This is a guest article from friend of 25YL, Andy Hazel. Andy caught up with Sheryl Lee last week, ahead of her Conversations with the Stars visit around Australia for which he moderated the events in Melbourne and Adelaide.
More than anyone, Sheryl Lee is the face of Twin Peaks. Since she was first seen, wrapped in plastic, in magazines, on billboards and millions of television screens around the world in 1990, Lee’s face has been the subject of countless homages and reinterpretations. As the first, last and enduring image of director David Lynch’s 18-hour television series Twin Peaks: The Return, Lee is once again at the forefront of pop culture.
“My relationship with Laura Palmer has been a very interesting journey,” she says from her home in Los Angeles. “She’s been with me much longer than I thought she’d be. Creatively it’s been fascinating to find an understanding of why, and what she means at different phases in my life. I hadn’t watched the series or the film, Fire Walk With Me, for 25 years, so revisiting them at 51 years old, and as a mother, I see it all from a different perspective. I’m in awe of what David Lynch created.”
Lee’s inclusion on the bill of the multi-city event Twin Peaks: Conversations With the Stars, surprised many of the show’s fans. Lee has rarely spoken about the show, or about her long relationship with the character of Laura Palmer, and barely at all about the deepening of her iconic role in Twin Peaks: The Return.
For 27 years, Laura Palmer was known as a victim. A queer sex worker and prom queen whose murder prompted not only the series’ narrative drive, but countless other television series that opened with the death of a teenage girl. Last year’s series revealed that Laura Palmer was much more than just a girl. She was, it was possible to read, a celestial creation born from a beatific spiritual realm with the sole purpose of defeating an ancient evil force embodied in her father. Lee is unphased by this expansion of her character’s history.
“When you work with David Lynch, you have to accept that you’re working with the unknown,” she explains. “It’s all about being in the present. A logical approach, you know, ‘what’s my motivation? What does this mean? Why am I saying this?’ that’s never going to work. For me, I need to trust and surrender. By being present like that, you open up and you can access this bigger force.”
Also known for her performances in the films Backbeat, Cafe Society, Wild at Heart and Winter’s Bone, Lee’s filmography is impressive, but it’s her role as Laura Palmer than has allowed her to showcase her true talents. Twin Peaks: The Return not only saw her return as Laura Palmer, but as the new character of Carrie Page, a Texan waitress whose crucial appearance in the final episode allowed the series to spin out in a new direction. Again, Lee was asked to inhabit a role built with scant details.
“That’s all in the direction,” she says. “Carrie Page or Laura, it’s all from David. I don’t know any more than is on the page. David only gave me my scenes, so I never knew where they fit in. When I came to work on the set, there were a lot of familiar faces, cast of course, and crew, so it felt like a safe and respectful place. There were a lot of new faces too, but the atmosphere was the same.”
Originally hired for several days work, just to play the famous corpse, Lee was brought back to film several flashback sequences. Then as the role of Laura Palmer’s cousin, Madeleine Ferguson, who was also brutally murdered. After the series was cancelled, amid abysmal ratings and months after Lynch had moved on to other projects, Lynch asked Lee to star in Fire Walk With Me, which necessitated her inhabiting the role of Laura once again, but this time as author of her own trauma. Her performance as Laura Palmer with its subject-led depiction of incest, drug abuse and spiritual loss is one of most harrowing roles in modern American cinema.
“Watching Fire Walk With Me again, it’s not hard, because there is so much richness in the film. I was really impressed by Ray Wise (Leland Palmer) and Grace Zabriskie (Sarah Palmer). Their ability to make you scared, and cry and laugh just like that. I’m such a fan of theirs. After we finished Fire Walk With Me, I just had to do something completely different. You can imagine, after playing Laura Palmer for so long, I really wanted to do something different, anything different. So I did a play, and then I did [Beatles biopic] Backbeat. Playing [photographer and girlfriend of Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe] Astrid [Kirchherr] was a great experience, and about as far away from Laura Palmer as you can imagine.”
“I’m still trying to understand what Laura Palmer symbolises,” Lee says, reflecting on the journey that may not yet be over. “A lot of people have shared their stories of incest and how Laura’s story was important to them, the questions around Laura change in me as I get older. There are so many versions of her story out there. If Laura’s story is still continuing, how can it help?”
Series co-writer Mark Frost has admitted that he still has more stories in mind and would be willing to return to Twin Peaks. Lynch however, will only admit that the future for Lee’s other character, Carrie Page, is “calling… but the signal has a lot of disturbances.”
Lee’s costar Kyle MacLachlan described another season as “certainly possible.” As for Lee, “I would always be open to it.”
Andy Hazel is a journalist based in Melbourne, Australia and host and producer of Twin Peaks The Return: A Season Three Podcast.