When Laura Met Alex: Laura Dern & Alexander Payne Get Deep About Collaborating on ‘Citizen Ruth’ and Their Shared Cinema Sensibilities
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
When Alexander Payne and Laura Dern chat on the Holland Performing Arts Center main stage July 13 for Films Streams’ first annual fundraiser they’ll naturally get around to Citizen Ruth. The 1996 abortion comedy he co-wrote with Jim Taylor marked Payne’s directorial debut and Dern’s portrayal of title character Ruth Stoops earned her critical acclaim.
What the pair may or may not discuss is how pivotal their collaboration proved.
Sixteen years ago Payne was still an aspiring feature filmmaker. His UCLA graduate thesis project from a few years before, The Passion of Martin, turned heads. The newcomer showed enough promise to land a studio development deal, analogous to a college baseball star getting drafted by a major league franchise, inking a fat contract and getting assigned to the high minors.
But he hadn’t broken through yet. He and Taylor did finish their abortion comedy script, then-known as The Devil Inside, that fall. They were trying to get it set up for Payne to direct. The script made the rounds, generating heat, but nobody wanted to finance it. Too risky. Too political. Too controversial. It didn’t help that Payne was untested in features.
Cut to Dern, by then established as an edgy screen actress for bare-her-soul performances in Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk, Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart and Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. She was already Oscar-nominated as the free spirit title character in Martha Coolidge’s Rambling Rose, for which her mother, Diane Ladd, was also nominated. Her acting genes extend to her father and fellow Oscar nominee, Bruce Dern.
Reminiscent of a young Barbara Stanwyck in her ability to play innocence and guile, sweetness and toughness, Dern was a catch for any director. Payne was a big fan of her work but never thought of her for messed-up Ruth Stoops. He probably didn’t think he could get her. That changed when, unbeknownst to him, Dern’s then-beau, actor Jeff Goldblum, got ahold of the Devil script and gave it to Laura.
“And I just was obsessed the moment I read it,” she said by phone from the L.A. set of a short film she’s appearing in. “I just forced their hands.”
What did she respond to so strongly?
“Well, in terms of the material,” she said, “it’s a very unique and hilarious and extremely honest voice about this country and about what happens when you get two opposing sides in America, on any subject frankly. And the idea of putting this not just flawed but impossible protagonist at the middle of it is just completely genius. I felt I had something to bring to it that was unique.
“My love for finding empathy and voice in untenable human territory made me determined to force myself on them. I could love nothing more as an actor than one specific challenge — which is finding an empathetic place for a character we would ordinarily have disdain for, and Alexander happens to love that, too. Alexander, Jim and I have the same sensibility and that’s a very rare thing to find.”
YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY NEW BOOK-
Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012
A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work. Now available for pre-ordering.
- Jim Taylor, the Other Half of Hollywood’s Top Screenwriting Team, Talks About His Work with Alexander Payne (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the Archives: Alexander Payne, an Exclusive Interview Following the Success of ‘Sideways’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the Archives: A Hollywood Dispatch from the set of Alexander Payne’s Sideways – A Rare, Intimate, Inside Look at Payne and His Process (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Producer Jim Burke and Actress Shailene Woodley Discuss Working with Alexander Payne on ‘The Descendants’ and Kaui Hart Hemmings Comments on the Adaptation of Her Novel (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Film Streams at Five: Art Cinema Contributes to a Transformed Omaha Through Community Focus on Film and Discussion (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Will Forte and Bruce Dern Confirmed for Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ (slashfilm.com)
- When Omaha Independent Filmmaking Took a New Turn or Did It? (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Alexander Payne’s NEBRASKA Moving Forward with Will Forte and Bruce Dern (collider.com)
- Bob Odenkirk and Stacy Keach Join Alexander Payne’s NEBRASKA (collider.com)