Laura Elizabeth Dern was born on February 10, 1967, in Los Angeles, California. The daughter of actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, and great-granddaughter of former Utah governor and Secretary of War, George Dern, she was conceived while her parents were filming The Wild Angels. The poet, writer, and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish was her great-great-uncle. After her parents' divorce when she was two years old, Dern was largely brought up by her mother and grandmother. She was raised as a Catholic.
On October 18, 2017, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal, Dern appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and revealed that she had been sexually assaulted at age 14.
Her first film foray was an appearance as an extra in White Lightning (1973), a film in which her mother starred. Her official film debut was an appearance in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), directly opposite her mother. At sixteen, she sought for and attained emancipation, which allowed her to work the amount of hours of an adult on films. In 1982, she became the youngest-ever winner of Miss Golden Globe.
Between 1985 and 1990, Dern gained critical acclaim for her performances in Mask, Blue Velvet, and Wild at Heart–the latter two of which were directed by David Lynch–which began a longstanding collaboration between Dern and Lynch. Dern's starring role in Blue Velvet was widely regarded as her breakthrough performance. Dern also auditioned for the iconic character Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), but lost the role due to studio's skepticism about her level of fame at the time. In 1992, Dern and her mother, Ladd, became the first mother and daughter to be nominated for Academy Awards for acting in the same film for their performances in Rambling Rose–Ladd received a Best Supporting Actress nomination, while Dern received one for Best Actress. Dern starred as Dr. Ellie Sattler in Steven Spielberg's 1993 film Jurassic Park. That same year, Clint Eastwood contacted the actress for his film A Perfect World. She also starred as Ruth in the 1996 film Citizen Ruth, the directorial debut of Alexander Payne. Dern's mother makes a cameo appearance, playing Dern's character's mother, with Dern's character screaming a torrent of abuse at her.
In 1997, Dern was featured in Widespread Panic's music video for their song, "Aunt Avis", which was directed by Dern's then boyfriend and future fiancé, Billy Bob Thornton. In 1998, Dern co-starred in Jodie Foster's film The Baby Dance. While dating Thornton in 1999, she was cast as his love interest in his film Daddy and Them, which also includes Diane Ladd. Dern also appeared in Joe Johnston's film October Sky. Robert Altman called upon Dern's talents to play a Champagne-loving Aunt in his Texas-based comedy Dr. T & the Women in 2000. She co-starred in Within These Walls and Arthur Miller's Focus. She had a minor role in Jurassic Park III, and was a supporting actress in the film I Am Sam. She starred in the 2002 film Damaged Care and the 2004 film We Don't Live Here Anymore. Dern starred in the 2005 film Happy Endings, and in the same year, she appeared in the film The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio.
Dern began dating musician Ben Harper after they met at one of his concerts in fall 2000. Harper and Dern married on December 23, 2005, at their home in Los Angeles. They have two children together, son Ellery Walker (born August 21, 2001) and daughter Jaya (born November 28, 2004). Through this marriage, Dern also became a stepmother to Harper's children from his first marriage, his son Charles and daughter Harris. In October 2010, Harper filed for divorce from Dern, citing irreconcilable differences. They briefly reconciled and attended the 2012 Golden Globe Awards together, but Dern reactivated the divorce by filing a legal response in July 2012. The divorce was finalized in September 2013.
In 2006, Dern reunited with David Lynch for Inland Empire, and in the same year, Dern portrayed a supporting role in Lonely Hearts. Mike White, known for writing School of Rock and The Good Girl, hired Dern for his directorial debut in 2007, the comedy titled Year of the Dog and starring Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly, and Peter Sarsgaard. In 2008, Dern starred as Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris in Recount, for which she won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Series, Miniseries or Television Film. The following year, Dern was seen in the independent drama Tenderness and in 2010, she appeared in Little Fockers, portraying Prudence, an elementary school principal.
Dern has done much work on television, most notably Afterburn, for which she received a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Miniseries or Movie. She guest-starred on The West Wing, was a voice on King of the Hill, and was a lesbian who coaxes Ellen DeGeneres out of the closet in the famous 1997 "The Puppy Episode" of the television series Ellen. On the April 24, 2007 airing of DeGeneres's talk show, Dern revealed she did not work for more than a year following her appearance in that episode because of resulting backlash, but nevertheless called it an "extraordinary experience and opportunity."
During the 66th Golden Globe Awards, on January 11, 2009, Dern expressed support for the incoming administration of Barack Obama during her acceptance speech for her Best Supporting Actress – Series, Miniseries or Television Film win, stating: "I will cherish this as a reminder of the extraordinary, incredible outpouring of people who demanded their voice be heard in this last election so we can look forward to amazing change in this country. Thank you so much!"
On November 1, 2010, she received the 2,420th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Her parents, Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, were also presented with stars. In October 2011, Dern starred in a new HBO television series titled Enlightened. Dern played Amy Jellicoe, a "health and beauty executive who returns from a post-meltdown retreat to pick up the pieces of her broken life." Dern brought screenwriter Mike White back into television work after he had had an on-the-job meltdown of his own. Dern received her third Golden Globe Award for her performance in the series.
Dern appeared in Paul Thomas Anderson's 2012 film The Master, with Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Dern appeared in Jean-Marc Vallée's 2014 film Wild alongside Reese Witherspoon, for which she received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress nomination. In 2017, Dern reteamed with both Witherspoon and Vallée for the 2017 HBO miniseries Big Little Lies, winning her first Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for her portrayal of Renata Klein. That same year, she appeared in David Lynch's revival of Twin Peaks for Showtime and in Rian Johnson's blockbuster Star Wars: The Last Jedi as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo.
An activist and supporter of various charities, Dern advocated for Down syndrome awareness in a cover story for Ability Magazine. In 2018, Dern brought activist Mónica Ramírez to the 75th Golden Globe Awards as a guest. In the same year, she attended a Families Belong Together event and expressed her support for immigrants' rights. She is also an advocate for women's rights, gender pay parity, as well as combating gun violence and climate change.
In 2018, Dern portrayed a lead role in The Tale, an autobiographical feature film written and directed by Jennifer Fox. The film premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival on January 20, 2018 and later on HBO on May 26, 2018. In 2019, Dern appeared in Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story alongside Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, and in the same year, portrayed Marmee March in Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Little Women which also stars Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, and Chris Cooper. Dern earned the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture for her performance in Marriage Story; she also received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, her third overall Academy Award nomination.
Dern will be reprising her role as Ellie Sattler in Jurassic World 3 in 2021.