By Samantha Miller
Updated February 04, 2002 12:00 PM

Some movie costars flirt. Some fight. And some, like Laura Dern, make a more intimate connection. “She would tickle me and make funny faces at me,” Dakota Fanning, 7, says of Dern, her foster mother in the new drama I Am Sam. “In between scenes we would hold hands. Her baby must be feeling that he has the nicest mom in the world.”

No comment yet from 5-month-old Ellery Walker Harper, but Dern, 34, sure seems the happiest of moms. In two years she has rebounded from romantic rock bottom—learning of her then-fiancé Billy Bob Thornton’s relationship with Angelina Jolie from tabloid reporters—to the emotional high of starting a family with her boyfriend of a year, blues-rock singer Ben Harper, 32. “Something that one might have thought would destroy her made her stronger,” says singer Melissa Etheridge, a close friend. “When she told me she was pregnant, she was very proud and very excited. She was saying, ‘This is the next new chapter in my life.’ ”

It’s proving to be a mellow one for Dern, whose past loves include former costars Kyle MacLachlan (1986’s Blue Velvet) and Jeff Goldblum (1993’s Jurassic Park). She and Harper, who say they have no plans to wed, are nesting with Ellery in the three-bedroom Spanish-style L.A. home they bought last June. “It’s just so hard to be away from him,” says Harper. “We hate leaving.”

Dern, whose parents are actors Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, has a “peaceful and honest relationship” with Harper, says her friend and longtime fashion stylist Rita Rago. “Her life couldn’t be more opposite of what it was.” Dern and Thornton, 46, had been dating for three years and were living together in L.A. when he and Jolie, 26, hooked up in early 2000 and wed within weeks. “I left our home to work on a movie, and while I was away my boyfriend got married,” a still-reeling Dern told Talk magazine a few months later. “Was it rough on her? Unbelievably,” Bruce Dern, 65, said at the time. Friends like Etheridge and Meg Ryan helped Dern weather the storm. “At the worst moments we’ll comment on liking something the other person is wearing, in between sobs,” Dern told PEOPLE last March. “We just make each other laugh.” Says Etheridge: “Her work kept her focused and kept her self-esteem up.”

In the nine months starting that July, Dern threw herself into filming last fall’s drama Focus and the Steve Martin comedy Novocaine, followed by I Am Sam. Reviewers have noted her warm performance as a woman battling her foster child’s mentally retarded father (Sean Penn) for custody. “You could tell it was hard for her,” says Focus costar William H. Macy. “She had times when she needed to be by herself.” But not for long. “She’s a man’s fantasy come true,” says Macy, “an incredibly beautiful leggy blonde who can deliver great raunchy jokes.”

She learned from a pro. Ladd, 62, who was divorced from Bruce Dern when Laura was 2, took her tot to sets “so I could see how boring it was to make movies,” Laura recently told Redbook. “Of course, I thought it was magical.” At 7, she made her feature debut eating an ice-cream cone alongside Ladd in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Later the two costarred in films such as 1990’s Wild at Heart and 1991’s Rambling Rose, for which they became the first mother and daughter to earn Oscar nominations for the same movie.

In the ’90s Dern made her first foray into an action blockbuster as Jurassic Park’s plucky paleontologist. After striking up a romance on the set, she and Goldblum announced their engagement in 1995 but later split. Lately the outspoken liberal activist has often selected parts with a political bent, like her Emmy-nominated turn as the object of Ellen DeGeneres’s affections in Ellen’s 1997 coming-out episode. “Her mom has been very brave in her career, and that inspired Laura to take risks,” says actress Mary Steenburgen, a pal. “She picks roles that are close to her heart, but not necessarily close to who she is. She loves surprising herself.”

Like when she fell for Harper, whom she first met at one of his concerts in fall 2000 while he was separated from his wife of four years, Joanna, 36. (They divorced last year.) His children with Joanna—son Charles, 5, and daughter Harris, 2—visit often. “She’s great with them,” says Rago, “and they’re totally into the new baby.” So is Mom. “For the first time in my life,” Dern said last November, “everything in my life makes sense.”

Samantha Miller

Ulrica Wihlborg, Rachel Biermann, Alison Singh Gee, Julie Jordan and N.F. Mendoza in Los Angeles