She’s best known for her dramatic roles, but Laura Dern grew up worshipping Lucille Ball. “She had all these cockeyed ideas about how to get her dreams fulfilled,” the 51-year-old actress told Vanity Fair for their February 2019 cover story. She noticed a difference in the comedian, however, after Lucy divorced Desi Arnaz and starred on The Lucy Show. “Life had been hard for her and something switched,” Laura remembered. “Watching I thought, I never wanted to be bitter.”

Like Lucy, Laura has known disappointments — she’s been divorced from musician Ben Harper since 2013. She’s also felt career setbacks and avoided the casting couch, where being related to actor Bruce Dern helped. “My dad killed John Wayne,” she joked of his role in 1972’s The Cowboys. “He might kill you, too.”

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Bruce and her mom, Diane Ladd, didn’t want their daughter “hurled into a celebrity,” so they urged Laura to choose character roles over parts that traded on her looks. “[They wanted me to] build a body of work,” she said, “so that I would end up having my most exciting years when I was a grown woman.”

But even Laura’s parents couldn’t shield her from the imperfections of Hollywood. Opening up about being a child actor, Laura revealed the times that she felt adults acted inappropriately towards her as a child.

“I started making movies as an 11-year-old, so I was on location at 13, which is a different thing. I remember every compromised situation. I was a child, and adults took advantage of me or tried, and I justified the behavior as me misunderstanding it,” Laura explained, adding that she “experienced everything barring assault.”

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After getting through those childhood atrocities, Laura entered the most rewarding period of her career in midlife as her parents had hoped. She now stars in Big Little Lies, a show that she not only loves but is proud to be a part of. “We’re very bonded,” Laura said of the show’s cast. Big Little Lies will return to HBO this spring — the show has earned her an Emmy and a Golden Globe — and she also just wrapped a remake of Little Women. The mom to Ellery, 17, and Jaya, 14, is additionally a producer and loves bringing new projects to the screen. “I’m waiting to be challenged to the depths,” she said, “to throw myself into the deep end.”

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