I recently had the pleasure of speaking with actress Charlotte Stewart. While we initially planned to discuss Eraserhead memories, so many more amazing topics came up, and I chose to leave them in the article. This was a really fun and emotional conversation & we are planning to have Charlotte back on the site in the near future. I hope you enjoy this conversation.
AG: How did your role in Eraserhead come about? You already had various film roles on your resume by the time and this was a much smaller production than the rest of your resume at that point.
CS: I’d done quite a few shows by then. I don’t know how old you are, but you’re way too young to have seen all these [laughs], you know Gunsmoke, Bonanza, all the traditional 8:00 and 9:00 o’clock at night shows. We didn’t have 152 channels to choose from then; we had three. I had done a lot of work and my roommate at the time Doreen Small was a volunteer at the American Film Institute in Beverly Hills, and that’s where David Lynch was a student. She was working on a project called Eraserhead that hadn’t started shooting yet but she was working with the art director Jack Fisk who coincidentally was married to Sissy Spacek and was David Lynch’s brother in law, and they were looking for an actress. Doreen said my roommates an actress! I was living out in Topanga Canyon, a very rural part of L.A. and they came to dinner and brought the script. I always did student films. I didn’t care what it was. To tell you the truth, nothing ever happened with most of them. They made them and they disappeared. I figured this was another one of those you know five-day wonders and you would never hear from them again. I said sure, I’m happy to do it. I kind of glanced through the script which seemed a little odd but I didn’t know David. I didn’t know what his art was like. So, I just said yes and we picked the start date. As I said, I figured it was going to be at the most a week of work. As you probably know now, it turned out to be about four years. I didn’t work all that time, but you know off and on we came in and did you know pieces here and there while I was doing other shows. When I first saw it, David invited me to a screening and it was just it was so long. It was way too long and he called me afterwards and wanted to know what I thought of it. And I said David it’s like a toothache. It hurt so bad and he thanked me. That was praise indeed. So that’s how I happened to Eraserhead.
As a result of being on it so long, we became very good friends. Jack Fisk, Jack Nance and his wife Catherine who went on to be the Log Lady in Twin Peaks. You know we all became really good friends and it was a lifelong friendship. Of course, years later, David did Twin Peaks and asked me to be a part of that too.
AG: How would you compare working on Eraserhead with some of the bigger productions you worked on prior to and while filming Eraserhead?
CS: This was actually David’s third student film. The others are very short films and this was his first full length and he worked so slowly. I just thought oh my god this kid is never going to make it. This is truly what I thought; I thought you know they just won’t put up with that. But of course, he was doing everything except cinematography and sound. He had two other students at the time doing the sound and working camera. I mean David did everything – he built all the props, he painted the set. He lived in the set apparently for some time. I just thought oh god you know, I’m not going to not show up to work. If I say I’m going to be there, I’m going to be there. I was also doing other TV shows. I was doing The Waltons at the same time. And David only worked at night. He only worked from like 10:00 at night till 6:00 in the morning. That was just his rhythm. I would stagger onto Warner Brothers set to do another show and was up all night working with David, but history shows us that we don’t always know where the talent lies. He really taught me a very good lesson and it was not over to analyze what I’m doing.
Not just my part but just follow the direction of the director because what he was doing was he was painting a movie quite literally with the motion. I think you can go see any of David Lynch’s films and be moved emotionally in one way or another either humorously or deeply disturbed. He just loves to elicit emotion, a gut feeling. I remember in Blue Velvet he worked with Isabella Rossellini and she comes from around the side of a house completely naked, totally exposed. I just cringed. I just went oh god. How can you do that? You know it wasn’t a sex scene, it was a very hopeless scene; she had been a victim and that’s what he does, just like with finding that the ear on the ground. I mean he just he makes you cringe but at the same time, there’s a lot of humor in the things he does. It taught me a really good lesson to try not to think and let the director just do it. He’s got it in mind. I don’t understand but it doesn’t matter. I’ll probably get a lot of arguments about that. Well, there’s plenty of roles where you can really become the character.
I was kind of his chess piece, him moving me around and doing things a certain way. For instance, in Eraserhead when Mary leaves Henry, she reaches under the bed and she’s jerking the bed, and he’s looking at her and people think “what the hell is she doing?”. She pulls out a suitcase eventually. David said to reach into there and keep pulling until I tell you to pull it out. Just keep doing it. I thought, oh my god this is going on way too long. But he knew what he was doing.
AG: What was that like for you as an actress going back and forth between David’s environment and then the other environments that you were working in?
CS: It was truly odd, but you know I had committed to do it. I enjoyed being on the set, you know. David and Jack and Jack Fisk and Catherine were always there. Catherine ended up being an assistant camera person and started a whole other career for herself. At the time, we just became friends working on a project that turned out to be kind of fun. I never knew what was going to happen when I got there. I never knew what he was going to dream up. One time and this is a scene that didn’t make it into that movie, Henry was having a nightmare, and he had me—I was wearing a nightgown—and he put me on roller skates. You’ve got to understand that this set was a room within a room he built, the walls within an already existing room. It was very small and cramped and he put a rope around my waist and pulled me through the room on these roller skates. It didn’t work. It never made it into the movie. David Lynch is like no other person I’ve ever worked with.
I would jump at a second chance to do it again. You know he called me up a couple of years ago and I didn’t know what he had in mind and he said “Well Char, are you ready to go to work?”. I said you bet. What are we doing? He said well we’re going to bring Twin Peaks back. Oh my god, that’s great. You know and as it turns out I had one tiny little part in episode 9. You know almost everybody that was in the original who had a part in the third season had very tiny parts. It was all new characters and all new development but at least he included all of the familiar faces and made it again in a different way than anybody has ever seen a TV series, that was completely unexpected.
AG: I am a long time David Lynch and Twin Peaks fan and I kind of had an idea of what I thought the show might be like and then all of my expectations were completely defied.
CS: Yeah, really. I had people want to kill me. I mean they were furious at the new series. Oh, I mean big fans of David who you know were thrilled when they heard I was in the new Twin Peaks and watched three of four episodes and just gave up. You know they said I don’t understand it. I want, I want a story. No, they weren’t going to get it. So, they just you know gave up, but on the other hand, there are other people who just completely went with it and enjoyed it. I had my doubts in the beginning because I couldn’t understand what he was doing — very long scenes where some bizarre thing happen. I thought well you know, I have to stick with it. And what happened was I developed a taste for what he was doing. The shock of the truck hitting the little boy, it’s a horrible thing, that was real you know but it just elicits so much emotion in you. Agent Cooper whoever he was when he came back, the salesman with the neon green coat. You know he was so sweet, he was so adorable and his alter ego was so evil, completely evil. You just go with it.
Let me ask you a question. When you finally you saw Betty Briggs and Bobby, who is now the sheriff’s deputy, didn’t you say oh my god they’re back! I had people say thank God that she’s back. You know they loved the scene because it was familiar. They knew why she acted the way she acted. There was such power in those scenes of familiarity.
AG: Absolutely. The scenes of familiarity and the characters too, such as how they incorporated the late Don Davis.
CS: I loved that. It was so sad when he died. We didn’t know David was planning anything, some kind of renewal. But the fact that he brought him back in the series and made him one of the most important characters was such an honor. You know it really said so much about what…. I’m going to cry. [Pauses] To think what David thought about Don. Don was one of the most interesting men I’ve ever met. He was a schoolteacher from the Midwest. He’s actually Canadian and he was an artist. He was just so deep and yet very ordinary, and you know the way he acted, he brought that ordinary-ness to Major Briggs I’m just I’m so glad I got to know Don because we know we were working that year and a half together off and on and he would come down from Canada and stay with my husband and I. We had a really good time.
AG: I wanted to ask about two other cast members. The one that was able to appear in the new Twin Peaks and the one that wasn’t, Jack Nance and Catherine Coulson. You obviously met them during Eraserhead, and I just wanted to see if maybe you wanted to share some stories about the two of them both of the Eraserhead days or the Twin Peaks days, whichever you prefer.
CS: Well, gosh, I knew them both very well. Actually, after Catherine and Jack divorced and she moved to Oregon and remarried, she was with the Shakespeare Festival in Oregon and Jack was kind of at loose ends after. It was before Twin Peaks; he was in a terrible place. He was doing films with David, but he was just drinking so heavily. Life was a mess. And I found him in a rehab place. Somebody said “Did you know Jack?” and I said what, he’s dead? No, he’s in rehab. So I called him up and he had no place to live. I got him out of the rehab and let him live in my house because I was single at the time. And we became very close friends and that’s where we were living when David pulled us into the Twin Peaks series.
He met Kelly and got married and then she died. He had just such a tragic life. Jack was a really good and long friend of mine and I always stayed in touch with Catherine when she was in Oregon, and we would go to the Twin Peaks festivals always. She’d come up from Oregon, I would come up from L.A., and we’d spend three or four days together in Seattle or North Bend and of course the last time I saw her was in North Bend. It was two years ago, I believe almost three years ago now when she had called me and told me she had lung cancer and she was just telling me and David and nobody else. She was very weak and was not doing well and I knew it wouldn’t be long. We made a date to see each other when we were working on Season 3. I was shooting on a Friday. She was supposed to arrive on Friday and shoot on Saturday.
We were going to go out to dinner Friday night, and when I got there the people in wardrobe said, “Oh Catherine isn’t coming”. I said what? She would never miss out on this. As it turned out she didn’t. She insisted on doing the part as it was written and David sent a film crew to her. They filmed it with him on Skype directing her, and she died three days later. When you see her in the new Twin Peaks, she was dying. That was her dying. She was so loved. You know people loved her so much. It was just impossible to think she could die. It was really hard.
AG: That blurred line between art and real life. It makes her scenes so much more powerful.
CS: Well, she insisted on it. It wasn’t David saying “oh well let’s go shoot the scene anyway”, he was ready to kick it out. She insisted that this be her swansong. That’s not the right term but you know what I mean. That was her telling him how much she loved him, the fans and everybody else which was so incredibly powerful.
AG: You mentioned that Eraserhead took several years to complete. What was that like for you coming in and out of such a unique environment?
CS: It was nothing like anything I had ever done before. The reason it took so long was that David made everything, built everything and was editing while he was doing the movie. He was at the American Film Institute which was footing the bill, and they finally said no you, you’re done. We’re not giving you any more film and you can’t shoot here anymore. What we did is we snuck in, after midnight every night and we shot in the servant’s quarters where he had built the sets and we were gone before anybody came in the morning. Sissy Spacek ended up paying for the film, and it was 35 millimeter. It wasn’t 16; it was the big stuff. So she paid for the film and we all just stayed with it. He was shooting mostly with Jack. I wasn’t in it that much. If you look at it really, I was only in like four maybe five scenes, and they weren’t that long but it was so spread out. But I couldn’t cut my hair. I couldn’t cut my hair off or anything because I had to be prepared to get a call and go to work. In the meantime, I was doing The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie.
David and Jack had no money coming in at all. After shooting, they would each get in their own cars and deliver the Wall Street Journal in Hollywood. In the end, Catherine was working at a restaurant as a waitress and was supporting both of them. David ended up living with Jack and Catherine and that’s what made it so much more wonderful when it won the L.A. Film Critics Award and it became this big hit. Then the next movie he did was The Elephant Man. I mean, it’s amazing. Mel Brooks saw Eraserhead and that was it. He hired David to do it from Eraserhead. It’s wild to think about. It’s one of those amazing Hollywood stories. I wonder how many other filmmakers in film school or whatever give up because they don’t get the first job? It took him a long time for the movie to come out and to win the award and for the public to see it.
AG: How would you compare working with David in his first feature film compared to the time you spent working with him on Twin Peaks. Had he changed at all?
CS: David was will always be David. You know, there’s no way around it. He has the same dry sense of humor. He just enjoys life so much. Everybody thinks he’s this bleak, dark person and he is not. One of the happiest people I’ve ever met. On the first day for me on Twin Peaks, the original series, he had a film crew. He had a crew, he had an assistant director and he had makeup people. He had dresser’s, he had wardrobe, he had art directors, he had two or three producers and he had a budget. Everything that he never had on Eraserhead. He was sitting back in his director’s chair, and I’m laughing because there was no director’s chair on Eraserhead. He just was enjoying the heck out of it. It was just so good to be with him, and I was really thrilled. He had actually come to dinner one night when Jack Nance was living with me at my house. He said, “I’ve got this project I’m going to do and you’re both going to be in it”. To an actor, a series, it’s a gift from God. I didn’t know what it was going to be or what it was going to be like, but it was a lot of fun. Especially after the first three episodes hit the air, everybody wanted to know who killed Laura Palmer. I was working in a production office at the time and it was truly the water cooler conversation. What’s going to happen next? We were sworn to secrecy. We never got a script after that. We would arrive and get our scenes on the set so we couldn’t tell anybody if we wanted to.
We would all gather to watch the series together and sometimes we’d all go to a bar that had a TV and we’d, of course, turn off whatever sports thing was on and make people really angry; then we go to somebody’s house. One particular night, we all went to Dana Ashbrook’s house. He lived not far from me, so I was there and it happened to be the last episode of the first season. We all gathered at his house and we all brought food and we had a good time. We’re watching the show and at the end, Agent Cooper opens the door and gets shot! The whole room went silent. You can’t kill the lead of the series! We all thought, Oh my God we’re out of work. There’s no work if Agent Cooper is dead. It turns out David had some discussions with ABC and they didn’t know if they were going to pick it up or not. They wouldn’t give him a commitment and he said screw you I’m going to kill off Agent Cooper! They made a deal and Agent Cooper didn’t get killed but it was a really crazy time.
AG: What does Eraserhead mean to you now, all these years later?
CS: It’s a classic. I was a part of cinematic history that will probably never be forgotten. I don’t care how old or young you are, you’ve heard of Eraserhead. They teach college courses on Eraserhead. I’m the luckiest actress alive. I really believe that. I’ve been able to meet people and do things that people dream about. The fact that I’m 77 and I’m still working, not a lot, but I’m still working. People still ask for me. I go fly off to New York, or I go someplace and do something and appear at a lot of shows, mostly for Little House On The Prairie. It’s phenomenal.
If you enjoyed this conversation, please be sure to check out some of our other interviews!