- Just Plain Odd:Some Thoughts on Performance Styles in Twin Peaks
The announcement that a new series of Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990–1991) is to go into production for 2017 transmission, with its original creative team of David Lynch and Mark Frost on board, has meant that the series has been rediscovered—if it had ever really been lost—as a progenitor of ambitious, cool, and contemporary television drama for journalists and critics alike. One of the latest dramas to be yoked to Twin Peaks is Sky Atlantic’s ambitious series set in an isolated community disrupted by a murder, Fortitude, which aired in the United Kingdom in early 2015.1 Fortitude made consistent, knowing references to Twin Peaks, especially in its ensemble cast, its flirtation with the supernatural (from which it retreated), and its all-pervading darkness of tone. It did not, however, reproduce its forebear’s approach to performance—its distinctive combination of acting styles and genres—and it was not alone in this, since whatever else subsequent television drama has taken from David Lynch and Mark Frost’s groundbreaking series, it is rarely the way that it deploys actors.
Relatively little critical attention has been paid to questions concerning acting in Twin Peaks, although the series’s main actors became instant celebrities after the show first aired, appearing on television chat shows and magazine front covers.2 This is partly, one suspects, because there is so much else about the series that commands attention. It is also because screen acting is intrinsically hard to talk about, especially when the critical task requires that the contribution of the actor is separated from other elements—script, narrative, mise-enscène, and editing, for example. This essay’s focus concerns the distinctive, unsettling, and often surprising combination of melodramatic and comic modes of acting that sit within and across the many and varied genres that Twin Peaks deploys. Melodrama, understood here as a performance style that has its roots in nineteenth-century theater, is key to understanding performance in Twin Peaks, and—like comedy in the series—has an inexact and provocative relationship to genre. [End Page 126]
First, however, some contextual observations are necessary. The often labyrinthine procedures by which actors are cast are a neglected aspect in production studies. It is beyond the scope of this essay to remedy this, except to observe that Lynch and Frost cast both new and established actors, often changing and developing the script to accommodate their particular talents: Frost has said in interview that the role of Shelley, the wife of the first season’s chief murder suspect, Leo Johnson (Eric Da Re), was created after auditioning Mädchen Amick, who played her, and it is part of the Twin Peaks mythos that the role of Laura Palmer originally consisted of little more than the corpse discovered on the shore until Lynch and Frost saw the potential of Sheryl Lee (originally given the job because she was local and inexpensive) and adapted the script to exploit it. This approach, which requires an openness to the potential of actors beyond the immediate demands of the script, is one that characterizes Lynch’s work in cinema—it can be thought of as part of his distinctive signature as a director.
The casting of Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Cooper was particularly significant. MacLachlan also played Jeffrey, the central character in Blue Velvet (1986), Lynch’s last full-length project before Twin Peaks. MacLachlan based his performance as Jeffrey on Lynch himself, and there is a sense in which both Jeffrey and Cooper function as the director’s representative in each film. MacLachlan brings an openness to these roles, his position in both narratives and his ability to “think on screen,” enabling him to “connect different worlds,” as Lynch has said of Jeffrey.3
One notable aspect of Twin Peaks is its casting of established film actors from the 1950s and 1960s, such as Piper Laurie (Catherine Martell), Richard Beymer (Ben Horne), and Russ Tamblyn (Lawrence Jacoby), who played characters that went against the grain of audience expectations formed by their acting histories. Casting of this sort was one facet of Twin Peaks...