Starring as the frazzled and frantic Sarah Palmer in Twin Peaks, Grace Zabriskie offered up some of the most intense and arresting performances throughout the series and the feature film Twin Peaks – Fire Walk With Me. As the 20th anniversary of Fire Walk With Me quickly approaches this fall, I recently had the honor and privilege of talking with Sarah Palmer herself to discuss and reflect on her time spent during filming and the legacy of Twin Peaks.
BD: To start out, what inspired you to enter a career in the arts as you were growing up?
GZ: When I was a child, I planned to be a teacher, as each of my four grandparents and many aunts and uncles had been. I was going to be a writer, a visual artist and an actor as a “passionate amateur,” a concept I’d come across quite early from wide and inappropriate reading.
BD: You have a long history of working with David Lynch, but when and how did your collaboration with him officially begin, and what is your favorite film of his?
GZ: After years of getting all perplexed by questions having to do with my “favorite” this or that, I have finally been able to see that this is not the way my mind works. I am a favoriteless person. On the other hand, Catching the Big Fish is one of my favorite books ever. On the other other hand, I am not willing to say it is my favorite of his books.
BD: I am also a big fan of Catching the Big Fish and have found it quite inspiring over the years. While you have worked in so many mediums, how have you fed your own creativity over the years?
GZ: I don’t think about feeding my own creativity. I live my life and interact with people and books and music and other sounds and many materials, and I make things. I have realized that being some small part of the care and feeding of the creativity of always a few other people at any given time in my life also satisfies some of my own creative needs. This is unfortunate in one way, as the time and energy spent does not result in my own creative “product” as it were. But it can be intense fun, and my energy is being used in some way that is rewarding to me, so I probably won’t stop.
BD: Fire Walk With Me was incredibly different from the series in tone, was it any different for you filming it, knowing the true nature of Laura Palmer and her killer?
GZ: This film has not yet been recognized and appreciated for the frightening truths it deals with. Nor has Sheryl’s performance received the amazement it deserves.
above: Grace Zabriskie as Sarah Palmer on the floor of the Palmer living room in the breathtaking 14th episode of Twin Peaks
BD: When Leland is revealed as the killer, it’s really one of the more incredible moments to have ever aired on a network show. What was it like filming that? And were you lying in the floor the entire time?
GZ: When you lie down on the floor of a set, you don’t ever know, really, how long you’ll be asked to stay there. If you did know, you could ask for help – in the form of someone whose job it is to sit next to you, keep an eye on you, because if you are just down there on the floor for a long time, eventually people will accidentally walk on you. It happened to me a few times, and came close to happening quite a few times.
BD: Were you disturbed at all by that particular scene? I still remember watching it the first time over 20 years ago and feeling really devastated at the content of it, yet still fascinated and arrested.
GZ: All the violence in David’s films is disturbing to me. Now. I am not among those who believe that filmmakers should feel responsible for violence committed by unbalanced souls who have fixated on their films. Still, so far as I know, the violence in David’s films has not gained a reputation for inciting actual violence – for whatever reasons – which I could guess at, but won’t. I do think there must be subliminal signals in each instance of cinematic violence, and some of those signals, like pheromones, connect with and magnify the violence potential in watchers, and others tend to quell that potential. There are some big, postmodern words for what I’m talking about, probably. Some of it.
BD: During the pilot, Sarah Palmer finds out her daughter is dead, and it’s an incredibly raw and emotional moment. How did you and David Lynch approach that scene?
GZ: Maybe it wasn’t the first scene we did together, but in my memory it was. It was my introduction to David and the world of Twin Peaks as it was to be performed, as opposed to whatever it seemed to be on the page.
Later, you can see that everything was implicit on the page, but not in the beginning, when the director is deciding what of that which seemed implicit will be used, and what will not. Certainly I had not been able to intuit from the text of that scene how extreme David would demand my performance to be. I was pretty sure he was wrong, leading me in an over-the-top direction, but I went with him, and learned I had been right to trust him so completely. (Which is a horribly egotistical way of saying that I learned that he had been right.)
Looking back, it seems to me that each of the actors was used by David in a slightly or very different way. He saw in me the ability to be so earnest that my performance could be pushed into a really dark kind of humor. And he has found other ways to do that with me since.
BD: What was your favorite scene to film in Twin Peaks, and do you have any special memories or stories from your time filming?
GZ: Most of my memories are of moments that had little if anything to do with me. Being there, watching, when something went “wrong” and seeing David turn the mistake into something better than it would have been had the mistake not occurred.
BD: Do you have any favorite “mistakes”?
GZ: My favorite mistake was Frank Silva’s (ed.-Killer BOB) mistake. No one is supposed to move about on set, so long as sound is rolling. Frank, prop master, needed to grab something, ( a prop, maybe, or a cup of coffee) knew he could be very quiet, and was off camera. Or so he thought. The shot was on me, lying on a couch against the wall, grieving, drugged out. Frank was in the hall outside the room. He needed to cross the doorway to get what he needed, but the doorway , which was in the same wall that my couch was against, wasn’t in the shot, so there should have been no problem. But there was a mirror above the couch. Looking at the shot, David could see the mirror above me, and see that it was mirroring another mirror across the room…and that THAT mirror was bouncing back the image of Frank trying to sneak across that doorway.
So that’s what David saw, in the mirror above me on the couch; Frank trying to sneak past the doorway.
Someday we’ll have to do a power point presentation, or an animation of the way this happened, so that everyone can take pleasure in this most fabulous “mistake.” And, while they’re at it, see a bit more profoundly into the miracle of David seeing what was there, as opposed to what shouldn’t have been there.
BD: You and Ray Wise have many memorable scenes together. Just what was it like working with him?
GZ: Ray is what’s meant by “consummate professional.” Which I suppose wouldn’t have to include a great sense of humor, but in Ray’s case it does.
I’ll never forget seeing, one day in the make-up trailer, that all the repeated bleachings of his hair – after Leland’s hair turned white – made his hair start to fall out. And when your hair is supposed to have turned white all of a sudden, there can be no roots showing at all, and he wasn’t through shooting those scenes yet, which meant he wasn’t through having his hair bleached again, and I remember thinking, this is terrible, what if he loses his hair because of this? But everything grew back. He has great hair!
above: Ray Wise as Leland Palmer and Grace Zabriskie as Sarah Palmer in the second season premiere of Twin Peaks
BD: You mentioned that Sheryl’s performance hasn’t received the recognition it deserves. What does her performance say to you?
GZ: She gave everything she had, she gave more, she gave more than she could afford to give, and she spent years coming back. I can’t separate “what her performance says to me” from what I know it both gave to her and took from her. The performance itself tells this story. No one walks away unscathed from work like that. But I could be wrong. I don’t know that she thinks of it this way in the least.
BD: We are now over 20 years removed from Twin Peaks and it is still finding new audiences and inspiring events like art exhibits and fan festivals. Why do you think the show is still alive and well in the minds of an audience today? And,
GZ: The aftermath of Twin Peaks is where and when we are living now. All the writers who first quickened, creatively, watching Twin Peaks, all the failed attempts to imitate, the eventual successful results of the “influence” of David’s work, the new spaces there was suddenly permission or even a mandate to explore…we are still living in the aftermath, whether or not we know it, whether or not we ever actually saw any of Twin Peaks.
above: POEMS by Grace Zabriskie
BD: Can you reveal any of your plans for the upcoming 20th anniversary art exhibit for Fire Walk With Me?
GZ: I am too busy to create new work for the exhibit or even finish what has been begun. So there will be a few Twin Peaks Character boxes there, even though I may be still on location shooting. I would like also to have there some copies of my book of poems, called POEMS. If I have finished shooting, though, I plan to be at the exhibit. I love getting to see everybody, always love it.
Many thanks to Grace Zabriskie for her thoughts and reflections on the world of Twin Peaks. Make sure to check out some of her stunning handmade artwork on her official website, gracezabriskie.com and also pick up a copy of POEMS, available now.
cover photo from the Richard Beymer collection (on sale now!)