Charlotte Stewart as Mary X in Eraserhead (1977), the feature-length debut of David Lynch.
Celebrated by two different fan groups, Charlotte Stewart (b. 1941) has been (is) a part of two unrelated – but both hugely succesful – television phenomena: Twin Peaks and The Little House on the Prairie (NBC, 1974-1983). To Twin Peaks and David Lynch fans, though, Stewart will always be remembered – primarily – for her role as Betty Briggs in Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and her role as Mary X in Eraserhead (1977). I talked with Charlotte Stewart about Eraserhead, Twin Peaks and David Lynch, and, herself being both insightful and funny, she described the Lynchian duality of humor and sincerity.
AH: How did you get the role as Betty Briggs, and could you describe the casting process?
CS: I’m sure that my being cast in Twin Peaks had a lot to do with the fact that I had worked with him many years earlier on Eraserhead. There was no casting. He just told me that I was supposed to play Betty, and I didn’t know anything about this character. In fact, the first time I ever saw Don Davis was when we met to shoot our first scene together.
The same thing happened this time. When we talked a few days ago, David asked me, “Charlotte, are you ready to go to work?”, without saying anything about what he wanted me to do.
AH: You are part of the “Lynch family,” so to speak?
CS: Yes, I am part of the “Lynch Mob” [she laughs].
AH: How would you describe Don Davis and his character Major Briggs? He and Betty seem like an interesting couple.
CS: I always saw Major Briggs as an incurable romantic, and basically the man himself, Don Davis, is an incurable romantic. Maybe that was what David saw in him – an extreme gentleness. And when you juxtapose that with the military bearing of Major Briggs, then you have an interesting duality.
AH: There are some incredible scenes with Betty, and I particularly enjoy the scene in which Major Briggs is lecturing Bobby, after which we cut to Betty who says, “We’re here for you, Bobby.” What were your main concerns when playing the role of Betty, and would you say that Betty primarily functions as a sort of comic relief? Why/why not?
CS: I didn’t realize that in the beginning, but I found out later on. In the scene at the funeral, Betty is wearing a happy face-button, and that was my idea. Tina Rathborne, who directed that episode, didn’t notice that, and nobody ever said anything.
I think there are lots of funny things like that in Twin Peaks. One of the funnier things is when Leo is paralyzed, and when Shelly and Bobby dance around him. That thing has taken on a life of its own, and there are fans who reenact that scene as a striptease scene. I love the way that the fans go off on tangents like that.
AH: Do you remember other such examples?
CS: One time Mark would come out to a shoot in San Fernando Valley, and there was a llama in the middle of the set. Mark was confused, having heard nothing about it, so he went up to David and said, “There’s a llama in the middle of the set.” And David just said, “Yes, isn’t that swell.”
AH: It is interesting to hear you mention the humor in Twin Peaks. There is always a lot of humor in David Lynch’s work, but, unlike many critics, I have never seen Twin Peaks or any of the films by David Lynch as being ironic. How do you see it?
CS: David Lynch takes things very seriously. A lot of the things in his films aren’t intended as humor or irony. He sees things very differently from other people. He is an artist – he started as a painter – and he takes things very literally. Things that other people think of as bizarre, he would think are normal or beautiful.
When I was at the first screening of Eraserhead, it was three hours long. He called me and asked me, “So, what do you think, Char?” I said, “It felt like a toothache,” and he just replied, “That’s perfect.” I had, in fact, meant that it was difficult to watch, but that didn’t bother David. Films and art should make you uncomfortable. When you go to a museum, you are not supposed to get it or understand it. The point is whether you feel it.
AH: Of the different episodes you did, which was your personal favorite and why? And could you describe the type of collaboration that you experienced with each of the different episode directors?
CS: What were some of my favorite scenes? I would like to say it’s when the Major disappears. Betty meets Dale Cooper and Sheriff Truman, and she’s very matter-of-fact about his disappearance. And, then, later we see Bobby in the living room, and Betty is crying, talking about the Major sometimes running his fingers through her hair. That scene is so beautiful.
In Fire Walk with Me, there was also an interesting scene – a scene where Bobby and Donna are entering the living room, and where we see Major Briggs reading from The Bible and Betty doing needle points. Betty and Major Briggs they are like the most wholesome people you could ever imagine, yet Bobby thinks that they are embarrassing and weird.
AH: You were part of seven episodes, directed by many different directors (Duwayne Dunham, David Lynch, Tina Rathborne and Lesli Linka Glatter). How would you describe the different directors in terms of style and approach?
CS: My favorite of course is David. I love Lesli and Duwayne, and Tina Rathborne, poor girl, she had to direct Laura’s funeral… But David is my favorite because he doesn’t direct, he incites. I don’t recall any specific directions, even in Eraserhead. He kind of leads us into our character. He never once gave us what I would call director’s direction. He directs the camera angles, the shots and things like that, but he doesn’t direct the actors. He’ll say a word like “shorter,” and then it would be up to you to find out what it means.
David always has an idea. He may not tell you what it is, but there is an idea behind it. You can’t do a David Lynch film, if you’re not David. I think that was part of the problem during the second season. People came in and tried to copy David’s style, but it didn’t work, and people lost interest. I lost interest during the second season.
AH: You say that you, like many of the fans and critics, lost interest during the second season. But could you try to describe the kind of Twin Peaks-mania that developed during the first season? How did you experience the great interest in Twin Peaks, and what did David Lynch and Mark Frost do to keep the cast members from knowing – and giving away – too much?
CS: It didn’t happen over night. We had quite a few episodes in the can before anyone ever saw it. But once they started to show it, it became a major phenomenon. It created a watercooler-effect, and everybody wanted to know who killed Laura Palmer. So, after a while, we were not given complete scripts, but just scenes to read, and there were some scenes that they shot two or three ways, so the actors didn’t even know which of the versions they would use.
That made it very interesting for us as actors. One of the times we were in Dana Ashbrook’s house, and the episode ends with Cooper being shot, and we were all pretty worried… [she laughs].
AH: The third season of Twin Peaks will be aired in 2016 or 2017 on Showtime, which is a premium cable network. What difference does that do in terms of creative freedom, and will we, in your estimation, be able to see this in the final product?
CS: The networks now are boring. They have too many rules and restrictions. That was different for David and Mark. When Mark and David made Twin Peaks, they would have no interference. They wanted to make any and every decision themselves. Otherwise, they wouldn’t do it. Back at that time, that was totally unheard of.
AH: Is there any chance that you are coming back for the new season, and how would you describe the impact that Twin Peaks has had on modern television drama?
CS: David did call me a couple of days ago and said that he wanted me to come back for the new season.
To tell you the truth, I don’t watch a lot of television. However, I can see a certain trend over the course of the last couple of years. TV shows today seem to be braver, especially those on cable. Shows like True Detective seem to be daring, interesting and complex, and much of that can be attributed to David Lynch. Also, in terms of music, television shows are becoming more interesting. Just like Angelo Badalamenti’s music in Twin Peaks, which is very fascinating.
The llama scene from Twin Peaks, as mentioned by Charlotte Stewart: