It isn’t often that non-New Orleanians appear on the pages of “Persona,” but consider Diane Ladd an honorary native daughter. While she was born in Mississippi and would eventually live in many other places, Ladd attended a New Orleans finishing school, was Empress of a Metairie Carnival krewe and it was her role in a play at the bygone Gallery Circle Theatre near Jackson Square that led to her discovery and launched her career as an actor at age 16. She is also a distant cousin of Tennessee Williams, and she’ll be in town to take part in an interview for the festival held in his honor. She also has a connection to the literary dimension of the fest, having authored two books and working on another.
Ladd is most known as an actress, earning Academy Award and Golden Globes nominations for her roles in Wild at Heart, Rambling Rose and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; she also appeared in the television adaptation of that film, Alice, and won the Golden Globe for her role. She starred with her daughter, Laura Dern, in Wild at Heart and Rambling Rose, and most recently in the HBO series “Enlightened,” which was cancelled after its second season despite critical raves. She will also play alongside Laura in the Watergate love story Woman Inside, which she hopes to film this year. Her ex-husband is actor Bruce Dern, who starred in the critically-acclaimed 2013 film Nebraska. In this interview, Ladd talks about New Orleans, which she calls her favorite city, her family and her cousin, Tennessee.
Is it true you went to finishing school in New Orleans? I went to finishing school there and it finished me, so [the school] shall be nameless … The diction teacher had a worse accent than I did. They had me walk around with a book on my head. They wanted me to shave off my eyebrows and paint them on like the models in New York did at that time; it was a new fad. I wasn’t shaving off my eyebrows. And then they gave me a brassiere – it was the Jane Russell era – that you blow up with a straw. You carry around the straw in your purse and if you start to leak when you’re out to dinner, you can blow yourself up again.
New Orleans is a great city. I did everything. I stared up at where Tennessee Williams wrote Streetcar and thought “I’ve gotta write, too, someday.”
How did you become Carnival royalty? I was starring in the Alice TV series … I was offered the opportunity to be Empress of the Krewe of Argus in Metairie. … I took my daughter, Laura; this was in 1981. I came down there and they were fantastic. I had a dinner in my honor, they had a ball in New Orleans – maybe 3,000 people attended. The City
of New Orleans had invited guests to be on the dais with me; [they were] the hostages from Iran. I got an earful, let me just say that. It was quite interesting. … These weren’t the six that got out; these are the ones they kept for forever and a day.
I loved “Enlightened” and was sad that it was cancelled. We’re sad, too. … I can’t tell you how many people when I’m doing my book signings come up to me and say “Why, why, why did they take that series off? It was the best series.” Time magazine called it the best series [of 2013]. That’s not chopped liver. You know how bad TV is today. It would be nice if we could get some more great shows on it. And it’d be nice if we can get some great shows where nobody’s being killed, tortured or murdered.
What is it like to work with your daughter, Laura? To be allowed to work in the work that you love is a great opportunity. A lot of people try to get their children into the same business [they’re in]. I didn’t try to get Laura into the same business. I screamed, “No, do not be an actress – be a doctor, a lawyer, a housewife, a leper missionary.” Because it’s such a subjective business where you’re not just judged by your work, you’re judged by, does your chin point? Did you put too much weight on your backside? And on and on and on like a puppy dog or a marionette doll. And I love the work of acting and holding up a mirror for the world to see – I consider myself a teacher, and the stage or screen is my blackboard. I love working with Laura. Once when we were doing Wild at Heart … she said, “How was your day, Mom?” And I said, “It was great. I worked with someone that everyone loved and respected and was incredible” and she said, “Who is that?” and I said “It’s you, Laura … I’m proud of you as a professional – not just a talent, but the way you conduct yourself with humility as a human being, protecting your work.” She said, “I wanna thank you and Dad for the genes.” And I said, “Your father and I made the car, but you’re the driver. It’s your soul that’s driving that car.” So I’m proud of Laura because she’s an incredible talent and an incredible actress and, in my own opinion, she’s an incredible, gracious human being who cares a lot about mankind … She’s tireless in donating her time to help people.
On ex-husband, actor Bruce Dern: Bruce is a great actor. I’m privileged to have directed him in a movie [Mrs. Munck]. In fact, I’m the only woman in history to direct her ex-husband. I make a joke, “I say ladies, if you want revenge, direct your ex-husband.” But I’m only kidding. I chose Bruce because he can do comedy and tragedy. I said “You weren’t a great husband, Bruce, but you’re a great actor.” We laugh, we get along together. On Christmas Eve, we all go out to dinner together as a family. I loved his performance [in Nebraska] … it was like velvet.
On her cousin, Tennessee Williams: Tennessee Williams was a great influence on my life. He’s a distant cousin, my third cousin. But he took me to his heart, he took me to plays, he and his partner Frank. He was kind and loving and brilliant. He helped me; he fought for me. It’s important that somebody has somebody to fight for. He’s one of the greatest writers who ever lived. He’s our heritage. His favorite play was The Glass Menagerie and … his second favorite play was Streetcar, and his most frustrating play was Orpheus Descending. It took 20 years for that to be a hit and I was in the first production Off-Broadway.
“A Conversation with Diane Ladd” is 4 p.m. Sat., March 22, at the Hotel Monteleone as part of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. Visit TennesseeWilliams.net for more information.
At a Glance
Age: 71 Profession: actress, director and writer Born/raised: Meridian, Miss. Resides: Ojai, Calif. Family: Partner, Robert Hunter; daughter, Laura Dern