What Laura Dern and Diane Ladd Have Learned From Each Other

Ladd wasn’t sure she wanted her daughter to act. But Dern grew up going to work with her mother — and soon they were sharing the screen.

Article by Kate Guadagnino

Mothers and Daughters_Laura DernFrom left: Diane Ladd, 87, actress, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974), (with her dog Roo) and Laura Dern, 56, actress, “Marriage Story” (2019), photographed at Ladd’s home in Woodland Hills, Calif., on Feb. 13, 2023. Photograph by Tierney Gearon

Laura Dern: The great news about the endless challenges you had raising me as a single parent is that, when you brought me with you on location, I got an up-close view of what it really means to be an actor. 

Diane Ladd: When I was doing “A Texas Trilogy” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 1976, you were 8 and sat with me during rehearsal. At one point the play’s director said, “Diane, you didn’t move there.” I said, “I know where I moved,” and you said, “No, Mother, he’s right.” You were really paying attention. I didn’t want you to go into acting. It’s a hard business for anyone but, as a woman, they really judge you, and for a lot more than the work. I said, “Laura, be a lawyer. Nobody cares if your backside’s too big when you’re a lawyer.” 

L.D.: Well, women have been traumatised in many industries, but I’m now in your position, with kids who want to be artists, and I understand why you were protective. 

D.L.: Marlon Brando didn’t want his kids to act, either. He was vehement. I had a fight with him about it. I said, “If the universe gives a child a gift, you have to encourage it.” I knew you had the gift when I went to a screening of [Dern’s 1980 film] “Foxes.” You didn’t have much to do, but my heart just gasped, like when someone opens a little box and there’s this gorgeous diamond inside. 

L.D.: OK, OK. The thing that inspires me most about your career is that it’s ever-surprising. Around the time we did “Rambling Rose” (1991), where you played the archetype of maternal love, we also worked together in “Wild at Heart” (1990), with you as the Wicked Witch of the East, West, North and South. On a scene level, too, I watched the boldness of your choices. Even if it doesn’t make it into the movie, a particular choice might inform another take that does. I can be concerned about whether something I said at a party came out the wrong way but, thanks to you, when I’m on a set, I don’t care because I know it’s a process to get to the truth of a thing. 

D.L.: If you want to be great, it means taking good and lighting a fire of truth and risk and belief under it. You were always willing to do that. 

L.D.: Do you remember filming that scene in “Enlightened” (2011-13) when I’m deciding between two relationships and [the director] Todd Haynes set up the camera so that we could be truly alone? We were playing the most opposite characters from who we are, and yet it was deeply vulnerable and we knew exactly what we were really saying
to each other. 

D.L.: That’s right. Years later, I ended up in the hospital and we started taking these walks to strengthen my lungs. You got me to walk and talk, and that’s when we went beyond intuition and voiced everything. If one person reads our book [“Honey, Baby, Mine,” a new collection of conversations between Ladd and Dern] and does the same — really talks
to someone they love — writing it won’t have been in vain. Aside
from that, all I can offer is a reflection of life itself. Art is just a mirror, and that’s why we go see movies: to learn who we are.