In a film career that has spanned more than two decades, Laura Dern, 41, has famously chased down dinosaurs, bedazzled Southern patriarchs, and starred in the episode that outed Ellen. But the willowy Academy Award nominee found a passion beyond performance when friends John Travolta and Kelly Preston introduced her to the founders of Healthy Child Healthy World — a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that advocates creating nontoxic environments for children. As an advisory board member for Healthy Child, Dern jumped headlong into educating parents about how to make healthy choices at home. She also contributed to a book, due out next month, that was written by the organization's executive director, Christopher Gavigan. All that while managing a busy filming schedule and playing her role as mom to son Ellery, 6, and daughter Jaya, 3, with rocker husband, Ben Harper. From the set of her upcoming HBO film Recount — which chronicles the 2000 presidential-election debacle in Florida — Dern tells us what it takes to be a mindful role model, a conscientious consumer, and an activist for kids.
Delicious Living: Conditions like autism, asthma, and ADHD are on the rise, and exposure to toxins may be partly to blame. How has that affected your involvement in children's-health issues?
Laura Dern: Even before I had children, I thought it was fascinating that people put locks underneath their kitchen sinks because they're terrified that kids will get into whatever is down there. Why do we have things in our houses that we breathe in and let our dogs lick but that can kill children? As I learned more about the outrageous rise of chemical toxins, it was shocking and eye opening to me, but also, I felt overwhelmed. I fell in love with Healthy Child because its philosophy is that yes, there's a lot of daunting stuff going on in the world, but our children spend the majority of their days at home — it's where they sleep, it's where they eat, it's where they're nurtured — and we can control that.
What is your philosophy when it comes to your own home?
Less is more; that's my rule. When I started getting involved with Healthy Child, people would say, “Yes, you can use chemical-free products, but it's so much more expensive.” And I would tell them that I clean with distilled vinegar, water, lavender oil, and lemon, and it's a lot cheaper than Comet has ever been.
How can other parents simplify what they use at home?
When you adopt the less-is-more philosophy, you look at everything you bring into your home. The number-one recommendation of researchers for kids with asthma and breathing problems is to open the windows and to avoid recirculated air. And obviously it doesn't cost anything. And really, the less-is-more concept applies when you think about what you want. I know I want my children to be happy, healthy, and safe.
It sounds like having a family really changed your perspective.
Now I like to ask myself why? I think the big why that hit me was when my newborn came into the world, and I was told that newborns don't really see. So why was I hysterically rushing to prepare the-somewhat toxic, by the way — nursery? At what point do we think a child is really going to need the most adorable pink walls and perfect wall-to-wall carpeting that goes with the green linens and the pretty designer crib? I did a public-service announcement with Healthy Child that focuses on kids and chemicals and what we introduce to newborns, who are the most sensitive human beings on the planet. We introduce them to brand-new wall-to-wall carpeting, a freshly painted room, very little ventilation, bleached linens, cribs that probably have polyvinyl chloride (PVC) coating, and depending on what state you're in, a crib mattress that's soaked in fire-retardant chemicals. [For a list of Laura's design tips for nurseries, see below.]
How do you talk about these big, scary issues with your kids?
My 6-year-old is definitely being introduced to why we try to not waste, why we recycle, and why we don't want to use chemicals that aren't good for our bodies. There are lots of ways to do that at the right ages without any fear-based projection. I certainly don't introduce it with “The planet is very sick, honey.” Instead we talk about how we can help our planet and take care of it. And we can take care of our bodies by using things that come from the earth and that are natural — things that don't have chemicals or make you feel sick. We're definitely people who feel comfortable with our children learning really quickly how human we are.
Do you think our perception of the “natural lifestyle” has changed?
Yes! One arena is organic produce, which was an enormous battle five years ago because it was hard to get and way too expensive. Now [big supermarket chains carry organics] because people are buying them, not because chains are so ecofriendly. Because for this generation, homeopathic remedies are common, alternative-cleaning products are common, farmers' markets and organic produce are common; it's all becoming a lot easier. For our mothers, it was a whole different deal. But luckily we're going back to what our great-grandmothers were doing.
How do you balance it all?
My husband and I just try to stay honest with ourselves, with our feeling overwhelmed, and with our lack of ability to stay balanced, so that we can laugh about it. Then the stress or the pretense that we've got it all together doesn't follow us around — it makes for a lot more fun.
Lay a vintage jute or cotton throw rug over the existing wood floor instead of conventional PVC-laden wall-to-wall carpet.
Pair an organic-cotton mattress with a natural-wood crib. Laura recommends www.greenfusiondesigncenter.com for all-natural, chemical-free beds and furniture.
Color walls with nontoxic paints. BioShield (www.bioshieldpaint.com) uses clay and casein bases for soft, organic tones.