Oscar-nominated actress Laura Dern has spoken out about the remarkable backlash she experienced following an appearance on the “coming out” episode of Ellen more than 20 years ago.
Dern appeared in the Emmy-winning “The Puppy Episode,” most notable for Ellen DeGeneres‘ titular character coming out of the closet as gay. Dern played a lesbian in the episode that catches Ellen’s fancy and forces her to confront her own sexual orientation.
“I didn’t think twice about it. It was a great opportunity,” Dern tells New York Magazine. She also reveals that after taking the role, several gay friends warned her that the part could seriously harm her career. Dern didn’t take the warning seriously until police “swarmed” the stage during rehearsals.
“The first time I became aware was, Oprah and I were having a snack, and suddenly a flood of cops swarmed the set and the stage while we were rehearsing. They’re like, ‘There’s been a bomb threat, we’re sweeping the stage.’ And they start literally rushing us off the stage.”
Despite high ratings and critical praise for the show, Dern says her career came to a halt. “We all spent the next couple of years really struggling in work and safety,” she says. “It was radical to experience that. It was the only time I ever experienced having to have to have full security detail…[The backlash] was significant. It was significant because I was doing successful independent movies, and, only months before that, I was in Jurassic Park, the most successful movie ever. So it was like, you’re being offered this, you’re being offered that — and it just stopped. Which is kind of wild.”
ABC cancelled Ellen just a year after “The Puppy Episode” aired. Fortunately for DeGeneres and Dern, both their careers have recovered. DeGeneres went on to voice the popular character Dory in Finding Nemo and land her own talk show. Dern scored an Oscar nomination for her work in Wild and has earned critical acclaim for performances in Twin Peaks, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Big Little Lies.
Still, for all the trouble Dern suffered for her appearance on Ellen, she has no regrets. “But what was amazing, which I will never forget, that when she looked in my eyes, she said it was the first time she said ‘I’m gay’ out loud. We didn’t rehearse it, so when she said it to me, and was looking in my eyes and holding my hands and I felt her shaking … the gift — it makes me want to cry — the gift of that, the intimacy of what that means, was such insight for me. And I’ll carry it for the rest of my life.”