The Little Big Lies actress, 52, opened up about playing a gay character on sitcome Ellen in an interview with Vulture published Monday, telling the outlet required a security protection amid the backlash the 1997 episode received.
Dern, who guest-starred on the TV series as a lesbian who helps DeGeneres’ character realize that she’s also gay, said she first received calls from “a couple of advisers in Hollywood who were out gay men” telling her “to not do it” when she first agreed to the role. Though she initially shrugged off the concerns as “ridiculous,” she remembered realizing that people were not as progressive as they seemed when she was on set with Oprah Winfrey, who appeared on the episode as DeGeneres’ therapist, during production.
“A lot of people in my life really worried,” she said. “This is where I grew up in a bubble and didn’t realize we weren’t there yet or something.”
“The first time I became aware was, Oprah and I were having a snack, and suddenly a flood of cops swarmed the set and the stage while we were rehearsing. They’re like, ‘There’s been a bomb threat, we’re sweeping the stage.’ And they start literally rushing us off the stage,” she recalled.
Dern called it a “radical” experience, saying she “spent the next couple of years really struggling in work and safety.”
“It was the only time I ever experienced having to have to have a full security detail,” she shared.
The ground-breaking episode marked the first time a gay character was featured as a lead on television. It was estimated to have been watched by 42 million people.
Though the episode won a Peabody and an Emmy, Dern said she lost work following her appearance.
“It was significant because I was doing successful independent movies, and, only months before that, I was in Jurassic Park, the most successful movie ever. So it was like, you’re being offered this, you’re being offered that — and it just stopped. Which is kind of wild,” she told Vulture. “By good fortune of the long path of a career, you can look back and say, how great to have it be felt, how backward we are.”
Despite the backlash, Dern said the role was the “greatest thing” and an “incredible honor.”
“What was amazing, which I will never forget, that when she looked in my eyes, she said it was the first time she said ‘I’m gay’ out loud,” she shared. “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. And I’ll carry it for the rest of my life.”
“It’s shaped and continues to shape who I am as an advocate, as an activist, as a parent. It’s a profound thing when you see someone bring their truth, but also all the layers of shame and fear that have been put onto you because of feeling like the other, whatever your experience is. So I’m forever grateful.”