Director's longtime collaborator says she loves his bravery

“Very intimate” are not words one might think of to describe the big-tent hoedown known as the Spirit Awards. But Laura Dern can, because 21 years ago she was an 18-year-old nominee at its very first ceremony, when it was a lunch at a fusion restaurant on La Cienega.

“It was quite lovely,” recalls Dern, who was nominated for her role as a sexually curious-adolescent in “Smooth Talk.” “At my table then were all the nominated actresses. We felt like a tribe. And though it’s now much grander, with red carpet and lots of press, it still has that feeling.”

Dern’s long association with indie film has perhaps no more iconic an example than her work with filmmaker David Lynch. She’s been his girl-next-door in the landmark 1986 film “Blue Velvet” — which she was filming at the time of her first Spirit Awards ceremony — and a rebel-love scorcher in “Wild at Heart.”

Then last year, in his unclassifiable-yet-mesmerizing opus “Inland Empire,” Dern went epic herself, playing three women in an interlocking dreamscape of bewilderment, terror and emotional fortitude.

Recognizing this unique, ongoing collaboration, the Spirit Awards will bestow a Special Distinction Award to the pair at the event Saturday. Dern’s “Blue Velvet” co-star Dennis Hopper will present it.

At the time of the award’s announcement, a statement from the Spirits’ nominating committee read: “Lynch’s masterful direction and Dern’s indelible performances in these visionary films represent to the committee the essence of artistic achievement and independent spirit.”

Dern couldn’t agree more with the assessment of Lynch, whom she considers as close as family. “I love David’s bravery, and I feel very proud to join in the celebration of this kind of filmmaking,” Dern says. “David decided to experiment (on “Inland Empire”), and that meant, ‘Let’s not just make a digital film with no script over the course of three years, make it myself, pay for it and self-distribute it, but because I want a 17-year-old in Iowa to make her first movie without feeling like she has to come to Hollywood, I’m going to shoot the whole thing on a Sony camcorder.’ Every choice he made was the pioneer choice.”

Their latest collaboration started with a call from Lynch out of the blue saying, “Let’s experiment” and little more than a 14-page monologue as a seedling.

As free-form and open to the imagination as the “Inland Empire” shoot was, Dern says Lynch is ultimately aiming for performance honesty.

“I think he’s always interested in the meeting of the worlds of human behavior and the abstract,” says Dern, who shot “Inland Empire” mostly on weekends over three years while also completing other movies and birthing her daughter Jaya in between. “I don’t think complete surrealism is interesting to David, nor an exclusively simple tale.”

Dern says Lynch is unfazed by on-set crises, too. When a motel room wall wasn’t ready for a shot on “Wild at Heart,” Lynch spent 20 minutes sculpting a bizarre lamp to draw a viewer’s eye from the unfinished wall. “I have never seen panic in David Lynch,” Dern says. “He always handles extreme moments with art.”

Most importantly for Dern, indie films in general have afforded this Oscar-nominated actress a chance to play the most full-blooded, richest parts. “I’m getting luckier,” she says. “I never really fit in to the girlfriend parts, and there were fewer interesting characters for someone in their 20s and early 30s. When I was cast in ‘We Don’t Live Here Anymore’ and ‘Inland Empire,’ it was the first time I felt like I was playing a grown-up. Now I’m reading scripts with complicated, funny, sad, wonderful characters.”

And through Lynch, Dern feels as if she’s been given the greatest opportunity to show the widest range, from the wide-eyed sweetness of “Blue Velvet” to “Wild at Heart’s” sirenish Lula to her “Inland Empire” triptych.

Recently, the director told her he was working on a new idea for them and, as excited as she was, Dern had to wonder. “I’m like, ‘What the hell am I going to play? I don’t know what I haven’t done!’ “

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