David Lynch And The Bright Future Of The Dead Extra

The first time I came into contact with the unique brain of David Lynch was when I saw Eraserhead. I sat in the darkened theater watching in amazement as strange, nightmarish, often repellent images flickered across the screen. My boyfriend at the time was mesmerized and afterwards declared Eraserhead to be the most brilliant movie ever made. I wasn't sure what I'd just seen but it definitely made me think twice about having kids.

Later, I saw Blue Velvet and when I emerged into the light I felt like I'd woken up from the kind of disturbing dream that impresses you with how creative the subconscious mind can be. Who could come up with such a weird creation that reveled in shiny, innocent people being pulled down into a miasma of degradation and creepy brutality?

Then I met Lynch.

David Lynch with Isabella Rossellini
I had the chance to work with him as a regional casting director on the pilot for his classic television series, Twin Peaks. He strolled into our office with a big smile on his appealing, boyish face. The first thing he asked for was...yes... a cup of coffee. He was friendly and polite, sprinkling his sentences with plenty of "gosh" and "gee". He had stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting via the Twilight Zone. At one point,
when his producing partner, Mark Frost, informed him that he couldn't have one of the actresses staggering around blood-covered in just her bra (this was TV in the 1990's after all) but could maybe get away with having her wear a teddy, Lynch furrowed his brow and said, "What the heck is a teddy?". Frost explained that it was like a silky, skimpy undershirt, to which Lynch, frustrated but amiable replied "Gosh no, Mark, that won't do at all. We have to be able to see the blood running down her naked belly!". Ultimately, Lynch had to bow to the times and settle for a tattered slip.

Phoebe Augustine as Ronette Pulaski
In casting, every client is different. Some want to see as many people as possible for each part. Most want at least 8-10 choices. Lynch, not surprisingly, was different. He wanted to leave it up to us to pick just a few top candidates to read for each role. When I say "read for", I'm using it in the broadest sense because Lynch didn't actually have any of the actors read from the script. Instead, he spent time talking with them and getting a feel for their vibe. He asked questions  like "So, do you like to fish?" or "Have you ever eaten in a diner?" He assumed that if they were there in front of him they could act, and he was more interested in them as a person than in their ability to read lines. This actually threw off some of the actors who were already nervous meeting a director of Lynch's caliber and would have have preferred hiding behind a script. Looking back, I think that discomfort was exactly what Lynch was looking for; he wanted to get behind the mask and poke around in the essence of the unprepared actor.

One of the the roles that Lynch was looking to cast was the dead homecoming queen, Laura Palmer, who was at the core of the Twin Peaks mystery. The actress who'd be chosen would be "playing" a dead body wrapped in plastic and might be seen cavorting in flashbacks or home movies. It would give whoever was cast exposure but the part was basically a featured extra. The only prerequisite was that she had to be pretty,wholesome and preferably blonde.

We immediately thought of Sheryl Lee, a young actress who had all the elements Lynch was seeking. It turned out that Sheryl was going to be in Colorado when Lynch was in town and at first she wasn't sure if it was worth flying back to Seattle to audition for such a small part. But after all, it was David Lynch. How many chances would she get to meet someone of his stature? No young actor who is serious about making it in the business would miss that opportunity.

Lynch's face lit up as soon as Sheryl walked in the room. She was exactly what he was looking for: sexy but a little shy - sure of herself but with a fresh, youthful innocence.
You could see immediately that they hit it off. 
After she left, Lynch wasn't interested in seeing anyone else for the role.

Later, we got the word that Sheryl had been enthusiastic and professional while shooting the very uncomfortable dead body scene that took place on a freezing cold beach. Lynch had also been very taken with her in the "home movie" scene in which Laura Palmer is seen playing around before her death. She made such an impression on him that when the series got picked up Lynch decided to write her a part. He created the character of Maddy Ferguson, Laura Palmer's cousin, just for Sheryl. From featured extra to series regular all because Sheryl was smart enough to override her initial reaction of "is it worth it?" and grab a chance when it presented itself. You'd be surprised how many actors wouldn't have done the same. That audition was Sheryl's big break She's gone on to appear in numerous TV shows and films and even starred on Broadway with Al Pacino.

I love stories like this  - even more so when I've witnessed them myself. It proves that breaks do happen in the weirdest and most unexpected ways. It's not easy for actors to keep believing in that possibility. They're faced with so much frustration and rejection - rejection that feels deeply personal; it can really beat them down. They get sick of going out for yet another audition that isn't anything like that great dream role they've longed for all their lives. 
Becoming jaded is one of the biggest traps inherent in the acting profession. It makes actors who were once enthusiastic and fresh lose their creative spark. It makes them want to dull their frustration and anxiety with drugs or indifference. Unfortunately, it can also blind them to seeing an opportunity when it arises. 

My advice to actors? Take a chance, take all chances, even if you don't want to. You've chosen to be in one of the most unpredictable professions in the world so don't work against possibility - help it work in your favor. You really never know which odd experience or seemingly unimportant opening can lead you where you've always wanted to go. 

And if you ever have to fly somewhere to audition for David Lynch - do it! One way or another it'll be quite a trip.


A Twisted Genius And The World's Greatest Sinner

When I discovered that a friend of mine has a blog called The Timothy Carey Experience, I immediately surfed over to find out what she meant by that intriguing title. I clicked the link and, low and behold, I saw the piercing eyes, the crazed expression, the unforgettable face that I recognized immediately. It was one of those "Oh, THAT guy" moments that often happens when we see a familiar actor whose name we don't know. I should have known the name and now I'll always remember it. 

Timothy Carey was one of the most perfect embodiments of the term "character actor" that ever existed. He was a gifted, unpredictable thespian and he sure as hell was a Character. Although he was notoriously difficult to work with, Carey's unique screen quality and strange, riveting talent was sought out by the likes of Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando, Francis Ford Coppola, John Cassavetes and Quentin TarantinoAlthough his preternatural intensity was thought by some to be chemically enhanced, Carey summed it up when he said, "People were always offering me grass or cocaine. I got my own cocaine -- my own personality. I am cocaine. What do I need that stuff for?" Indeed.

Carey was kind of like asafetida - the malodorous spice so odd and powerful it's known as devil's dung or stinking gum but also food of the god's. Just as asafetida can impart the right flavor to a recipe when used correctly, so Carey could enhance a film with his unsettling presence. But when handled improperly both the spice and the actor wreak havoc. Thus, although Carey's  talent was admired, rumors of directors and co-stars losing their minds and attacking him abound, and Carey himself said he was known as "the scourge of Hollywood".

I first remember seeing Carey in Stanley Kubrick's anti-war masterpiece Paths Of Glory, in which he played the doomed soldier Pvt. Maurice Ferol. Although Carey was usually cast as evil, psychotic or a lunkheaded heavy, he was brilliant as Ferol, a part that called for vulnerability. I've never forgotten that film (or any of Kubrick's films - but that's another post altogether) and Carey was one of the main reasons it made an indelible impression. 

Once you start delving into the being that was Timothy Carey you realize that the twists and turns of his life and his mind are seemingly endless. No wonder there's an entire site devoted to him. He worked with great masters and he also worked with The Monkees. He had many moments of genius and he had moments that are...well...hard to describe, like when he worked for eight years on a play  about "the incarceration of farting in society and one man’s struggle to free it".  But he also did a one man show about Salvador Dali - oh, how I wish I'd seen that!

For more about Carey - and anyone who is interested in acting, film, Hollywood or fascinating people should know more about Carey - check out the November 16, 2011 podcast of The Projection Booth and listen in as the marvelous Mike White and Marisa, the magical mind behind The Timothy Carey Experience discuss Carey's opus, The World's Greatest Sinner, a cult film classic that is as weird and wonderful as the man who created it.

I had posted a clip from The World's Greatest Sinner here but it was flagged by Absolute Film - who owns the copyright. I highly suggest, though that you follow the link to check them out.


The Illusion That Is Marilyn Monroe

Every day another girl looks in the mirror and says to herself wistfully, "I want to be like Marilyn Monroe. I want to light up the world, I want to be beautiful, I want to be a woman no one ever forgets." Marilyn is the guiding angel that inspires  them to live their Hollywood Dream. Her mystique acts like a beacon to their sensitive, longing souls. She's the shimmering, seductive Anima of Tinsel Town. 

If you look carefully at Monroe's career it quickly becomes apparent that Marilyn worship isn't about her actual achievements as an actor. I'll go out on a limb and say that although she was certainly good at what she did, her versatility and depth as an actor isn't all that impressive (unlike her fellow legend James Dean). 

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a hater. I enjoy watching Monroe do her legendary thing as much as anyone. But what's most enthralling about Marilyn isn't her acting, it's her presence, her ability to emanate something radiant and unique, her ability to transform into a Goddess.  

Norma Jean Baker, the troubled, ambitious girl who was tossed from foster home to foster home, was the first and best Marilyn impersonator. Norma Jean conjured Marilyn from archetypal elements of beauty, sexuality and desire. Although many have tried to recreate the formula they've mostly fallen short.

To be fair, I haven't seen (the otherwise talented) Michelle Williams try to bring Marilyn to life in the latest silver screen offering, but judging from the pictures, trailer and clips, Williams strikes me as yet another actress playing dress up. No Marilyn emanation at all. Naomi Watts is supposedly next in line to march in Hollywood's endless Monroe parade.
If you want to see a Marilyn's Marilyn check out Suzie Kennedy channeling the diva. She pulls it off so well because she let's go of being a great actress. She just moves herself aside and let's Marilyn manifest. 


Many aspiring actresses who look to Monroe for inspiration are drawn to the power of the symbol, the adulation she evokes, the tragic power of her story. But if they're serious about the craft of acting they'd do well to be inspired instead by actors like Meryl StreepHelen Mirren or Marilyn's former roommate, Shelley Winters. It might be terribly seductive to be a Goddess but it's also fraught with peril. Mythology is peopled with those who draw the wrath of the gods when they try to be like them. And the goddess of sex and love - Aphrodite - is known to be particularly cruel when a mortal steps into her territory. 

It's said that "whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad". Thus, it comes as no surprise that once the fragile, emotionally scarred Norma Jean had completed her transformation into The Sex Goddess Marilyn Monroe, she spiraled into depression, addiction, bitterness and despair. Her destruction was part of her myth. No matter how talented the Celestial Marilyn was, her human self was a nightmare to work with. By the end she was viewed in the industry as an irresponsible, royal pain-in the ass who was as out-of control as that modern trainwreck, Lindsay Lohan

But, with her physical death, Marilyn Monroe was finally free of the neediness, pain and frustration that had been locked in the flesh and bones of Norma Jean Baker. Without the weight of human frailty she was able to achieve her greatest ambition and take her place among the Immortals.

Here is an excerpt from Marilyn's last interview that gives a candid glimpse into her troubled state of mind near the end of her life.