'Trial by Fire': Laura Dern Talks True Story, the Death Penalty and What She Wants Todd Willingham to Know

Illustration by Britt Spencer

"I somehow want Todd to know that with all his heartbreak, his life made a difference," says Academy Award–nominated actor Laura Dern about Trial by Fire, which opened May 17. Her latest movie tells the real-life story about death row inmate Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for murdering his three children, although there has been some controversy over the evidence used to convict him. It's not the first time Dern has helped bring a true story to the masses. She played Jennifer Fox in The Tale, a story about a grown woman who starts to question her childhood relationship with her coach after making a documentary about childhood rape victims. "In both films, there are the perpetrators whose damage we intentionally try to expose," Dern says. "Here, it's the justice system, but also individuals who chose to ignore new evidence." In contrast, in her reprisal in the fictional role of Renata Klein in Season 2 of Big Little Lies, premiering June 9, Dern's character tries very hard to keep the truth from coming to light.

What's different about portraying real-life and fictional characters?

There is a different level of responsibility to get it right. In Trial by Fire and The Tale, there's somebody out there whose behavior was horrific. You don't hope to teach when you're making a movie, but you hope to encourage conversation. All an actor can do is make it as authentic as possible.

Why does the epilogue include then-Governor Rick Perry's comment about executions?

I would like to challenge former Governor Perry: If your moral compass is "thou shall not kill" and we will never kill an innocent person, then we have to abolish the death penalty. Over 200 people have been exonerated on DNA evidence alone by The Innocence Project. We're killing innocent people. It's so tragic.

What was is like to work with Meryl Streep in Season 2 of Big Little Lies?

It was the greatest gift imaginable. She's such an extraordinary activist, mother, genius artist, stealth detective for character, and she's a team player. She's just such a partner for everyone.

What's it like to work with female directors like Andrea Arnold, Greta Gerwig and Jennifer Fox?

It's delicious to talk to men about being human, and it's quite wonderful to talk deeply to women about a female experience about intimacy, longing and sexuality. It's very exciting to support and work with women without it being a "women's movie."