It’s not your average TV show that draws its inspirations from I Love Lucy, Norma Rae, and the Occupy Wall Street movement, but that pretty much sums up Laura Dern’s vision for Enlightened, her HBO comedy that last week wrapped its first season and snagged two Golden Globes nominations — for Best Comedy Series and Best Actress in a Comedy Series. Dern, who co-created, executive produces, and stars in the series, caught up with TVLine about her vision for Season 2 (if HBO, in fact, orders more episodes), the double-standards that still get lobbed at complicated female characters, and why people who were annoyed by the show’s pilot episode are actually its ideal audience.
TVLINE | Congrats on the Golden Globes nominations! How did you get the news?
LAURA DERN | I was so deep asleep, and that was perfect. It’s funny, as an actor I prefer to not know anything about [the timing of] awards nominations. So when my agent or any friends start to say, “Hey, do you know they’re going to announce?,” I’ve always tried to keep that stuff off my radar. This is very hard to do when you’re part of a show that’s a Little Engine That Could. I remember, for example, on the film Citizen Ruth, how every critic supporting it, every critic’s award that came to us, meant so much. Same with Rambling Rose. Same with Enlightened. As much as you try, sometimes you can’t [avoid the buzz].
TVLINE | And the nominations came right on the heels of Season 1 ending with something of a cliffhanger.
LAURA DERN | Yes, and in this case, I’m also an executive producer and co-creator of the show, and there are all the questions about [whether or not we'll have] a second season, and what would that look like? The more support there is, obviously, the better, and I’m sure HBO is very, very happy.
TVLINE | In my estimation, the nomination for you as Lead Actress in a Comedy was maybe less unexpected than the show itself being up for Best Comedy Series.
LAURA DERN | I was very grateful, felt very supported by [the Hollywood Foreign Press Association] for my work as an actor. But the support of the show was a particular surprise, in its freshman year, alongside shows like Modern Family and Glee. I’m a fan of people doing unique things, and that’s why I wanted to be an actor in the first place. So to be included among shows that are trying to do something different, and to be supported and honored for trying to do that as well, hopefully gives all of us as artists far more legroom. And as a woman, hopefully this means there will be a continued fervor allowing women to be as deeply complicated as some of the male characters that have been on cable television — without having people go, “Ewwww.” I don’t say that as a feminist, I say it just as an individual who’s been witnessing the last few months of having some people watch [Amy, the central character of Enlightened] and say “Ooh, that seemed manipulative!” or “Ooh wow, she’s really an unlikable character on HBO.” I’m like, have these people never seen The Sopranos or Curb Your Enthusiasm? [Laughs] It’s not wrapped in a lovely package of Manolo Blahniks; she’s complicated, and we don’t get the payoff of the four-inch heel or the sassiness. Not that Amy won’t give those things every once in a while, too, but she’ll give a lot of stuff that’s hard to swallow as well. You know, I’ve never done a television show, but I wanted to do it because HBO is giving us the room to make a long indie feature, frankly.
TVLINE | So how big a deal are the Golden Globes nominations in terms of securing a possible renewal from HBO?
LAURA DERN | I really can’t speak to that. I will say HBO has been incredibly supportive of us; I’ve never felt them waver and imply that they wouldn’t be interested in [a second season], even though they haven’t given a formal announcement. They’ve only been bliss-filled about everything, and really given us room to explore.
TVLINE | I’ve got to ask, when you first conceived this series, did you and [co-creator Mike White] know where Season 1 was heading and how it would end so dramatically? Did you already have that end game in mind or did that happen organically as Mike was writing the scripts, sending Amy into that whistleblower-y role?
LAURA DERN | Kind of both: I mean, I had this seed of the idea, if you will, and it’s hard to articulate how anything so goofy could even make sense to Mike or HBO. But in our earliest stages my question was, “What if [I Love] Lucy became Norma Rae?” I couldn’t get it out of my head. What if someone is crazy enough and wonderfully determined enough and filled with enough longing to want the world to be different — even if they do it at times in the worst kind of ways. So we started to track: What would that look like? We definitely saw how the first season needed to be Amy’s own personal act of self-discovery — at times selfish, but at times selfless — in order to become a little bit more of a grownup. My prayer was to see her [experience] incremental — minimal at times — but incremental growth. And that she will always slide back, as many of us do with our wounds or habits, but that there is a change. I wanted people to really feel in that last episode — how Amy handled that situation, versus how she’d have handled it only months before.
TVLINE | So if there is a Season 2, are were going to see Amy in this Norma Rae-Erin Brockovich kind of role? I know we didn’t see exactly what she did with that access to the corporate email accounts, but can she continue to work at Abaddon after metaphorically burning it to the ground? Do you and Mike [White] have a sophomore season mapped out in your brains?
LAURA DERN | We have it a bit mapped out, but we’re still exploring too. The exciting part of our work together is in how we imagine what Amy would do with these opportunities. I can say [whatever happens] will never be anything but the most unlikely version of events. Just when she’ll think she’s being a whistleblower, just when Amy thinks she’s saved the world, somebody will be like, “Boy did she screw that up.” [Laughs] What’s great about Amy is she’s the kind of person that is trying to open a can of worms, and when she does, nobody sees it, but they’ll see all these other cans that nobody even knew were there. It’s like with Levi or with her mother: “Well, he’s never going to not be an addict.” “She’s never going to not be a shut-down mother.” And yet she’ll try to open them up in her way, and she won’t succeed, but the flowering will occur in a whole other area. And that’s what is beautiful about complicated people, people who are willing to tell the truth and force us to our own truths, even if we don’t do it the way they wanted us to.
TVLINE | That is a fascinating part of her character, the way Amy can be confrontational with the people around her, but she rarely gets to the end goal she sets out to achieve with them.
LAURA DERN | Even as a whistleblower, that’s sort of the part she’ll play. Again, it harkens back to I Love Lucy for me, and I don’t say that lightly because Lucille Ball was probably the greatest influence in my childhood on wanting to become an actor. I remember when I started doing movies and I thought I was doing one hilarious film after the next. People were like, “What kind of dramatic actors did you most admire?” And I was thinking, “Wait, aren’t I doing comedies? Aren’t these David Lynch movies hilarious?” I saw that there was this wackiness that had influenced me. And when I think about I Love Lucy, I think about how incredible it is that, to this day, we still think of it as this delightful sitcom in the ’50s. But it was absurd because of all the comedy was based on jealousy, agendas, a need to be famous, a need to be as famous as her husband, a need to meet celebrities, and messing everything up. You’re in pain every time you watch her, and yet you adore her. And I just thought, God, in the modern age, it’s just so fun to get to play with female characters like that — and with much deeper opportunities, politically and socially. So that’s what I hope for in a second season, that we get have more fun in those areas.
TVLINE | Getting back to the hope for a second season. The show hasn’t been huge from a ratings standpoint, and I wonder when you and Mike conceived this show — which isn’t a comedy per se, but is more quiet and meditative, and not really like anything on TV right now — did you worry about finding an audience for it?
LAURA DERN | You know, we didn’t think too much about it, really. We just hoped to make something that people would connect to. In terms of ratings, all of that is so elusive. For us, cumulatively, we’re seeing that a lot of people are supporting the show, whether they’re finding it on HBO Go or On Demand or in their TiVo box. But Mike and I and everyone involved have made the story we wanted to tell. And we hoped that there would be a lot of people who not only connect to it, but who would be willing and patient enough to give Amy her due. I mean that in the same way as I would about the people who are in the Occupy [Wall Street] Movement right now. There is a lot of judgment we can put directly toward our ideas of what a person who does this kind of thing is. Or we can surrender all judgment and [appreciate] that people who are willing — at all costs — to speak up may also be complicated people.
TVLINE | Amy makes choices sometimes that are infuriating — and she’s often self-centered, too — and in the season finale, she gets dismissed as a “crazy person” by her Abaddon coworkers in the conference room. That scene was so specific the way that in a corporate setting in particular, she could be dismissed and laughed at for having this environmentally conscious agenda. And even though her speaking out wasn’t motivated entirely by altruism, she still had a point, and by being confrontational, she went from a person who was just mired in therapy-speak or merely talking about trying to be a better person, and became a woman of action.
LAURA DERN | I’m so excited that’s how you experienced it, because that’s what I loved about it. I love Amy. I find her so heroic, in that she is using her greatest flaw for the greater good. That’s a very beautiful thing for all of us to consider: To learn to be compassionate enough toward ourselves that we can even take a deep flaw and turn it into a gift. It’s still going to bite us in the ass, if you’ll excuse my expression, but rage has a place in this world. And someone who is feeling as if they’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore has more of a place at this moment in history than perhaps ever before. We’ve been apathetic for too long, and what’s funny is it does take an Amy to go, “I know, I’m going to set up the tent and I’m not sure all the reasons why I’m angry, but f*** it I’m going anyway. And I’m going to tell these people that they’re not going to take advantage of Americans anymore.” It’s like, “Okay, well, let’s think this out a little further. Exactly what are you angry about? Where do you get your food, and isn’t it cold?” There’s not a lot of forethought, but it might be the thing that changes the course of American history. I just love that; I find it very funny and I find it very satirical, but I also find it deeply true. I hope that’s how the show resonates. And Mike White holds that ability to write things that are so deeply poignant and even sad, but he gives us a lot of room to laugh, too. I’ve never met so many extraordinarily different kinds of people, different sexes, different ages, with varied life experiences, who’ve all come up to me the last few months and said, “Oh my God, I am Amy!”
TVLINE | I’m fascinated, too, that there’s something organic about Amy — the color of her clothes, the way she walks — especially set against the faux organic-ness of Abaddonn, with its murals of onions and bumble bees that adorn their conference rooms and waiting areas. It’s kind of menacing the way that the company has those images everywhere that don’t really mean anything.
LAURA DERN | Richard Hoover, our production designer, is so great, and Mike and I were both very influenced by a number of documentarians in the last five years who’ve really used their voices in very creative and clever ways. One of which is the film Food Inc.; it really affected both of us. But there’ve been a few of them, and you get that feeling of big food, big pharma, big oil in America that’s often masked with, “But we’re actually helping.” We see it as these companies pay off their civil suits by running advertising to try to show they’re actually humanitarian corporations.
TVLINE | I’m curious: You executive-produce this show, and you star in it. But when you’re actually watching the episodes unfold, how do you feel? There are moments where Amy’s coworker Krista will make a face of pure distain toward her, and I totally understand where she’s coming from. And yet at the same time, there’s a part of me that roots for Amy. I get very conflicted emotions and I’m wondering if it’s the same for you.
LAURA DERN | As an actor it’s hard for me not to align [with my character], so in that way, I will root for Amy forever. But as a producer and co-creator, I definitely can also take a step back and enjoy other people’s experiences with her and honestly, I want their experience to be complicated, because that’s essential if you’re going to create a character that corporations would really want to shut up. Amy is complicated because she’s willing to expose, to tell the truth, and frankly to look foolish. She’ll go too far, not have boundaries; those are her greatest flaws, but perhaps, ultimately also, wonderful gifts. And that’s really fun to check out that world as an actor.
TVLINE | So last question for you. I wrote a column recently urging HBO to give Enlightened a second season, and there was some feedback from folks in our comments section saying things like, “Oh, I watched the first two episodes and I just couldn’t deal.” Or, “It’s too upsetting or too depressing.” So let’s say you had to try and change those people’s minds. What would be your pitch to them?
LAURA DERN | It’s your moral duty, as an American, to stand with Amy. To me, it’s the exact same things that I would say when someone says, “My God, you know, all these hippies are like down there with tents [at Occupy Wall Street]. And they don’t even know what they’re fighting for.” I’d urge them to just go down there — I know this sounds exhausting — but go down there and start asking people why they’re there. Even if there’s someone who’s clueless and doesn’t really know why he or she is there, the mere fact that they’re there — just like the mere fact that Enlightened exists — shows that there is unrest. We all want to have a voice again, which is why I’m so excited in my own little way to get to play a character that points a finger and recognizes the same story that’s being told in a million different ways right now. We’re all considering how to use our voice and if it means something, and what it is to be a whole person so that we can do it successfully, and that is super exciting to me. So I would beg people, if they are annoyed, they are a perfect audience! We’ve been waiting for them our whole lives. The very people who are saying, “I cannot handle this,” they’re the perfect people to watch [Enlightened].
TVLINE | How many episodes do they have to watch?
LAURA DERN | They just have to watch two more episodes, and then have an opinion. Up to four [episodes], and after four, if you’re not down, that’s your choice. [Laughs] But you’ve got to give us four.