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Laura Dern on Jurassic Park and the Pressure of Reviving an Iconic Character

9 minute read

It’s been nearly 30 years since Laura Dern starred in Jurassic Park, but to many fans, she’ll always be paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler. It’s why she felt a little nervous to step back into the role for Jurassic World: Dominion, in theaters June 10. She knew how much this character meant to fans of the Steven Spielberg blockbuster, and specifically women for whom Ellie was the first female hero they saw on screen who did everything the men could do—maybe better. “I felt protective of what other people have said to me about her,” she told TIME. “Women in tech, women in science, women who went into paleontology cite Ellie Sattler as an inspiration all the time. It’s incredible.”

Luckily, Dern found a creative partner in Dominion director Colin Trevorrow, who asked for her input in shaping who Ellie had become in the years since fans last saw her in 2001’s Jurassic Park III. So the Academy Award-winning actor brought some of her own interests to the role, including her commitment to fighting the climate crisis. “These are huge conversations that in a matter of a few scenes are deeply part of Ellie’s storyline, which I’m really proud of,” Dern says. “They’re interesting things for all of us, including the next generation of dinosaur fans who will be seeing this as their first Jurassic movie to be asking about.”

Below, the frequent David Lynch collaborator talks about revisiting an iconic character, radical filmmaking, and one real-life hero she’d love to play onscreen.

Stefanie Keenan—Getty Images for CDGA

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TIME: What excites you most about returning to play Ellie Sattler in this new Jurassic installment?

Dern: In 1993, it was rare to see women in any movie without makeup, not wearing the sexy outfit. Everyone [working on Jurassic Park] considered diligently how Ellie would dress, the stunts, her iconic feminist lines. It really mattered to us—and it really mattered to [Jurassic World: Dominion director] Colin [Trevorrow] how she would evolve. My interest in soil science and climate change, interests that Ellie would care so deeply about now, became a big part of her story.

What is Dominion trying to say about the climate crisis?

At a time in our country of such great tragedy, there’s nothing more profound than the simple messaging that we must consider how we peacefully coexist. Ellie has turned to soil science because soil can save us all. She’s focused on how to protect us from the ills of industrial farming, petrochemicals, genetically modified seed, and the corporate greed around our food table.

Why do you think so many people across generations have connected with this character?

Little girls and boys have come up to me and said, “You were the first female character I saw onscreen equal to the men.” Recently, a woman I deeply admire, the first female Congresswoman in her district, who’s a committed supporter of a bipartisan gun bill, told me Ellie Sattler was the reason she went into politics.

There are so many quotable lines in Jurassic Park. Do you have a favorite?

Maybe my favorite line, even more than “Women inherit the Earth,” is when she’s confronted with going to take care of everything while certain men need to rest and take care of themselves. She says, “We’ll discuss sexism in survival situations, when I get back” from saving us!

The cast and crew of Dominion had to live in a bubble while filming in the early days of COVID. Did that help the onscreen chemistry?

Inevitably. Three weeks into the first movie, we experienced a Level 5 hurricane together on Kauai. It forever changed who Sam [Neill], Jeff [Goldblum], Sir Richard Attenborough and I are to each other. Steven Spielberg, along with his wife and children, became part of my family. They were there when my son was born [in 2001]. And here we were again, starting this film just before the pandemic, and the only way was to live as a family. The entire cast, [director] Colin [Trevorrow], and our producer Alex [Ferguson-Derbyshire] moved in together in the English countryside for five months and never left except to go to set. It definitely created a bond that people will hopefully feel when watching the movie.

What was it like to reunite with the animatronic dinosaurs on Jurassic World: Dominion?

It was equally as jaw dropping, but nothing will be like that first moment I walked through a field on Kauai with Sam Neill and I looked ahead and I saw a triceratops. That was my first dinosaur and I will love that dinosaur the most forever. It was working with a real animal. Even if there are a couple of puppeteers involved, all you’re seeing is this beast after you.

When you made Jurassic Park you were an Oscar-nominated indie actor working with the likes of David Lynch. What was it like to then work with Steven Spielberg and all these dinosaurs?

I worshiped Steven Spielberg. Jaws and Close Encounters to this day are two of my favorite movies. Without even knowing what the movie was about, I was already in. It felt as radical and indie as anything else I had made. It wasn’t yet a franchise or a blockbuster, it was a bunch of people standing around going, “How are we going to do that?”

I was so excited and a beloved person in my life, Nicolas Cage, who I had just made Wild at Heart with two years before, called me saying, ‘Oh my god, what was the meeting [with Spielberg] like?’ I said, ‘Steven told me, it’s based on this book and I guess I would be working with dinosaurs?’ He was like, ‘You have to do that movie! You have to work with dinosaurs, are you kidding me?’ I’ve never heard someone so excited about anything. And I remember how infectious his excitement was that something radical was happening. That Steven was about to do something that hadn’t been done. I don’t think my brain had made that connection yet.

Have you ever talked to David Lynch about Jurassic Park?

I don’t remember talking to him specifically on whether or not to take it, but Steven and David have a profound kinship as fellow radicals in the world of cinema. I believe in addition to Hitchcockian, the next two cinema names that are now in our dictionaries are Lynchian and Spielbergian. There’s a beautiful connection there and over the last 30 years, I’ve been able to help them send messages to each other after they’ve seen each other’s films.

I love that you consider Spielberg radical on par with Lynch.

David is thought of as such an insane radical, and I remember one day doing a scene [on Jurassic Park] with Steven and I was like, “You’re completely insane! You and David, only you two could do something like this.” He was like, “Are you kidding? That’s such a compliment, comparing me to David Lynch. Why is this insane?” I said, “Dude, I’m standing in a basement, terrified, a beast is coming at me and finally I feel a man put his arm on my shoulder. I feel so relieved that Sam Jackson has shown up—and it’s his dismembered arm! Who else is going to put me in that circumstance?”

After playing Ellie Sattler again, are there any other characters of yours you’d like to revisit?

I would want to play Ruth Stoops from Alexander Payne’s 1996 film, Citizen Ruth. No one knows this, but in [Payne’s 2013] film Nebraska, my dad [Bruce Dern] is driving in a pickup truck down the street and Ruth Stoops ambles down the block in the very far background of the frame. Me as Ruth walks down the street looking for some kind of fix, probably. I turn the corner and you can barely see it in the corner of the frame, but I throw myself in a big dumpster, which we just figured, of course she would. That made me even more excited to someday be a version of Ruth with Alexander.

That movie, which focuses on one woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion, feels even more prescient now as the U.S. awaits the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade.

I am begging any streamer, anybody, please, get that movie out there right now. It’s the most important movie I could have made for this moment. I think for my kids’ generation, teenagers, new voters to see that movie is really powerful. I’m so proud of that movie, and as a first feature [for Payne], it’s so radical.

Your characters have been widely memed across the Internet. Do you have a favorite?

Am I allowed to cuss? Well, apropos of it being you, I have to say my favorite meme involves my character Diane in Twin Peaks: The Return, who is always saying F-U to everybody. I’m in the Red Room with the curtains and the black and white floor, sitting in the chair with my little white bob, smoking a cigarette, but it looks like a mockup of a cover of TIME Magazine[‘s Person of the Year issue] that features her quote, “F–k you, TIME.” It just really made me laugh.

You have been working steadily in Hollywood since 1980. What is still on your career bucket list?

I’m longing to play former Senator Wendy Davis. I’d love to tell her story and remind a generation of young women about that kind of fearless determination to stand up for other women, particularly around the choice issue.

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