Laura Dern on why The Tale resonated so powerfully with her

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From Big Little Lies to Star Wars, Laura Dern is having one hell of a purple patch. As she stars in hard-hitting abuse drama The Tale, she tells Stylist why its story resonated so powerfully with her

If you’re looking for an uplifting reprieve after watching The Handmaid’s Tale, then The Tale is almost certainly not it. However, if you’re looking for something visceral, brave and urgent, then this Laura Dern vehicle delivers again and again.

The HBO film tells the real-life story of Jennifer Fox – a documentarian by trade who also directs this drama – who at 13 was coerced into a sexual relationship with her 40-year-old male running coach. It’s not a straight retelling of a life-changing event. The film is told through shifting perspectives, focusing on how we remember things and the stories that survivors of abuse must tell themselves to keep on going. In the current era of #MeToo, a film that encourages people to speak out about abuse – both those who have experienced and seen it – couldn’t be more vital. This confrontational approach means it’s far from a pleasant watch. Stylist can attest that there are moments when you’ll be peering through your fingers and sentences uttered that you don’t want to remember. But vitally, it’s a film that sticks to your skin.

Dern, 51, had her own experiences of sexual abuse as a teen actor – something she says she was only able to recognise as harassment in the wake of #MeToo. The film comes at a time when Los Angeles-born star Dern is at the pinnacle of an acting renaissance. As well as returning to her role as the righteous Renata in Big Little Lies season two (she won several awards, including a Golden Globe, for her role in the first season) – the mother who ‘has it all’ and is propelled to seek justice when her daughter is choked at school – she also provided a voice of feminist leadership in Star Wars: The Last Jedi as Vice Admiral Holdo.

But nothing she has done is as timely or thought-provoking as The Tale. And if all that sounds heavy going, it is. It should be…

Laura Dern plays a victim of child abuse in The Tale

Watching The Tale is all-consuming. What was the experience of making it like?

There was such a rawness in not only playing Jennifer, but sitting beside Jennifer while I was reinventing her own trauma for her. It’s beyond anything we have ever defined as meta. People [on set] would come up and say, “I was sexually abused as a child”. There were men on the crew who would be bawling when we shot some of the scenes. You get to see how rampant the experience is, but also the shame that people have held many of these stories in.

This film focuses on the survivors. What did you learn while preparing for the role?

Tragically, in America alone, the statistics are shocking: a child is sexually abused in the United States every eight minutes. And 93% of the time it is someone they know, so this storytelling is already a part of most people’s story within their own family. I have met myriad survivors, which is incredible. I think the tragedy that it is this common has already been focused on, but how do people live a full life and allow themselves, from that level of trauma, to not only be survivors, but to soar and not live the victim life?

How has it made you think about what needs to change?

It speaks to, for me, a deep longing to be the champion for a generation of kids to know their boundaries and to be able to set them for themselves. And to be able to honour themselves. No one told us. I was making movies at 12 and 13 years old in a very adult environment, but the conversation wasn’t there about boundaries and making sure you always had a guardian. We have all heard a lot about it in this moment in time with Time’s Up – but when I was younger, many of my auditions were held at the Chateau [Marmont], where you sit in a hotel room on the bed to read the lines with a filmmaker and there is nobody else in the room. And you are a 13-year-old actor. And so, it’s a new day and it’s an exciting time to have these conversations in storytelling and with each other.

With Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley in Big Little Lies

Was the film in any way a cathartic experience for what you’ve been through?

I can look back and say that I think there was a great deal of healing to gain as an actress, as a mother and as a woman. Feeling like you are doing service for others is healing, in telling a story that people really seem to be wanting, needing and responding to. In the middle of it, it felt rather broken. It was not an easy movie to make. In the process, it all felt like it was unravelling. But now that we see it as it’s come together, you can see how the healing was occurring for all of us.

Is there any way to leave a role like this behind after filming?

I do yoga. And I am a meditator – when I remember to meditate. And being a mother has been incredible for shaking off work, because every second of the day you are reminded that you are needed and you are forced to think about what you have to do. Doing Big Little Lies particularly with Nicole [Kidman] and Reese [Witherspoon], all mums, we are literally in it [a scene], and then it’s, “Hold on, we have to get clothes for the play date…”

What has it been like to return to filming Big Little Lies?

It is so amazing and beautiful to be back in this time, when you are wanting to be your boldest self and you are with this tribe of now best friends. You need a guide, still, to hurl you into it, and now we have [director] Andrea Arnold, who is an equal, a ground-breaker and artist. It’s going to be amazing.

The Tale is on Sky Atlantic on 5 June at 10pm

Interview: Adam Tanswell

Photography: Koury Angelo

Other images: Getty