The actor Lenny Von Dohlen (b. 1958) was born in Augusta, Georgia, and raised in Goliad. Having a strong sense of the dark and dramatic, yet often employing these elements in a subtle or understated way, Lenny Von Dohlen is known from both television and theatre. Apart from being a part of the British-American hybrid of a movie Electric Dreams (1983), Von Dohlen is mostly recognized for his role as Harold Smith in Twin Peaks, and in the episode “Dual Spires” from the series Psych (USA Network, 2006-2014) he was part of the team that paid homage to the world of Twin Peaks. Von Dohlen’s character, Harold, entered Twin Peaks during the second season, and Von Dohlen helped paint a nuanced portrait of an agoraphobic character, at once functioning as Laura’s friend and confidant and her secret lover. Harold is reminiscent of a Byronic hero, as he is of Patrick Bates, yet there is also a sadness and vulnerability to his character which is quite charming. I asked Lenny Von Dohlen a few questions in what quickly became an interesting correspondence about Twin Peaks, David Lynch, modern television drama, Danish cinema and art.
AH: How did you get the role as Harold, and could you describe the casting process?
LVD: It was the scene where Harold Smith is first introduced that we were reading for the audition. In it Donna visits Harold with Meals On Wheels because of his acute agoraphobia and they talk of their dear late mutual friend Laura Palmer. A bond is forged. Donna’s last line was “I’ll be back” while Harold’s was something like “I’ll look forward to seeing you.”
Well, I changed that line slightly to say “I’ll be here” meaning I’m certainly not leaving this place. It seemed organic and it amused me and, I think, amused the powers that be. Johanna Ray is a wonderful, empathetic champion of actors, and she creates an atmosphere where exploration like that can happen, where it’s more fun than frightening. So naturally the best and bravest work does occur. By the time I drove back home from Encino (where Twin Peaks was shot and where the audition took place) we had gotten the offer. And my little line-change stayed in the final cut. So did that that thrilling sense of mystery and the twinkle of fun.
AH: How would you describe your character (Harold)? What is his function in the show, and how does he fit into the world and universe of Twin Peaks?
LVD: Harold, in many ways, was an innocent, a cipher who absorbed other people’s stories and so lived vicariously. Sensitive in the extreme. He was a nurturer, not just of his prized orchids, but of certain people he trusted. Though there was a deep sadness about him he provided a lot of light in an otherwise dark world, reminding us all, in a way, to “gather ye rosebuds while you may.”
AH: You were part of a number of interesting episodes in the beginning of the second season, and you were directed by Lesli Linka Glatter, Todd Holland and Graeme Clifford. Which of these episodes was your personal favorite, and could you describe the type of collaboration that you experienced with each of the aforementioned directors?
LVD: Each director offered me something uniquely different to the process and always wonderfully provocative. The very first episode with Lesli Linka Glatter was, by far, the most memorable because we were applying the very first paint strokes to the canvas of Harold, if you will. Introducing this complex and fragile character felt very much like a responsibility to all the home-bound people in the world. And the collaborative intercourse Lesli encouraged is most thrilling, emboldening and my favorite way of working. Like walking on a high wire. With Mr. Lynch it was the same but he also (I like to say) encourages you, almost by osmosis, to perform an emotional striptease, if you will.
Apart from being a part of Twin Peaks, Harold was also a central character in the much maligned prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and Lenny Von Dohlen became a crucial part of that movie, especially memorable for the scene in which Laura eerily cites BOB, thus repeating the title of the movie: “FIRE WALK WITH ME”.
AH: In Fire Walk with Me, it seems as if Harold’s house is different, and some have argued that his house is intentionally different from that in the show. Did you ever talk about this part with David Lynch?
LVD: It’s true that the film set is slightly different from the one in the series but the spirit of Harold’s world was the same, because he resides there almost hermetically sealed in… And I like that we see more books since that is what, as Harold says, he “lived through.” In the film, Sheryl Lee was amazingly electric to work with.
AH: Fire Walk With Me wasn’t well-received, and Vince Canby went as far as to call it “the worst movie ever made.” In my view, that was a very tough and unfair statement, but how would you judge Fire Walk with Me, and how, in your view, does it fit into and expand the universe of Twin Peaks?
LVD: Any work like Fire Walk with Me that incites those kinds of extreme reactions (both positive and negative) is pushing buttons, which is exactly what great art is supposed to do, what visionaries cannot help but do.
AH: Which role has Twin Peaks (including Fire Walk with Me) had for your career, and is there any chance of you coming back for the third season (however weird it would be, given Harold’s demise in the second season)? In any case, what do you think of the sudden revival of Twin Peaks, and why do you think that Twin Peaks is being re-hyped by young TV audiences all over the world and rebooted by David Lynch and Mark Frost?
LVD: Obviously, it’s introduced me to a new international audience, to a very particularly intelligent and rarified mass of people who are passionate about Twin Peaks, and, I dare say, are far more knowledgeable about it than myself. As for the renewed interest in Twin Peaks, I think it is almost inevitable due to its mesmerizing eerie timeless quality that crosses all the generations for all the disenfranchised. Bringing Harold back would be, as you say “weird” after such a definitive demise. However, I’d be more than open to playing some other altogether new role, just to be able to live in that creatively liberating world of Mr. Lynch again.
AH: You have said that you like Danish film. Do you happen to know how influential Twin Peaks has been on modern-day Danish film and television? And have you ever heard of shows such as Forbrydelsen (which was remade in the US as The Killing) and Riget? Why do you find modern Danish films and TV series interesting, and can you see some traces of Twin Peaks in some of the Danish films and TV shows you have seen?
LVD: Of course, I’ve met fans of Twin Peaks from Denmark but I wasn’t ever really aware its influence on Danish TV shows or films, but I am not surprised. For a long while now I’ve admired Danish films such as Twist & Shout, Babbette’s Feast, The Hunt, The Celebration, After the Wedding, etc. And I always dreamt of one day finding a way to work with these marvelous writers, directors and actors there whose fierce emotionality, simplicity and character nuance riveted me and deeply touched my heart. So I’d travel a long way to be able to work with artists of that caliber. Plus I met such beautiful people there and had such unforgettable adventures while I was in Copenhagen.
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 the standards of television in any way, and, if so, how did it do that?
LVD: First of all, there was nothing formulaic about it because of the singular vision of Mr. Lynch and company who didn’t veer from the rare hypnotic story/music in their heads. This brave and shocking kind of work had never been seen/heard before. So much of the really notable work being done on cable now are excellent for the very fact that they are following this unswayable sort dedication of ‘my own unique vision, or be damned.
AH: How can the see the influence of Twin Peaks on today’s so-called quality-TV shows in the US and abroad, and which series are, in your view, most clearly inspired and influenced by Twin Peaks? And why?
LVD: There was nothing ever before on TV remotely like Twin Peaks so it broke down barriers and was completely true to a unique aesthetic vision and that made it daring. Loved with a fierce passion by many and for many others it just passed their comprehension. Often exactly what occurs with great art. So I suppose any show that takes big risks and is not created in a cookie-cutter style is following in Twin Peaks’ groundbreaking footsteps. All of us felt hugely proud and grateful to be a part of it.
A memorable scene from Twin Peaks, starring Lenny Von Dohlen: