Laura Dern and David Lynch Still 'Wild at Heart'

If you happen to be driving through Hollywood these days and see a cow and an older man standing on a corner holding a large, glossy picture of Laura Dern, slow down and take a closer look. You may be surprised.

More likely than not, that older man is famed film director David Lynch, and the sign is a grass-roots Oscar campaign for the star of his latest film, "Inland Empire."

The film -- a three-hour meditation on Hollywood, identity and giant rabbits -- is the latest collaboration between the notoriously enigmatic auteur and his frequent muse. "He called me three years ago," recalled Dern, "and he said, 'I want to experiment.'"

Fresh off the success of the Oscar-nominated "Mulholland Drive," Lynch was filming individual scenes on a consumer digital video camera for his Web site and trying to find a way to break out of the straitjacket of Hollywood filmmaking. Eventually, Lynch opted to produce the movie without the help of the studios, explaining it would be made slowly and on the cheap.

Dern quickly signed on to the project and became his traveling companion, co-producer and star.

A Teenaged Sandra Dee in a Cryptic Masterpiece

"Every time he got an idea for a scene, we would shoot it, and he wrote the script through the course of this time," Dern said. "Even though he saw the movie in his head, he would just keep shooting along the way."

His ideas eventually led them to the wintry gloom of Lodz, Poland, in search of Polish hookers and folklore. And let's not forget about the rabbits. None of this was a surprise to Dern.

"If David is mad, he went mad many, many years ago and has been exposing it to us all these years," she said. "David is a nonconformist. He's never going to give us something traditional. He's never going to conform to a standard we're used to. God bless him for that."

Dern, 39, first met Lynch when she was a precocious 17-year-old. He cast her, in Dern's words, as the teenage "Sandra Dee" character in his cryptic masterpiece "Blue Velvet."

"It was a rather traditional role, but in such an insane world, such an extreme world ... it was a huge awakening," she said, "a college education for me."

She teamed again with Lynch four years later to play the southern vamp Lula Fortune in "Wild At Heart," a violent and controversial best picture winner at Cannes that had one Rolling Stone film reviewer cooing, "Dern is a raunchy, radiant wonder."

Lynch had culled two staggeringly different and remarkable performances from the young actress. "He's just extraordinary," Dern said. "I have to say, in general, any actor that has the good fortune of working with David is the luckiest actor alive."

In the 13 years that separated "Wild At Heart" and "Inland Empire," Dern kept busy by taking on some of the most original and startling roles for women in Hollywood -- as a paleobotanist ("Jurassic Park"), a sexually provocative housekeeper ("Rambling Rose") and a glue-sniffing, pregnant flunky ("Citizen Ruth"). She even had Ellen DeGeneres come out to her on national television.

Dern's eclectic choice of material, though, is hardly surprising. She is the product of a strange mix of 1960s counterculture and old-fashioned Hollywood royalty. The daughter of actors Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd (the two separated before her first birthday), she was nursed on movie sets and casting couches.

A Product of the '70s

"I was a product of the 1970s. I watched my parents working with Scorsese and Hal Ashby and Hitchcock," she said.

"I was 7½. I turned to my parents and said, 'I want to become an actress.'"

One of Dern's first roles was as an ice-cream-eating extra in Martin Scorsese's 1974 "Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More." Always a perfectionist, the director shot multiple takes. Dern ate 19 cones.

"And [Scorsese] is like, 'Oh, she's got stamina. Ya know, this girl should be an actress. You should be an actress!' I was like, 'Mommy, Martin Scorsese told me I should be an actress. You can't stop me from my destiny!'"

Dern has continued to work with (and garner praise from) some of Hollywood's top directors -- Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood and the late Robert Altman to name a few. She's also been keeping very busy.

Besides the new Lynch opus, Dern has recently wrapped films with Russell Crowe and John Travolta.

She's grateful for the work but looks forward to returning to Los Angeles and spending more time with her husband, the musician Ben Harper, and their two young children. "I told Ben, 'I want a nap as my Christmas present.'"