Dern was allowed to pursue acting only if she first studied the craft for two years, so she dutifully rode her bicycle to drama classes every Saturday. “They really grilled in me the importance of studying, and that’s been a massive influence,” says Dern, who continues to work with her longtime acting coach, Sandra Seacat.
Dern worked steadily throughout her teens, screen-testing for all the Brat Pack movies but gravitating toward darker coming-of-age tales — Mask, Smooth Talk, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains. The trend culminated when she was cast as the virginal girl next door in Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the first of her three collaborations with the director (a fourth project is “cooking,” according to Dern, but doesn’t yet have a script).
Unlike many a showbiz kid, Dern managed to escape her teen years unscathed by drugs or alcohol, and her career continued to thrive with adulthood. There was an Oscar nomination in 1992 for her performance as a promiscuous Southern belle in Rambling Rose, and a brief but instructive brush with mega-stardom thanks to Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jurassic Park.
“I was on the cover of a lot of magazines and there were compliments about beauty and fashion and what I was wearing. Man, if you get locked into that, you can lose your freedom as an actress,” she says. “If you’re not locked in it, and if you’re lucky enough to get that part with the right group of people, then suddenly you’re in the makeup trailer like, ‘Can I have a herpes sore? Can I have a hickey? Can it go further?’”