Sheryl Lee on Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and the life of Laura Palmer
Twin Peaks begins with the death of Laura Palmer, an angelic blonde Homecoming Queen with an endlessly subterranean secret life. Sheryl Lee played Laura – wrapped in plastic, laughing on videotape – and then returned throughout the show’s two-season run, as a ghostly dream vision and as a lookalike brunette cousin. Then came Fire Walk With Me, one of the more inscrutable works by director David Lynch and one of the great left-turns in the history of pop culture franchises. The Twin Peaks movie represents multitudes – Kiefer Sutherland as a nerdy FBI agent, Harry Dean Stanton in an apocalyptic trailer park, David Bowie with a Southern accent – but it is most concisely the story of Laura Palmer’s last week on Earth. So the film is a brilliant showcase for Lee, who returned to play Laura on her downward spiral through drug addiction, sexual assault, rotating paramours, and dark dreams.
Fire Walk With Me suffered a polarizing, largely negative reaction on its initial release, earning the un-coveted “booed at Cannes” stamp of failure. But its reputation has grown steadily throughout the last quarter-century. When Lynch and co-creator Frost revisited the series with this summer’s Twin Peaks: The Return, they made Fire Walk With Me an essential part of the canon.
All of which makes this a perfect moment for Criterion’s new Blu-Ray edition of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, available now. The disc includes a new interview with Lee (and with longtime Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalementi) and The Missing Pieces, 90 minutes of deleted scenes which practically constitute another Twin Peaks feature. EW spoke to Lee about revisiting the film – and what it was like to return for The Return.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you were filming the finale of the TV series, was there any sense at the time that the story would continue?
SHERYL LEE: Forgive me, but my memory and timelines [laughs] don’t go very well together. When I experience the character of Laura, it’s as one long story. It’s as one life. It’s not broken into first season, second season, Fire Walk With Me, like it is for the viewers. So in my mind, it sort of all runs together.
I don’t have any memory of knowing that there was going to be a film when season 2 ended. At some point along the way, David started talking to me about it, and we started having some creative meetings, very casually. I have no recollection or memory of how long that time period was, when it was that it the conversation first started, when it was that it went from being a creative conversation to “Now it’s gonna happen.” For me, it’s Laura’s life.
Did you learn anything about Laura while making the film that surprised you?
That’s a challenging question because I think I was only about 22 or 23 when I worked on that film, and now I’m 50. I see the film and Laura’s journey in such a different way. And so it’s hard for me to unsee what I see now. What I see now is all of the signs, and no one reaching out to help her. Every single day that happens to the girls in our country, in real life.
There’s a profoundly moving moment at the end of the film, which was reprised in episode 17 of the new season, when Laura tells James that he doesn’t know her, that nobody really knows her. Do you feel like any character in Fire Walk With Me ever really understands Laura?
Well… [long pause] I think there are parts of her that different characters understand. I would also say, are there parts of all of us that no one understands? Don’t each and every one of us have some part of us that can relate to that?
Perhaps this is a helpless question to ask about the movie, but what is your interpretation of the ending? Or what was your feeling about Laura’s journey while you were filming the ending?
Are you talking about when the angel comes? For me, even filming that, there was, I would say, a deep sense of relief in that moment. And it’s not something that I could necessarily articulate clearly because it was a feeling and a sense.
I hadn’t seen Fire Walk With Me in 30 years, or however long it has been since it came out. I saw it for the first time again probably six months ago. I’m gonna take different things from any piece of art, whether it’s a painting or a song or a book that I go back and reread. If I read that book every five years or every ten years, I’m gonna find different things in it every time I read it, based on my life experience, what I’ve gone through, where I am in my life as a woman, as a mother, as a human. I feel that way with that film, too. If I saw it again in 20 more years, I would see different things about it than I saw the last time. But definitely, that moment was a relief, for me, that that character could have that at the end.
What was your experience of the film’s initial release? Were you at Cannes when it debuted?
I was not there. [laughs] Fortunately! I probably wouldn’t have had the emotional tools to know how to deal with all of that, at that point in my life. I was doing a play, which kept me focused on that when [Fire Walk With me] came out. I know that different works of art often ignite controversial opinions. So, in that sense, I’m able to not take it personally in that way. It’s knowing, “Oh wow, he hit a nerve! What is that nerve? What is that undercurrent? What is that shadow aspect that’s being mirrored back, that is uncomfortable?”
After Fire Walk With Me, did you ever have a sense that you would return to the Laura Palmer character?
No, no, never! Never crossed my mind! [laughs] It’s not necessarily that she felt completely finished to me. It’s more that I just didn’t think it was ever a possibility. I thought that was done. Well, that chapter was done. It was a different chapter, later!
There are some moments in Fire Walk With Me when you and Kyle MacLachlan are together in the mysterious Red Room. I have to ask: During surreal scenes like that, would you ever turn to each other and ask, ‘What’s going on here, exactly?’
No, I trust David enough to know that he has a plan. I may not know what that is. I may not understand it, but it doesn’t matter. He has a plan, and my job is to stay present and honest in each moment, moment by moment. And to trust him, as I do.
You talked about your feeling of relief for Laura at the end of Fire Walk With Me. How do you feel about the end of the new season, and where it seems to leave the character?
I haven’t processed it enough yet to know the answer to that. I’m still in the unknown. And I’m not uncomfortable with the unknown. So I’m gonna sit in the unknown for a while before I’m able to answer that.
There was a moment in Part 17, when Laura first met Dale Cooper, which seemed to be a very literal return to Fire Walk With Me. What was it like for you to play that version of the character, her teenaged self?
To me, that’s part of the magic of David’s work. We don’t necessarily have solid answers. We so want solid answers to grab onto, and we don’t have them with him. Is it the same character? Is it not the same character? Is it… I don’t know. One of the greatest things he’s taught me is that I don’t have to have the solid answers. To really, really be comfortable sitting in the mystery, and letting that take its time to reveal itself.