Laura Dern Says Creators Need to ‘Catch Up’ With Audience’s Desire for Diverse Stories

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Fresh off her powerful acceptance speech at the Golden Globes for her role as Renata Klein in HBO’s hit Big Little Lies and her part as a leading character in the new Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Laura Dern wants to play more complex and culturally relevant characters, which is something she says audiences desire.

During a panel hosted by Omnicom Media Group at the Consumer Electronics Show last week, Dern and Beth Altringer, Ph.D, founder and director of Harvard’s Desirability Lab, talked about the role that technology and innovation plays in Hollywood and filmmaking.

Claudia Cahill, Omnicom Media Group’s chief content officer, moderated the 45-minute talk and asked Dern what she looks for in picking projects to work on. According to Dern, her upbringing by two actor parents—Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern—encouraged her to go after diverse roles.

“They taught me early on to pursue what would be reflective of not only the human condition but what our culture looks like,” she said. “I think that’s why audiences are craving storytelling to look like the world we live in and that includes diversity on a far deeper level than we’ve ever seen. Everyone, meaning the people who are creating content and storytellers, have to catch up with what the audience is longing for, which is the truth. The truth is messy and lives in the grey. We’re not black and white.”

Take her latest Star Wars role, for example. Dern plays Vice Admiral Holdo, one of a handful of women characters that fans of the iconic franchise have praised as strong leaders in the film.

“Star Wars in its storytelling looks forward to engaging in the area of diversity and sexuality—they talk about it a lot in this film,” she explained.

Diversity and authenticity also drives how Dern plans to work with brands in the future.

“People are approaching me because I look like myself, because I am willing to be who I am at the age that I am,” she said. “Companies are finding that women want to buy face creams, hair products and clothing from women they can relate to, not necessarily the 19-year-old selling products. So everything is shifting because they want the truth and that’s exciting.”

In terms of technology, Dern is a board member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (or AMPAS) and is working on including technology like computer-generated imagery as qualifications for actors to be nominated for awards.

“Anything that moves you, you have the right to vote for—that’s the only requirement in an acting category,” she said. “Just like the science and technology side will get awards for their work in Star Wars, shouldn’t the actor?”

Data-driven storytelling

Altringer’s work at Harvard’s Desireability Lab focuses on using data to understand why people like or dislike certain things and what can be extrapolated from that data to help creators make better stories.

In one example, Altringer and her team are analyzing taste and building a database of taste profiles to better understand how people determine what something tastes like.

“When you have a coffee, it’s great or it’s awful [but] most people don’t have the language to describe why,” she said. “Our lab focuses on understanding the ‘why’ of what people like or dislike and we’re interested in empowering the person to find more of that to become the creator.”

While brands and filmmakers are increasingly focusing on women, there is still much work to do. A few years ago, Altringer worked on a project to find out what the older woman equivalent of Dos Equis’ iconic Most Interesting Man in the World would be like.

While her team found a few examples like Aretha Franklin’s work for E*Trade, “This project was a real struggle and most of it was because nobody had ever really thought about that before,” Altringer said. “There weren’t a lot of ready images that we could pull from to assemble that character.”

She added, “We had to wait until we could grab more examples—they’re there. Those stories just haven’t been told, repeated and shared as often.”

Altringer cited 2014’s Wild—based on the book by Cheryl Strayed—that stars Dern and Reese Witherspoon as an example of a complex story that resonated with audiences. Witherspoon’s character in the film is “very bad and very good—it’s both and it’s uncomfortable and it’s wonderful,” she said. “I think there are many more people who have relatable stories and [audiences are] wanting it.”