Laura Dern on giving back, what she learned from Sting and the 'delicious fun' of playing Renata Klein on 'Big Little Lies'


Laura Dern recognizes that there can be a major generational gap between mothers and their daughters that becomes especially apparent when it comes to making their voices heard and giving back.

There's a scene in HBO's "Big Little Lies," which Dern says is one of the most interesting of the series, that demonstrates this tension perfectly: Dern's character Renata Klein ferociously confronts her daughter, Amabella, about who's been physically bullying her at school and urges her to speak up for herself. Amabella, who's in first grade, expresses fear over using her voice to reveal the truth and doesn't think that it will truly be heard.

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It's this fear of being silenced, ignored or not being able to make a difference that Dern sees as a major hurdle in getting the new generation of children to also give back. Recognizing this, the 50-year-old actress has partnered with Johnson & Johnson and the United Nations Foundation for the Global Moms Relay, which will see J&J donating $1 for every photo shared on social media to one of five nonprofit partners dedicated to health and wellbeing.

The accessibility of the campaign is what attracted Dern to accepting an invitation to take part. I recently caught up with her at the Moms + SocialGood launch event in New York City to talk about the causes she most fiercely advocates for, what Sting and Trudie taught her about encouraging children to give back and the "delicious fun" she had playing Renata Klein on "Big Little Lies."

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Today is all about asking the question, "What do you wish were true for families everywhere?" How do you personally answer that question?

It's too much to say in an interview, but I wish for families everywhere that when they look in their child's eyes -- like I have the privilege and the luxury of doing -- that they can promise them that their health care will be provided to them, that they can have clean water to drink and they can have food to eat. We are in a very small minority just for those three promises. It used to be that that was just a problem globally -- and not necessarily in America -- but all three of those issues are at stake today. I'm very excited to be here, particularly on this day, to talk about the human right that children and families shouldn't have to worry and know that their child's health care is provided to them.

How did you get connected to the Global Moms Relay?

I got lucky! I sat in my house feeling paralyzed by how much work there was to do and how much I could make a difference, and luckily, I learned about the work that Johnson & Johnson and the United Nations Foundation are doing together, and about Global Moms Relay and thought, "Oh, thank God! There's a way to make a difference in one minute of your life." That concept was extraordinary to me. When they asked me to partner with them to help spread this message, I felt really lucky.

What's so special about this campaign is that it's accessible for people who don't know where to start when it comes to giving back.

Exactly! And to learn about all of the organizations that are making a difference is amazing. I had no idea about them, and my daughter and I wanted to learn deeply about the different nonprofits. I had read about Girl Up, a teen advocacy program, and thought that was really cool, and when we went on the site and looked at it more, she was like, "Wait a minute! They have this program just to buy bicycles for girls in Guatemala so that they can make it to school and get an education." She's like, "Mom, we can help buy bicycles." And I was like, "Jaya, guess what? You can buy a bicycle just by liking a photo!" What an amazing concept.

And for young people, that's built right into what they're doing already in their everyday lives.

Yeah, and for my daughter, she can learn about girls in refugee camps in Uganda and learn about what they're walking through and what they need and how deeply they need. Anytime we can turn the story of social media from evading human contact or disconnecting from empathy and turning it into a place of deep connection and how we use it for good ... that's their future!

You mentioned your daughter getting involved. Is making her aware of those giving back and the struggles that girls face globally something that is important to you as a mother?

You know, it is. I've talked to other families who care deeply about these issues. I remember listening to Sting and Trudie talk about their immense work and how you want to present to your children the ways that they can make a difference, but you never want to make it their obligation in a way that they resist. They don't resist because they don't want to do it, but they resist because they feel like they can't make a difference or that their voice doesn't have value.

So, the more we can teach our children that their voices matter -- and I think this election was terrifying for a lot of people, no matter what their party or politics were -- because they felt, especially with news of other countries impacting our election, like, "Wait a minute, my voice isn't protected so that people can hear it loud and clear?" What does that mean? It means you've got to fight harder, it means your voice has to be heard louder than ever. Whether that's being an advocate for children's health or marching in the street for women or the gender pay gap. It doesn't matter, because you can do it through your Instagram, your school, as an activist or as a public figure -- there are ways your voice can be heard! And every single person matters. Johnson & Johnson has said, "You matter! You're liking this or you're sharing your story. It doesn't matter who you are or where you come from, you make the exact same amount of difference as any other human being. Just do it and become a participant!" That's a gorgeous message that I believe in.

Throughout your career you've been involved in various charitable campaigns and have given back to different organizations. Has this always been important for you -- to raise awareness and use your time to give back?

I was raised by a deeply empathetic mother and grandmother, and they made a difference. My grandmother was a 5'2" adorable little Alabama lady who was in Los Angeles when the riots broke out. When she heard the news, she got in her Toyota Corolla and, by herself, she drove down to South Central, set up a foldable table and started making sandwiches. There was no question in her mind that that was what she needed to do -- she needed to be of service. She wasn't saying, "Oh, is it safe? People are looting, will I be misperceived?" You don't live in fear; you live in service.

So, that was a huge inspiration [for me] and continues to be. It's easy to be afraid. There's a lot going on in this world that's terrifying and a mother should give birth and feel safe to know that she can do everything she can to protect her child.

I felt very privileged to be part of "Big Little Lies" in that I'm playing a character who seemingly has it all, is in a place of power, has the most money out of everybody -- I mean, the worst thing happening to her is people's judgement of her and her lack of friendship and lack of community with women -- but the message of that character is, "I have nothing, because I can't keep my child safe. I have complete loss of control when it comes to giving birth because I don't get to say what my child's story will be." And I hope that part of that story resonates with everybody, because that's the thing: There are so many things we can offer our children, and there are so many things we never get to. But, hopefully as a community, we get to a point where we can.

Let's talk a little bit more about "Big Little Lies." Your character, Renata, brought a very recognizable energy to every scene she was in throughout the season. Can you talk a little bit more about that and what inspired your approach to bringing Renata to the screen?

It's interesting to be part of an ensemble where you have a certain role to play, and you want to make room and space for the storytelling to unfold. And then it's another thing -- which is something I think I've done only maybe one other time in my career -- where you're playing a character who must take over the room at all times! [Laughs] It's just delicious fun -- it gives you room for improvisation or messing with other people and commanding your place be known. She doesn't stop for anything politically correct, and it was really funny to me. I love that character.

Amabella getting hurt was Renata's biggest struggle. What was your biggest challenge in playing Renata?

I think the most interesting scene to me -- one of the most interesting scenes in the whole season -- was when I found the bite on my daughter, and I have to confront her about not speaking up. There was a lot of improvisation to find that, and it's hard as a mother and a woman to consider confronting a little girl. But, I wanted -- and I know our director Jean-Marc [Vallée] wanted -- the ferocity of the vigilante feminist to overpower and overwhelm this little girl. She has had to fight for everything so that her daughter is never taken advantage of, but it's a new generation [she's dealing with].

I think just this idea of Global Moms Relay -- that, with just a click of a button or with a comment, you can, with empathy, affect and impact other women and girls and families around the world [is amazing]. In the generation before us, a woman had to fight hard to even be considered to get into the room, and if she was in the room, she was probably a secretary to the bosses. So, if you come from that place, as opposed to a world where women are expected to be in positions of power, for which there is still so much work to do but it's shifting, I think the more it shifts the more we're seeing events like today, because moms are the ones sort of wanting to lead the charge in making a difference.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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