Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women plays like a three-act visual poem. The understated drama, which opens today in limited release, quietly drifts between a series of loosely-connected vignettes revolving around three Montana women dealing with everything from empathy and corporate greed to forbidden desire, loneliness, and the woes of duty in marriage. While it’s a somber, haunting portrait of rural America, Reichardt’s subtle masterpiece features, at its center, a glowing performance from acting vet Laura Dern.
Though she’s not flashing the bubbly charm splashed across two seasons of HBO’s under appreciated Engligthened or tapping into the sentimental magnetism that scored her an Oscar nomination for Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild, Dern brings a storied compassion to the role of Laura Wells, a small-town lawyer pondering the trajectory of a career spent representing thankless men who often see her gender before her experience.
For its calculated examination of women at odds with overarching institutional and social systems of control, Dern tells EW the Sundance hit is appropriate viewing now more than ever, as news broke earlier this week that an impassioned sect of male and female Donald Trump supporters called for a repeal the 19th Amendment in a bid to help the reality show star secure the presidency.
Read on for Dern’s full interview with EW, in which she discusses why Reichardt’s film inspires empathy in the age of Trump, actively supporting women in film, her upcoming roles in Twin Peaks and Star Wars: Episode VIII, and the (potential) future of Enlightened.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it about Kelly Reichardt that made you say, you know what, I need to get on a plane to Montana and film this super understated, haunting movie with her?
LAURA DERN: I love and adore the human being called Todd Haynes, both working with him and knowing him as a man and his taste in artists. He’s a longtime collaborator, supporter, and producer of Kelly’s, as is Phil Morrison, who I love as well. It started with [Todd] calling me. I love Kelly’s work and had seen a few of her movies and, really, admired her already, but when he spoke about how she works and why he thought I would appreciate her, that was a wonderful introduction.
In terms of Kelly herself, it’s rare that filmmakers are interested in the study of what happens in the pauses between the actions of someone’s life. It’s a really interesting way to consider telling stories because it’s often how we’re trying to figure out the people we love and live amongst; [she explores] what people don’t say. Certainly, in intimate relationships, many of us try to understand our loved ones in that way. Her interest in exploring that – particularly for an actor – is really exciting.
It seems like you’re working with more female directors in your recent career: Reichardt, Courtney Hoffman on The Good Time Girls, and also Jennifer Fox on The Tale. As more people are pushing for greater representation of women behind the camera, are you making a conscious effort to star in more female-directed films?
One hundred percent; It’s an active, conscious effort. In the case of Courtney, I’m working with AFI in their women in film series, trying to not only support Courtney’s work, but also support projects where they’re asking all of the department heads to be female… When you’re talking about technology that deals with equipment, somehow it’s [assumed] that it’s the guy’s job, and [it’s assumed] you hire a man to do an action film. These standards and ideas have shifted in the last several years. I’ve worked with a few female directors, even 20 years ago on Rambling Rose, which was directed by a wonderful woman director, Martha Coolidge. Even in that day with Martha, it was incredible to witness the energy on set. She was, at the time, a nursing mom, and to watch her run a set and feel like that took something away as opposed to provoked and excited her crew to want to rally around this artist… it was a different time. I don’t want to say it was a sign of weakness, but [people assumed] femininity [meant] maybe this person doesn’t know how to run things as well. [That idea is] changing a lot.
The women I’ve had the privilege of working with have been [working] because of, oftentimes, the wonderful and brilliant artistic men surrounding that woman getting them the support they deserve. It’s an equal and gorgeous support system and struggle, like watching Obama at the Democratic National Convention, I was so moved when he said, about Hillary, let’s face it: she’s more qualified to take this job than Bill or I were. But, it does sometimes take a man who’s done the job before to explain why a woman should be doing it. I hope to continue to [work with female directors], and not because they’re women, because they’re good and they’re interesting.
Because Certain Women is so understated and deals so heavily in the art of exploring silence, was that more challenging for you to tackle as an actor?
Not necessarily more challenging, but differently challenging. I love the challenge of playing people who feel everything, and are enormous personalities and a lot to take, and this is the polar opposite. [I loved] playing a woman caught up in the daily experience of what it is not to be a man, in her world. I don’t know if you heard, but [gender] is being talked about a lot right now; [people are saying] if only men voted and we could get rid of the 19th amendment, then Trump could win, and women are saying, “I’ll give up my right just to make sure he’s president.” Oh my God, the world is coming to an end! So, Kelly Reichardt might be one of the artistic answers to the very question of who are we going to be inside the skin of people who are expected to not be empaths.
The three segments in this film are each powerful in their own way, but I want to know why you think this film works as a whole? What’s so powerful about telling these three stories together?
I don’t know that Kelly had a conscious reasoning about it. The writer, Maile Meloy, wrote these stories as portraits of women in Montana, which is the only obvious connection, but… what struck me is how they’re each coming up against a systematic approach of life, and even within – on a cultural level – a man’s world. Within a marriage [the film explores] how two people are supposed to negotiate a big ask in the case of Michelle’s story, and in Kristen’s story [her character tries to figure out] how to work a system of education, and my character’s story [focuses on] the area of law… None of the ways these three women have managed what they need or what they’re trying to achieve has worked for them, and things are unraveling because of it.
I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask you about Star Wars: Episode VIII or the upcoming Twin Peaks revival. I know you’ve been cast, but your roles being kept under wraps. Is there anything at all you can say about your work on either project?
This is the beginning of a huge year, because I have tons of work coming out, but this is my first question about that! I’m bound to not say a word in both circumstances, but all I can say is I could never ask for a better time. I’ve had the time of my life, and I’ve pinched myself a lot. I feel so blessed and excited about all the things I’ve gotten to be a part of that will all be out next year, not just because they’re iconic, but because I was raised by actors who loved the idea that you could play incredibly different people. You never think, in one year, you could have six different characters, but it just happens that, at this moment in my life, I had a year as an actor where I got to reveal my multiple personalities. Hopefully it will make for a lot of fun as an actor, some good fun for an audience, and healthier parenting [for me] to have gotten it all out! Everybody working on both of those projects is just incredible, but I’m bound; [even] my children know nothing!
I also have to ask, with last week marking the five-year anniversary of Enlightened’s premiere, as a co-creator of the show, have you had any discussions with Mike White about bringing Amy Jellicoe back for a revival series?
I think we both dreamt of the idea of telling, at least in our mind, one final story for Amy. That door closed a few years ago, but I think he and I will never let go of Amy and her world and all those amazing characters. I couldn’t ask for a better time to get to play her again. I know Mike, in the past, has [told fans] to write [HBO], because I think the more people have found it and shared kind remarks and said they want more kind of puts it out in the universe. When you [referenced] it, it’s like you said, “I met your grandmother and she was so wonderful” [laughs]. There’s something about people who love Enlightened that makes me so happy, because it’s our baby. I always said no, but Lisa Kudrow was like, “You can’t say no anymore, we did it [with The Comeback], so anything is possible!”