An interview with Laura Dern

We spoke to the indie film icon about her role as a dead woman in the new Jean-Marc Vallée film Wild.

The most important character in Wild, the new film by Jean-Marc Vallée, is dead from the first frame of the movie. The death of her mother, Bobbi, is the reason why Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) decides to hike the Pacific Coast Trail. Seen only in extensive flashbacks, Strayed’s mother Bobbi is played by Laura Dern as an eccentric hippie and single mother who finds herself in the delicate position of going back to college at the same time as her daughter.

Although Dern is only nine years older than Witherspoon, she slides effortlessly into the role of the emotional centre of the film.

“I think we got really lucky. Casting me was interesting in that Reese is playing younger, I’m playing older, we’re playing mother-daughter and most of it is her at eight years old, before it’s her at 22 and me at 43,” she says. “The ages, like her memories, blur and pop around so much, but at the core of their relationship was a sisterhood, a friendship, that comes from being a teenager when you have a baby, but also from going to college together and leaving an abusive household. I feel so lucky that we’re close in age, and peers, and have known and loved each other for a long time as fellow actors.”

Dern also has nothing but praise for the Québécois director behind Wild. “The women in the films are so honest and heartbreaking and beautiful. I think the thing that moved me the most about him emotionally as a filmmaker and a person was that there was no conversation about the flawed protagonist — they’re people. You felt that so much with Dallas Buyers Club — it’s like, you get all of it,” she says.

“I think that’s why so many people fell in love with Dallas Buyers Club and why it’s so exciting to work with him as an actor. Also, having been raised by actors and particularly actors who were making films in the ’70s when I was a little girl, being on set with such imaginative and unparalleled directors, I feel like I’ve come home. He’s so inventive and on-the-fly and improvisational — if you have five minutes, then that’s five minutes where you can shoot something you didn’t think to shoot. That’s the way it is every day on set.”

For Dern, the idea of playing a real-life figure was made much easier by the presence of the real Strayed on set. “Cheryl being with us almost every day, it felt like we all ‘got’ Bobbi,” she explains. “She just carries her mother’s memory in her cells. It’s really beautiful to witness. It was palpable, in a very honest way, how her mother was always grateful. It wasn’t trite or pretend — she had a deep sense of gratitude, and that’s beyond inspirational.”

Her performance was also informed by Vallée’s own experience of losing his mother to cancer. “He’s so beautiful. He’s so honest, and just sharing the story of his mother and what an amazing woman she was… we were both crying in our first conversation!” she explains. “I think his bond to honour Cheryl and her mother allows that to be at the core of the movie. How he weaves the memories and builds the memories towards what happened is remarkable.’’ ■

See our interview with Jean-Marc Vallée here.

Wild opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Dec. 19.

For the latest in film and TV, please visit our Film & TV section.