Laura Dern said she lost work, needed 'security detail' after 'Ellen' coming-out episode

The award-winning actor played Ellen DeGeneres’ love interest on a historic episode of the ‘90s sitcom. The role, however, came at a cost, she said.
Image: Laura Dern on the TODAY show, May 8, 2018.
Laura Dern on the "TODAY" show, May 8, 2018.Mike Smith/NBC / NBCU Photo Bank file
By Gwen Aviles

Laura Dern said appearing in the historic coming-out episode of the sitcom “Ellen” more than two decades ago was “an incredible honor.” However, the actor recently revealed that she lost work and needed a “full security detail” following its airing.

“I didn’t think twice about it. It was a great opportunity,” Dern said in a recent interview with New York magazine of her decision to play Ellen DeGeneres’ love interest on the show.

However, after accepting the role, Dern said “calls started coming in” from advisers in Hollywood “who were out gay men” telling her not to take the part. “A lot of people in my life were really worried,” she added.

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Dern said she shrugged off their concerns, believing them to be “ridiculous” at the time. In the landmark “The Puppy Episode,” which aired April 30, 1997, Dern guest-starred as Susan, a lesbian who helps Ellen realize she is also gay. The episode, which was estimated to have been watched by 42 million people and which won a Peabody and an Emmy, marked the first time a gay character was featured as a lead on television.

Despite its ratings success and cultural impact, however, the episode was not well-received by everyone at the time and resulted in backlash and death threats.

Dern told New York magazine that the first time she became aware that her life could be in danger and that progress had not evolved at as fast a pace as she had anticipated was when she was on the “Ellen” set with Oprah, who played Ellen’s therapist in the episode. Dern recalled that a group of cops swarmed the set and instructed them that they needed to leave the stage because there had been a bomb threat.

“We only did it for what, 10 days?” Dern said. “We all spent the next couple of years really struggling in work and safety. It was radical to experience that. It was the only time I ever experienced having to have full security detail.”

Months before appearing in “The Puppy Episode,” Dern had achieved international recognition with her role as Dr. Ellie Sattler in the adventure film “Jurassic Park.” Despite her breakthrough success, however, Dern said she weathered a period following the “Ellen” episode where she was no longer regularly offered roles.

While “The Puppy Episode” is far behind her, Dern said the experience “continues to shape” her.

“What was amazing, which I will never forget, that when she [Ellen] looked in my eyes, she said it was the first time she said “I’m gay” out loud,” Dern revealed in the interview. “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.”

Dern has achieved significant career success in the decades since her historic role on “Ellen.” Within the past two years, she won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her role in HBO’s hit drama series “Big Little Lies,” and she currently stars alongside Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in “Marriage Story,” a film about a couple undergoing a divorce.

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