Laura Dern may be one of the few people on the planet right now who knows more about Twin Peaks than you do. Not much, but just enough to be able to render something of a review. In a recent interview with W‘s Lynn Hirschberg, Dern described the experience thusly: “What I know is he blew my mind in ways that were even more unexpected. And I’ve known him my whole life…It’s like a dream you wake up from and you can’t believe you’ve been there but you want to fall back asleep to get back inside of it, but it scares you. You know, it’s amazing. ”
Dern, who is on something of a roll—having become an unlikely heroine through Big Little Lies, and with two high-profile projects in the works, including Star Wars: The Last Jedi—has the unique distinction of being one of the few actors who’s achieved muse status with David Lynch, having now worked together four times, including the new Twin Peaks. The daughter of Academy Award-nominated actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, the actress, twice Oscar-nominated herself most recently for Wild, recalls in the interview how she fell in love with acting, visiting the sets of Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese in her youth, the physicality of her roles, and her memories of auditioning with Kyle MacLachlan for Blue Velvet.
What was your first audition?
My first professional audition was for the film [Jodie Foster] Foxes for Adrian Lyne. I was 11 but I lied about my age and said I was 14 because it was for a 17-year-old character. It was a very sensual character and there was a lot of adult stuff going and for some reason I looked a little young to the director to play 17. My 14 wasn’t quite cutting it because I was 11. So Adrian Lyne screen-tests me with Jodie Foster and I was terribly nervous and then he called after and said, ‘You know I really want to work with you.’ And said very generous things, but ‘You just look a little too young but I’m casting you in this other role.’ And it ended up being my first film. It was like three scenes in the movie where I crash a party.
And were you immediately like this is what I want to do for the rest of my life?
Yeah, I was pretty sure I wanted to be an actress since around 7, 8 years old I had this really defining summer, which anybody would. I don’t think it takes, you know, a true muse moment to spend your summer vacation with your mom on a Martin Scorsese movie and your dad on an Alfred Hitchcock movie and by the end of the summer be like, ‘I want to make movies,’ because they were incredible experiences.
So you were on Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore…
And my dad was doing a Hitchcock film, Family Plot. I went back and forth. It was amazing. It’s so funny that I’ve been blessed enough to find directors. And I would speak particularly to David Lynch, how this whimsy and irreverence about actors and nothing’s kind of taken too seriously and yet it’s also boundary-less. Scorsese and Alfred Hitchcock were so like that with my parents in very different ways. So, it was so amazing to watch them and watch the collaboration and these kind of characters unfold and the way they played with the camera and I just fell in love with all of it. And so I specifically wanted to do that which almost doesn’t exist in film.
So Blue Velvet was your first David Lynch?
Yes, Blue Velvet was my first David Lynch movie. I was brought in to meet David and the casting director, and I was told I was auditioning. I hadn’t read the script yet; I just knew it was a movie called Blue Velvet. I was sitting on the floor in the hallway and he walked out and I was just startled by every aspect of him. And he looked at me and I was waiting for this magical words. And it was a magical moment but he went, ‘I have to pee.’ And so he disappeared. And then he came back and we talked about life and high school and meditation and I was getting ready to audition and that never happened. He was like, ‘Thank you very much.’ And then I left. And then I got a call that he wanted to meet me at Bob’s Big Boy to see if Kyle MacLachlan and I could get along or something. It was like a chemistry lunch. And so the three of us had lunch at Bob’s Big Boy and the rest is history.
Did you order a big boy or did you just chat?
We ordered malts and French fries and David was doodling on napkins while Kyle was doodling with a knife into his ketchup. And I mean, a girl either goes, these are really bizarre men and they are twin souls, or I am in love with both of these people and want to spend the rest of my life with them, which is how I responded.
Had you seen Eraserhead when you made Blue Velvet?
I did. I saw Eraserhead and Elephant Man at 16. I had seen Elephant Man and then when I was going to meet him to audition, I saw Eraserhead which I hadn’t seen before. My mind was blown. I just wanted to know him and was afraid. Elephant Man was the greatest film I had ever seen. And so I saw that and just thought, f I’m the luckiest person in the world, I could work with someone like that.
With Blue Velvet did you read the whole script? Because it seems like people don’t actually get the whole scripts a lot of the time.
It’s so funny how every experience has been very different. My last couple of experiences you either have no script, like on Inland Empire, or you have sections of things to work on, like Twin Peaks. Wild At Heart was an adaptation of a book and was a script. And Blue Velvet wa word for word the screenplay. And I read it, and I was 16 when I read it. Thinking back about being 16 I just didn’t get some of the stuff. So I read it like, ‘Oh wow there’s Robin’s and it’s a mystery. And I’m sort of Nancy Drew. And then like some creepy things happen but I don’t really understand them.’ [Lynch] really didn’t want me to be on the set of some of the more haunting stuff until we shot the very end. He is one of the few filmmakers who is determined to storyboard his movies so that the end of the movie is shot at the end.
So does he do things like give you the reveal, like the way Willem Dafoe is the villain In Wild at Heart.
Yes. And if he has a clear idea about what he wants from the other actor, David will not reveal that to you. And so Willem Dafoe playing Bobby Peru, which is the scariest character I’ve ever been in the company of, not only had I not seen him or his teeth or anything but I didn’t know what was going to happen. So I was just there and we shot on film and no real rehearsal. A little bit of physical blocking but that was about it.
And, you know, the thing about you is you’re so comfortable in your body, Lynch must really appreciate that because Wild at Heart is very sexy. You’re basically running and jumping up and down on the bed for a lot. Was that uncomfortable for you or were you just super relaxed about that stuff?
No, I am not relaxed about it. I love using my body as an actor and I love the physicality of characters but it’s David who specifically has mademe leap into a void of trust. In all kinds of ways, emotionally, physically, in love scenes. My entire adult life experiences have defined and redefined a discovery about a woman’s sexuality through the characters he’s let me play, which are as shockingly diverse as you could ever dream up one director letting you try out.
Which brings us to Twin Peaks, which you can’t tell me anything about. Can you tell me about how you felt about the show when it was on TV. Did you watch it? Was it interesting to you?
The most boring interview lately. Let’s talk about Twin Peaks and Star Wars. Let’s not even have an interview. I am a total bore. Okay. Well I mean, you know, when you step onto the set of Blue Velvet you step into a world that is quintessential America but no one had made that movie yet until David Lynch. And that it looks one way because we need to present ourselves as clean and safe and white picket fences. And the shadow exists in everything and that’s David’s fascination in such a beautiful and terrifying and irreverent way. And I think Twin Peaks was equally iconic for that reason but it was on network television. I mean that was just insane. You know, people came out of the theater when they saw Blue Velvet and were traumatized and elated at the same time. But I don’t think anybody ever thought they would turn on their television and watch it. That was what was so outrageous.
When he told you he was going to bring it back, did he call you or did you, was there a conversation of some kind?
There was. I went up to the house and he gave me a cappuccino. I don’t drink coffee. I don’t smoke cigarettes but it’s just part of being in David’s life that somehow both things happen, at least when I’m acting for him and usually when I’m around him. We had a conversation. He started describing something a little while ago and I could see he was dreaming up an idea and he would hint at a mood or a feeling he had around this character. And I didn’t know if it was a movie. I had no idea what he was talking about. So he just left me with that almost eerie magic. And then he had the reveal of, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to make Twin Peaks…
So clear your schedule…
Yeah, I actually know only a little bit more than almost everybody else but what I know is he blew my mind in ways that were even more unexpected. And I’ve known him my whole life. And more radical and more funny and more fierce and haunting and he just goes everywhere. It’s like a dream you wake up from and you can’t believe you’ve been there but you want to fall back asleep to get back inside of it, but it scares you. You know, it’s amazing.