Over the course of a few Twin Peaks festivals and the Twin Peaks cast reunion last year, I have had the utmost pleasure of speaking with Charlotte Stewart a number of times. I have been continually fascinated by her wealth of stories about her time spent working on Eraserhead and Twin Peaks. I thought it would be fantastic to share some of those stories with my readers and she graciously agreed to speak with me in depth and on the record about her roles as Mary X in Eraserhead and as Betty Briggs onTwin Peaks. And away we go…
BD: Tell me about growing up and how you got into acting?
CS: I was a bit of a show off as a child. I came from a small town in Northern California and there wasn’t a whole lot to do so I roller skated competitively from the time i was in the third grade until I was out of high school. I always loved to put on big shows and raise money for trips to regional competitions and I liked that part the best! I wasn’t a very good student in high school so I didn’t have a choice of colleges to go to, and I saw an ad in a magazine for the Pasadena Playhouse at the State Theatre of California so I applied without telling my parents, and I was accepted and then I told my mom and dad. It was out of the blue but I guess they figured it fit my personality so they let me go, I guess they figured I would find out there if I really wanted to do it or not, and I was just really lucky. I wasn’t very good in the beginning but then I caught on and I had my first professional television role at the end of my second year, it was called The Loretta Young show which you are well too young to remember!
BD: So what role did you first get when you thought “wow, I’ve made it!”?
CS: The first one that said “Ah! I can do this!” – it was actually about three or four years into my acting career, and I’d already done a lot of television. I’d done a lot of series as a guest actor, but the first one I felt professional was on Gunsmoke. I had a lead role and we were doing a really long tracking shot down the street of Dodge with a young man named Robert Pine, and we were walking and talking and had to stay within a certain range of the camera and it’s a big deal if they have to stop and do it over again! It was a long scene but I remember thinking in the middle of the scene “I can do this…this is what I’m supposed to do!” while we were walking and doing the dialogue. That was really the point where it became clear that I could make a living doing it and that was pretty exciting.
myself, Charlotte, and my brother Peyton at the 2009 Twin Peaks Festival
BD: So you did speedway with Elvis and Nancy Sinatra in the late 60’s…
CS: Yes I did! I had a small part but it was fun because I got to work with Elvis. It wasn’t a very good movie but looking back it was something not a lot of people get to do. He was really nice and spent a lot of time talking with me, just sitting side by side in chairs waiting for setup and stuff. This was back in 1966 or 67, and it was great.
BD: That was right around his ’68 comeback, that must have been cool to meet him in that transitional period in his career.
CS: It was. I was in school in the 50’s when he hit it really big and sitting there talking with him I’m thinking “Oh my God! Elvis is holding my hand telling me about his mother”…(laughs) it was pretty surreal!
BD: How did you first meet David Lynch and get involved with Eraserhead?
CS: My roommate was assisting Jack Fisk at the American Film Institute in the early 70’s and she came home one day and said there was a student director that’s doing a film, Jack Fisk is doing props and they are looking for an actress to play the part. I used to do student films all the time, they don’t pay you anything but it was fun and it keeps your chops up, so I said “sure”. So David and Peggy (Reavey) came to dinner at my house and I was living way out in Topanga Canyon in L.A then. David brought a sack of wheat seed as a gift. I will never figure that one out but maybe he figured we lived out in the country and he figured we grew wheat. It was very strange! We had dinner and he gave me a script and I didn’t understand it. He said I could play Mary, I said “great” and I thought “this will take a couple of weeks”…and it took several years in and out.
above: scenes from family dinner in Eraserhead
BD: What was that experience like, shooting Eraserhead day to day?
It was really surprising, and I really thought in the beginning he didn’t know what he was doing because he took so long, he took forever to set up shots. But I’m trained to follow the director’s direction. He’d say “just hold it until I say cut” and I would think “ok, i can do that” and it would just go on and on and on…and I just did it never really thinking it was going to be as special as it was. Even when I saw it the first time I told David it gave me a headache (laughs). He called me and said “well Charlotte what do you think?” I said “David to tell you the truth it feels like a toothache, it hurts so bad.” He said “swell!”.
BD: I read at one point he was showing a three hour cut to audiences?
CS: Yes that is the version that gave me a headache!
BD: Do you remember any specific scenes that were cut?
CS: Oh yeah, after I leave Henry and my parents bring me back to the apartment there was one scene where, I don’t know what he had in mind but I had roller skates on and he pulled me through the room… like a ghost, hair flying and nightgown flying. It didn’t have the effect he wanted so it wasn’t used. There was a lot of stuff with the beautiful girl across the hall that didn’t end up in the movie. Gosh I don’t know what else, I wasn’t there alot of the time. There’s probably tons of footage with Jack Nance that’s still hanging around somewhere.
above: Charlotte as Mary X, tending to the baby in Eraserhead; Jack Nance as Henry Spencer
BD: So did you meet Jack Nance and Catherine Coulson through Eraserhead?
CS: I had never met them before. Jack was funny. He was kind of cranky and he and David always had secrets of some kind, you know, giggling and stuff because they spent so much time together. The first thing we shot was the dinner scene with the mother and father. It took days to shoot and we were shooting only at night then, and oh God it was just so awful. I mean, not awful but tedious. So tedious he would only shoot at night and I thought “well this guy doesn’t know we’re professionals! Just shoot me!” (laughs)
BD: It’s a very empowering movie, I think anyone that wants to make films can watch that movie and say “hey maybe I could do this too”.
CS: Yeah, yeah, there’s something really magical about it that a lot of people just don’t get. They say “uh, no, I just couldn’t watch it” and others will say “I just got so sucked in to Henry”. Henry was just so wonderful, and that was Jack. I don’t know if you’ve heard this story how he was cast?
BD: Actually I can’t remember, what was it?
CS: There’s a book (Beautiful Dark, by Greg Olson), where he talks about it. He interviewed Jack at the American Film Institute, and there was a big estate where we used to shoot, and it was at the servant’s quarters where we shot a lot of the scenes. He met Jack and they talked and I guess David wasn’t real impressed, but they walked outside and David had built a wooden luggage rack on his Volkswagen, and Jack went “wow, that’s the most fantastic thing I’ve ever seen!” and they got into this other kind of conversation and I guess he saw something in Jack he hadn’t seen before and that’s where he said “this is the guy, this is Henry”.
Sometimes we (actors) do ourselves a disservice on interviews where we think we’re doing something the director will like and that’s not it at all. Just always be yourself.
above: Charlotte and Jack Nance (photo courtesy of Charlotte Stewart)
BD: So you were friends with Jack Nance for awhile, what was he like after you worked on Eraserhead and you really got to know him?
CS: (laughs) Oh Gosh, well Jack and Catherine and David all lived together for awhile. And then Catherine and Jack split and David and Jack lived together. And then I became friends with Jack, I don’t remember when it was, 1983? We became really good friends and he needed a place to live and I had one of my investments with my business manager which was an apartment house, so I let him rent there at a low price. It’s a long story and very boring but I lost the apartment building due to some financial shenanigans and Jack ended up staying there and at one point I became homeless and Jack let me stay there with him.
We weren’t partners or lovers, we were just friends. Years later I was living in a house up in the Hollywood Hills and I offered him an extra bedroom there when he needed a place to stay. He was just a great guy, and that’s when we were both cast in Twin Peaks. Then he met Kelly and they got married and you know, life goes on, then I met my husband David and we got married. For a long time everyone thought we were together but we weren’t.
Jack was a character, he loved to watch those quiz shows, “Wheel of Fortune” and stuff and he would laugh hysterically when people answered wrong and lost their money. He loved it. He was an old codger before it was time for him to be an old codger.
BD: So you didn’t work with David Lynch during this time, were you and David friends between Eraserhead and Twin Peaks?
CS: No, I didn’t see him at all from the time Eraserhead was released until I heard he was doing the series. Jack told me about it and David came over for dinner and he talked about doing the new series. I didn’t even interview for it, then I went in to talk to David and Mark Frost because I had a couple of ideas about Garland and Betty and Bobby which they did incorporate into our characters a little bit. Betty was Catholic, Garland was in the military and Bobby was screwed! They put a big palm frawn cross on our wall in the dining room and things like that.
above: scenes from the Briggs’ kitchen in the Twin Peaks pilot episode
BD: What was that experience like filming the Twin Peaks pilot in Seattle?
CS: It was in February because it was my birthday. It was really cold. I wasn’t staying in North Bend, but I was staying down by the main freeway near the main bridge into Seattle. And they would pick us up and take us to North Bend for the shoot. I shot the jail scene where Bobby is arrested, and they took me back and I got the flu so bad that I didn’t work for 5 days. Sometimes when you get the flu away from where you live you have no resistance to it. It worked out perfect since they were shooting at other locations. Then we shot the rest of the scenes. I thought it was strange, one of the first scenes we did Garland was sitting in the middle of the kitchen which was so odd, and David gave me a pair of scissors to cut air while I talked. It was a real kitchen somewhere, but I couldn’t tell you where it was.
BD: One of the biggest, craziest scenes in Twin Peaks was Laura Palmer’s funeral. What was it like filming that?
CS: (laughs) It was strange, who was the director? It was a woman…
BD: Tina Rathborne I think?
CS: Yes, Tina Rathborne. She was an odd duck herself, she didn’t communicate very well. She was kind of overwhelmed and had the entire cast there and we were starting to get a lot of great feedback and we weren’t getting scripts, we were only given our scenes. There was no script to the funeral, we were just all gathered out there in a circle. So I thought what would Betty do? Betty, the eternal optimist – so I wore a happy face button on my suit. Nobody noticed it except for the fans watching it later. She was so busy, I don’t think she would have let me do it if she noticed.
above: Laura Palmer’s funeral episode
BD: When Ray Wise jumps on that casket, it’s one of the best moments of the series.
CS: Is it really?
BD: I think it was just one of those moments where anyone watching it the first time says “wow, this is truly something else-the guy just jumped on his daughter’s casket!”.
CS: (laughs) It was fun though, I remember that day we were sitting out there by all our trailers and there were so many of us. It was really funny, I have a lot of pictures from that day that I put up in a collage photo frame. I have them all somewhere in a scrapbook. I saved every article on the show I could find and photocopied it on 11 x 14 paper and gave one to everybody. Every magazine, every article.
BD: I would love to see that! Were you around when they filmed the red room scenes during the finale?
CS: No, but I walked over one day and saw Kyle MacLachlan getting ready to do one of those scenes, but I didn’t see anything filmed. They didn’t let us walk around the sets and we were barred from the sets unless you were working.
BD: After they revealed who the killer was, was it any different on set with the main mystery wrapped up?
CS: I wasn’t there then. I didn’t do anymore scenes until way, way later. Actually I stopped watching it after awhile. It got so crazy. It got so disconnected and I just didn’t watch it anymore. They brought in all those extra characters. There was only one scene I had left in the diner with Don and Grace during the finale which was the last thing I shot.
above: Charlotte and Don Davis filming the Twin Peaks series finale (photo courtesy of Charlotte Stewart)
BD: To me it’s always seemed like the creators sort of checked out for a few episodes after Laura’s killer was revealed.
CS: Yeah. I think that’s the truth. I think David got bored with it and he doesn’t like being told what to do. You know, he really balks at that and that’s become evident in a lot of the stuff he’s done. The studio will say “you can’t do this” and he’ll say “watch”.
BD: Twin Peaks has had a big resurgence in popularity over the last couple of years. Many of my friends who have heard about the show for years have watched it for the first time on Netflix and the show is continually finding new audiences. What does it feel like to have been a part of Twin Peaks with people still feverishly celebrating it?
CS: It’s amazing. I went to England last November for the 20th anniversary and I couldn’t believe how popular it was. They just made a really big deal about it. I went with Catherine (Coulson), we met in London and had a great time together. These things pop up every once in awhile. People don’t always remember Betty Briggs but when you mention Major Briggs and Bobby and it all comes back. It’s amazing, the other show Little House on the Prairie, it’s been 35 years and it runs every day all over the world. I just got back from an event with 2,000 people to meet Miss Beadle. It’s just amazing.
above: Charlotte as Miss Beadle in Little House on the Prairie
BD: So when you look back, what role means the most to you?
CS: Little House on the Prairie. I really loved that. It was four years, as long as Eraserhead (laughs) but it wasn’t every day but I was doing them at the same time-but Eraserhead wasn’t released until I was off Little House! It was a nice, quiet, simple and steady job.
BD: Charlotte, that’s all I’ve got. Thank you so much. It’s a true honor. I’m so grateful for your time!
CS: Ah you’re so great! Thank you so much!