Laura Dern and Sterling K. Brown both have movies coming out that center on parenthood, loss, and trauma. Both actors also happen to be parents themselves. So when they sat down to interview each other as part of Variety’s Actors on Actors series, both were upfront about how being a parent influenced their roles.
In Marriage Story, Dern plays Nora, a high-powered lawyer defending Scarlett Johanssen’s character Nicole in a custody battle. Getting into the character wasn’t easy. She tells Brown she had a “distaste for [Nora’s] business” initially. She describes Nora as “rather calculated and terrifying, as is the business of divorce,” alluding to her own experience as a single mom to two kids following her divorce from musician Ben Harper. She was also not alone in drawing on her own experiences while making the movie.
“The business of divorce is traumatizing for most people working on the movie,” she also says. (Since the movie was first announced many people have speculated that writer/director Noah Baumbach based the movie on his own divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.) Despite her hesitation, however, Dern was able to come to appreciate her character. In reference to a monologue Nora makes about the different standards to which we hold mothers vs. fathers, Dern told Brown that Nora is “so right.”
“There’s always a double standard, for all of us,” Dern said after Brown asked her to expand on how only fathers are allowed to be imperfect. Dern also went on to talk about the many other challenges of co-parenting after divorce.
“I think particularly if there’s been a divorce and you’re single-parenting… there’s not someone else always there going ‘Listen to your dad! Listen to your mom!’ You misunderstand what their point of view is.” Being misunderstood is something Dern also relates to, beyond divorce and single parenting. She goes on to say she’s experienced it in “pretty much every aspect of my life.”
Dern also asks Brown about how being a parent affected his own acting choices in his latest movie, Waves.
“You want to shield your children from the slings and arrows that life can hurl at you. And in the back of your mind, you know they’re going to have to go through it anyway,” he says, talking about his own job as a father to two sons and his role playing a father to a son and daughter in the movie. Waves deals with its own double-standards as well: Brown’s character, Ronald, is hard on his son because of his anxieties around what it means to be young, Black, and male in America.
Waves opens November 15. Marriage Story is out now.