Interview by Pat Burns, written by Colleen Sell
When Diane Ladd says she’s “a very busy person,” she ain’t just whistlin’ “Dixie.”
The Mississippi-born-and-bred, award-winning actress — who currently costars with her daughter, award-winning actress Laura Dern, in the HBO television series Enlightened — is also a film director and producer, writer, motivational speaker, ordained minister, medical intuitive and health advocate. She and her equally busy husband, Robert Charles Hunter — former CEO of PepsiCo Food Systems and a renowned business consultant, writer and speaker — also run their own film production company, Exxcell Entertainment, and a nonprofit organization, Art and Culture Taskforce (ACT). They’re also activists and civic leaders involved with myriad culture, education, health, human rights and political initiatives. Yet, these active septuagenarians lead a “normal, calm life” that includes staying in communication with and spending as much time as possible with their ten grandchildren, ranging in age from 2 to 15 years.
“I leave myself open to talk with them, for questions,” Diane says. Robert adds, “When you see her around her grandchildren, they are the total focus of her world.”
Like many families today, theirs is blended. Diane’s daughter, Laura (from her former marriage to actor Bruce Dern), and Laura’s husband, singer Ben Harper, have two children: Ellery (10) and Jaya (7), and two children from Ben’s previous marriage, C.J. (15) and Harris (12). Robert has three children from previous marriages: Brandon, Amy (his second wife’s daughter, whom he adopted) and Emily. Brandon and his wife, Kristen, have two children: Aidan (10) and Avery (7). Amy has two children: Rylie (9) and Madilyn (7). Emily and her husband, Jason Ragsdale, have two children: Travis (4) and Houston (2). Plus there are three well-loved de facto grandkids: Lola, Lara and Jon.
“All the grandchildren are miiine!” Robert says gleefully.
Just as Robert is “Granddad” to all the grandkids, so is Diane “Nana” to them all.
“Each grandchild is a connection,” says Diane. “Every soul is different.”
Diane made that soul connection with Madilyn just minutes after her birth. As the stepmother, Diane had planned to let the biological grandparents go ahead of her to see the newborn at the hospital, but when the time came, everyone else had wandered off, so Diane got the first grand introduction.
“When I walked in and saw all those tubes connected to this little baby, my heart broke, and I said out loud, ‘Oh, Madi, I love you. It’s going to be okay.’ I swear to you, that baby snapped her head toward me and looked at me like, Am I? And I went, Whoa! We made that connection right then and there.”
Listening to Diane talk about her grandchildren, it is clear she has a unique bond with each of them: Rylie — “the sports enthusiast!” Aiden — “Whenever I come in, he runs to the door, ‘Nana Rose!’ He makes me feel so good.” Avery — the ballerina, “a cutie pie if ever there was one.” C.J. — a “gorgeous gentleman” with a “soothing energy.” Harris — “exquisitely beautiful…gracious…kind.” Jaya, who has her Nana’s passion — “She’s the most like me.” Ellery, the guitar-playing skateboarder who is intuitive like his Nana — “He can pick up what everybody is feeling.”
Like Diane, Robert seeks to be a presence in their grandchildren’s lives and to connect with each child on a deep level. Sure, he and Diane buy them the popular toys kids want. “But I would rather take a child out and show them how to skip a stone, sift some sand through their fingers, build something on the beach, climb a rock and talk about these oranges growing around here,” he says. “Let’s do some things that might cause them to look and wonder and dream a bit.”
Robert tells of a former brother-in-law who often joked that he was 12 years old before he realized his last name wasn’t “Don’t.” “All he ever heard was, ‘Mike don’t!’ ‘Mike don’t!’ ‘Mike don’t!’” he says. “Grandchildren need to be encouraged.”
Diane agrees. “Lots of times these young souls have more wisdom than the grandparents, and instead of encouraging it, we stifle it, without meaning to,” she says. “So encourage their gifts…. Don’t block the child. Guide him…. And don’t put the result as a burden on the young one. Give the child the open door always to expand.”
The couple believes that grandparents can have a positive impact on their grandchildren in other ways, too. We can “share the wisdom we’ve garnered in our lifetimes.” We can teach by example — demonstrating through our words and deeds such qualities as compassion, generosity and open-mindedness. We can encourage them to use their gifts for the greater good — and do so ourselves: “Stand up and fight when things are wrong.” Make the planet better for our grandkids; protect it with “love and light.” Most important, we can give them our love and attention.
“It’s magic what attention with love will do for a child,” Robert says.
Imagine what magic a loved and nurtured grandchild might do for the world. As Diane’s motto goes, “Your child is my child, and my child is your child. Our goal should be to let the children of the world stand on our shoulders so that they may see farther than we have. Perhaps then this human race might become really humane and we could all be a family.”
The GRAND interview:
Diane Ladd & Laura Dern:
A Mother and Daughter’s Shared Passions
By Colleen Sell
When the winner for best lead actress in a television musical or comedy series was announced at this year’s Golden Globe ceremony, the recipient’s face flashed with disbelief while her mother’s face lit up with joy. Then, Laura Dern hugged her mom, actress Diane Ladd, before taking the stage to accept the award for her portrayal of Amy Jellicoe, a 40-year-old sales executive who suffers a nervous breakdown and moves in with her mother, Helen, played by Diane, in HBO’s dramedy Enlightened.
For her part, Diane, too, has received rave reviews — especially for the episode “Consider Helen,” in which Helen experiences flashbacks of her late husband. “It’s about how somebody will say something, and it will stir a memory in our own life, and while they’re talking, we’re not even there, we’re back in that moment.”
At first, Diane turned down the role of Helen. “But then I saw the content, and I thought, Here’s my daughter trying to do a series to help mankind. What better thing can I do than to use my gift to support her?”
Among the many compelling aspects of Enlightend is its exploration of the mother-daughter relationship. “A lot of people cannot communicate with their own children. I’m using my character to help them bridge that gap,” Diane says. “But we’re not playing ourselves. Laura and I have a great relationship.”
It’s not the first time they’ve appeared onscreen together. In fact, Diane has played Laura’s mother in five films: Citizen Ruth, Daddy and Them, Wild at Heart, White Lightning, and Rambling Rose, for which they each were nominated for both an Academy and a Golden Globe award — the first mother and daughter to be so honored for the same movie. “It was really beautiful working with my mom [on Rambling Rose],” Laura said, “and it gave me a real connection to my grandma.”
Like her mother, Laura was bitten by the acting bug at an early age, after her bit part as a little girl eating an ice cream cone in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore — in which Diane starred and for which she received Academy and Golden Globe award nominations for best supporting actress.
A few years later, when Laura was about 10, she told Diane she wanted to be an actress.
“I said, ‘No! Don’t be an actress, honey. Be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a leper missionary, a housewife. Be anything else.’ Because of my own fears, because of what I’d been through,” Diane says. “Then I let her try it and realized this soul had an inborn gift from the universe. The whole thing is to use our gifts.”
But not only for the awards, accolades and sense of accomplishment those gifts bring to them. For this mother and daughter it’s also — and perhaps more — about using their gifts to help bring about positive change in the world, through both their acting and their activism. As Diane writes in her memoir, Spiraling Through the School of Life, she acknowledges, “My grandchildren, who make me realize that if I win all the Oscars in the world but leave the planet as a sewer for them to roll around in, I haven’t accomplished much.”
Colleen Sell balances her writing/editing career with organic gardening, trekking with her husband, renovating their ancient farmhouse and enjoying their large family, including six delightful grandchildren.