You may know three-time Oscar nominee Diane Ladd from her turn as the salty waitress Flo in the 1974 classic film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore or her performances opposite her daughter Laura Dern in the films Wild at Heart and Rambling Rose and the brilliant but canceled HBO series Enlightened.
But nothing can prepare you for the force of nature, font of wisdom, and energetic spirituality on the other end of the phone during an exclusive Advocate interview to discuss her role as Jennifer Lawrence’s grandmother in the new film Joy (opening Christmas Day).
David O. Russell’s film tells the rags-to-riches story of a young woman, the titular Joy, who overcomes incredible odds to create the Miracle Mop, then a host of other inventions, and become the multimillionaire queen of QVC and the Home Shopping Network.
Ladd plays the wise grandmother who’s the only one who always believed in Joy. But joining the cast, including Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Bradley Cooper, who’d all worked with Russell on Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, was not daunting for the veteran actress.
“I’d done a play with De Niro 40 years ago and I knew him from the Actors Studio,” she says. “And Jennifer and I hit it off immediately. When David introduced us, I said to her, ‘The sea is wide and you can’t step it, I love you and you can’t he’p it, and if you love me like I love you, nothing in the world can cut our love in two.’ She laughed her head off and we became best friends.”
Kicking off their friendship with the quote that her mother always said to her, and that Ladd always said to her daughter, was appropriate since the film also focuses on mother-daughter dynamics — which permeate the cast as well. Virginia Madsen plays Joy’s agoraphobic, soap opera–obsessed mom, Isabella Rossellini (Ingrid Bergman’s daughter) plays her early investor, and Melissa Rivers plays her own mother, the early QVC star Joan Rivers.
“The nice thing about this film is that you can bring the kids [it’s rated PG-13], and it says, 'Did you ever have a dream? Did you set it down? Pick it up again!'” Of the film’s star, she says, “Jennifer is an amazing talent. She was consummated an actress and born to be a better one.”
Ladd believes that true actors are born that way. Her mother, Mary Lanier, was an actress, as is Dern (her daughter by actor Bruce Dern), and her 11-year-old granddaughter, Jaya, may be heading that way as well — which would make four generations of actresses in her family.
Although the Oscar-winning Lawrence was named by Forbes as the world’s highest-paid actress in 2015, and she seems to be doing just fine, Ladd nonetheless had some advice for her.
“I told her what I always told my daughter Laura. Don’t get trapped in the illusion of glamour, or thinking that you are the part you’ve created. You are in this world, not of this world. You have a job to do so stay focused on doing it as well as you can.”
Working with Russell and his cast and crew felt very much like a family affair. “It was 11 degrees below zero in Boston. We were in the worst conditions and we didn’t know it because we were having such a great time,” she says. “I lost the 1975 Oscar for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore to Isabella’s mother, Ingrid Bergman!”
“Bradley Cooper kept saying how much I look like Jennifer. He found a photo from Alice where I’m sunbathing with Ellen Burstyn and sent it to me, and I’ll be darned if I don’t look like her!”
When asked what advice she has for her LGBT fans, Ladd suggests we check out her two books — the spiritual health advice book Spiraling Through the School of Life, and her Southern-flavored short story collection A Bad Afternoon for a Piece of Cake (both on Amazon).
Her flair for Southern fiction reflects a connection to her cousin Tennessee Williams. “He was Thomas Lanier, and my mother was Mary Ladnier or Ladner, depending on how you pronounce it. Hollywood took my ‘ner,’ then everyone thought I was Alan Ladd’s daughter. Shelley Winters, who’s Laura’s godmother, said, ‘Let them think you’re Alan Ladd’s daughter. Wherever he is, he’s probably smiling down on you and wishing you the best.’”
Her famous cousin was clearly smiling down on her when A Bad Afternoon for a Piece of Cake won the Tennessee Williams Award. Among the short stories in the collection is the tale of a homophobic character and his comic comeuppance.
Ladd has plenty of advice for us in these challenging, impersonal times: “Take a minute, for God’s sake, to say thank you when someone opens the door for you. Smile and acknowledge each other. Even dogs stop and sniff each other!”
As we all contend with the homophobic post–marriage equality backlash, she’s quick to remind us: “If a man acts a fool, don’t get down on his level or you’re a fool, too.” Ladd also echoes the carpe diem theme of Joy with “You can do any damn thing you want to. Grandma Moses started painting at 85 and she made masterpieces! It’s never too late.”