First in a long line of iconic characters singing cryptic and striking songs in many of David Lynch’s films, Laurel Near starred as “The Lady in the Radiator” in Eraserhead, alongside the haunting lullabye “In Heaven”, which has gone on to be covered by countless bands over the years such as The Pixies, Devo, and Faith No More. I recently had the pleasure of discussing all things Eraserhead with “The Lady in the Radiator” herself, as well as what she’s been up to since her memorable performance.
BD: Where did you grow up and what was it like?
LN: I grew up on a 1800 acre cattle ranch in Potter Valley which is in northern California. My parents were very progressive and my mom started the first nursery school there. My mother had been raised in New York City surrounded by Broadway shows so there were always new records coming into the house. My dad had the first big stereo speakers in the town that he made and we would go to the grange and do square dances and polkas. We were very sheltered and spent lots of time outdoors in idyllic settings, by the creeks, playing with a stick in the dirt, walking in the hills, watching my dad bring in cattle on a horse etc. My mom thought a child’s job was to play and imagine so we were always dancing and singing and make up plays.
BD: How exactly did Eraserhead come about for you? Were you pursuing music or acting at the time?
LN: I was living with my sisters in Hollywood and we had a 3-part harmony singing act called The Near Sisters (Fluffy, Babe & Jewell and I was Fluffy), a modern Andrews Sisters. I was training in jazz dance studios by day. Catherine Coulson and Jack Nance were good friends of my oldest sister and I think Catherine invited David to see The Near Sisters at The Ashgrove in Hollywood.
above: The Near Sisters performing live; (l-r) Laurel, Holly, and Timothy (photo courtesy of Laurel Near)
BD: Jack Nance has always fascinated me on screen and when his fellow actors speak of him. Do you happen to have any good Jack stories?
LN: I don’t like to tell stories about people, but wow, what an amazing human being. Oh my Gosh. I knew him when he was a stage actor in San Francisco and we would go down and see the shows. I don’t have any specific stories, but it makes me smile just thinking about him.
BD: How long did filming take? Did you do all your scenes at once?
LN: I don’t really remember, but I think it was several evenings.
above: David Lynch and Laurel Near as “The Lady in the Radiator” on the set of Eraserhead
BD: Did you ever get to see Eraserhead in the theatre?
LN: I saw the opening preview. When he filmed my part, I only really knew about those scenes that I was in so I was very surprised by the movie and it was a profound experience. I was still very innocent and young so I did not connect with the images as I do today.
BD: What was the make-up application like?
LN: I think it was uncomfortable but not painful. I remember it as just being really fun and interesting hang out with these incredibly creative and fun people.
above: Jack Nance as “Henry Spencer” with Laurel Near in Eraserhead
BD: Eraserhead is a unique film, and really leaves itself open to interpretation. What does the film say to you?
LN: One of my favorite parts is the unconditional love that my character has for Henry, and that she comes out of the steam, that children or humans need that from somewhere. If you’re not going to get that from parents or a teacher, as a human you will create that for yourself. To me, that was a creation we have to find from our brains, in the ocean or an ancient redwood tree, or in the steam where this sort of angel/saint/fairy meets us and greets us because we need that connection to the beyond or the spirit – whatever a person might want to call that, and there’s something about unconditional love in that scene. Her ending line that says, “You’ve got your good things and you’ve got mine” that we can give that part of ourselves away, it doesn’t have a price and we give that to whomever we choose to give that to. And what a beautiful thing. I don’t know if we ever tell children that, but each child, each person has so many gifts. And you can give those gifts every moment of your life. There’s that unconditional love piece that for me is very profound, nodding to him, Henry. I’m very subtly nodding to him, and he seems a little trepidacious to even go there. But for someone to nod to you and say, “Yeah, you know who you are, you’re in there, I can see you” I think, “Ah! That’s what I do in my work! I nod, yes'”. (laughs) When we watch movies we see what we want to see, and that’s what’s so interesting about Eraserhead. Someone may watch that scene and be horrified. For me, that scene is just uplifting and so profound in connecting with humans to encourage each other. Who in our lives has done that for us? There must be something very deep in feeling for those of us who love Eraserhead. For me, I think David Lynch knows how to reach the feeling, and the feeling you get when you’re watching Eraserhead is so deep, that there’s a familiar feeling with the tunnels, Jack Nance’s amazing emotional response to dread and chaos, and the soundtrack.
BD: “In Heaven” has been covered by many musical acts over the years. Have you heard any of them, and do you have a particular favorite?
LN: Of course the Pixies cover is awesome but my favorite version of it is my 17-year old daughter when she plays it on guitar in the living room.
BD: Are you a fan of David Lynch’s work, and/or have you kept up with it over the years?
LN: I am a fan of David Lynch himself. The kind person who I remember who worked with me and explained what I would be doing on that little stage and most of all his explanation of the feeling of the scene. David was very handsome and I remember really funny. I remember his voice reminded me of Jimmy Stewart. Working with David was the perfect way to enter the next stage of imagination at that time and “In Heaven” and the Lady in the Radiator character, Jack Nance and (the) Eraserhead character informed the rest of my creative life. I really like David’s new music and hope to use some of it in a modern dance festival in the spring.
BD: So you haven’t seen any other of Lynch’s films?
LN: I stuck with Eraserhead because I am very susceptible to images, dreams and nightmares and when I was young I did a lot of sleepwalking. People would say, “Oh have you seen the new David Lynch film?” and the movies always sounded so intense that I was never brave enough to see one, but I have friends that just love his movies. I do love Twin Peaks! I was more fascinated with David Lynch himself as an artist and creator so I watch all his interviews and follow him on Facebook, plus I love organic coffee so I order his signature coffee online! That experience of watching how Eraserhead came together was so informative for a 19 year-old, I saw that “Oh, you can imagine anything and you can truly create anything.” I feel like David really opened that door for me.
BD: When did SPACE begin, and what inspired you to be an educator?
LN: After the Near Sisters “broke up” I went on to dance with a wild exuberant 70s feminist company called The Wallflower Order Dance Collective in Eugene, Oregon which later became San Francisco’s acclaimed Dance Brigade, directed by Krissy Keefer. I was with them for 6 years and we toured all over the country and staged original pieces before large, enthusiastic, and predominantly feminist audiences. They developed a new kind of modern dance-theater that was stylistically rooted in martial arts, athleticism, and social justice.
above: The Wallflower Order Dance Collective performing live (photo courtesy of Laurel Near)
Then I co-founded SPACE (School of Performing Arts & Cultural Education) with Paulette Arnold, an after school non-profit program in Ukiah, California. In 1999 SPACE was gifted the St Marys of the Angels Catholic Church and since then the non-profit has raised over $5 million to convert the church into a state of the art theater devoted to children, the arts and cultural education. We only have $2 million still to raise and then this will be a heavenly dream come true for youth and families. The Lady in the Radiator has been my personal angel in helping me to dream big!
above: a current photo of Laurel Near at SPACE (photo courtesy of Sandy Metzler)
A huge warm thanks to Laurel Near for her thoughts and reflections on her iconic role in Eraserhead!