Loved and criticized among Twin Peaks fans, the character James Hurley was played by the American actor James Marshall (b. 1967), and the character was arguably modelled after James Dean, Marlon Brando and the ‘juvenile delinquent movies’ of the 1950s. Apart from acting in Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, James Marshall is mostly known from his role in the popular courtroom drama A Few Good Men (1992), and he is an avid guitarist and singer. In fact, his ability as a blues musician was the foundation of a famous and famously maligned scene from the episode “Coma” of Twin Peaks. I talked with Marshall and asked him a few questions on James Hurley, Twin Peaks, David Lynch and blues music.
AH: How did you get the role as James Hurley, and could you describe the casting process?
JM: It was a really neat time. Basically, I was 21 and I was living in a small apartment in The Valley and keeping myself afloat and going to auditions. I really wanted to be an actor. I was motivated as an actor, at times discouraged, but I was going to auditions. Johanna Ray had cast me in this one thing that my dad was doing, and she introduced me to my manager, who had discovered James Dean. Johanna introduced me to him from a reading I did with Johanna, and it turned out pretty smooth. Then I got a call from Johanna Ray that David Lynch wanted to see me, and I had seen Eraserhead and The Elephant Man. I was fan, and there was a totally other feeling or vibe than I would usually experience at castings. Then, when I met him, I didn’t have to read or anything. He seemed so fifties, it was like being with your family. So, anyway, I left. He basically told me, “You don’t understand, you don’t understand about your headshot.” He thought that it was awful, and he almost didn’t see me because of that headshot. Once I read my scene, once I read the pilot, I was blown away.What happened is that he said, “you’re the one.” I went “okay,” and then I left Propaganda Films almost with that feeling of not wanting to leave. They said, “Dye your hair black,” and I was just happy that I got to work with David Lynch on this TV pilot, and I got to ride a Harley. Then they had me back to rehearse with Lara Flynn Boyle, which was pretty much a technicality.
AH: Twin Peaks is full of references, and some have argued that the names of the different characters refer intertextually to different films and television shows. Gordon Cole seems to be a reference to Sunset Boulevard, Mr. Neff refers to Double Indemnity, Laura could refer to Otto Preminger’s eponymous noir-film from 1945, and Judge Sternwood seemingly alludes to The Big Sleep. Could James be a reference to James Dean? He certainly has a Fifties Rebel Without a Cause-like quality about him. Did you ever talk with David Lynch or Mark Frost about that?
JM: We’re an amalgamation. Sherilyn Fenn was like a combination Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe, Dale Cooper was like a man from the Fifties, and James was like James Dean, but he was also a different kind of character. They were dressing him like the James Dean of Rebel Without a Cause, but I think this James was more like the James Dean of East of Eden, where he was sort of weepy.
AH: There is one sequence with you and Lara Flynn Boyle from the pilot of Twin Peaks which really stands out. I am of course talking about the chase sequence where James and Donna escape into the woods. Could you say a few words on that sequence?
JM: The way we got away from the police, it was so neatly done rhythm-wise. The rhythm, the editing, is so exquisite. Everybody says, “Oh, wasn’t that hell in the woods?”, but for me it was heaven. I was sitting in the woods with David Lynch and a super-beautiful girl. We did so many takes of that scene. When did it over and over and over, but not only did I not mind. I loved it. We could feel that we were doing something really special. I think I did better in our rehearsals, though. I got in such a state of happiness when we did that. During the rehearsals, I could easily pull out tears, but when we were finally doing it, I was challenged by being so happy on set. While we were doing it, it felt like there was major stuff going on. It was neat. He did push us, but it was a really beautiful experience.
AH: There is one very interesting, yet much maligned, scene from the episode “Coma” that I would like us to talk about. I am hinting at the scene where James, Maddy and Donna sing “Just You (and I).” Could you say a few words on that scene? Where did the idea from that scene come from, and how would you describe the ‘competing moods’ of that scene?
JM: I was playing a guitar in my dressing all the time, and he asks me whether I wanted to play guitar in a scene. David and Angelo wrote it, and I normally play Blues or some Hendrix-like stuff. They asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, “Why don’t we go fifties on it.” Angelo looked at me, and he thought about “Only You,” and then it took off. It became “Just You,” and they wanted to do it in a falsetto. But they had already recorded it before I came in, and I had to do falsetto in that key, which was very difficult. It was really high-pitched. It was not this overly bad thing, but there was this feeling of a guy barely managing to be on key. It became odd, otherworldly and cute in a way, and then you had these girls doing this terribly cliché background singer-esque thing, as if all of a sudden we’re doing this musical. Don’t get me wrong, Sheryl and Lara did a good job, but the whole scene felt somewhat corny. And then Bob comes out, and it truly fucks with the audience.
AH: Twin Peaks has often been described as one of the most important and influential TV series of all time. Do you think that it changed television (drama) in any way, and, if so, how did it change the standards of TV?
JM: For me, Twin Peaks changed the way television related to reality. Had Twin Peaks not been there, television would have been more linear. Twin Peaks kind of opened up the parameters. The way the camera angles are done, the way the story is composed etc. What David would do with relationships – he changed the rhythm. It’s a different way of lingering on things. It really did expand things, and it spawned off to many of the major shows like The Sopranos – and even the shows you see now. You’ll see an episode of a show, and suddenly you’ll see an animal walking directly through the frame. It’s not copied directly or grotesquely from Twin Peaks, but it wouldn’t have been there without Twin Peaks. Even in all the shows now, like Breaking Bad, you see it. Twin Peaks changed the entire way that television was done, and now television is movies.
When you’re going down the phone cord, it’s funny, but it’s not just Lynch being weird, and it’s also so real and honest. It’s strange to me that people are so uncomfortable. There’s the television way, and then there’s looking at reality. People don’t want to deal with reality. If too much truth comes their way, they’ll want to look away. That’s the responsibility of real art, I guess. It keeps us looking at the things we repress, the things we normally look away from.
AH: Imdb.com has only released a few names (and Imdb.com is not always trustworthy). Is there any chance of you coming back in 2016? And what difference does it make, in your estimation, that season three is being written and directed entirely by Mark Frost and David Lynch, and that the show is now going to be aired on Showtime (instead of a broadcast network like ABC)?
JM: All I can is that I’m not permitted to go into that, but David has contacted me. I read something that David Lynch said about Twin Peaks becoming a cable show. He said that you should not expect a big difference. It’s not like we’re all of a sudden going to go pornographic or transgressive just for the sake of doing that.
A famous and famously maligned scene from the episode “Coma”, starring James Marshall, Sheryl Lee and Lara Flynn Boyle:
Elsewhere, I have analyzed the aforementioned scene from “Coma”.