Laura Dern: David Lynch's favourite collaborator

Feature by Tom Grieve | 12 Feb 2016
  • Laura Dern and Nic Cage in Wild at Heart

Inspired by Glasgow Film Festival's upcoming screening of David Lynch's Wild at Heart at St Luke's – complete with an Elvis tribute – we look back at the director's trio of collaborations with the beating heart of that film, Laura Dern.

Like Alfred Hitchcock before him, David Lynch has shown more than a passing interest in placing the American Blonde on screen. Sheryl Lee (Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me), Patricia Arquette (Lost Highway) and Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive) have all had their turns. But it is Laura Dern, star of Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and Inland Empire, who has done the most to help Lynch in his career-long effort to probe, warp and disturb the dreams of America.

The pair began their collaboration in 1986 with the neo-noir Blue Velvet, a film that takes us under the hood of small town Americana in order to expose the rot festering below. Dern plays inexperienced high schooler Sandy, a police detective's daughter who is dragged into a world of local gangsters, voyeurism and sado-masochism by the potent combination of dishy older neighbour Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) and her own curiosity. Dern dropped out of college to appear in Blue Velvet and she acquits herself admirably as the sane centre of the film — however she was always destined to take a backseat to larger-than-life turns by Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rosselini.


Laura Dern and Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet
Laura Dern and Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet


It was in her next role for Lynch, in his adaptation of Barry Gifford's novel Wild at Heart, that Dern was to really impress, proving herself every bit Nicholas Cage’s equal as the highly-sexed, rock-chick-tearaway Lula. Dressed in skintight blacks and hot pinks, with aviator sunglasses and a perpetual cigarette, Lula was quite a departure from the pastel-clad Sandy. The film, a classic 'lovers on the run' story, sees Lula and her ex-con boyfriend Sailor (Cage) smoke, screw, fight and head-bang their way across America in a bid to escape Lula’s wicked mother. It’s a typically unsettling Lynchian take on the American road movie, but Dern and Cage sell the runaways as a genuine love match whose healthy sex life helps to make this the director’s most tender movie.


Laura Dern in Inland Empire
Dern in Inland Empire


Having begun as a small town, North Carolina schoolgirl in Blue Velvet, and then raised hell racing across the country in Wild at Heart, it’s perhaps only logical that Lynch and Dern would end up in Hollywood for their third and, as of this moment, final collaboration. Released in 2006, Inland Empire, Lynch’s three-hour, delirious digital hallucination is a notoriously difficult film to unpack, but at its centre is Laura Dern’s Nikki; an aging Hollywood actress who is engulfed by the cursed production of her latest film. Lynch stacks layers of reality and fiction, building up a fragmented nightmare in which Dern’s respectable actress becomes a tough talking housewife, before morphing into a streetwalking prostitute who pukes blood onto the Walk of Fame prior to morphing back into an actress.

The film is a stylistic expansion and culmination of both Lynch’s career and of his working relationship with Dern. The grimy digital video and free-form structure is vastly different to the fussily assembled Blue Velvet and this time there was no danger of anybody overshadowing Dern’s wild, tough and trembling performance. Together, over the course of 20 years, the pair managed to deliver three distinctly and legitimately great American stories, starring classic American archetypes, set in locations that span the width of the country.


Wild at Heart screens at St Luke's in Glasgow, 25 Feb, 6.30pm. We're promised some live 'Elvis' and a beautiful setting in which to watch one of the great films of the 90s – for tickets, head to bit.ly/GFF-Wild

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