Welcome to Support Group, in which Senior Writer Allison Shoemaker analyzes a great television series through the lens of its most important supporting character. Spoilers are guaranteed.
The Series: Twin Peaks (1990-1991, 2017)
Episodes: 30 in the original series, 18 scheduled in the current series, and a film
Major Awards: Three Golden Globes, two Emmys, a Television Critics Association award, and a Peabody
Certified Fresh: 98%
The Support: Leland Palmer
Played by: Ray Wise
Appearances: 18 in the original series (60%), one to date in the current series (14%), and a major role in the film
Major Awards: none for Twin Peaks, one Daytime Emmy for The Young and the Restless
Other Career Highlights: RoboCop, Reaper, 24, Good Night and Good Luck, Mad Men, the third season of Fargo, and an ongoing role in Fresh Off the Boat
“Maybe that’s all that BOB is. The evil that men do.” – Special Agent Albert Rosenfield
Works of art — good, bad, and in between — can crackle with a special kind of electricity, an indefinable something that captures the public’s imagination. When the work of art in question, is a film, that energy often materializes in the form of a quote. “I see dead people.” “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” “I drink your milkshake.” “If you build it, they will come.”
Television doesn’t play by those rules. Individual episodes are ephemeral, and a high water mark is almost always succeeded by another. Moments like Breaking Bad’s “I am the one who knocks” aren’t a dime a dozen — they happen, but not on the daily. Instead, many of the most electric, iconic television shows and seasons are defined by a question. What’s in the hatch? Who shot J.R. (and its spawn, who shot Mr. Burns)? Who are the Cylons and what do they want? Who is the mother of How I Met Your Mother, and who are the parents of Jon Snow? Will they or won’t they? Who’s been hit? What will they do now?
Apologies to Dallas, but the queen of all such questions is this: “Who killed Laura Palmer?”
Ray Wise, the actor behind the unforgettable Leland Palmer, got the answer to that question a bit earlier than the rest of the world — on the day that the big reveal was filmed. “David explained [it] to me,” he told Consequence of Sound. Then Wise, always the great actor, drops into an uncanny and obviously fond impression of Lynch’s matter-of-fact twang: “Ray, it was you, it was always you.”
It’s still incredible to think that, a quarter of a century on, we’re living in a Twin Peaks world once more. Even the initial shock to the system that was the first trip into the Red Room has been mimicked, thanks to “Part Eight”’s mind-melting trip into the center of a mushroom cloud and past that into … something. Into the ether in which forces of good and evil dwell. Into a parallel world that shapes our own. Into a landscape where television is suddenly very, very different. But for all its technical and surrealist wonders and horrors, Twin Peaks: The Return is as linked to humanity, and to the strings that connect us to the world and each other, as its predecessor.
What do Leland’s strings tell us about the series? What do we learn about Twin Peaks when the focus is a devastated father, a man driven mad by loss and evil and shame and love? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Wise is far less concerned with the exact nature of BOB, and with the inhabitants of the series’ various lodges and rooms and dimensions, than the average viewer. To him, Twin Peaks is a story of grief, and of the complexity of life. It’s a perspective that brings new resonance both to the original outings — two seasons of television and a film — and this newest iteration.
If, as Miguel Ferrer’s Agent Rosenfeld posits in the original run, BOB is “the evil that men do,” then that mushroom cloud makes perfect, dreadful sense. So, too, does the idea that Laura — a woman so determined to reject the forces of evil that she accepts, even chases, death to keep herself free of the darkness’s hold — would be sent to Earth to counter the evil that men do. If Twin Peaks is about the complexity, beauty, and horror of our choices, then the purest example of goodness would be someone who sacrifices everything to make sure her choices remain her own.
That makes Leland both victim and villain, a man who chooses, however naively, to welcome that darkness, to invite it to enter. It consumes and transforms him, but in Wise’s mind, Leland is never not himself. He ends his physical journey (so far as we know) with forgiveness and acceptance, but in what Wise calls “a honeycomb world,” Leland is still dwelling on Laura, and on his life. Does that make literal sense? Perhaps, perhaps not. But appropriately for Twin Peaks, it makes the only kind of sense that matters: it feels true.
Recently, we spoke with Wise about Leland’s journey, the re-emergence of Twin Peaks and the surreality of revisiting that landscape after 25 years, and his other outstanding supporting turns on FX’s Fargo and ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, which is, of course, exactly like Twin Peaks.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Are you watching Twin Peaks: The Return along with the rest of us? Did you see any of it in advance?
I didn’t see any in advance. I’m watching every episode as it comes out.
What was it like to revisit this world, both as a cultural phenomena and more importantly as an artist? To return to a role, however briefly, that you played 25 years ago?
It’s very strange, and yet wonderful. When I stepped back into the Red Room, it felt a bit daunting, for the first few seconds. Then you take a step or two… [a long breath] Those 25 years just melted away. I was Leland Palmer all over again. It was like there was no time in between. It was weird, but wonderful.
Weird seems an appropriate word, for both the experience and the series.
[Laughs] Yes. It’s small town life, very mundane, eccentric characters … but every mundane human action, when revealed, [when you go] beneath the surface of that action, it seems very complex. I’ve always referred to it as a kind of honeycomb world. One that exists simultaneously with the reality that we see, with our own eyes, every day. No matter how mundane the action, the human action, if you look just beneath the surface of that action, it becomes a weird kind of complex world where everything is connected, somehow. It can be dark and it can light and it can be happy and it can be sad, but it’s all there.
I don’t know if I’m explaining it very well, but it seems to be the way David thinks and the way he likes to work. In that respect, he and I are pretty simpatico. We pretty much approach those things in the same way. Does that make any sense to you?
Absolutely. Talking about Twin Peaks feels sometimes like a fool’s errand, and it only starts to make sense for me, as a viewer, when I kind of let it become its own thing in my mind, and use whatever words feel appropriate. It feels more honest to do that than try to analyze it in the way you might try to analyze, say, Fargo, which was also really wonderful this season. Congratulations on that.
Yes, and with Fargo, [with] the character I play in Fargo, I get those same feelings. I get the same vibrations from the writing in Fargo as I did from the writing in Twin Peaks. There’s a kind of normality, it feels like a normal thing going on, and yet there’s something very strange and almost forbidding going on underneath. I don’t know if I’m explaining myself very well, but there it is.
The character I play in Fargo is a character that, however you approach him, whatever you think about him, it’s probably a valid [interpretation] of him. Whether he’s some sort of an angel, or whatever you want to call him, he’s there at that specific moment, in that point in time, making a very real statement to that character that’s sitting next to him. You have to take it for whatever you get out of it.
Sticking with Fargo for a moment, as you were working on that character, Paul — were you thinking at all of Sam Elliott’s character in The Big Lebowski? Were those parallels apparent to you as an artist, or did it feel like its own beast entirely?
It felt like its own beast entirely. In fact, I never really thought about that for one second. It was only after the fact that I realized — the bowling alley scene, sitting next to a character that’s revealed to the camera — it was only after I did it that I realized the connection, and what they were maybe trying to suggest with that scene. I took it as its own thing entirely.
Going back to Twin Peaks, you were talking about feeling that there’s a parallel world to ours. Is it possible to imagine — as someone who’s watching the series with all of us, or as an artist — that Leland Palmer has had 25 years in the Red Room or the Black Lodge? That he’s had an experience right alongside all of us?
Yeah, I think that’s it. You know, when they did the Blu-Ray release of Twin Peaks, I sat down at a table with Sheryl Lee [who plays Laura Palmer] and Grace Zabriskie [Sarah Palmer] and David. He had written a little piece for me to do for the camera that morning, as Leland Palmer. in that little paragraph, that little speech that I gave, Leland talked about the 25 years passing and what he had been thinking about during that passing, and indeed probably spending it in the Red Room. I have a feeling when you’re in that room, time has no meaning. It’s just a moment. It’s a moment to moment existence.
Can you imagine a version of Twin Peaks where the protagonist is Leland Palmer, where he’s the focus from moment one? What would that show be like? Is it impossible to imagine?
No, it’s not impossible to imagine, because that’s sort of the way I imagined it myself. That was my universe. For me, it was Leland’s story, as odd as that may sound.
I remember, when I originally went up for Twin Peaks to meet with David, I thought I was going up for Sheriff Truman. I hadn’t even thought about Leland Palmer. I read the script, it was called Northwest Passage at that time. When I found out a couple of days later that David was interested in me playing Leland, I had to go back and look to see what Leland was doing in the story. I look at it. I see that he answers the phone and finds out his daughter is dead, and he cries. He’s back home, the police are going through his daughter’s room, and he’s sitting on the bed crying. He goes to identify his daughter’s body at the morgue, and he really cries.
I thought, Well, this guy’s just on a crying jag the whole time. What a strange … this is all that he’s doing! [Chuckles.] Then I thought about it a little more, and I noticed there are different levels of grief, and different ways to express that grief, and different degrees of crying, even. I actually thought about it in those terms. This is a little cry, this is a big cry, this is a full-out gusher. That’s kind of the way I approached Leland. Then when they kept writing these outrageous things for Leland to do in the story, dancing with himself, throwing himself on the casket of his daughter in the cemetery, all these strange things — to my mind, they were totally normal to Leland.
When I did that scene where I threw myself on the casket, I remembered being a child at a funeral and seeing someone approaching a casket. They were so in their grief that they leaned over and picked up the body and hugged it. I remembered that moment, as a child, and so I could very easily see Leland throwing himself on the casket and going up and down with it. All those crazy things that the writing had Leland do seemed totally normal to me at the time I was doing them. I’m sure that sounds very strange, but it seemed like the thing to do at the time, you know?
If you’re approaching Leland’s story as someone who’s dealing with grief in all its many forms, then a lot of the stranger elements of the show seem to make a new kind of sense. So as an example, I’ve always been very partial to the big “Mairzy Doats” scene with the Horne brothers.
[Laughs] Ah, yes, yes.
It’s so funny, disturbing, unexpected, but through that lens it takes on a different tone. What was that one like to film?
It was like being on the playground with your buddies. Richard Beymer, David [Patrick] Kelly — I just had a great relationship with them. We were having so much fun doing the particular scenes you’re talking about. Again, weird little moments in time for these characters, but very enjoyable [to film], and I loved working with them.
I remember when we were getting OK’d by the network, they had to bring us in for the network honchos to OK the casting for each character, and we had to do a little scene for them. David had me play Ben Horne, and he had Richard Beymer play Leland Palmer. How about that? We did a little scene, and that’s what the network executives saw, what they gave their approval for. Of course, when we started shooting, it was turned the opposite way, so that was kind of funny.
I had that same relationship with everyone I worked with on that show. There were some characters I never worked with, but the ones that I did, we had that kind of familial relationship. We grew very close. We knew, we felt — after doing the pilot, the original two hours — we felt that we were in gear, that we knew what we were doing and we knew how it had to be done. It didn’t matter anymore what they were writing, it didn’t matter who the director was for any given episode, because we were right on point. We were moving right along. We knew that we felt the tone of it, and we knew what we were doing. That was a glorious feeling. It was very liberating. We felt free. It was a total 360-degree world in front of the camera.
Was that true of filming Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me as well?
Oh, yes. In fact, even more so. We had the whole [series] behind us. We were shooting the beginning of the story. Having that in your mind, the way things end up, seemed to really color and flavor what happens in Fire Walk With Me. It was even more intense.
Is there one scene, either in the series or the film, that sums up the experience of playing Leland Palmer for you? Perhaps one that’s the most resonant for you personally?
My final scene, I think. Dying in Cooper’s arms, and he’s reciting the bit from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the sprinklers in the cell are raining down on me. There’s a long tunnel, white light at the end. Laura’s standing at the end of the tunnel in the white light, forgiving me. [Leland’s] whole realization at that moment, what he’s done, what’s transpired … overwhelming. I felt he was overwhelmed at that point, and full of everything: of love, and sadness, and of grief and shame. It was a full and complete moment for the character, and for me.
Is it an odd, or rewarding, experience as an actor to know that 25 years later, people are still watching that scene, analyzing that scene, and now viewing all of that work in the context of this new chapter?
Oh, I love that Showtime, for the last month or two, has been playing the whole two seasons of the original series and playing Fire Walk With Me, then transitioning right into the new season. A whole new generation has been turned onto it. It’s [created] a whole new audience for the old show, and then this new show is its own beast. It’s being viewed by everyone for the first time, older generations and newer generations. It’s going to be a new sort of, more modern experience. It’s what Twin Peaks would be today, rather than what it was originally. Plus, 200 new characters!
Do you have a favorite new character among those 200 new characters?
Well, I like seeing all the old faces first. I like that Deputy Hawk’s hair has turned white, and that Deputy Andy has a little bit of a pot belly. All the old characters have aged pretty gracefully, and I love seeing them back on the screen. Of course, the young girls still look pretty good! But for the new ones, I like Naomi Watts [as Janey-E Jones] a lot. And I’m sure there will be others. I love seeing them in brief moments. Like Richard Chamberlain [who appears briefly in “Part 4”, as the assistant to David Duchovny’s Denise Bryson]! I haven’t seen him in years. Just to see him briefly was a treat, and I’m sure there will be many more of those.
Watching Kyle MacLachlan, who’s now playing a character that’s inhabited by BOB — is there anything in that performance that looks familiar to you? Does Bad Coop feel connected in any way to Leland when he’s under BOB’s control?
No. I can give you a one word answer. No.
I want to phrase this carefully. When I played Leland, even when he was supposedly inhabited by BOB, in my mind, he was still Leland. BOB, to me, never really entered into it. In fact, all the time that everybody was puzzling over who was the real killer of Laura Palmer, I was always hoping I would be the one person in town that it wouldn’t be. I could make a case for just about everybody being the killer, except for me. I didn’t want it to be me.
The whole idea in my mind of abusing and killing my own daughter was anathema to me, as Leland. I’d just had my own daughter. She was a couple of years old when I started on Twin Peaks. I was feeling very fatherly as I was playing the character. So all of that really bothered me. When it became known that I was the one, and David explained to me that I was always — [in an obviously fond Lynch impression] “Ray, it was you, it was always you,” that’s the way he said it to me — I thought to myself, Aw, shit. I don’t want it to be me. I do not want it to be me. Number one, I don’t want to leave town, I enjoy being here in Twin Peaks, and number two, the whole idea that I was the killer … it just didn’t sit right with me.
But then he explained to me how I would go out. I would go out with redemption, with a full realization, and with forgiveness given to me. He made it sound very palatable, and so, when the time came to do that scene, I was totally uninhibited. I felt free, and open, and did it.
When in the process did you find that out?
It was just before we did that reveal scene where Leland kills Maddy, Laura’s cousin [also played by Sheryl Lee], and sends her back to Missoula, Montana. We found out just before that scene.
That particular scene we shot several different ways. We shot it with the character of BOB [Frank Silva] killing Maddy, we shot it with the character of Ben Horne killing Maddy, and then we shot it with the character of Leland killing Maddy. All in the same day. Even the crew didn’t know who the real killer was. But we knew — Richard Beymer, myself, Sheryl Lee — we knew who it was. And poor Sheryl Lee, she went through hell that day. She went through it with three different guys. She needed a massage at the end of the day. And we found out just before that.
Well, to completely change tack, I have a similar question about Fresh Off the Boat, which is an entirely different can of worms. Can you imagine a world, in some sort of parallel sitcom universe, where Marvin [Wise’s character] and Honey [Chelsey Crisp] are the focus of a sitcom, and they have these neighbors … can you imagine what that story might be like?
Well, I think it’s going on right now, you just don’t see it! Playing the dentist in Orlando, one of the top 100 dentists, I have to say — can there be 100 dentists in Orlando? I suppose there are — Anyway, I’m having a great time playing Marvin. Chelsey Crisp, who plays my wife, we have a great relationship, and it’s wonderful, the family next door is wonderful. I love Randall Park and Constance [Wu], and all of the kids. I love those boys. And I love Grandma! Lucille Soong.
It’s a classic fish-out-of-water story, this family moves to Orlando, they’re Chinese, and they’re thrust into kind of a strange situation. They have to make it through as a family, with the help of their next-door neighbors. I just think it’s a wonderful concept.
Well it’s a great series, and it’s been so much fun to watch. I can’t wait to see more of it.
I’ve even learned to speak a little Mandarin! One of the added benefits.
Yeah, that’s a hell of a perk.
We have great writers on the show. Ali Wong is one of them, several others, a bunch of good directors. Just a great bunch, creatively speaking. It’s such a worthy show to do. Showing another side of American life, dealing with family issues that everybody has. It’s just a great, great thing.
When you’re approaching a role, do you take any different approach when you’re playing a supporting role than you do when you’re a protagonist or antagonist? Is there any sense that you’re serving the story differently?
No, not all. From my particular point of view, the character I’m playing is the center of his universe. Everything emanates from him. He may be seen sparsely in the story, but still, the story is coming from his perspective. He’s seeing everything the way that character sees it. Essentially what I’m saying is there’s no difference, to me, between playing a smaller supporting part or a leading role. The characters, to me, are approached the same way.
Any chance we’ll be seeing more of you, either as Leland Palmer or someone else, before the end of Twin Peaks: The Return?
Under pain of death or paying a million dollars, I signed a paper saying I can’t talk about any of that. [Laughs.] You know, I suppose if I were a betting man, I would bet that I might show up again, but I couldn’t say so for sure. Was that vague enough for you?
That was tantalizingly vague, the best kind of vague.
[Laughs] Good, all right.
I just have one last question, and it’s whether or not you still have all the words to “Mairzy Doats” memorized 25 years later.
Oh yeah, you want me to sing it for you?
Oh my god, yes, please do…
Oh, bravo! You just made my whole week, and it’s Monday afternoon.
Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.