Laura Dern is a talented and versatile actress, there's no doubting that. From October Sky to The Fault in Our Stars, she has played a wide range of effective roles. For a more in-depth look at her filmography in general you can check Alex Withrow's discussion at And So it Begins. What interests me is to look at a very specific aspect of her work. Laura Dern may be a versatile actress, but to see that you really don't need to go through her entire career.
All you really need to do is look at her collaborations with one particular director, and that is David Lynch. He was the one that really got her career going in the 1986 thriller Blue Velvet when she was only 19, and since then she's done two other collaborations with a few hints at the possibility of a fourth thanks to an interview she did for The Fault in Our Stars. Across those three movies she has never played the same character twice.
Blue Velvet saw Dern play a very sweet and innocent young girl. She is the shy girl next door, who remains friendly and optimistic, which fits nicely into the whole theme of the movie seeing as her image of the "ideal" girlfriend provides a clear contrast to the film's other female lead: Isabella Rosselini as the emotionally disturbed neighbor caught up in the activities of one Frank Booth. As the story goes on Laura Dern becomes increasingly entangled in the web of mystery lurking beneath her hometown, and her innocence is brought into question.
Laura Dern is charming enough as Sandy, but then we get to Lynch's later film Wild At Heart, and guess who else is back? Laura Dern is now, if anything, exactly the opposite of her role in Blue Velvet. Whereas the first collaboration between Lynch and Dern featured her as a very innocent, quiet, and innocent young woman. In Wild At Heart, Dern is every bit as much in love with Sailor Ripley as Sandy was with Jeffrey Beaumont, but this time around her character is a bit dirtier.
Lula Fortune becomes much more outspoken in this film, being driven and at times blinded by her love. This is the sort of character who gets so caught up in her relationship that she will stop at nothing to be with her one true love, even if it means hitting the road with an army of weird psychos in hot pursuit.
Finally, we move into their third (and so far, final) collaboration: Inland Empire. The whole movie is a bit weird and with its extremely subjective nature it would be hard to make a solid profile of anybody, but Laura Dern captures her role well. This time around there is no obvious romantic sub-plot, and her role becomes a much more cynical one. Whereas her good nature ultimately won out in Blue Velvet and she remained devoted to Sailor Ripley in Wild At Heart, the outcome in the end isn't as clear or optimistic (although it does depend on how you interpret the ending).
Instead she plays a aspiring actress Nikki Grace. This is a character who finds herself taking on an extremely demanding role and gradually breaks down over the course of the film due to the resulting stress. Over time she begins to confuse the identities of herself and her character, failing to distinguish when she is acting and when she is not (as demonstrated in several well-executed scenes that appear to be real only to be revealed as scenes from the movie). In the end she does somewhat manage to overcome her personal problems and finish the movie, but the damage is still done.
So we have three very different performances across three different films. There do seem to be patterns that emerge with each, however. In every case, Dern seems to be cast as an idealist whose confidence is brought into question. Blue Velvet questions her good nature as she becomes entangled in a web of messed-up craziness courtesy of Frank Booth, Wild At Heart tests just how far Lula will go for love, and Inland Empire sees a confident actress gradually starting to lose herself.
If indeed Lynch is planning something new, and he really does plan to cast Laura Dern, it does make me curious what role he'll have in store for her in what would be their fourth collaboration. The one thing that seems likely is that her character would be a drastic departure from everything she has done with Lynch in the past.