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.

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