Born in Methuen, Massachusetts, Pamela Gidley (b. 1965) is an American actor and model who is mostly known for her role as Teresa Banks in the much maligned prequel to Twin Peaks called Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Apart from starring in Fire Walk with Me, though, Gidley has been a part of various other films that are, in different ways, linked to the world of Twin Peaks. In Thrashin’ (1986), Gidley starred opposite her life-long friend Sherilyn Fenn, and in films like The Crew (1994) and Landspeed (2002) she starred opposite Ray Wise (Billy Zane was also a part of Landspeed). I talked with Pamela Gidley, who is as frank and outspoken about David Lynch, Chris Isaak and network television as she is funny and insightful. The interview evolved into a lengthy conversation about art and commercial television, friendly directors and actors vs. obnoxious co-stars and critics.
AH: Before Twin Peak: Fire Walk with Me, you appeared in different films, e.g. Thrashin’ which also featured Sherilyn Fenn. How did you get the role as Teresa Banks, and what was your experience of acting in Fire Walk with Me?
PG: Sherilyn Fenn and I knew each other since we were young. We have been soul sisters for a long time. It is funny, if you look at it. I have worked with Sheryl Lee, Mädchen Amick and Richard Beymer, and in at least three films I have worked with Ray Wise. If you were to place the ‘six degrees of Kevin Bacon’-game, you would find that many of us are closely linked, and the true link is David Lynch. And he is truly a crazy bugger, and I mean that in the most positive sense possible.
AH: You describe David Lynch as a “crazy bugger.” Do you remember your first meeting with David Lynch?
PG: I remember when I first met David. I was already booked to do another film, and we were up in the Bahamas, and he would pay the production company to fly me from the Bahamas to Seattle and then back the Bahamas again. Back and forward. That’s how much he wanted me for that role. When he met me at the audition, he decided that it should be me, whatever it took. He never reads with an actor or an actress. He just talks with you and decides whether or not he thinks you’re right for the part.
Frame grabs from Thrashin’ (1986) and Landspeed (2002).
AH: Fire Walk with Me has received some mixed reviews, to put it mildly. One reviewer, Vince Canby, even implied that it might be one of the “worst” movies “ever made.” How would you describe it?
PG: When it first came out, it seemed it was beyond its time. Even I, when I saw it – I was working on a television show in Chicago – and I went to see it with a girlfriend, and I didn’t really get it. But then, when I saw it later, I got it. We had matured, and the film grew on me. Fire Walk with Me is kind of like a good wine or a woman perhaps – it gets better with time [she laughs].
It pulls you in, and it’s so abstract in many ways, but it’s so linear at the same time. That’s what David Lynch is so good at – the juxtaposition of the abstract and the linear, and it takes a few times to get it. When you see it more than once, it just resonates with you, and especially Sheryl’s performance is so genuine and so good. I just remember I was in awe of her. And then I was going to do a film for MTV, and Sheryl was on immediately after having read the script. MTV Films was going through a transition at the time, so unfortunately it didn’t get made. But she is such an amazing actress, and she just came out of nowhere. David has a knack for that, he can spot talent immediately.
Two memorable scenes with Pamela Gidley from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992).
AH: There is a scene in Fire Walk with Me where the body of Teresa Banks is being identified and examined, and in this scene you are lying with your mouth wide open, and we see you in a number of close-ups and extreme close-ups (of your mouth). I have heard you say something about that scene, how it was done. Could you explain that scene to me – what you and David Lynch had done to make you look like the corpse of this young and lonely woman?
PG: What he did was that he had this prosthesis made – a plastic block, three inches long and a few inches wide, and he would have the make-up artist put it in my mouth, in the back of my teeth. And that’s why that scene is so noticeable. It’s shaped like the shape over the Memorial at Pearl Harbor.
What he did too is that David wanted me to have this pale look, and he came into the trailer and said to the make-up artist, “No, this is not working, this is not right.” Then, he got his fingers into the body make-up and started body-painting me from the chest upwards. Also, when David put me in that drawer in the morgue, which was a real morgue, it was pretty scary, and David was just so kind about it. He made me feel so calm. Chris Isaak wasn’t very cool about it – he didn’t seem to see me as an actress – but David was so sweet about it.
Okay, I’m going to tell you an interesting story. It’s summer time, and you know Twin Peaks is all about wool sweaters, and we’re up in Seattle and it’s hot. 110 degrees. We’re in a motel room – it’s that scene that I have with Ray Wise – and I am sweating profusely. I’m burning up. And I keep going, “Deepak, get a fan in here,” and he says, “Okay, Pamela, I’ll get a fan.” Ten minutes go by and I say, “Deepak, get a fan,” and he says, “Okay, Pamela, I’ll get a fan.” Half an hour goes by, and I say, “Deepak, get a fan. It’s like 110 degrees,” and he says, “No, Pamela, I can’t. David doesn’t want moving air.” Later, then, I ask David, “What’s with the moving air?”, and he says, “No, I don’t like the moving air.” It seems he hates ceiling fans and moving air, so it’s interesting to think how important the ceiling fan is to Twin Peaks and Fire Walk with Me.
AH: What was it like to work with Ray Wise?
PG: Ray is like the gentlest person. He’s the kindest, most considerate person. I’ve worked with him on Landspeed, The Crew and Fire Walk with Me and he is just a very simple, non-egocentric person. I have had a crush on him from the onset.
Casting Ray Wise as an incestuous killer is a testament to how David Lynch casts his characters because Ray is the furthest from that. I remember the scene in the motel room, and it really stretched his ability as an actor to get there. He didn’t feel comfortable doing that scene, and that is David’s gift. He can stretch the talent of actors and make them go places they didn’t think would be possible. He has a knack for putting non-complex and very nice actors and actresses into very complex roles. David is clever enough to put a person like Ray Wise into these kinds of complex situations.
At the end of the day, the actors that keep working do so because they are really nice people.
AH: How would you describe the impact that Twin Peaks has had in terms of modern television drama? What set it apart from run-of-the-mill network television, and what is its legacy?
PG: I believe it became kind of the modern-day version of The Twilight Zone because. Even if every episode of The Twilight Zone was its own story, the show had a mood and an abstract quality to it. Everything up until Twin Peaks was so linear, so formulaic. David took everything and threw it up in the air. Mark Frost may have been his partner, but it all is David, and that is interesting because it’s his way or no way. Could you imagine corporate people or executives telling David what to do? No. If you put an elastic band on David Lynch’s head, it wouldn’t work. He truly is an auteur.
I’ve worked on TV shows where first drafts – they have what is called ‘colors of the rainbow’ – and by the time it gets to you, there are no more colors left. It would have been edited and censored so many times. Luckily with Twin Peaks that was not the case…
Shots of Teresa Bank’s mouth as seen in a fan-edit of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me: