I interviewed Sherilyn Fenn on the set of the thriller Dangerous Obsession on the Isle of Man on 1st October 1997, a film which was eventually released under the title Darkness Falls. This interview languished in my files until appearing in the programme book for the 2002 Twin Peaks convention Damn Fine Con.
How’s it going on the film, from your point of view?
“I think it’s going really well.”
Have you done any other films in the UK?
“I haven’t. This is my first one.”
So how are you finding it different from American films?
“I think people have a lot more fun. I don’t think I’ve laughed as much in my whole life as I have since I’ve been here. I’ve just laughed and laughed and laughed. It’s wonderful. It’s a better quality film than the things that are being made in the States. Ray Winstone keeps telling me that they’re just making better films here. So I’m actually contemplating moving to London for a period of time. I’ve been in Los Angeles for 15 years and I’m really really tired of it. I’m continually really uninspired by what’s being sent to me. Even by huge films that they’re doing there. It’s amazing. They’re just awful. I loved the script when I read it; it’s a wonderful character piece. I saw Ray’s work, like Nil By Mouth, and Tim’s work, and I just was really excited to be a part of it.” [Ray Winstone and Tim Dutton were also in the Dangerous Obsession cast, as was Michael Praed - MJS]
What about the crew?
“Everybody is really good to work with. I brought my make-up artist from the States - so one friend along for the ride. But no complaints. I’m really having a good time! The Isle of Man is a little bit difficult, just because I have a three and a half year old and there’s not much to do here for him. Everything’s sort of slo-o-ow.”
How do you think perceptions of you as an actress are different between here and America?
“I’m not really sure, to be honest. It was interesting because a couple of months ago I had a meeting with a director, Mike Figgis. He could tell I was feeling low, and he was really encouraging me to come to England and to spend some time there, saying how different it is. Like, when you’re in Hollywood it seems like that’s all there is in terms of the business. He said to me, ‘You have a great body of work and you’d work all the time if you went to Europe. You should just go and get out of here.’ So from his perspective, he made it sound like it would be very positive for me to do that. But I’m not really sure what the perception is of me there, if I would work more there. But I suppose I’ll find out.”
In America, are you doing a lot of TV movies?
Am I correct in thinking this is the first theatrical thing you’ve done since Boxing Helena?
“Hmm. No, I just did a film at the beginning of the year with Eric Roberts. That was a film. What are they calling it now? Encounter? Something like that. They keep changing the name around. It’s a family who have an encounter and how it messes up their lives and stuff.” [Directed by Timothy Bond, this was filmed as Men in Black and released as The Shadow Men - MJS]
When you say ‘an encounter’...?
“Like an encounter with an alien. Actually I’ve done a couple of things, but they’ve been smaller independent films. I did a film, Friends of Friends, and I did another one called Just Write. All of these since Boxing Helena.”
Do you like doing small, independent things? Are they more fun than the big corporate studio things?
“The big corporate studio things, I’m not necessarily considered for because, well, first of all I haven’t been in a studio film, which is interesting. MGM was the biggest studio that I worked with: Of Mice and Men. But, I’m sure you’ve heard, the way it goes there is simply: you get hired, regardless of if you’re right or wrong for the role, if you have made a movie that made so much money. So that list of girls, women, whoever they are, are considered and cast for all those roles. Not that I necessarily want to do them anyway. Because there’s very few that are big budget that have any substance or any depth or any integrity. They don’t do anything for me. So I find that in the independent world I find things that I’m more excited by. I’m more willing to take three months away from my son and feel happy to be doing it. And what I’ve done to help support that is to do a few television movies to pay the rent. And sometimes they’re really nice stories, sometimes they’re okay. It’s just the way that it is.”
You did The Elizabeth Taylor Story.
“Oh, that was really fun. That was really an event in terms of television. That wasn’t just a run of the mill thing, so I liked it. That was very difficult, but I loved having done her story.”
Did you watch a lot of her old movies to research it?
“Well, I’ve always been a really big fan, so I’ve known her work for many years. But what I got the most out of was live interviews with her. There were some wonderful, candid moments in those live interviews with her that to me really revealed who she was.”
Is there a difference between playing a role of a real person and just doing an impression of her?
“I fought to keep the integrity of the story because the producer was bringing in a horrible writer that was making it very soapy. They wanted many scenes of her when she was very overweight. I said, ‘I’m not doing that. I’ll do one. That is not this woman’s life.’ For me, it was just: I didn’t want to do an impression. She’s a lot like my mom in certain ways. My mother’s been married many, many times and grew up at the same time as she did it. Somebody that can keep believing in love like that, it’s remarkable. I just tried to play the truth of the woman; not the legend, not the stories that we hear about her. Because even when she was a child, you were seeing a version of her that was manipulated by the studios, so you didn’t really see her. I thought the closest she ever came to revealing herself was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and she lost herself in that role. It was cathartic for her to do that in a lot of ways, to let herself be that wild and that ugly and unattractive. Because the stories I would hear were: she could drink men under the table; she was like, ‘You fucker...’, then you’d see this beautiful, angelic-looking woman, and it was shocking, just shocking. Richard Burton said the first time he met her he saw her at this pool party across the pool. Then when he got closer to her she was just, ‘Oh fuck that!’ and he went like, ‘Whoa! Oh my God!’ So in the context of the script, which was really well written - what we could keep - in its original form.”
Hollywood biopics don’t have a reputation for being accurate, like The Buster Keaton Story. But have you ever found out what Liz Taylor thought of it herself?
“No, but a friend of hers - supposedly: she said she was a friend of hers - approached me, strangely enough, at my dermatologist’s office and congratulated me and said I did a really good job.”
Who would you have play you when they make The Sherilyn Fenn Story?
(Laughs) “I have no idea!”
What was it like 'working with' Humphrey Bogart in a Tales from the Crypt episode?
“It was odd. You were always acting to the camera. It was wonderful working with Bob Zemekis and Isabella and everybody was really nice. But it was just a weird experience because it’s all about the end product, so you’re just acting to the camera. Strange.”
Had they shown you the footage of Bogart they were going to put in there?
“No, but you know what they did? Sometimes they had a man there who looks like him. He does certain commercials, looking like him. So sometimes he would be there, but oftentimes it was just acting directly into the camera. But it was Humphrey Bogart. I starred with Humphrey Bogart.”
How familiar were you with David Lynch’s work before you got the role on Twin Peaks?
“I’d always loved and respected the work he did on The Elephant Man. It’s a devastating, beautiful, beautiful film. And Blue Velvet, which freaked me out completely! It was like, ‘Oh my goodness!’ - one of the more disturbing films I’ve ever seen. So I suppose that was it. I didn’t see Eraserhead until he requested that I see it, once we were working together. But I was very excited at the prospect of working with him. It was the only time I had gone up for television in my career up until that point.”
What is David Lynch actually like?
“I’m sure you’ve heard that description: 'Jimmy Stewart from Mars.' Yes. Because a part of him is really so sweet and pure and innocent. He’s like a big kid. He’ll tell me my take was, ‘Jim-dandy’. Or, ‘Doggone it, Sherilyn, that was cool.’ I don’t know. I forget now my little Lynch-isms, it’s been so long. I can’t think of other things he used to say. His direction is abstract. He doesn’t ever say, ‘Go do this,’ or, ‘Go do that’. He’ll just tell you some weird story, or when I did Wild at Heart he kept talking about, ‘The bobby pins, the bobby pins.’ Did you see Wild at Heart?”
Yes, I liked it.
“So you see, he’s wonderful. He’s very very creative and unafraid of taking chances. We’ll sit down and, ‘Oh, I don’t like this scene’. In Twin Peaks he rewrites this entire scene and has me dance in the middle of the room for like three minutes. ‘Just groove, honey. Just ke-e-ep moving.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, okay. I feel like an idiot. What am I doing? Okay.’ Then you see it and with the music, he’s set this whole world up, this whole mood. I really respect him, he’s wonderful.”
What were these tentative plans to spin your character off into her own series?
“They had wanted to do that but I didn’t want to do it. My agent didn’t want me to do it.”
Would that have been David Lynch doing that series as well?
“Yes, he was talking about Mulholland Drive, he talked about doing, like 'Audrey Goes to Hollywood'. I don’t know what she was going to do in Hollywood! She’s driving along Mulholland in this convertible car... But it didn’t end up happening, obviously.”
How is David Lynch different from Jennifer Lynch who you worked with on Boxing Helena?
“Man - woman. Night - day. It’s a really huge difference. It’s completely different to work with a woman that is my age, maybe younger. David’s encouraged her, through his example of exploring dark places within oneself, but she’s less abstract. I was blown away by the script. I had heard all the stories and I didn’t want to read it. Then my agent said, ‘It’s a dream. Just read it. It’s pretty interesting.’ I was shocked that a 19-year-old girl had that perspective on relationships, that understanding. Then I met with her and we just clicked. Because we didn’t really meet - just once or twice, very briefly - on the set of Twin Peaks.”
Were you aware of all the fuss there had been with Kim Basinger?
Did that affect production in any way?
“No. I thought they were lucky to have lost her, frankly. I’ve never seen her do the kind of work that that role required.”
You did guest appearances in Cheers and Friends.
“Cheers was frightening, because I was like 19, and I think I had two lines. This big, live audience: I was so afraid, it was awful. But Friends was recently, Friends was a couple of months ago. It was fun, but I came out with the feeling that I’m just not a sitcom actress. (Laughs). You say a line and you wait for them to laugh, then you say another line and you wait... It felt weird to me. But it’s interesting and the energy is almost like theatre, I suppose, with all the people there. Matthew Perry was darling and really funny. All my scenes were with Matthew, basically, so it was fun. I like the show. I was happy to be part of it.”
What role did you play?
“I play a woman that Matthew meets and starts to go out with that has a wooden leg! And he judges me for my wooden leg and I judge him because he has three nipples. Like: how ironic!”
You started acting when you were 17 - was it something that you just fell into because you were in LA?
“Yes, it wasn’t something that I’d always wanted to do. My mother had met an agent who had spent some time in our house and kept encouraging me. I figured: why not? It looks fun.”
Had you done any acting at school or college?
“No. Make-believe stuff as a little girl in the basement: I did The Towering Inferno a hundred times. I was Faye Dunaway with curtains for an evening dress, but that was about it.”
Your mother was a rock musician and your aunt is Suzi Quatro. Was there ever any thought of you going into music?
“My grandpa - their father - would always ask, ‘What instrument do you hear when you listen to music?’ I’m like, ‘All of it!’ He’s like, ‘Well... then you’re a singer!’ And I love to dance. But I don’t like being up in front of tons of people. I didn’t have that in me to do it, the desire to be performing in front of a lot of people. If there’s a lot of people on a set, I get nervous. So it just wasn’t something I ever seriously considered.”
Do you go everywhere with your three-year-old son?
“Yes, everywhere. He’s been all over the world. He’s great. He’s the best thing in my life, the best thing I’ve ever done.”
What is Nightmare Street?
“This is a movie that I just did. Let me see the poster. That’s not even the daughter. I can’t believe they did that. There was a beautiful little girl played my daughter named Lauren and she was six. That little girl played... I wonder why they did that. Anyway, it’s a movie I just did for television. This is something I just did in Vancouver about three months ago. It’s a weird story. It’s basically: they’re aasking you to believe that two places, two different realities, can exist at the same time. This woman, her daughter almost gets hit by a bus, and she goes after her. Then wakes up in a hospital and they’re calling her something else. She slowly has to work it out to try to get back to her child. It was interesting. It was different for television to try to do something like that. A really nice director, an Englishman called Colin Bucksey. It was really funny. But I can’t believe they did this poster. That makes me so angry, because I was so close to this little girl, Lauren. I still write to her, and that is not her. That’s another girl. She’s prettier than Lauren, maybe that’s why they did it.”
Colin Bucksey has done some episodes of Sliders and was doing some episodes of a sci-fi series, Space Island One, here on the Isle of Man recently.
“He was. He was here.”
Did you meet up with him while he was here?
“No, I didn’t. I’ll have to see him when I go to London.”
You’ve done quite a lot of sci-fi/fantasy things, like The Wraith. What were you in The Wraith?
“That was so long ago! Don’t bring up The Wraith! It wasn’t a good movie. And someone even got killed when we were making it and someone else got paralysed, so it was not good. That was with Charlie Sheen.”
Meridian, aka Kiss Of The Beast: is that another one worth forgetting?
“That is worth forgetting. That was: I go to Italy for two months and live in a castle. That was wonderful, but the movie is...”
What about Of Mice and Men? Lon Chaney Jr did a famous version.
“I never saw the original and, honestly, I’d never read the book in school or anything. So when I read the screenplay I just cried my eyes out. I couldn’t believe - it was just such a beautiful story. When I met with Gary Sinise, the director who starred in it as well, he just said, ‘You know, she’s always played - and she was written - as this horrible vamp. At one point, she threatens to get - I can’t remember the character’s name - the black man lynched. She’s horrible. And he didn’t want her to be that way. He said, ‘I see her as a sad angel, and lonely.’ She just wants attention, she wants to be loved, she wants people to talk to her: ‘What’s the matter with you? Why can’t you talk to me?’ So I was glad that he wanted to do that. He actually added a scene that was never written where she’s crying because Curly broke all her records. The only thing she has in life is her little records. So that was a wonderful experience for me, making something like that.”
With a really intense, emotional story, does that filter into the production. Can you keep morale up when you’re making something so sad?
“I think people were really happy to be a part of it. It’s wonderful when you can do work like that. You can open your heart and deal with human situations. We all have sadness in our life and things that we can draw upon. I loved it because I thought it was a love story between Lenny and George; they both need each other equally. I think people are pleased to be part of it and really excited.”
Would you like to do more adaptations of classics?
“Like that, yes. Like I say, that was just a great experience. I love John Malkovich, he’s a great actor. We ended up having so much fun. Those trials were going on then, with the guy appointed to the supreme court and Anita Hill and all that. We’d go home at night and watch these trials and argue about what happened. John’s like, ‘Oh, he fucked her. You know he fucked her.’ Making these Italian dinners and cooking. It was just a great, great time. They rented me a house, I had my dog there. We were out in the country. It was just really really nice.”
I’ve got this list of your work off the internet so it’s probably grossly inaccurate.
“Well, it’s probably not. It’s so funny, it’s so different than my resume. Because my resume is: scratch that, scratch that.”
What sort of stuff is on your resume that you’re proud of?
“I’m proud of Of Mice and Men, I’m proud of Ruby, I’m proud of The Liz Taylor Story. That’s surprising because it was a horrible shoot. It was six day weeks, 15-16 hour days. I was in every scene. It was a huge hair and make-up show. Not enough time for pre-production. I had two weeks to learn a dialect and I was doing wardrobe fittings inbetween. It was crazy. I lost so much weight. I was really sick during shooting, so I just kept thinking, ‘Just trust your instincts.’ I was so scared to see it, but when I saw it - I never like my work - but I was surprised that it worked. I liked Boxing Helena. I think it was an almost impossible story to tell. Although it has some flaws, I think it’s neat. I think it’s a really neat story, it’s a beautiful story.”
What about Two Moon Junction - are you happy with that?
What has been your favourite role?
“I think Twin Peaks, I really loved Twin Peaks. She blossomed in a way that I never knew, and nobody knew, was going to happen. Because she was a very inconsequential character to begin with. Nobody knew that would happen. She just took on this life of her own, and she was such a brat. It was fun. It’s fun to watch that.”
My editor asked me to specifically ask you: when you made Twin Peaks, could you work out what the bloody hell it was about?
“No! I couldn’t! I’ll tell you something. When I saw the two-hour pilot, they screened it in the big theatre. When I left, I said, ‘I don’t know what is going to happen. I’m in this and I don’t understand it. This is never going to sell. Who’s going to watch this thing?’ So I was more shocked than anybody at what happened.”
Do you know what it’s about now?
“I think it’s just basically that on the surface things seem all one way, this nice little small town. But underneath there’s a lot of dirt and a lot of sadness and deprivation. Two girls in plaid skirts and sweaters, smoking cigarettes and talking about murder in the girl’s bathroom! That’s my kind of movie - I loved it!”
The big thing with Twin Peaks was: who killed Laura Palmer?
“The thing was, that was just a way to open the door to all these amazing characters in this strange world. The hard part about it was that you could be shooting for eight months and you only lived two days in the life of Twin Peaks. It was like: aargh!”
Did you work much with David Duchovny?
“No, but he was around when I was around. We’d see each other and talk, but we didn’t have scenes together. He was a transvestite in it, ordering, ‘Canteloupe Daquiri, please?’ He’s funny!”
As a film actress, how does a regular role in a big TV series affect your career?
“Twin Peaks was special because it was so groundbreaking. In the early ‘90s it really changed television a lot. A bunch of weird shows, like Northern Exposure, came on after that. And I got nominations for it - Emmys and a Golden Globe - and as a result of that, the doors went swinging open. I was meeting with Dustin Hoffman, I was meeting with top people, and I was a brat. I didn’t like anything, even then. It was crazy, I was very picky. In other words, I didn’t take advantage of what was happening necessarily then.”
You’ve just done something called National Lampoon’s The Don’s Analyst.
“Oh, that’s a film I did with Kevin Pollack. It’s a comedy that was really fun.”
“That was Friends of Friends, that film.”
“That’s another romantic comedy, with Jeremy Pivan. But these are small independent films. My brother just called and said Just Write won something at - I don’t know where - some little film festival. Love Life and Just Write are very small films, very small. It’s very hard for those kinds of films to bust out.”
What was your first film?
“My first film? You’re asking me about my first film? My first film was a thing called Out of Control where I just played this young girl. I had a small role. We shot it in Dubrovnik in Yugoslavia. Martin Hewitt, the guy from Endless Love, was in it. It’s these kids, this rich family take these kids, it’s their prom night or something. There’s a plane crash and they get stuck somewhere, and I’m like the little sister so I don’t say much! Which suited me just fine, because it was the first film I did. I was frightened.”