Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: When Twin Peaks became a pop culture phenomenon, several members of the show’s cast suddenly found their profiles increased significantly, but the definitive poster girl for the show—the one that wasn’t wrapped in plastic, anyway—was Sherilyn Fenn. Before being cherry-picked by David Lynch for the role of Audrey Horne, Fenn had done a bit of TV as well as films ranging from teen comedies (Just One Of The Guys) to decidedly more adult material (Two Moon Junction), but Twin Peaks increased her opportunities considerably, leading to projects like Ruby, Liz: The Elizabeth Taylor Story, and the Showtime seriesRude Awakening. Fenn recently appeared in the second season of Starz’s Magic City, which is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Magic City (2013)—“Madame Renee”
Sherilyn Fenn: That, for me, is just Mitch [Glazer] and Kelly [Lynch], who are so near and dear to my heart. I love them so much. It’s like a reunion. I love the show, I love the Butcher, I loved everything about it. It was so cool to be a part of it. I can’t believe it’s been canceled. I don’t understand… well, there’s so little about Hollywood that I do understand!
The A.V. Club: When I talked to Kelly a bit ago, she said you were initially “very, very nervous about playing Madame Renee.”
SF: Yeah, well, you know, she’s so bawdy! I also had been busy being a mom for my second time. So, yeah, I got scared at first. But that’s always a good sign. Then my manager, who’s known me since I was 17, says, “It’s Mitch! He wrote it for you! Just do it!” [Laughs.] And I got to read the book and got excited. Then I worked with somebody on it, which is oftentimes my process… You know, it’s a weird, vulnerable business that we’re in. It’s strange!
AVC: How would you describe Madame Renee?
SF: I think she’s a whole woman. Like I said, she’s very bawdy. I was nervous, because I felt like I had on so much weight, but then I felt like it kind of worked for her. This is what she does: These are her girls; she mothers them, she takes care of them. Her hands are, for the most part, clean. That’s why she can hang out with the Butcher and have the connections that she does. When she needs to be strong, she can be strong. She’s a cool lady, I thought.
AVC: Did you ever imagine her as being Audrey Horne if she’d never left One Eyed Jack’s, or was that just the Twin Peaks fans who did that?
SF: Yeah, that’s just them. I’m like, “Are you kidding? Audrey would’ve taken over her father’s business and would’ve been married to Agent Cooper with many children, doing everything correct. She wouldn’t have a fucking brothel!” [Laughs.] Not at all.
Silence Of The Heart (1984)—“Monica”
Out Of Control (1985)—“Katie”
AVC: In trying to go as far back as possible in your filmography, it’s kind of hard to determine what your first on-camera role was, but it looks like itcould’ve been playing Monica in Silence Of The Heart.
SF: No, but that was pretty close to the first thing I did, which was a movie. InSilence Of The Heart… It was so long ago, but I know I was a girl at a funeral with a couple of others. Charlie [Sheen] was doing it, and other people I knew were in it. God, it just makes me feel like a child when I think about that. [Laughs.] I was like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m Friend #2!” Or whatever it was. I was freaking out!
AVC: What was the first thing you did?
SF: The first thing was a goofy movie in Yugoslavia that… [Hesitates.] Originally it was called Cross Winds, but I want to say that they eventually named it something stupid. I think it might’ve been Out Of Control?
AVC: That’s it.
SF: Okay, yeah. That was Martin Hewitt and Betsy Russell, and I’m just the shy little sister, which was perfect, because that’s what I really was. I was frightened the entire time.
AVC: You come from a performing arts background—your aunt is Suzi Quatro, your mother [Arlene] used to play keyboards in her band, and your father managed Alice Cooper for quite a while—but what made you decide to pursue a career in acting?
SF: Well, I know it wasn’t a conscious plan on my part. I’d moved to L.A. with my mother when I was 17 or 18. She loved show business and I was young enough that I had no idea what I wanted to do. I thought it was, like, a diversion for not really knowing what I wanted to do. I said, “Oh well, I’ll act.” I started to study, but I didn’t know what I was doing, and I don’t know that I was taking it very seriously then.
AVC: Was there a particular project that you can look back on as the moment when you first started taking it seriously?
SF: I think I was exploring up until… Well, I was trying to take it seriously, because I’d met a few teachers who were really remarkable, but I was 17 and coming out of Michigan, and that’s very different than 17 or 18 in L.A. I was desperate to understand how one reveals truth through their work, not how one pretends. If you’re a young woman in Hollywood, then they want you to look a certain way and paint you in this and that. To this day, it’s hard to find people like us, who want to kind of find deep truths, not just skirt above the top of it. I think that’s why I liked that [Silence Of The Heart] was about suicide.
What happened was, I got Twin Peaks, and the part was basically written for me, which was a really big shock. I think everything really changed with the right teacher coming together, but before that I worked with Sondra Seacat; she’s amazing and very spiritual, but I hadn’t worked with her on specific roles. I just was in classes with her. Then I got Twin Peaks, I did the pilot with David [Lynch], and in between shooting the pilot and the series, I met this teacher, Roy London, and he changed everything for me. Before that, I had done, like, Two Moon Junction and stuff like that.
Diary Of A Hitman (1991)—“Jain”
SF: That’s what Roy London did for me. He took a play [by Kenneth Pressman] and made that for me. He took that part and said, “Show everybody in this stupid town what you can do!” And Forest Whitaker is one of the most authentic, gentle, beautiful souls that I’ve ever gotten to work with, and I loved him. I loved doing the film. But it was scary. Usually I’d plan with Roy and then go on the set, clear in what I was doing. But since he was going to be on the set, he wouldn’t work with me ahead of time. So I was like, “What? No! You have to!” [Laughs.] So it was really intense. It was intense therapy. But I loved it.
The United States Of Leland (2003)—“Mrs. Calderon”
SF: That was cool, getting to work with Ryan Gosling. I knew he was going to be a huge star after I saw him in that Showtime thing that he did when he was really young [The Believer]. I think the most fun thing about that was I’d never seen somebody that had so many questions about the specifics of everything: where you ate, how much you ate, how much you drank. He’s very special. I mean, that wouldn’t necessarily be my way, but he sure did introduce certain things that, to a certain extent, I now bring with me. Questions about what happened before the events you’re playing. I hadn’t thought of that before, but that does affect every moment that you’re in. I liked the film. I thought the script was sad and beautiful, and Kevin Spacey is… well, he’s Kevin Spacey! [Laughs.] I mean, what do you want? He’s excellent. I love him.
Of Mice And Men (1992)—“Curley’s Wife”
SF: “Why didn’t she have a name?” was the most annoying thing to me ever. I wasso fucking pissed about that. I’d think about all these different names, but it was like, because [John Steinbeck] didn’t name her, we couldn’t. I was like, “What would he have called her? Try to ask his wife if he ever had a name for her!” [Laughs.] But it was one of the best experiences—we actually got to rehearse!—and it’s a classic story. John Malkovich was amazing, and the whole thing was wonderful. John Malkovich was just so relaxed on the set. He’d just sit there and read the newspaper, then he’d come over and do a really important scene. I’d be aware of how I’d have to obsess over it and worry about it. And he’d be like, “Oh, stop it, you’re fine!” But I was just certain that I had to be completely beating myself up or needing to do more.
It’s a great gift when you get to do such a beautiful story, but I also felt like Gary [Sinese, who directed] had seen me in a different way. She’s the only character in the book that he interprets a little bit differently. In the book, she’s a little bit mean. She threatens to get cooks lynched, and… she’s much more of a bitch. He said that he saw her as more of a sad angel who was almost, like, held hostage in this freaking place. Sometimes she did just want to talk to the guys. She just wanted to talk to somebody. She wasn’t always… [Seductively.] “Heyyyyyyy…” She wasn’t always on the make, you know? So he wrote me an extra scene, and it was just great. They had a beautiful story together, Lenny and George. I think it’s a love story. Lenny needs George as much as George needs Lenny. I loved it, loved it, loved it. So proud to be a part of that.