Laura Dern: ‘We All Felt Wrenched’ by Sexual Abuse Story of HBO’s ‘The Tale’

TheWrap Emmy magazine: “It took me years to give myself permission to feel raw or wiped out after a work day,” the veteran actress says

This story about Laura Dern first appeared in the Miniseries/Movies issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.

It was one thing for Laura Dern to play a woman who suppressed the memory of her first sexual experience for years in HBO’s “The Tale.” It was another to have the woman who lived through those circumstances in real life sitting in the director’s chair.

“In a word? Weird,” Dern said when asked what it was like playing out director Jennifer Fox’s personal experience with Fox directing. “Super odd. Helpful, healing, weird, confronting, delicate — it was all those things.”

In order to “make it feel just right,” Dern said, she and Fox had had lunches, dinners and phone conversations. “It’s her truth, yes, and I have to play her, but I also have to feel it in my bones and understand it, and that takes its own journey of working together and having her trust me enough,” she said.

“The Tale” follows Jennifer (Dern) who seems to have it all. But when her mother discovers a story Jennifer wrote when she was 13 detailing a relationship she had with two adult coaches, Jennifer has to confront herself and reconcile with the truth of what happened, and the story she had been telling herself about it.

“One gentleman wrote me that he wept for hours after seeing ‘The Tale,’ because it was the first time he realized he told himself a story about his parents’ divorce when he was 13, that it was actually for the better,” said Dern, who is also in the Emmy race for her role in the rebooted “Twin Peaks.”

“It was only after seeing the movie that he realized that he had told himself a lie for years. It was the great heartbreak of his life. It amazed me how the movie does make you available to yourself, to look at those questions.”

Dern said that the work was grueling, an admission she would not always have been able to make. “It took me years to give myself permission to feel raw or wiped out after a work day, because I feel so lucky to be an actor and I never want to complain,” she said. “But there are certain experiences that are emotionally exhausting — certainly this was hard, there’s no question. It was a very hard story to tell, and I think we all felt wrenched by it.”

In the film, 14-year-old Canadian actress Isabelle Nélisse plays the younger Jennifer, with Jason Ritter playing the coach who seduces and abuses her. “I can’t imagine for Isabelle, I can’t imagine for Jason Ritter,” Dern said. “We were all dealing with the trauma and the space.”

Fox’s script included the sexual encounter between the characters, which gave Dern pause when she was considering the part. “The actual scene worried me,” she said. “Obviously on the page, it’s so horrific — and I definitely wanted to be talked through how you put a child through that, as did my agent and the father of the young actress as well. How could it be the most protective experience, and all the ways she could be protected and supported?

“Jason came early to spend time on location, we all had meals and really talked through everything. For something as delicate as this, that was really essential.”

The actress was also worried about Fox herself, and whether she could direct such sensitive material drawn from her own life. “We had conversations early on where I was confronting it with her, saying, ‘What if [filming the sex scene] is too hard? What if we’re in the middle of it and it’s too much for you, for your own healing?’

“[Producer] Oren Moverman at one time had offered that he or someone else could come in and shoot that piece. There were a lot of discussions about what she would feel. I don’t know how she did it, but she did. She did everything she set out to do.”

The film, said Dern, doesn’t give audiences the resolution they might be hoping for — to see the perpetrator in handcuffs — due to the statute of limitations. But she’s grateful for another form of closure for both her character and the real-life Jennifer.

“I’m very grateful that the film doesn’t have the closure we want, but what we’re left with is her confrontation,” she said. “She was determined to examine the personality or the personality disorder of the perpetrator. She chose to speak to him, she gets him to admit that this story was true, to confront him about what she was left with.

“It is a film about the stories we tell ourselves, not about an event.”

Read more from TheWrap’s Miniseries/Movie Emmy issue here.

EmmyWrap Miniseries Movie Cover