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Thinking she had just months to live, Laura Dern's mother 'spilled the beans'

Nearly four years ago, Laura Dern's mother, Diane Ladd, was diagnosed with lung disease. Ladd, who is also an actor, thought she had six months left to live — but the doctor said taking walks might help her increase her lung capacity.

So, every day – sometimes over Ladd's protestations – the two set out on a 15-minute walk. To make the time more interesting and engaging, Dern interviewed her mother. Those conversations, which Laura recorded for herself and her children, are now a new book Honey, Baby, Mine: A Mother and Daughter Talk Life, Death, Love (and Banana Pudding).

Thinking this was the last time they'd have together, the conversations were intimate and honest. Most of us don't "spill the beans," until it's too late, Dern says. "What shocked me as I would start to engage her in topics is how little I had asked. ... Things as seemingly mundane as favorite foods, favorite colors, favorite flowers that were just to pass the time. It moved me so much – the people in our most intimate relationships, how little we ask."

/ Grand Central Publishing
Grand Central Publishing

This is not the first time Dern and Ladd have teamed up. When Laura was a child, she was an extra in the film, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, which costarred her mother and was directed by Martin Scorsese. She starred with Nicolas Cage and her mother in David Lynch's Wild at Heart. For the film Rambling Rose, she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress, and her mother was nominated for Best Supporting Actress – the first and only time a mother and daughter were nominated for the same film. They made a very convincing mother and daughter in the HBO series Enlightened,for which Dern received a Golden Globe.

In addition to bringing them closer, Dern believes the walks have helped her mother feel better as well. "The more we talked and the deeper and more complicated of subjects we shared, my mother got better and better and better ... " she says. "It's been a great gift."

Interview highlights

On the first time she and her mother did a film together, David Lynch's Wild at Heart

Isabella Rossellini, left, David Lynch, Laura Dern and Diane Ladd laugh during a photocall for <em>Wild at Heart</em> at the Cannes Film Festival in 1990.
Gerard Julien / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Isabella Rossellini, left, David Lynch, Laura Dern and Diane Ladd laugh during a photocall for Wild at Heart at the Cannes Film Festival in 1990.

My mom talked about the joy she had remembering the first time we worked together on Wild at Heart, and we had to do this very emotional scene. She remembered me preparing for the scene at one end of the set and her at the other, both doing our work, both having trained separately as professionals, not engaged in that together, and then coming together to do this very emotional scene.

The camera rolls and David Lynch called "Action!" and it's very emotional and I'm crying in her arms. And he said, "Cut!" and mom describes us pulling away and her looking in my eyes and realizing that she knew exactly what had brought up the emotion in me. And I looked at her and felt I knew the emotion and the pain she was expressing in the scene, both very personal, both never discussed, but we just know each other so well.

And so at that moment, we started laughing hysterically right after this big crying scene. Mom describes the whole crew looking at us as if we were nuts. But it was such a personal, intimate, beautiful thing to share that kind of knowing and bringing it into this professional space, but also the boundaries of that professional space that it's sort of this unspoken language.

On growing up seeing her actor parents playing different people

I was literally born into it. I think they said the first set they brought me to, I was like three weeks old and they used the dresser drawer of the motel as my crib on a film they were working on. I would watch them transform so much that it clearly was their job. So I think I never felt the confusion. I felt almost part of it, because I had the good fortune of watching them.

Diane Ladd, left, Bruce Dern and Laura Dern pose after all received stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles in 2010.
Matt Sayles / AP
Diane Ladd, left, Bruce Dern and Laura Dern pose after all received stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles in 2010.

Although when I was five or six, my Grandma and I were watching like a movie of the week and Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte was playing and we're halfway into the movie. And I think my Grandma had forgotten that my father [actor Bruce Dern] was involved in flashback as the young lover. And there is a shot at the end of the movie of Bette Davis holding a hatbox at the top of a staircase and something rolls out of that hatbox, and it is something that was clearly no longer an entire human Bruce Dern, but just the head of him. I was hysterical, needless to say. And my Grandma had to get my dad on the phone to explain that he had his head and he was OK and it's just a movie.

Even in middle school, I remember some kids teasing me because one of them said their dad had said that they couldn't have a playdate with me because my dad killed John Wayne [in The Cowboys]. I remember even at 12, trying to sort of defend and justify that they're not their roles. I didn't love that other people were confused, but luckily I wasn't terribly confused.

On how her father's reputation protected her

All of us have discussed as women in our workplace environments, we've all had to navigate so much. And I was in, especially starting work so young, very potentially uncomfortable or even dangerous circumstances. And I know people knowing my parents and certainly guys knowing my dad, I think, were careful with me. They knew not to mess with Bruce's kid. I think I was very blessed. So thanks, Dad, for playing bad guys in Westerns.

On being vulnerable to predatory behavior in Hollywood

I was incredibly lucky at how much didn't happen. I say that with awareness of the blessing of the certain people that I did work for. But why is a 13-year-old auditioning at the Chateau Marmont in a hotel room alone with a man in his 40s and there's nowhere to sit but on a bed? Now, nothing happened, but the dynamic is there.

I just worked with my first intimacy coordinator ever, and I had to have her explain the job to me, and I was confused. It was wild. Just learning that this could be possible was just so eye opening. And I think it brought up a lot for us when we had those first experiences, thinking of the near-misses and the overt discomfort in the space, even if you were seemingly safe, it creates an environment that says these are the people in charge and you are a submissive. First of all, just for a creative environment, it's horrific. You can't be your most free in a space you don't feel safe. So a lot has changed. And thank God that would never happen again without several people in the room.

On growing up in a family that was Catholic and supportive of abortion-rights

My amazing mother and grandmother would say that to be religious, to be spiritual means, to be endlessly supportive of anyone's rights, human rights, to choose their destiny. And I have been raised pro-choice and Catholic since birth. I am very blessed and have met nuns who are pro-choice and many, many people within that community. Even my mother is very open minded, and I learned to meditate when I was eight years old. And she has explored many spiritual paths as well as being raised Catholic. But even for my grandmother, who had her own opinions of the choices she would make for her life, but always honored a woman's choice, a family's choice. So that was huge in my upbringing.

On accessing rage to play her Big Little Lies character, Renata

[Director] Jean-Marc [Vallée]and I were talking about the character's rage ... and he was talking about where it would come from and I said, "You take any woman off the street who has not had rage expressed and she is ready to play this part." Years of bottling up anger and trying to say the right thing or be around explosive people and try to calm the storm, you definitely have so much. And by the way, if you watch the news, you can play Renata.

On co-starring in Ellen DeGeneres' 1997 coming out episode on Ellen

That was an amazing experience, and from that came a lot of love and a lot of hate. And I learned a lot by association of what it feels like to be true to yourself in the world. It's so devastating that that seemed like innocent times. It's just so shocking that we're here. Standing up and expressing who you truly are is extraordinary, and all of us should be part of that together. But to actually be locking eyes with Ellen and hold her, shaking hands as she said, "I'm gay," on national television and for the first time, as she has shared outloud in that way publicly, was such a profoundly extraordinary and intimate gift into that moment that I will forever be grateful for.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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