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Emmy Watch: Laura Dern on channeling Lucille Ball in HBO’s ‘Enlightened’

Photo: Laura Dern in ‘Enlightened.’ Credit: HBO.

Between now and June 28, the deadline for Emmy voters to return nomination ballots, is running a series called Emmy Watch, featuring highlight clips and interviews with actors, producers, and writers whom EW TV critic Ken Tucker has on his wish list for the nominations announcement on July 19.

The first time you see Laura Dern in HBO’s Enlightened, she’s having a full-blown meltdown in the bathroom stall at her office, hurling expletives at her coworkers, storming down the hall toward her least favorite exec, with her mascara streaked furiously down her cheeks, prying open the elevator doors to scream, “I WILL BURY YOU! I WILL KILL YOU! RAGHHHHH!!!” And yet, by the end of the episode, you will have deep sympathy for this woman, who initially seemed like just another homicidal maniac. This is a huge credit to Dern, who’s hilarious and cringe-worthy and sad and inspiring—sometimes, all at once—as the show’s very complicated heroine.  Amy Jellicoe is an angry corporate drone who’s sent to anger management rehab and returns to the office full of bright ideas about how to save the world. Dern won a Golden Globe for her performance last year, and our critic Ken Tucker’s rooting for her to get an Emmy nod this year. Before the nominees are announced, we chatted with Dern about her favorite standout scene, the opening of the pilot episode. Watch it below, and read our interview with her after the jump. (Warning: the language in the clip below is NSFW.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your make-up looks amazing in this scene. How did you prepare yourself to rage?
LAURA DERN: I’ve been very privileged to play complicated people, but I’ve never felt as lucky as I did here, opening a story with someone at the most broken, most embarrassing moment of their entire life. That’s the greatest challenge, because the whole series starts with the lowest this person is ever gonna get. We have to watch her try to pick herself back up. The fun of it is finding the humor in someone that broken, because it’s so painful to watch. That’s why Lucille Ball was such a hero to so many of us. The deliciousness of I Love Lucy was her own misery, her jealousy, her wanting to be a star, these really damaged qualities that, during the 1960s, no woman wanted to expose. So like, oooh, we’re on HBO, so we can take it to a whole other level. We can make it about this character’s sex life, her father’s suicide, her broken marriage, her humiliation at work. I laughed, because somehow I found it really fun—and also hilariously sad—to be starting in the toilet stall with someone that lost, and just being like, “Welcome to our show!”

When the show first begins, we don’t know about Amy’s father’s suicide or her broken marriage or why she’s acting this way. If you were to watch that opening scene without knowing those things, would you like that character? Would you empathize with her? Or would she be somebody who you’re repelled by?
At first glance, I would feel all of the above. At second glance, I wouldn’t feel repelled, because she’s totally authentic. She says exactly what she feels. She has a delusional way of thinking, perhaps, but it’s a really refreshing way of thinking, which is that she’s only one small voice in the world, but maybe that one small voice can make a difference, so why not try? And that is really inspiring. How many women and men have come up to me after that opening scene and said, “Oh my god, the only difference between me and Amy is that I wasn’t brave enough to do it.” As repelled as we might be at certain moments, we also have a little part of us that’s going, “That’s so fantastic.”

You make this character seem so real, and you’ve been known to fight for causes you believe in. Do people ever confuse you with Amy?
Yes! It’s the first time in my whole career where I have people come up to me—people who know me as an actor—and still call me Amy, because they’re so locked into what happens from week to week. We were working downtown for one episode, and this gentleman was a block over, and he was like, “Amy Jellicoe!” During the second season, we were shooting a scene where Amy has a heightened moment of emotion in a public place. Someone who didn’t know that it wasn’t real life suggested to the person who was in the scene with me that they should pop me one! And it was like, wow, that’s the response that Amy would get in the real world. She’s really making people feel things.

One of the things that I love about your “meltdown” scenes is that there’s so much going on with your face. Do you approach this as a very physical role?
Well, that’s a huge part of Amy, her face. When people ask me to describe Amy, I usually say, “She feels everything in an enormous way.” I think, when we first started this show, we all felt that our country had become famous for our cultural apathy, so I was really interested in exploring someone who just can’t hold anything in—not an expression, not an eye movement, not a pupil dilation. In fact, we did a scene this morning where [Enlightened’s creator] Mike [White] suggested that I try to hide what Amy’s feeling, and everyone was enjoying it, because it’s just like, Amy can’t do that! It’s not possible.

The people who’ve inspired me as an actress, especially the comedians, used their bodies in really brilliant ways. I brought up Lucille Ball, but another actress who inspired me a lot as a kid, because I watched how much she used her body to withhold what she was thinking, was Jean Stapleton from All in the Family. She was so expressive by being beaten down by life. I’m really interested in women and the stories they tell with their bodies, because we are very expressive. I don’t know a woman who has a poker face, frankly. I love that about women.

What can you tell us about the second season? How does Amy’s character change?
Last season, with her situation at work, she had no other option than to burn this place down. For the second season, we start eminently after that moment, and we watch Amy have fantastic follow-through. [Laughs] She definitely will not let us down, and she will not shy away from what all of us feel when we watch the news at night.

What I also love about season 2 is that she does reign herself in at times, knowing that she isn’t in control of everyone and she doesn’t always have to react to everything. So there is change in Amy this season, and there is growth, and that’s fun to watch, but then 15 minutes later something else might happen, and that other response, the one she didn’t give at first because she’s had so much growth, might happen with somebody else. [Laughs] But we did want her to have some enlightenment. There is a theme this season, where it’s like, is she insane, or is the rest of the world insane? I think that’s a very good question. Is telling the truth when it’s inappropriate wrong, or is it refreshing? We answer that question in a lot of different ways, both with her growth and with her downfalls.

Read more
Fewer boorish men, more aggressive women on HBO: Hooray for the ‘Enlightened’ comedy paradigm shift!
Why Enlightened is the best show nobody’s watching
The Best TV Shows of 2011

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