Laura Dern is looking back on a milestone moment in her career.
Speaking to PEOPLE at the premiere of Little Women on Saturday in New York City, Dern, 52, opened up about starring in the trailblazing “Puppy Episode” of Ellen DeGeneres‘ ABC sitcom, Ellen, in which DeGeneres’ character comes out as gay. The episode aired on April 30, 1997, shortly after DeGeneres herself publicly came out on the cover of Time magazine.
Dern, who played Susan, an out lesbian that helps DeGeneres’ character realize she’s gay, reflected on the episode as a truly pivotal experience.
“If empathy and compassion are all we’re really here for, then I couldn’t ask for a greater gift than the experience of what it meant for Ellen to come out, to be with her at the moment that she said those words for the first time, to watch her change history, and to listen to and share so many stories from people around the world that moment impacted,” she said. “It changed my life forever, I’m forever grateful.”
Dern also recently opened up about the experience with Vulture, calling it the “greatest thing I could’ve ever been part of” and an “incredible honor.”
But Dern said not everyone saw it as such at the time, and that once she’d agreed to participate, “the calls started coming in” — some from out gay men — advising her against it.
“A lot of people in my life really worried,” she said. “And I was like, ‘This is ridiculous.’ 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 [Winfrey] and I were having a snack, and suddenly a flood of cops swarmed the set and the stage while we were rehearsing,” she recalled. “They’re like, ‘There’s been a bomb threat, we’re sweeping the stage.’ And they start literally rushing us off the stage.”
Dern told Vulture that she and others involved “spent the next couple of years really struggling in work and safety.”
“It was radical to experience that,” she said. “It was the only time I ever experienced having to have to have full security detail.”
Over the years, DeGeneres, 61, has also been open about the backlash she faced after coming out, though she stands by the way she chose to do it.
“It was the hardest thing that I ever had to do in my life,” she said on her talk show in 2017. “I would not change one moment of it because it led me to be exactly where I am today.”
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