All photos courtesy HBO
You might recognize her as Dr. Ellie Sattler from Jurassic Park, but actress Laura Dern has done so much more. From critically lauded work in the films of David Lynch to bit parts in comedies like Little Fockers, she has created a body of work that is hard to define. Now she's returning to television (where some of her best work has been done - she won a Golden Globe in the made-for-TV political drama Recount) in the new HBO drama (or is it a comedy?) Enlightened.
See that picture up there? Yup, that's the very first thing you see in the very first episode of the show: Amy Jellicoe, power player corporate executive extraordinaire, sitting in the restroom having a nervous breakdown. Seconds later she's storming out into her office and giving both barrels to the fellow executive she believes screwed her over. Actually, both barrels is inaccurate: she gives him the equivalent of a nuclear explosion. Unsurprisingly, she's fired.
But after a spiritual retreat in Hawaii helps her to pick up the pieces, she returns to her old life with a new, more 'enlightened' outlook, and attempts to put her life back together. Of course, it's not that easy.
Beliefnet had a chance to sit down with Dern and discuss the show, her activism, and what exactly "righteous anger" looks like.
BELIEFNET: Do you think Amy’s conversion experience that she has, is authentic?
LAURA: 100%, 100% for her it’s completely authentic, yes.
BELIEFNET: In the first few episodes, she has a lot of baggage, however. So perhaps maybe the question is, can Amy get to a place where she’s satisfied simply with belief or will she only be satisfied by results? Initially, she kind of reverts to old Amy when she doesn’t get the results she thinks her newfound belief will get her.
BELIEFNET: Then is it possible for her to become satisfied simply with believing?
LAURA: Well beautiful question. I mean I’d like to ask myself that. I love that question. And I think her brokenness or her damage as some might call it definitely – it doesn’t get in her way from believing. It gets in her way from being able to hold a consistently conscious experience. And I think that’s something that many of us can find relatable, whether our outbursts or our broken moments are far less severe than Amy to be in a consistent connection to self consciousness, God, whatever, someone’s experience of it is its really hard in this world to stay consistent with the experience. There is much to be angry about. There is much to feel grief about. And so the journey towards self is just that and for Amy the hope is that she can allow what takes like five seconds and experience that a sea turtle could be a five minute experience. Or to be an experience that even when her ex-husband is on cocaine or her mother is shutting down from her, she can still be inside herself and have an experience of self love instead of having other people’s experience sort of throw her out of herself. So I think that the more those times get elongated in Amy the better off she is. And I think the more Amy learns that to be conscious for Amy might be about incorporating her feelings instead of being ashamed of them. Like clearly she’s someone who has rage, a lot of rage.
BELIEFNET: (laughing) Clearly.
LAURA: And what we see – how we see her handle it is disastrous but there are people who have utilized anger in profound ways. I mean even on a spiritual path because I know the website speaks to that certainly you know we know the story of Jesus and the temple. We know the story of the Civil Rights Movement. We know the story of what it is to allow rightful anger to create consciousness in others. And so I think its like Amy can start to utilize her feelings and honor them but do something different with them she, you know it might be really interesting for her and the world. She's definitely not there right now.
BELIEFNET: I think that being able to harness righteous anger is an incredibly complex proposition for most people and I think most people aren’t able to separate themselves from their own ego, their own selfishness to be truly angered by injustice. Can you think of any – I know you're involved in a lot activism, is there anything, any examples of any real world kind of righteous anger that you can point to?
LAURA: I had the great good fortune last night or seeing the documentary Big Six, which I hope every American sees because regardless of spiritual paths or political preference. It seems from all accounts that the BP Clearwater Horizon Stile is still leaking. And it was not successfully capped and it is the worst environmental disaster in history and its still going on. And the EPA required BP to stop using toxic chemicals to contain the oil and they have continued beyond the point of being asked not to. Many people are sick. And it’s a horrific disaster and there’s no one in the country that wouldn’t agree. There’s no one in the country that wouldn’t have rightful anger but people aren’t reporting it. It’s like an old story so it’s gone away. And I think that’s speaking righteous anger. That’s something where we can all agree universally throughout the world that we have to do something. I mean if its still leaking every citizen of the planet should be down there. This could be – if we lose the Gulf of Mexico, if it literally dies, this could be, you know climate disaster we’ve all been terrified that could happen as is the nuclear disaster in Japan. And somehow you know it’s sort of like the news gets the end of the story, like okay it’s capped. Or oh okay the problem looks better now lets move on to, you know Kate Middleton’s been chosen as the new Princess. Things are so buried we all have to remind each other what we’re looking for and then hopefully expose it so something can be done because many things that are happening are inarguable. It’s not like well my religion or my political point of view makes me not agree with that. I mean when it comes to an environmental disaster it’s pretty easy to be unified.
BELIEFNET: How do you think you have – I think maybe this is a question that relates to Amy as well - how do you possess anger over things like that but not allow it to become all consuming or toxic to you personally?
LAURA: I don’t know.
LAURA: I mean I'm sitting here trying to come up with some clever answer and I have no clue. I don’t know. I mean for myself I don’t know. I wish I did and I’d love to feel proud of myself and nonjudgmental of myself compared to my extreme judgement of Amy but I think I'm playing her because as extreme as she may get at times I find her wonderfully relatable. If I'm really honest with myself, you know I am also furious and I also don’t know what to do about it. And I also want my parents to be the best parents and my partner to be exactly the person I want him to be so that he can fulfill my needs so that our family will be perfect. I mean it’s exhausting. You know I’d love to change everybody and I know I can’t and I think I too sit around with anger and I try – I think I try to – I think I used to try to make it less toxic by being in denial. Like oh well we’re out of Iraq. This is great. I mean yeah we’re going to Afghanistan but that’s kind of where it is now. But isn’t it great that we’re moving out of Iraq. It’s like wait a minute the war is continuing. The war is continuing, American lives are in jeopardy every second right now, so no actually that doesn’t help my anger. I'm still furious. Oh well that didn’t work. I'm not sure how to do it. The only thing that I can personally turn to is compassion, gentleness, a willingness to allow myself to be angry instead of like why am I so angry. It’s so embarrassing. I’ve got to let this go. I'm not going to be a good person if I walk around angry like this.
BELIEFNET: In the show, Amy has this experience swimming in the ocean with a sea turtle where she experiences the presence of God, whatever that is specifically for her. Have there been any sea turtle-like experiences in your life you can point to? Perhaps a person of faith or a specific experience that made you say, "That is real and that is something I want.”
LAURA: I’ve got to say I feel very lucky to be able to say that I feel like I’ve had – even if they’re very small experiences, I’ve had profound opportunities like that throughout my life. Starting with the blessing of an extremely loving, generous, compassionate, and devoted grandmother from Alabama who really taught me that you can’t have a happy life if you ignore the experience of others. That is God’s work for her – was for her and so I was raised in a real awareness, I mean she was the person that stopped for any stray animal, she just couldn’t help herself she had that part. I feel very lucky and I was raised Catholic but I learned to meditate when I was 9-years-old and have been a meditator throughout my teenage years and early adulthood and continue to now and that’s been, for me, a great blessing even when I stray from it, whenever I come back to it, it helps me turn to stress and just a consistent ability to check in with what I'm feeling instead of kind of losing my way.
BELIEFNET: What do you hope, other then simply being entertained, that people draw from Amy and the show? Because the show definitely it feels like it has kind of a bigger purpose other than to simple tell a story.
LAURA: Yeah. Well I think our attempt is for sure a judgement-less look at self. You know its like lets take someone who even the face of the person and how we’re going to advertise this says “run, don’t engage, complicated, exhausting, over dramatic, you know woman on the verge” lets take all those segments and lets say without judgement lets go on a journey as this person examines herself, her family, her community, her planet and what is she going to do with all the feelings that is we’re really honest with ourselves we too have. We do different things with them but we have the same feelings and the same questions. And hopefully we’re going to make her equally inspiring and horribly intolerable so that it’s a fun ride and deeply authentic one but I think our hope is to keep asking questions of ourselves. That would be our ultimate interest. Not to preach an opinion or to get us anywhere but to with some compassion ask some interesting questions so that we can all find our way to what it is we’re here to figure out.
BELIEFNET: As I was watching it last night I was saying to myself, “I don’t really like Amy at all and I don’t think I would ever want to know her but I am oddly intrigued about what she’s going to do next. And I want to know what that is but oh dear gosh please don’t ever make me have to work with someone like that.”
LAURA: (laughing) Yeah exactly. Well I think – I hope you'll keep watching because I think it gets more interesting with that question.