TORONTO— Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild was in the spotlight at the Toronto International Film Festival this past fall, and by extension so was Laura Dern. Though Dern’s is a supporting role, she acted as the de facto spokesperson for the film, tirelessly talking it up through an intense burst of interest.
When she met with the Straight the afternoon before the film’s red-carpet gala premiere, Dern was barefoot in a room at the Royal York, her prodigious six-inch heels in an abandoned tangle in the corner. (Later, she would lean on a couple of journalists as she carefully teetered her way down the front stairs and into a waiting limo.)
Even (or especially) in her bare feet, Dern is an impressive presence. The film, based on writer Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, is the story of a hike Strayed did to exorcize her personal demons (heroin and promiscuity, chiefly) along the challenging terrain of the Pacific Crest Trail, through California and Oregon. Reese Witherspoon plays Strayed, and Dern plays her deceased mother, Bobbi, an influential yet tragic presence in the author’s life, who appears as a fragment of the protagonist’s memory.
To Dern, though, the importance of her role is undiminished by her scant screen time. As she told the Straight, the adapted screenplay by Nick Hornby moved her to tears when she first read it.
“First of all, Jean-Marc has so beautifully captured, in a deep way, the story of Cheryl’s hike as a shared experience of grief that all of us have as an inescapable part of our lives,” she said. “And to see a film where the movie ends and we are seeing a woman stand there with no man, and no job, and no money, and no real family with her is so powerful and very rare. I feel so proud as a woman to be part of a film like that, because we’ve been told our whole lives that we need ‘the thing’—job, power, money, man—to be somebody.”
Indeed, Wild is remarkable for what it isn’t: a morality play about the perils of the wild life. Rather, it ponders what it takes to make a journey into the truest parts of yourself, an experience that Strayed has parsed in extremis, by hiking but also with a period of extreme and unconventional behaviour that ultimately precipitates her divorce.
“For me, also, Wild’s treatment of her behaviour triggers something about self-forgiveness as well,” Dern continued. “The film addresses it in such an interesting way, and it’s so nice to see someone not being punished, or punishing ourselves.”
Dern’s portrait of Bobbi, a woman she described as “so generous, so loving, and so brave”, even as she stayed in an abusive relationship, is also without judgment. Along the way, Bobbi awakens to her own power; as Dern explained, she loves to play characters like these most of all.
“I’ve always gravitated towards playing women who don’t know they’re entitled to a voice, let alone how to find it,” she said. “The ones who intrigue me most are the people who didn’t know they’re entitled to self-awareness, so that’s a very cool thing to explore. And I wish that for all women, so if I can get to continue to explore that, I’m lucky.”