• Golden Globe Awards

Out of the Archives, 1996: Laura Dern on a Woman’s Right to Choose

Laura Dern, who starred in Jurassic Park (1993) directed by Steven Spielberg, is back to her role of Doctor Ellie Sattler in Jurassic World Dominion (2022) with Sam Neil and Jeff Goldblum also returning.
The daughter of Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, Laura Dern was chosen as Miss Golden Globes 1982 at age 15. She would go on to win five Golden Globes out of eight nominations for her performances as an actress in movies and television and was frequently interviewed by the journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. In 1996 for Citizen Ruth, the directorial debut of Alexander Payne, she talked about a woman’s right to choose, drug addiction and her actor parents
Laura Dern confirmed that the story of Citizen Ruth, about a drug-addicted young woman in Omaha, Nebraska who is sentenced to jail during her fifth unwanted pregnancy to protect the fetus, is based on some real-life cases: “I know that Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, who wrote the script together, definitely were inspired by various stories that have been in the news in the last few years, a couple of which dealt with drug abuse and inhalant-addicted mothers. Most recently there was a huge case in Winnipeg, Canada in which a woman was arrested for endangerment to the fetus, and the judge said that she could have an abortion and they would take care of it or if she wanted to be pregnant, she’d have to spend the entire term of her pregnancy in prison. So pro-lifers went crazy because they thought that she would obviously want to have an abortion, but that was the only way to protect the fetus because she wasn’t going to get off drugs.  Certainly, all these stories influenced the writers a great deal and they used satire to make a film about the misgivings of American society and the fanaticism in our culture.”
This is what the actress learned about “sniffing glue” or “huffing” during her research for playing the role of Ruth Stoops: “My research on inhalant abuse, which is addiction to spray paint and glue and anything you can get your hands on, helped me a lot in understanding the level of poverty and also the brain damage that occurs. It’s a huge problem, which was amazing to me, and the largest group of people who have been killed from it are teenagers, because it’s very easy to overdose. The number one cause of accidental death amongst thirteen-year-olds in the United States is from inhalant abuse, because they take mostly that Liquid Paper white out, pour it in a bag at school, they huff it, take too much in and they drop dead. It’s a cheap high and it’s available, so it’s a big issue. That’s why Ruth was always going to be a bit slow, because she’s brain dead. She’s got some savvy and street smarts, but people who have been doing inhalants for a while are pretty dumb from certain kinds of brain cells being lost.”
She added that the drug addiction also explained Ruth’s promiscuity, the fact that she got pregnant four times before and her children had become wards of the state because she was unable to care for them: “She is someone who has absolutely no sense of self, because she’s addicted to a drug that makes you feel bad and completely numb to everything. She has no money and she is sleeping with whoever can give her a bed to sleep in. She comes from a severely abusive and miserable background, she is penniless, homeless, she had to give up her four kids, because she obviously can’t be a mother and now she is four months pregnant. That’s the opening of this comedy, then the emotional journey that takes place is that Ruth in a weird way has the gift of being put into a position where, for the first time in her life, she’s forced to make a decision, to figure out what she wants. And in an ideal fantasy world, we would want her to realize that she needs to take care of herself and get off drugs.”
Dern stated in 1996 that this movie was not about the abortion issue, which has come back in the news recently, but about a woman’s right to choose: “Before I started the movie, I probably had more of a prejudice towards members of Operation Rescue and these radical organizations in the pro-life, anti-abortion community.  But the message of Citizen Ruth isn’t that you should have abortions, or you should keep your baby, it is about an individual choice. I’ve never met a woman who wanted to have an abortion, but I’ve known women who felt that they needed to have it. Personally, I like the idea that people become parents because they really want to have children, I believe that anybody who’s not ready to be a parent shouldn’t be forced to be one, in this day and age. But I have a lot of advantages. I come from money, I had a good upbringing and an education, I can pay for a therapist to talk about any issues I have, so, when I decide to have a child, I know I’m really going to want that child. But a lot of women don’t have that opportunity, they get pregnant and they are addicted to crack, they are prostituting themselves or God knows what, their situation is real sad, and that’s what really scares me.”
The second-generation actress said that she learned from her parents to be fearless in her choice of roles: “It’s true that, for whatever reason, I am always thrilled by a challenge as an actor, and I feel very fortunate that I was raised by actors who also have often been fearless in their work. It was helpful that my parents took their craft very seriously and taught me that acting is about taking risks and being authentic to the character, not necessarily about trying to be glamorous or appealing or careful with one’s choices, but about using acting to hopefully communicate all different varieties of people. That is what excites me about the craft of acting. Unfortunately, most actors aren’t told that you should go further and try new things that maybe won’t work, but that’s how you grow as an artist. We’re told to play it safe, because audiences need to like us, but I feel really lucky that I’ve been given opportunities to try stuff, and hopefully I can keep doing things that are completely different and get better as an actor. I throw myself into a project because I believe in it, so I can be very passionate about it and focused on doing the best job, I can enjoy the community of making a movie, the collaboration and all of that, but in life sometimes I am more affected by wanting to do the moral and ethical thing. I was raised a good Catholic girl, and I definitely went to Catholic church, so I guess this is the remnants of that.”