Award-winning actress Laura Dern talks to Awards Daily TV about the experience of creating Big Little Lies‘s Renata Klein.
Close your eyes. Imagine it. Laura Dern stands alone just outside of a obscenely expensive kitchen gazing pensively into the sunset. A light ocean breeze rustles her hair. She brings a fragile glass of merlot carefully to her lips with one hand. In the other, she clenches a golden statue, a Primetime Emmy® Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie. A richly deserved award for a richly observed performance in the early 2017 HBO smash Big Little Lies.
This needs to happen. America needs this right now.
I kicked things with Laura Dern off by asking if her pensive wine-drinking moments as Big Little Lies‘s Renata Klein were documentary moments from her own life.
“That’s all I do,” Dern laughed. “That’s my new favorite pastime!”
Funny. My new favorite pastime is counting Laura Dern’s great 2017 performances.
In 2017 alone, Laura Dern appears in the following television series and films: Big Little Lies, Last Man on Earth, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Twin Peaks: The Return, Downsizing, and a little indie called Star Wars XIII: The Last Jedi. I’m certain I’m missing 16 others because, on January 1, we officially entered what I’m dubbing “the Dernaissance,” a wonderful time to be alive.
To what does Dern attribute these massively high profile and incredible roles?
“I always think we’re working a lot because all our friends are working a lot. I would start with the fact that I think it’s the great good fortune of building a body of work and finding your tribe. Luckily, amongst my tribesmen and women are a beautiful collection of friends who love working together again and again. I feel privileged that the filmmakers I’ve worked with or the filmmakers that connect with my work feel rather vigilante-like about making sure I’m part of certain things they do. That means the world to me. Certainly David Lynch and I have that relationship, and Jean-Marc Vallée and I now have that relationship. It’s a beautiful compliment and very exciting because it gives this boundless world of collaboration that you don’t get otherwise.”
Emerging from “the Dernaissance” is her scene-stealing performance as Big Little Lies‘s Renata Klein, a mother working in the corporate world whose daughter is brutally and repeatedly assaulted at school. In a lesser actress’s hands, the role would stand out as a one-note villain. Yet, Dern, Vallée, and team evolved the character in fascinating ways.
Really Big Big Little Lies
Laura Dern became involved with HBO’s adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s 2014 novel without having read the actual novel. She received the initial set of scripts and worked through an understanding of the character with Vallée and writer David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Picket Fences). After fleshing out the character and her arc, Dern then read the novel.
“It was a smart way of doing it because she does evolve in ways that certainly the novelist intended, but given the time that we had to look into each character more in-depth, they all collaborated on where Renata should go. They really brought me in early, which was gorgeous, to work on collaborating in that way. I attribute that entirely to the film Wild… We made that film together, and we went, ‘How can we do this again?’ ”
Dern feels Vallée and Kelley relished creating Renata as an “iconic bitch.” Someone the audience would love to hate. Yet, the series plays with that stereotype and devolves it into a complex portrayal of a woman struggling to have it all.
Renata embodies a successful business woman, but she also embodies a broken mother, exposed by the trauma of her daughter’s abuse. Your sympathies shift and evolve as the series progresses, thanks to Dern’s intense performance. You feel Renata’s pain as she finds herself torn between two worlds: the home and the corporate.
But interestingly enough, Laura Dern played a corporate woman before…
Dern’s last big HBO role happened on the 2011 Mike White series Enlightened. Dern played Amy Jellicoe, a corporate executive who experiences a mental breakdown and tries to rebuild her life. On the surface, Amy and Renata appear vastly different. Yet, their complicated shared DNA makes for intriguing comparisons.
“I do think Amy had a high intellect but was not refined. Renata is an incredibly brilliant woman, and she knows how to play the game. Amy doesn’t even know there is a game. She doesn’t know you’re supposed to play people carefully and work the system. I adore that about her. I adore people who are like ‘Fuck it, the world needs to know right now!’ They don’t sit meticulously and lie in wait for the moment. Renata has that. She’s got it with the school. She’s got it at home and with the nanny and with the board. It makes her brilliant, and it makes her one of the people who may successfully effect change in the world whereas Amy may not. Amy’s pure. Renata has an agenda.”
But purity ultimately exists within both characters, according to Dern. Renata just tells you up front she has an agenda. There’s little subtlety to Renata’s approach within the series.
Well, maybe a little subtlety. Dern developed Renata’s comic mispronunciation of co-star Reese Witherspoon’s character’s name, Madeline, through initial improv. That stuck as a way of Renata subtlety sticking it to Madeline – by never pronouncing her name right. Something that would completely enrage Madeline, which it does.
Like Amy Jellicoe eventually, she’s the match that lights the powder keg of Big Little Lies‘s Monterey.
“I find her oddly refreshing. She’s a power broker. A power broker mother. A power broker CEO. She’s just unapologetic, and there is something deeply refreshing about it.”
Renata’s Internal Rage and the Internal Rage of Women Everywhere
It did not take much to set Renata Klein off. Of course, someone endangered her child, and absolutely no one should ever poke the mama bear. Yet, Renata, as Dern plays her, feels poised to strike at any given moment.
Many women, particularly professional women, will tell you where this anger originates.
“I think it’s that she spent 20 years in a position, a brilliant position, of power where she has been the best at what she does. Corporate figureheads and political figureheads continue to shove her down because she’s a female. I think she’s tired and really angry. I think there are a lot of women who are just like Renata.”
Dern experiences that sense in her own home. Her 12-year-old daughter along with an entire generation of 10-to-12-year-old girls experienced crushing disappointment thanks to the 2016 Presidential campaign and election. Even at that age, they’re already tapping into that same ire expressed by Renata.
The heart breaks to hear Dern describe the emotions expressed by girls of that age. Influenced and inspired by Hillary Clinton, young girls learned a very difficult lesson at a very early age. They’re already relating to that Renata energy.
“This is a generation of girls who don’t know how hard women fought to get in a position to be in a boardroom. Somebody one day starts bullying a woman in a brilliant position of power, and then you learn it’s sexist. I think that was crushing for girls. For a generation that thinks it’s new, Renata represents a culture of women who took forever getting there and then got there and she’s still squashed.”
Exploring Renata In a Second Season of Big Little Lies
As soon as Big Little Lies ended (perhaps well before that), audiences started clamoring for a second season. Given how the series ends and the stories that remain more open than in the novel, perhaps material exists for a Big Little Lies Season 2.
So, what exactly does Laura Dern want to pursue with Renata if a second season moves forward?
“The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘How can Amy get hired in Renata’s company?’ That’s my dream. That Amy Jellico somehow gets to work in Renata’s firm. I want to see a standoff between those two. A split-screen like All My Children or something! Barring that, which would be my number one dream, I could have Secretary of State Katherine Harris [of HBO’s Recount] show up and maybe she can take them both down,” Dern laughed.
All kidding aside, a second season would allow exploration of Renata’s fragile relationship with women, although the combination of some of Dern’s most iconic roles would send Twitter into spasms.
“I would be interested seeing how Renata navigates deep friendship with other women. I don’t know that she’s ever had one, and I think she maybe hasn’t had the opportunity or felt safe enough to. That would be one thing that would interest me. Also, the marriage because, I don’t know, something’s going on in that house that we haven’t even begun to consider. Truthfully, Reese and I only want to get to work together forever, and I didn’t get enough time with Nicole [Kidman]. I would hope to get to act with her more.”
As would I, Laura Dern. As we all do.