neeson

"What comes with this moment in life, for me, is a kind of sense of boldness that I thought I had in my 20s, that I was actually nowhere near," Dern told The Guardian in 2019. "Now I feel like I'm ready to be an actor, now I feel I want to tackle anything. Now there's just a longing to explore more, dive deeper, find things that scare me. And go towards them."

The opportunities are waiting with open arms.