Diane Ladd is delighted to find herself being named by media entities including the Los Angeles Times as one of the actresses whose work merits Emmy consideration this nominating period. But the Mississippi-born dynamo’s strongest Emmy pitch goes for her “Enlightened” leading lady — daughter Laura Dern.
“Thank God ‘Enlightened’ came along. Nobody gets killed, nobody gets raped and it’s not a reality show,” she declares. “The Wall Street Journal called it the best show in 50 years. And Laura, she’s another Lucille Ball as far as I’m concerned. Laura’s got more energy than God’s angels. She never stops working so hard to make this a hit. And she’s so honest and kind to everybody on the set. It’s harmonious for the actors to come on and play.” There’s more, but you get the idea. The show has already won honors including a Golden Globe for Laura for her portrayal of the “Enlightened” executive who underwent a life-changing philosophical awakening while in rehab.
Considering how happy Ladd is to be aboard the dramedy, playing Laura’s mother, it’s interesting that initially, she expected to stay out of it.
“The absolute truth is, I wasn’t going to do the show because HBO previously had trouble with some mother and daughter show which shall be nameless. And so — I was told — they were turned off mother-daughter shows. Even though this was not going to be an equal, fifty-fifty mother-daughter show,” recounts Ladd. “I thought, ‘Wow, you know, if I end up doing this with Laura — if it’s Jane Fonda or Shirley MacLaine, or
some other actress, and they have a problem, they can go in and scream and kick, you know? But if I have a problem, in that position, and go in and try to solve it, it’s going to be: ‘Oh, Laura’s mother.’ I really saw that, and I thought ‘No, just let me back off and let Laura go do her thing.'” That was in spite of the fact they’d successfully worked together before, including their dual Oscar nominations for “Rambling Rose.”
Three months passed, as Ladd tells it, while Dern and her co-executive producer, writer and co-star Mike White talked to other prospects for the part. “At one point there was an actress they were talking about, who shall be nameless, and I said, ‘Don’t get her, Laura. She’s not a team player, she doesn’t play the game fair. She won’t support you all the way. She will chew you up and spit you out and try to take your show. That’s not what you want.’ I said, ‘Go get Jane Fonda. She plays fair.'” They went to Fonda, says Ladd, but she didn’t want to do TV at the time. “Then some of my friends started calling me, actresses with star names, and they said, ‘Diane, there’s not a lot of work out there for actresses our age. Are you going to take this series or not?'” Then, “Renee Taylor called, and said, ‘By golly, if you’re not going to play your daughter’s mother, I can do it. You’re a fool not to do it.'” She laughs. “Renee is a very dear friend.”
The turn-around came when Diane had a moment of transformative realization of her own — after her husband, Robert Hunter, lost a baby granddaughter to SIDS. The funeral scene was all too familiar for Diane, who tragically lost a baby daughter herself in 1962, after the 18-month-old fell into a swimming pool.
She recounts that before the service, “My cell phone went off, and it was Mike White. I went out to take the call — I needed a distraction,” she says. White, it turned out, was calling to ask her to meet with him about “Enlightened,” saying he’d have a car waiting for her at the airport. He wanted her to reconsider.
“God knows life is so vulnerable,” she says now. “Each minute, none of us knows tomorrow what’s going to happen. Every minute of each day is a gift, an opportunity. And I thought, ‘What better could I do with the gift of talent that the universe gave me than to share and support my own child?’
“And that,” she says, “is why I did the show.”