Laura Dern is one of the most respected and versatile film actresses in America. Her roles have included portrayals of "the every woman" to "the woman on the very edge." In her new character, Dern portrays an every woman named Amy who, very publicly, swerves all the way off the edge.
“Enlightened,” the tragically and comically misnamed series on HBO, is the story of Amy’s long and bumpy road toward self-realization and spiritual awareness –- and her determination to drag everyone up with her.
I first became aware of the series by seeing what is becoming an iconic poster for Enlightened that juxtaposes Dern’s face -- mascara streaked and contorted with rage -- with the show’s title promising the ultimate spiritual goal. The tension inherent between pain and salvation struck me as deeply funny, tragic and true, which are good ways to describe the series that Dern envisioned and in which she now stars.
I spoke to Laura Dern over the phone about Amy’s determined desire for enlightenment (especially for everyone around her), the danger of dogma and the importance of holy anger.
Paul Brandeis Raushenbush: For all the humor of the series, it seems to me that the starting point for Amy is her experience of pain.
Laura Dern: A lot of people are coming to questions of spirituality through pain, and what I love about Amy is that she is earnestly broken. As irreverent as the show is, Amy’s longing is sincere; her desire to be enlightened is truly authentic. What she does with it and how she falls back into patterns is what, to me, is very funny, and damaged and human -- but the deep longing is true.
She is so honest with everyone around her, which is why she is so hard to be around. She confronts everyone for their "lacking" -– she wants her mother to be better, she wants her ex-husband to be healthy, she wants the corporation she works for to be not based in greed, but the problem is that she has this need to fix it herself. Because there isn’t a real connection to faith, whether it is faith in herself or something greater, she still has this need to control.
That’s interesting; because she doesn’t have a deeper faith she has to control everything and everyone around her?
Amy comes back from recovery and even when recovery offers people the awareness that all you can do is keep your eyes on your own paper, it’s inevitable that with this new found growth or answer that you want to save the world. There is a bit of that in all of us when a light bulb has gone off.
How did you come up with the character of Amy?
I had my hands more involved than I ever had in terms of creating the character. I started asking questions as a citizen, aside from my personal quest and interests in spirituality and religion. I did a film for HBO called "Recount" about the Gore-Bush election, and HBO generously asked me if I would be interested in doing a series. I said I was interested in doing a series on rage, and how it damages us and how at some points it can also serve us. Because from working on "Recount," and years under the Bush administration, I was noticing a great deal of cultural apathy, just sitting on our couches saying, "Oh, the fat cats win and there is nothing we can do about it." And I kept wondering why more people weren’t in the streets. This preceded all the extraordinary things that are happening such as the uprising in Egypt or Occupy Wall Street.
So I said to HBO that it would be interesting to see if someone who had rage could heal from the damage, heal from the rage, and that might be the gift that propels them towards a more conscious version of their own anger.
Pema Chodron speaks very beautifully about useful anger. We have a misguided understanding in many cultures that to be a true servant of God, or monk or minister, that attainment of peace is a constant, but I think anger is a part of it.
So I was really interested in playing someone who was going through all that but in a really misguided way; who gets it all wrong -- like Lucy becomes Norma Rae. Having been so moved by the film "Network" many years ago, when I heard the line "I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” I was really interested in playing a character who was going to do that, but possibly in a really misguided way.
You mention the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron. Who else would you like Amy to talk to?
Oh, I have a laundry list: I would love Amy to have a conscious therapist, an Al-Anon group and spiritual books that are based on a deep understanding, kindness and compassion toward self and the forgiveness to not hold these darker stories of ourselves that she probably holds onto.
I would love to introduce her to a million things, but like many people who are longing for healing, Amy will lock into one thing and that’s going to be the answer! I’ve seen people like that who are like: “Oh my God, this is the answer,” and then two weeks later they say, “Well, that wasn’t really the answer; but that answer guided me to the real answer.”
What I think Amy is walking through, and what I am hoping to discover more and more, and am starting to, is that it is all spiritual quest, it is all a journey toward consciousness of self and mutual respect and unconditional love toward each other.
Whether we get there through vigilantes to save the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s disaster; or we are in a confessional with, hopefully, more and more progressive priests and ministers that are redefining language.
There has been so much shame for so many people in so many areas and now all these beautiful lotuses are opening and affording us the opportunity to see things as opportunities for growth, whatever our path is.
Amy hasn’t really gotten religion per say, has she?
When we first started working on the show, one of my original descriptions of Amy is the girl who changes with every boyfriend she has. When we go camping I have braids and a plaid shirt, when I want to go to the homeless shelter, I try to look more homeless looking –- whatever her idea of what something is.
Finally, someone on the show asked me why is this so important to me. And it is because that is dogma, that is the person who will say: "I’ve seen the future and now I’m going to change everybody and give them my self help book and now you can’t rage." And that’s the same person who says, "I have found Jesus and now I am going to make sure that you all find Jesus."
People are fed up with dogma: that this is the only way, the only path. That is what we enjoy sending up. We don’t send up (Amy’s) longing, but we send up any time anyone locks into the idea that if you are really going to love yourself, if you are really going to love God, then you have to be in this rehab, this program, this church, read this book -– wouldn’t that be great? But life doesn’t work that way.
Wouldn’t it be great for Amy to find a church on the show? Although I feel sorry for the church when she figures out that they don’t have all the answers.
It's not that dissimilar to me! The kids really like the ritual of lighting candles for people or specific prayers. We do this wherever we are, if we are in a forest we like to make a circle and say a prayer or a wish, or in a church we go in and light a candle, I just love that ritual, I just think it is so beautiful.
Recently we went into a church that had these electric light-up candles, where you push a button. And I am sure it is safer -– but I just love the ritual of lighting the flame. So, I was just so Amy. I had to go over to the guy and say, "Why do have the electric candles, it so upsetting! Don’t you think it takes from the original ritual that was intended, are we going to stop having actual communion wafers?" I just went off, and I thought, no wonder I’m playing Amy.
Watch Laura Dern in "Enlightened"